True Unity

Michèle and I have been married several years, and we sometimes have the same idea at the same time. Just when one is about the suggest something, the other is already making plans to do it. It’s like we are two people sharing the same mind for a moment. I’m sure many people have had the same experience with people they are close to.


In our efforts to strive to be better horse people we aim for the highest possible goal of working as one with our horses. The idea of unity or working equally with a horse often times seems unattainable or at the very least extremely elusive. Yet, the best of the best horse people have told us for decades that it is there for the taking if we work hard enough at understanding the needs and motives of horses and how we can work with them and not against them.


Tom Dorrance wrote an entire book devoted to the premise that it is possible. He was a great horseman who had a seemingly magic way with horses and will forever remain one of the icons of the horse world. So when Tom says it’s possible, why would we ever question it?


Even so, I think it is does need to be examined because if Tom (and others) got it wrong, it has consequences for where we are heading with our horsemanship.


I see two problems with the concept of working in unity with a horse. Firstly, nobody really knows what that means. I have yet to see a definition of ‘unity’ that explains every person’s idea of the concept. It appears that unity with a horse means different things to different people. If this is true, then by one person’s definition working in unity may be possible, but by another person’s definition it could be completely impossible.


And secondly problem with the concept of working in unity with a horse is the source of where it comes from.


Perhaps I should explain myself better. Please give me some slack because I find these ideas difficult to think about in my own head, let alone trying to explain them to others.


Let’s examine what it means to work with a horse.


From what I have learned, almost every person assumes that working in unity refers to both parties being like-minded. They are on the same page and share the same idea. So when working in unity with a horse, one might assume it means that what a horse is thinking and doing is the same thing as what a rider wants the horse to think and do.


Yet, if a horse is thinking to take some action that the rider wants, why is there a need to direct a horse’s thought? Even the best horseman spend their lives training horses with the use of pressure, and teaching people how to use pressure and interact in a way with horses, that put ideas into a horse’s head that weren’t there at the start.  There’s no unity until a rider implants it in a horse’s mind somehow. So my question is, is unity that is imposed still unity?

I remember when I was much younger competing in a jumping event, when I was approaching a jump on the wrong canter lead. I thought to myself that I needed to swap leads in order to be balanced on the take off coming off a tight turn. As I thought about telling my horse to change lead, he did it. It seemed it happened before I gave the signal. That was the first time I thought I had something close to being in true unity with my horse. Yet, it is not possible for me to say my horse and I had a secret communication because it is more probable that the horse was responding to a change of balance that jumping off a turn created. It is very possible that the communication was not between my horse, and me but between my horse and the jump course.


Another example that comes easily to mind happened when I was working a client’s horse in a round yard while riding my own horse. I remember thinking I need to cut the client’s horse off and send it around in the opposite direction. Even before I finished the thought, my horse prepared himself to block the other horse. He was cutting across the pen before I even knew what was happening. At the time, I was thrilled how tuned in my horse was to my thoughts. However, in hindsight it may have been that my horse had learned his job very well and was ahead of me, which is more about him taking over the job. Or it could have been that I presented such subtle cues that my horse felt, but I didn’t. In either case, is that really working as one or not? This is not an easy question to answer.


As a horseman who has seen a lot of other horse people, I make no apology to any of them for saying I question if I have ever seen any of them ever achieve unity with a horse. Not because I don’t believe some have a great relationship with their horses, but because I believe unity with a horse probably goes beyond a great relationship or partnership. No matter how great their work with a horse was, everything came from the rider implanting an idea first before the horse had the idea itself.


So again I ask, is unity that is imposed still unity? I think this is a very important question we should all ask ourselves.


It seems to me that in the vast majority of cases, when it comes to riders and horses, the only time a horse spontaneously comes up with the same idea as the human, is when a strong pattern of behaviour has developed and there is large element of routine or habit to the work. For example, point a well-educated jumping horse at a jump, they jump out of routine and sometimes even without a rider. Then there is the case of cutting horses, where in many cases the rider is little more than a lump in a saddle.


The second problem with working in unity with a horse that I see is the issue that what a horse wants changes constantly. Presumably, if a horse and person are as one in what they are thinking and doing, then it seems a fairly logical conclusion to suggest they these things they are thinking and doing are things that they choose to do from free will and which seem like a good idea that offers comfort and even pleasure at the time.


But what gives a horse pleasure? Well, I see my horse sleeping under a tree, so I guess it’s fair to say that sleeping under trees give my horse pleasure. However, how does that account that sometimes he also gallops around the paddock? So maybe sleeping and galloping give my horse pleasure? Then what about rolls in the sand? Well, then sleeping, galloping and rolling must give my horse pleasure.


Now I see a problem. Does my horse enjoy it when I gallop him? Maybe - if he felt like galloping. But if he felt like sleeping under a tree and I asked him to gallop, does he still enjoy the gallop? I already know my horse likes to gallop, so how could we not be in unity by asking him to gallop?


If working in unity with my horse means that we are on the same page, does changing my horse’s page from what he wanted to what I wanted  - without causing him stress or anxiety - still count as unity?


I truly believe that most the trainers/clinicians that sell the idea of working in unity with a horse don’t know what it is they mean. For most people, it means obedience without resistance or worry. But I believe, that true unity is something much deeper than that. I just don’t know for sure if it exists or it is something we like to tell ourselves we have or will have one day.


For a push-me-pull-me, each end of the animal has to be working in unity.

Ground Tying

At the clinic last week in Ben Lomond, California, Sheri pointed out that her horse, Scout fidgeted a lot when he was tied up, yet he stood quietly when he was ground tied. This was a very astute and important observation because it highlights something important that I talk about a lot, but don’t always find it easy to get through to students.


If you ask most people why Sheri’s horse is quiet when it’s ground tied, but restless when tied to something, you’d probably get several answers like “he doesn’t like to be on his own”, or “she ties him up in scary places”, or “Scout is worried about the confinement of not being able to leave if he had to,“ or “Sheri mainly ties him up to be saddled and he doesn’t like to be saddled”.


All of these reasons are reasonable, but when you look closer at Scout they don’t hold true in a consistent way.


The reason why I believe Scout is quieter when he is ground tied than when he is tied fixed to something is because he has a job. When Scout is tied to a post, he has learned he is not required to standstill. The only requirement is not to pull back hard on the lead rope. The post, halter and lead rope give him the limits to how much he can move. He can express his anxiety all he likes as long as he respects the limits of the post, halter and lead rope.


However, Sheri has taught Scout to ground tie. That means in the process of the training, every time he moved a foot, she corrected him to put it back. He learned his job is to stand still. Whereas in the training to tie up, Scout learned his job was to not pull back. They are two very different lessons..


There is one other thing I want to point out regarding the difference between teaching a horse to tie up and teaching it to ground tie that the example with Scout exemplifies.


As I said, Scout’s job is to not pull back against the lead rope when he is tied to a post. That means in order to do his job, he only needs to feel the lead rope becoming taut and the pressure from the halter tightening to change his thought. He has a clear and consistent signal entering his brain to tell him when it is time to stop moving. As long as the feel of the halter and lead rope do not interrupt his thoughts, he can think and do anything he wants.


However, in the case of being ground tied there is no external signal to interrupt his thought to move (unless Sheri intervenes with a correction). For Scout to do the job of being ground tied well, he either needs to switch off all his tension and feel calm and relaxed about not moving, or he has to monitor and correct himself constantly whenever he has a thought to walk away. Whichever it is, he is vigilantly working at a job. Being ground tied is a job for a horse, and in many cases a more difficult job than being tied to a fixed post.


I think Scout’s example is a good reminder that a job does not necessary entail movement. Many (maybe even most) people believe that it is necessary to move and direct a horse’s feet in order to tap into its mind. Yet Scout showed the people at the clinic in Ben Lomond that directing a horse’s mind is secondary to directing its thoughts.

Considerations When Choosing A Bit

Recently Arnold wrote describing his confusion regarding how to choose the right bit for his horse. For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to stick too talking about snaffle bits, since that’s what most people use.


Every store selling horse gear has a wall filled with a huge assortment of bits to choose from. Web sites list bits of every description that can be purchased for the pleasure of your horse riding experience. They come in a variety of materials, sizes and designs.


All the products come with a basic description that tells you very little, except that that each bit is the one that will create a happy and responsive horse. Every new bit comes with the promise of being the one that your horse wished you had purchased before trying out the other 100 bits that are already in your tack room.


Ever since I can remember there have been fashions in bits. About once a decade or so some manufacturer produces a new wonder bit that gets sold faster than it can be made because it promises everything that all the other bits promised and failed. Often it is the bit that the latest world champion recommends (or someone equally impressive). However, in reality no bit will create a happy and responsive horse that is not already happy and responsive. Happy and responsive horses are the product of training, not equipment.


I believe that before deciding on which bit to purchase for a horse, we have to remind ourselves the purpose of using a bit at all.


Bits are nothing more than transducers. They convert the signal coming from the reins into something that makes sense to the horse’s brain. The clearer a bit converts that signal, the better design it is. When the signal from the reins is muddled and confusing, the poorer the design the bit is.


If we exclude the skills of the rider as a factor for the sake of the discussion, then it would seem that the most important factor in choosing a bit is size and comfort. Anytime a bit is a poor fit or creates pressure in a horse mouth that does not relate to the signal the reins are trying to convey, the horse is subjected to confusion and pressures with mixed meanings. Any bit that does that is the wrong bit.


That means when judging the correct size, a bit should be slightly wider than the mouth (not pinching the corners) and should be thin enough that when the mouth is closed there should be minimal pressure on the tongue or bars of the bit groove.


For almost a generation there was a widely held view that thicker bits were kinder, because the pressure they applied per square cm surface area, was less than thinner bits. However, people forgot and were confused by the idea that the pressure was a function of the rider’s hands and didn’t seem to realize that thicker bits created discomfort because of the excessive crowding they caused in a horse’s mouth. Horses are not able to close their mouth without undue pressure on the tongue and bars with thicker bits. So people used thick bits and then tightened nosebands to address the problem of a horse opening its mouth to see comfort.


With regards to materials used in bits, the fashions have come and gone and come again. Every manufacturer makes a careful choice of what to make their bit out of and then sell the idea to the horse loving public. When I was younger rubber and polyurethane became popular. Then there were sweet mouth iron bits. Silver, auger, nickel plaited, copper, stainless steel all add to the variety we can choose from.


I personally never liked the flexible bits because of the spongy feel and action. Nevertheless, they were popular for a while and I am sure still are among some riders with certain horses.


Often the material in a bit is chosen because it is suppose to promote salivation and therefore prevent ‘dry mouth’ syndrome. In my experience, the degree of moisture of a horse’s mouth is more related to the emotional state of a horse than the type of metal a bit is made from. I have never found any bit to effect salivation or overcome dryness. But perhaps other people have a different experience.


What about the question of design? I have seen amazing contraptions over the years. Most have sound reasoning behind their design, but most I don’t like. There are three major elements to the design of the bit. The first is the shape of the mouthpiece and whether it is jointed or solid. The second is the design of the sidepieces and whether they D rings, full cheek, eggbutt, etc. The third element is how they attach the reins and the cheek piece of the bridle. All these elements play some role in how the bit works.


There isn’t time to go into the assortment of designs and their purpose, so I will just tell you my preferences and why.


My bit of choice at the moment is a simple double-jointed ring snaffle made from solid stainless steel to give it weight. It can be bought for around $30 Australian. I have used the exact same bit on thousands of horses and I can only recall one horse where this bit was not okay. The mouthpiece is quite thin at around 4mm and has a smooth curve. The central join is a thin lozenge style. The rings are about 75mm in diameter.


The reason why I like this bit is because for most horses the join does not compress the tongue or impact the palate. The curve and the central join minimize the nut-cracker affect of clamping down on the bars of the mouth or pushing into the roof of the mouth when the reins are used in unison. Also there is a very direct feel on only one side of the mouth when only one rein is used to help give the horse a clear signal when asking for lateral flexion. The weight of the bit is a little heavier than most and to ensure the is energy from the reins is not lost in the feel of the mouthpiece.


In his request for a discussion on bits, Arnold asked my views on Mylar bits. I hope from this discussion it is clear about the criteria I use for choosing a bit. On some horses, some Mylar bits will meet those criteria. Other horses may need a different Mylar bit or some totally different design. Generally, I think Mylar bits are well designed and well crafted. But they are not the bees-knees that a lot of people think they are and their value or usefulness is dependent on it being the right bit for their horse. That’s something that can only be decided by riding a horse with a Mylar bit.


The advent of bit banks is a really great idea to allow people to trial bits before buying them. My advice to Arnold is to search on various web sites that offer this service and trial some Mylar bits on his horse. This ensures he buys something that his horse likes and not something that just sounds like a good bit.


I hear a lot from people who want advice on bits. It’s great that they want to ensure the bit they choose it right for their horse. Yet, I have never considered choosing a bit to be a very important matter because I believe the difference in outcome of one bit over another is in the hands of the rider. To me, the first priority is the comfort that a horse experiences from choosing the correct size, bulk and weight of a snaffle bit. After that, it is largely up to the rider.


The photos shows that the basic design of bits has not change very much in 2300 years.

Choosing Equipment

The problem of consumer choice occurred to me when I recently saw a well-known dressage trainer joining forces with a saddle maker to market a new dressage saddle. The question crossed my mind as to how many more new saddle designs does the world need and how are buyers suppose to sort it out?


I was recently in the market for some new hoof rasps and was surprised at the huge range of rasps on the market. It was so overwhelming that I couldn’t absorb all the detail about each style, brand, reviews by previous purchasers, and chose the easiest course of action by buying the one most closely resembling my worn out rasps.


If you walk into any business selling horse gear or connect to any online tack shop and you are faced with a huge range of choices of models, sizes, colours, materials, weights, etc of the thing you are looking to buy. It’s all a little too much for me. I feel like a deer in headlights.


In my work, I use certain equipment that I have found suits me. The halters I use at home have been chosen after many years of using a huge variety of halters. The flag I have at home is the best I have ever used because of its perfect weight, length and balance. The same can be said for the reins, riding boots, sunglasses, etc.


My point is that the choices I have made in the gear I use have largely come from many years of trial and error or using what was most recommended by others, and making poor choices.


Working with other people’s equipment at clinics has made me aware that most people are not as fortunate as me to being able to try a large variety of equipment and making informed choices as to whether to discard or embrace them.


I have often been asked why I don’t sell my preferred brand of gear. It’s a deliberate choice not to sell equipment for a few of different reasons.


Firstly, I don’t want people thinking that because I sell it, everything else is junk. There are some clinicians who insist that people buy their product if they are going to work with them or attempt to emotionally blackmail people by telling them that the gear they sell is the best and only equipment that can help their horse. In my view, this is just wrong and makes me questions the clinician’s integrity or intelligence. If people believe the brand of equipment they use is going to make the difference between their horses going well and poorly, then I have a very good bargain on an Opera House in Sydney I’d like to sell them.


The second reason I don’t sell or promote my favourite tools, is that what works for me may not work for another person. For example, I really like the weight of the lead ropes I have at home. But I know that some women may find them too heavy and don’t fit so well in their small hands. The flag I use is perfectly weighted for me, but people who like the Parelli carrot sticks will find my flag too light and perhaps flimsy.


And lastly, it could be that tomorrow I will find a better saddle, or bit, or halter, or flag than the one I’m using or selling. Then I will no longer be able to sell that product honestly believing it is the best on the market.


It’s important that you use the gear that works best for you. However, the reasons why a person believes their gear works well has to be more substantial than because their favourite trainer or Olympic medalist has their name stamped on it.


This brings me to the related subject of sponsorship.


Corporate sponsorship is what enables professionalism into horse sports. Without sponsorship there would be no large international competitions or professional competitors or horse trainers with 5 star facilities. So it could be argued that sponsorship is a good thing. However, the downside is that because there is a commercial arrangement between horse people and business, the promotion of a product by a horse person is not always unbiased.


There are trainers who have their name linked to products that have nothing to do with their expertise with horses. Some trainers have their trucks and trailers plastered with 20 or more sponsor’s logos. I know one trainer who has his name on a female shampoo product. Another has a logo for a feed company on his trailer, but at home never uses that company’s feed because he found his horses wouldn’t eat it.


When you are in the market for a product and not sure what you should be buying, it’s very hard not to be swayed by the recommendations of a well-known horse person in the advertising. When you attend horse clinics of a trainer you like, it’s hard not to be tempted to buy the flag or halter they sell in the hope it will make all the difference to your horsemanship.


I think the only advice I can offer is to do as much research as you can before going shopping. Then decide on the important parameters that you want in the product (eg, if buying reins you might look at stiffness, weight, buckle, split or one piece, length, thickness, material, cost, etc) and stick to your choice after becoming well informed. If you find a product that meet those requirements, then buy it, irrespective if it is sold by or associated with your horse idol.


This is so funny....