“We have the aspiration of creators and the propensity of quadrupeds” – W. Winwood Read.
That quote was on the first page of my PhD thesis looking into the causes and characteristics of growth retardation in full term fetuses. It summed up how I felt at the time. I began my postgraduate studies thinking that singlehandedly I was going to solve the problem of why babies are born small and unhealthy and how we could prevent it. I finished my degree feeling a lifetime was not long enough to answer all the questions. The aspirations of a creator and the propensity of a quadruped – that was me.
A small number of people that knew me back in those days as a young scientist have said what a pity all that knowledge has gone to waste. They felt the potential that began with the many years of study and work focused on our understanding of birth and its many problems, was lost when I left research and became a professional horseman.
However, I believe the most important skill I learned from my years in science was an appreciation of an enquiring mind and how to use it. It has shaped my life in almost every way. It has underpinned almost all of the important decision of my life. And it forms the framework of my horsemanship. It’s skill that I value and give credit to my scientific mentors for developing.
Some years ago I attended a demonstration of starting a horse by a trainer who had apprenticed with one of the leading American lights of horsemanship at the time. He was certified by the American guru to be his representative down under. At the demonstration I watched the trainer drive a young 3 year old around a round yard. He was looking for the horse to change direction by turning both to the inside of the yard and the outside of the yard when requested. Despite having been imprint trained as a foal and been shown in hand for the past 2 years, the horse was clearly overwhelmed with stress at being chased around the yard. It’s ability to think unravelled before my eyes as the trainer chased the horse around the yard. The horse didn’t know what was going on. It only knew to run.
The exercise had been going for some 20 minutes. Things were not going according to plan because the horse kept making outside turns when asked to perform an inside turn and visa versa. After a lot of sweating by both horse and human the trainer was finally satisfied that the turns were good enough. He stopped driving the horse and told us that he was now going to walk up and pat the horse. He raised his hand and walked quietly to the horse’s face. When the fellow got about 3 metres away, it spun around and took off again. The trainer immediately began driving the horse around the yard. After a few minutes the driving stopped and he once again tried to approach the horse. But again it took off as he got close to its head. This was repeated several times. Both horse and trainer were close to exhaustion. But still, he could not pat the horse.
Out of sheer frustration I got out of my chair and said, “Excuse me, but can I ask a question?”
‘Sure, what is it?” he said.
“Well, the horse is clearly worried about you approaching its head. So I was wondering if it might not be better to try to touch him somewhere else like the shoulder and work your way up to his head as he relaxed more?”
The trainer replied, “That would just teach him that he gets to choose where I can touch him. He would then learn he runs the show and not me.”
The fellow never was able to rub the horse on the face.
But the reason I bring this story up is that the trainer did not think through the problem. He had a program that he learned through an established training scheme, but the program did not teach him to think. It only taught him how to do exercises. He was stuck in a system that did not allow him to try ideas that were outside of the system.
This is a massive problem in the horse world. It’s everywhere from local instructors at pony club to Olympic coaches. Every book or video on how to train a horse is guilty of perpetuating single-track thinking. Every instructor who tells a student how to do something rather than tell them to play around with an idea and experiment is guilty. Every rider who does what they are told without thought or question is guilty. Every instructor who instructs, but does not explain is guilty. Every trainer who uses their qualifications or fame and popularity as proof of their brilliance is guilty.
I’m not suggesting that enrolling in a certified program or subscribing to an online video course or receiving ‘how-to’ instruction from your favourite guru or coach is wrong or lacks merit. This is not the case at all. We all need help with the exercises. We all need guidance in how to do things. For most of us, a little handholding is essential from time to time. But alongside the exercises, we also need encouragement to question our instruction and think about why we do things and why we don’t do other things. To me, this seems to be the part that is missing from most of the help that is available to people. So often the attitude from our mentors is “its my way or the highway.”
I’ve had a few mentors in my life that have both influenced my actions and my thinking when it comes to horses. But despite the esteem I hold for them in, I cannot mimic them. I can’t be a clone of them. I have had to find my own horsemanship.
If you examine the work of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt you would be hard pressed to find two horsemen that approached things more differently. Tom was Ray’s mentor, but Ray was not a clone. Both men were brilliantly talented, but very different. I believe this was because Ray developed ideas and experimented with concepts independently of what Tom taught. I have no doubt that was in large part because Tom encouraged Ray in this process, rather than just instruct him how to do things.
I believe the same is true of my experience of Harry Whitney. In my view, Harry is the best horseman around these days and the closest we now have to Tom Dorrance’s thinking. Yet, the most value I receive from Harry is not from trying to copy him, but from discussing and swapping ideas with him. We agree and we disagree. Yet, either way it always adds another dimension to my understanding. Harry has encouraged me to be different from him and I believe he would disappointed if just tried to be a carbon copy.
As a teacher, I try to encourage others to figure out their own path. It’s important that people establish their own set of principles that they use to judge the methods they (and others) use. That’s the only reason the books I have written are about ideas and not exercises. It’s the reason why my posts on Facebook or my blog are predominantly discussions about principles, not procedures.
In the photo Harry and I are discussing some fundamentally important points of horsemanship While I accept that it is Harry’s right to be wrong, I am using my usual brilliant deductive logic (a slap across the chops) to help him see the light. That’s what friends are for!