Being A Teacher vs Being A Horseman

When I was training horses for the public as a full time job, my main focus was on being the best trainer I could and do the best job for the horses and their owners that I could. I spent an inordinate amount of time devoted to studying, thinking about and experimenting with different ways and approaches to be better at my job. Being a student of horsemanship was as much a part of my job as being a teacher of horses.


Now I work as a clinician as my main occupation and I see it as a very different career path from being a trainer. Most clinicians and even instructors fall into their job because of their abilities with horses. People appreciate a person’s way with horses and almost automatically begin clamoring for lessons, in the hope they will learn the secrets that make that person good with horses.


But nowhere, that I am aware, is there a place for aspiring clinicians or instructors to learn to become just as a good a teacher as they are a horse person. I now see my main occupation as a teacher first and a horseman second. My value to a student is no longer about my skill with a horse. It’s in my ability to communicate concepts to people. This is first and foremost what determines if I am a good clinician or not, and my horsemanship is a secondary consideration (albeit still important).


Where do good horse people go to learn to become good teachers? It seems it must come from their own efforts because there is no course or certificate in teacher training for horse people.


That being said, it appears to me that the general public is less interested in a horse clinician’s teaching skills than they are in their prowess with a horse. Some of the biggest names in the clinic world are terrible teachers. Instead of explaining difficult concepts in simple terms that less experienced people can understand, they use trite, mother-earth statements that offer very few people any clear answers and confuse most students. Answering a question about how to use the reins and rider’s legs, with a statement like “… you use them to support the horse”, is often little help to the average clinic goer. But it happens all the time and the starry-eyed paying customer swoons in awe at the brilliance of this observation. We talk all the time about the importance of clarity when teaching the horse; yet don’t criticize the clinician who fails to offer the same support to the student.


Then there are the teachers who don’t know why they teach the things they teach.


I recently asked a clinician why he teaches people not use both reins to halt a horse in the first couple of months of starting them. He got quite cranky and a little belligerent at my question and didn’t have an answer. I think it is an appropriate question to ask why this person charges people money to come to a clinic, when they don’t even understand what they are teaching? If a person doesn’t know why they don’t apply both reins, then should they be telling people not to do it? There maybe a perfectly good reason for why he teaches that principle, but it is concerning that the clinician doesn’t know what it is. All of us teachers should only be teaching what we know, and leave out what we don’t understand.


Then there are the clinicians who believe their time is more valuable then their student’s time.


I’ve been to clinics where people have asked a perfectly legitimate question and are in turn abused and humiliated by the clinician for being so naïve or not paying attention when the subject was discussed earlier in the clinic.


In my view, it’s never ok for anybody to abuse or humiliate another person in public, let alone when somebody who is paying you a lot of money to have his or her questions (dumb or otherwise) answered.


By definition, it’s the job of a clinician (or any teacher) to patiently answer a student’s questions in the best way possible that helps the student. We are always hearing how we should leave our egos outside of the riding arena because they have no place when training horses. Yet, so many clinicians don’t take their own advice when the student is human and not equine.


When deciding on which clinics to attend, I would like to see people do more homework in researching the clinician whose teaching style best fits their learning pattern. I think it is time that people stopped rewarding bad teachers, just because they may be good horse trainers. Choosing to attend clinics based solely on which you think is the better horse person, may leave you financially poorer and no wiser in your horsemanship.


Let the better horse trainers who are second-rate teachers do their stuff at horse expos and demonstrate their skills on YouTube. And let the better teachers be acknowledged for their ability to pass on their skills to students in the clinic setting. In that way, the life of horses will be much better served and improved.


This is a photo of clinicians and trainer who rode the Tom Dorrance benefit in 2001 in Fort Worth.

What Is Wrong With Gadgets?

I want to talk about gadgets. It is a very controversial subject and tends to create extreme views from both the proponents and opponents.


I guess before discussing them; I would be best to define what we are talking about when we talk about gadgets. What is a gadget? I can’t speak for anybody else, but for the purposes of this discussion my idea of a gadget is any device (i) that the human cannot use with feel, and/or (ii) by their design imposes a behaviour on a horse.


This may not be a terribly satisfactory definition and you may be able to think of gadgets that don’t fit into that category or perhaps tools that do fit within the bounds of gadgets, but are not considered gadgets. But each person has his or her own idea of what defines a piece of equipment as a gadget.


The sort of devices that I feel can be described as gadgets are tie downs, noseband, side reins, training hobbles, chambon, pessoa, blinkers, etc because the human can not use them with feel and making adjustments moment to moment in how they are applied it not possible.


Items that I don’t believe fall into the category of a gadget are bits, whips, spurs, side pull, flags, halters, etc. The effectiveness of these devices as communication aids is entirely dependent on the input from the rider or handler.


Both gadgets and non-gadgets are designed to convey an idea to a horse. Nevertheless, when a device works without the need for a rider or handler to present feel through the device, the idea now becomes imposed on a horse. Any time a human cannot constantly adjust the feel that a horse experiences, the device becomes a gadget.


But what is so wrong with using a gadget to communicate an idea to a horse?


In good horsemanship we want our idea to become a horse’s idea. Remember, I’m talking about what the horse is thinking, not what it is doing. If it has the same idea we want it to have, it will do as we hoped because a horse is always trying to do what it is thinking. The most important component of helping a horse to have the same thought as us is to encourage it to search through all of its options.


This means we allow our horse to have choices. If we make the idea we want our horse to have appear like it is the best option, it will dismiss the not-so-good ideas. The important part here is that our horse decides for itself that out of all the available choices the one we wanted it to choose is the best. It dismisses the others as bad idea.


When presenting a horse with an idea we are always competing with alternative thoughts that may appear to a horse. By allowing our horse to explore those alternative ideas, we allow it to reject each of them one by one until it finds the best idea. When it discovers the idea that our horse believes provides safety and comfort, there will be minimum resistance and trouble between us.


This is where gadgets fail us. By their nature gadgets do not allow a horse to freely explore alternative choices. A horse never gets to dismiss a bad idea because it never gets to explore it as an option and decide for itself that it didn’t work out well. Instead, the gadget just imposes the response or behaviour we want and leaves the alternative idea as a potential choice in a horse’s mind.


Let’s look at an example of this. Tongue-plates are used to prevent horses putting their tongue over the bit. A horse that wants to put its tongue over the bit does it for a reason. It is usually searching for safety and/or comfort and putting the tongue on top of the bit is part of its exploration to find the best response. A tongue-plate physically blocks the tongue being place over the bit. However, it does not address the reason why a horse keeps trying to get its tongue over the bit. It just minimizes the behaviour. It never becomes the horse’s own idea to not get its tongue over the bit, so the horse never feels okay about the tongue-plate. It also never entirely dismisses the possibility of one day trying to put its tongue over the bit again. This same principle applies to just about any gadget I can think of.


I sometimes hear that the problem with gadgets is that people don’t know how to use them correctly. When used properly they are a great help to a horse. Often side reins are cited because the Spanish Riding School, one of the esteemed centres of classical riding, invented them. I have been told that if the SRS uses them they must be a good idea. But of course, this is nonsense. The SRS does not own “good ideas” when it comes to training horses. Just because they are good at what they do, does not mean that what they do is good.


The desire of people to solve a problem as easily and quickly as possible is why gadgets have become so popular. They are a short cut means of getting something done. My response to people who say that when a gadget is used correctly they can be a great benefit to a horse, is if you don’t have the knowledge to train a horse without the use of the gadget, then you don’t have the skill to use them “correctly”. The simple answer is that they are just anti good training.


Having said all that, I will admit that I have trained my horses to wearing hobbles. It has always been in preparation to travelling on long distances treks where it has been necessary to allow my horses to graze overnight. Hobbles enabled the horses to move about while grazing, but restricted their roaming while I slept at night. This was so I didn’t spend half of the next day looking for them.


Training horses well is a skill that is learned over a long time. It is not possible to circumvent the process by taking short cuts. The behaviour that gadgets are intended to shape is something that good horse people learn along the way to becoming good horse people. A person cannot learn to be a talent with a horse by resorting to gadgets because they undermine the process of becoming a good horse person.


This is a photo of a tongue-plate.

The Worse Way To Teach A Horse To Tie Up

This is just so dangerous and damaging to a horse


Munchausen By Proxy

Munchausen by proxy (MBPS) was named after Baron von Munchausen, an 18th-century German dignitary known for making up stories about his travels and experiences in order to get attention. It is a mental disorder whereby a parent or caretaker either exaggerates or fabricates a child’s disorder or disease. The caregiver (proxy) gains sympathy and support and often assumes the “hero” role for their caring devotion to the supposed sick child.


While MBPS is a medical term used to describe a condition involving a child, I believe a similar syndrome exists among horse owners by substituting the child with a horse.


I have come across many instances where people insist that their horse suffers from a physical ailment, despite any lack of veterinary or otherwise evidence. Conditions such as brain tumours, cryptorchid, polycystic ovaries, ulcers, back pain and a multitude of leg and hoof conditions, etc are sometimes blamed for a horses poor behaviour and training. It is further complicated when you add in factors like saddle fit problems and bits.


I don’t want anyone to think I don’t believe that any of these (and other) factors don’t play a role in how a horse behaves or problems in training. However, so often people cling to explanations that involve physical issues rather than training issues despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some people blindly adhere to the belief that all the problems they have with a horse is rooted in some physical cause even though circumstantial evidence suggests it is not.


Possibly the most common example of this is bridle lameness. This is where a horse’s gait or movement is flawed when ridden. In a recent clinic I saw the most-clear cut example of bridle lameness I have seen in years. The horse would canter on the front legs and trot on the hind legs. The lady at the clinic allowed me to ride her horse and work through it in a few minutes. Once I was able to relax the horse, the bridle lameness disappeared.


However, many times I have known people to pursue explanations associated with veterinary problems, equipment problems, conformational problems, rider balance problems, etc and in complete denial that the cause stemmed more from mental resistance, emotional worry and a lack of clarity than from a physical base.


Another common scenario is when mares become difficult to handle during the spring. Often owners claim it is due to spring grass or from changing hormone status. Without doubt the extra level of nutrition can give a horse more energy and a mares reproductive cycle can make them more distracted. Yet, in my experience these times only reveal holes in the training that were already there in other times of the year, but small enough as to be very manageable for many people. When spring comes along, those small holes in the training suddenly become bigger and less manageable. There is nothing about spring that makes the mare ill or turns them into Jekyll and Hyde; it is just the same mare as it was in the winter, just more so.


In the equine world, MBPS is exhibited by owners who spend enormous energy trying to find physical causes for training issues. Every minor issue with straightness requires a visit from the chiropractor. Every hint of a horse playing excessively with the bit requires a visit from the dentist or a new bit. Every unevenness of gait or change in the sweat pattern of a saddle pad calls for re-fitting of the saddle or perhaps a new saddle. Every change in behaviour needs to be answered with introducing a new diet.


You might ask why I refer to some horse owners suffering the syndrome Munchausen by proxy, rather than just trying to exclude all the possible physical causes to problems.


The people that suffer MBPS are the ones that can’t accept that there are not always physical explanations to the problems they have with their horse.


I have known people who won’t ride their horse because they can’t find or are waiting to buy the perfect saddle. They believe that if they just had the right saddle, their horse would be brilliant. Yet, when I trained horses they were all started and re-educated in the same saddle irrespective whether it was a good fit or a bad fit. One saddle for all those horses! Heavens above, how did all those horses survive without trying to toss me out of the saddle every day?


I don’t want anyone to think that I am suggesting that we should not consider the role of a horse’s physical well being or equipment or diet, etc in any behaviourial and training problems we have with our horses. However, I do believe that some people only consider those issues even when the evidence does not support the idea.


In the experience we gain, as we become better horse people, one of the skills we develop is to become deductive in our thinking – like a detective. We learn to deduce the cause of problems by rationally eliminating the unlikely candidates and experimenting with the remainder. If we can do that the true culprit that create our training problems can be identified and resolved much quicker.


This is a photo of Baron Von Munchausen

In The Minds Of Children

I was in Maine, USA about 2 weeks ago for a clinic and staying with a very nice family. During an evening meal I asked Maggie (teenage daughter) what she might like help with during her session scheduled for the following day. As we talked I sensed that Maggie was a little nervous about having a lesson and being in front of a crowd.


I asked, “Maggie are you nervous about the clinic?”


“Yeah, a little,” she said.


“But why?” I asked. “I haven’t got anyone killed for weeks.”


“Well, it’s because you know so much,” she replied.


I thought about this for a while. I know that people are often nervous and intimidated about having a lesson where other people may be watching. It’s even truer with young people who feel inadequate in front of an old guy with wrinkles, a beard and a strange accent. I guess I felt the same when I was young and riding in front a crowd or being taught by somebody whose job it was to point out my inadequacies.


However, years later I see it quite differently to how I saw it as a young person desperate not to appear totally incompetent.  Nowadays I envy somebody young like Maggie who lacks the certainty of what she knows. She has no reason to be nervous because I “… know so much.”


I do have a lot of experience working and training horses. I have trained horses of many breeds, ages, temperaments, disciplines, etc to do many different things. I’ve trained horses to perform a multitude of tasks across many disciplines for very many years. I have a lot of experience.


But this is where I envy somebody like Maggie. In some ways my long experience of working horses hinders me. Experience has taught me to think in a certain way. Experience has taught me to approach situations, which appear familiar, in a certain way. To some degree experience has set up patterns in both my thinking and the way I go about my work.


When I see a horse that does not want to go forward or is ear shy or whatever the problem, my mind immediately thinks to how I have handled other horses with similar issues. It’s the first thing that happens before I step in to help the horse. Once I have begun working with the horse I may change tactics because I feel something different to what I was expecting. However, my initial thought is to approach the task in a way that is already familiar to me. When I do this, the prospect of trying other approaches is in the background of my mind, not the foreground.


My many years of experience don’t make me as open to trying approaches that I have never tried. It’s only when all else has failed do I finally resort to the things that have never been attempted before. I am no longer as brave as I’d like to be to experiment with ideas that come from ‘left field’.


On one hand it could be argued that experience has already taught me the things that won’t help a horse. Because of my experience I won’t subject the horses to as many bizarre methods that are likely to backfire. They benefit from my years of working with horses that many of the earlier horses in my career could not. I screw up less now than I did when I was younger. Yet, something is missing.


I think what is missing is innovation. Somebody like Maggie has the freedom to be innovative because she is just beginning her journey. She is not encumbered with the baggage of years of experience.


I have no doubt that there are brilliant horse people who have never had a lesson and whom nobody has ever heard about. They are working away with their horses in some quiet corner of the world using methods and philosophies with great success, that are totally alien to most of us. They may even be the best horse person in the world.


Most of us work hard at being the best we can be. Very often that involves trying to be clones of our mentors or heroes in the industry. Look at how many schools of horsemanship there are and how many students are learning to be just like their leader. However, it concerns me how much this stifles progress in learning more about how to get along better with horses. When we try to be like somebody else, there can be no innovation. New ideas and approaches to working with horses don’t happen when we all try to mimic Ray Hunt or Pat Parelli or the guy around the corner.


It’s great that Maggie came to my clinic and I was very proud of the job she did and the changes she made in her mare. But I just wish I could help Maggie be a better horsewoman without killing her curiosity to experiment and innovate. One day I want to go to Maggie’s clinic and learn things about horsemanship that I never thought to try. It would be my proudest moment.


Albert Einstein once said “There are children in the playground today that could solve our biggest problems in theoretical physics…” I think Einstein had the same feeling that experience can crush imagination.


The photo is from the clinic with Maggie and her mare, Breezy.