The Story Of Satan - Ch 1

This is an account of my experiences with one of the most difficult horses I have worked, but also one of the most important horses in terms of what I learned. It happened more than 20 years ago, so both my methods and principles have changed quite a bit since then. It is a 23 part series that was published on my previous website, but I have had many requests to make the stories available again. So here is the first chapter. I hope you find it enjoyable, but also discover lesson to be learned. Before anybody asks, I don’t have any digitised photos of the horse in the story - sorry.

I had only moved to Victoria six months earlier. I was living on a 30 acre property owned by an absent doctor who was looking for a part time caretaker. It had a beautiful open plan house with an upstairs mezzanine. There were 2 stables and 6 paddocks, a round yard, 2 acre dam and a quiet dead end dirt road. The owner grew blueberries and wine grapes and would visit a few times a year to enjoy the country atmosphere and play farmer for short periods. My responsibilities were to mow the lawns, keep the irrigation working for the grapes and berries and provide security. There was plenty of room for my 2 horses and lots of time that I could continue my research career at the university. It was a perfect setup – no rent, easy responsibilities and all the space and facilities for riding my horses.

It was nearing bedtime for me when the phone rang. I thought about not answering it, but I had an important experiment running and it might have been one of my lab techs calling to say I was needed in the lab. It was my dad.

Dad didn’t usually call. Mostly mum did all the telephoning. Dad was not very good at small talk. He started with all the usual like “how are ya, son” and “how’s work” and “do ya need any money”. At this point is was normal for him to say “well, good talkin to ya - here’s ya mother.” But he didn’t this time.

“Son, I got a horse that isn’t doing too well. Geoff (the trainer) says he can’t race because he is too crazy. Nobody wants to handle him and they can’t get him broken in. Do ya reckon you could take him for a bit and see what ya can do with him. I’ll pay ya and take care of all the expenses. He’s a Karla Dancer foal and worth giving him some time.”

“Well dad I’m really busy at work at them moment with some big experiments that I need to get done before my application for a new NH&MRC grant is due in October. I have to have the preliminary data ready for that, so I don’t know how much time I’ll have for training a horse.”

“I’m in no hurray. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get around to him for a while, “ dad said. “But I don’t know what to do about him. He’s a Karla Dancer foal and worth putting in the time. I think he has real potential, but everyone thinks he’s nuts. I’d appreciate it if you could just check him out for me. Otherwise, I might have to put him down because nobody wants to deal with him.”

Dad said the magic words. I couldn’t stand the thought that a horse would be destroyed just because I didn’t find the time to help out.

“Okay dad. Let me check with the fellow that owns this place that it’s okay to have another horse here. I think he’ll be fine if it’s just for a while, but I had better ask anyway. Don’t worry about paying me. If I can help, I’m happy to help. Let me get Geoff’s phone number from you and I’ll call him and talk to him to get the story and make arrangements for the horse to come down from Sydney. Now let me speak to mum.”

A few days after I had cleared things with the good doctor that it was okay to have the horse for a while, I called the trainer.

“Well mate, we call him Satan and that should tell you all about him. He’s hurt a strapper when she was leading him and another when she went into his stall to check his water. He threw the breaker out of the saddle by grabbing his leg and reefing him to the ground. He can’t be put with any other horses. He’s a bastard and needs to be put down. He’s too dangerous and is going to kill somebody one day. The breaker won’t ride him anymore and nobody wants to handle him. I’ve told your dad that he is a pig and should be shot, but for no reason I can work out he’s seems fond of the horse. If you can do anything with him, good luck. But be careful ‘cause he will hurt you if you let your guard down.”

We agreed that Satan would be put on a transporter the next week heading for Melbourne. I felt butterflies in my stomach at the thought at what I had got into. If he really was this dangerous did I really want to work with this horse? What could I do when everybody else had failed? If the breaker refused to get on him, why the hell should I? Bloody hell, what was I in for?

Work had been incredibly busy with some really long nights and early mornings. My experiment had had a couple of near disasters, which had kept me up working late into the night and even into the wee hours. The stress and long hours had almost made me forget that Satan was coming to holiday, until the phone rang at 6:30 in the morning. It was the transport fellow telling me they had Satan at their Melbourne depot and would be delivering him that afternoon. We made a time that I thought I could be home by and gave them directions. I told them if I was late to just put the horse in the round yard, which was just at the top of the drive, by the house.

“Mate, ya don’t wanna be puttin this horse in a yard. He’ll either jump out or he’ll run you over tryin to catch him. Have ya gotta a stable to use until he settles in? It needs to have a top and bottom door that ya can lock.”

Shit! What type of tragic case is this horse? I told them I would be there to meet them and to keep him in the truck until I got home.

I went outside to check the stables. They had not been used for some time. I cleaned what was left of some old manure and topped up the bedding with fresh sawdust then raked it smooth. The automatic waterer was working, but the system needed to be flushed to clear out the grunge that had accumulated in the pipes. The stable could be locked with top and bottom bolts on each door, but the screws holding them looked flimsy. I went to the tool shed and managed to find 2inch screws and a hand drill. I replaced the screws and then checked the strength of the hinges. The doors were pretty heavy duty and the builder had used good, strong hinges and screws to set them with. The stables were lined with quarter inch rubber to a height of four feet up the wall. I figured this would be sufficient protection if Satan decided to use the stable walls for soccer practice. I didn’t know what sort of trouble Satan might cause, but I wanted to be ready for anything. I felt like I was preparing for war; and perhaps I was.

As soon as I walked into my office at work the phone rang. The departmental head wanted to see me about how I had been dodging teaching duties. As I was about to walk down the corridor to his office my senior technician came to tell me the control serum we had been using for the ACTH was contaminated. Halfway to the department head’s office the surgery technician told me he had double booked the surgery and we would have to postpone our experiment for a day. This was how my day continued until 4pm – one headache or complaint after another.

Jen, the research assistant knocked on my door as I was reading a student’s draft PhD thesis.

“You wanted me to tell you when it was 4 o’clock.”

“Okay, thanks Jen.”

I threw the thesis and a few papers into my brief case and headed for home with some curiosity and a bit of nervousness. I wanted to know what dad had sent me. But I was worried that Geoff was right and the horse should be put down. I certainly wasn’t going to get hurt for the sake of doing my father a favour, but I promised dad I was going to give this horse a chance. I felt every horse deserves a chance. Having been around racing people most of my life, I knew that they didn’t always do everything possible to make a horse’s life as easy as possible, with minimum stress. Maybe Satan was just misunderstood and didn’t fit well into the cookie cutter training methods of your average racehorse trainer.

When I drove my old Renault 25 up to the house the horse truck was already parked in the turning circle. When I got out of the car I could hear a horse calling from inside the horsebox. Two fellows stepped out of the truck.

“Well we got ‘im here. I dunno how we are goin to go getting ‘im out . Ya want ‘im in that stable over there?”

Yeah, that’ll do,” I said. “Do you want a hand?

“Nah, mate. Ya betta wait here. He might come out a bit quick.”

The whir of the motor on the side ramp of the truck caused Satan to begin to stomp and call even more. As the ramp lowered I could see the enlarged white eyes on an imposing steel grey head. He was beautiful.

To be continued….

Historical Film of Horses Crossing A River

I thought this was a nice piece of historical footage


Interpreting Body Language

I was asked if I would write some thoughts on behaviours that indicate a horse’s emotional state. We all know that excessive swishing of the tail or pinning of the ears is almost always associated with bad feelings, anxiety and stress in horses. Most people understand these behaviours. But there are some behaviours which are less clear and create some discussion.

The most common behaviour that people seem to pick up is noticing is when a horse licks his lips – some call it licking and chewing. It has almost universally become to mean a horse is processing an idea and gaining an understanding. Licking and chewing has become associated with a desirable outcome and people almost always think that when they see their horse licking and chewing it is a good sign that things are going well. I don’t know where this notion first began, but it is almost certain that Monty Roberts had a hand in popularizing the idea.

Other examples of horse behaviour that I hear people discuss at clinics are yawning, sneezing, foam around the lips, hanging down of a gelding’s penis, eye blink reflex, breathing pattern, shape of the nostrils, movement of the ears, wrinkles under the eyes, tension of the muzzle, tension of the tail and so on. All these (and other) signs are considered to have meaning about how a horse feels. And they should be given importance because generally they do mean something. A horse is almost always telling us something with its body. They can be real chatterboxes.

But where I see the problem of looking for these behaviours as indicators of what a horse is thinking and feeling is that people are taught their meaning is definitive. That is, these behaviours have one interpretation and it is the only interpretation.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Licking and chewing by a horse is almost universally accepted as a good thing. In my opinion, often times it does indicate a letting down of emotions and the start of relaxation. But experience has taught me that this is not always true. All horses in some situation will lick and chew as a response to stress and worry. Others will lick and chew not from relaxation, but from helplessness and feelings of futility. Much of the time when a horse licks and chews from stress the movement of the mouth will be a little more rapid and tight – but not always.

One of the behaviours I was asked about recently was the meaning of yawning in a horse. Most people see a horse yawning and immediately think he is relaxed. But this is not necessarily true. Some horses will yawn long slow and deep yawns suggesting he is letting down his anxiety. But others present with sharp and short yawns due to shallow breathing brought on by a horse’s stress. Then there are some horses that will present with persistent and repeated yawning that often indicates anxiety.

But it’s not only a horse’s body language that can vary in interpretation. There is a view among some horse people that when a person looks squarely at a horse, the horse interprets it as a threatening posture. I have even heard it said that a person should not wear sunglasses when around horses because horses are threatened by the dark eyes constantly staring at them. I know people who don’t even look at the their horse when they approach to rub them. They turn half away and look down in what is supposed to be a submissive posture. Apparently, horses don’t like people walk straight up to them.

I have to say I find this all very confusing and in practical terms a bit silly.

In my view body language is the most important form of communication we share with our horses. They use it to talk to us and we use it to talk to them. Being acutely aware in the subtleties of how our horses and we use body language is fundamental to be good with horses. And this is where I think the whole understanding of particular behaviours goes wrong.

I believe that any specific behaviour or posture is difficult to interpret on its own. A horse that is licking or chewing may be licking and chewing for various reasons and its meaning may be equally varied. In my opinion, it is best to examine the licking in chewing in the context of other behaviours and not in isolation. Almost never does a horse or human show their inner feelings by only one form of behaviour. When a horse is anxious, submissive, relaxed etc there will be multiple ways of expressing those emotions. Not just one. If a horse is licking and chewing and its ears are busy and/or its head is a little high and/or it won’t look at you and/or it can’t stand quietly, then you can probably be sure it is displaying telltale signs of anxiety. But if a horse is licking and chewing and has a soft posture and/or you can direct his focus easily and/or his mind seems alert, but quiet, then the horse is probably feeling quite mellow. You could include just about any other behaviour you wish to think of that we have been told is a sure sign of something about a horse’s emotions. None of them exist in isolation. They all need to be considered in context before assigning a meaning to them.

This is just as true of the body language of people too. A person can approach a horse while looking directly with both eyes in a way that is comforting to a horse and in another way that a horse takes to be threatening. It’s in the energy and intent we present to the horse. It’s not in the fact of whether or not we are looking at our horse or walking to him with square shoulders. Horses are not that stupid. Horses know by seeing the whole picture whether or not we are in a fighting or loving mood. Otherwise, since every person has their ears permanently pinned back, horses would always think we were cranky at them all the time.

It’s great to be aware of everything a horse shows us about how it feels and what it is thinking. But interpreting those behaviours is not simple and cannot be relied upon if you are only to look at each of them in isolation. Each behaviour should be interpreted in the context of the other behaviours a horse presents. As I said, horses are chatterboxes, but sometime we only pick up on the odd phrase or two and miss the whole story.



Creating Music For The Kur

This might be of interest to people who ever wondered how they choreographed and organised music for the dressage our.


Warming Up A Horse

Today I want to talk about the “warm up” thing. Over the past several clinics the subject of warming up a horse has come up several times. I have even seen it discussed on some other trainers sites lately about the importance of stretching and warming up a correctly. I get the impression that warming up a horse is often done because people hear they are suppose to do it and have very little understanding of why or when it is important and when it is irrelevant.

Let me say that doing warm up exercise is never going to do harm. There is no reason to believe that it is a bad thing. But for most of us it probably does not offer many advantages.

The purpose of performing warming up exercises is to increase blood flow to muscle beds. Muscles are moving machines. They have muscle fibres that pass across the surface of each other during contraction through chemical reactions. This takes energy which is derived from oxygen and nutrients that are supplied by blood to the site where the work is being done. In addition the mechanical work of the muscle fibres produces metabolic waste products and heat that need to be shunted away from the site and dealt with largely by the kidneys, lungs and liver. So the idea of warming up a horse is to increase the flow of blood to the muscle beds in preparation for the increased amount of work they will perform during exercise. For most people warming a horse up consists of either mild exercise or stretches or both.

I should say that the way the body distributes blood flow to various parts of the body is dynamic. It constantly changes. Because the flow is driven by the nervous system in response to the bodies needs, changes happen very quickly. Think about the times when you have tried to stand up quickly and felt dizzy but didn’t fall. The postural change in standing up left a deficit in blood pressure that supplied blood to the brain. But within a second or so the body was alerted to the problem and fixed it so that you only suffered light-headedness. It is because the body can compensate so quickly to increases in demand for blood flow where it is needed that lengthy warming up of our horses is redundant for most of us.

But most people misunderstand “warming up.” They think that by riding their horse or lunging their horse they are asking a horse to do strenuous exercise. In reality most horses are sufficiently prepared for the work most riders will ask of their horse just by walking them from the paddock to the arena. The majority of horses do not go from being saddled to instant strenuous exercise without some walking either from the paddock or to the mounting block or to walking to adjust the girth before mounting etc. The importance of warming up a horse is most urgent when a horse is asked for explosive exercise like racing horses or horses jumping very large obstacles. But most of only ask a horse to perform moderate exercise and jump modest jumps (1.5m or less)

Yet I see so many riders spend 15min or so walking their horse around in order to warm it up for a 30min session of walk, trot and canter in the arena. I came across a web site today that described 30mins of warm up exercises for 20mins of training. Even a racehorse is only lightly walked before having to perform perhaps the most physically strenuous exercise any horse is asked.

But let me get onto the topic that is most bothering me about the aspect of the warming up process that some people use. A lot of people have told me they like to warm up their horse for several minutes before beginning to work with their horse. By work they have meant, “asking anything of their horse.”

I have said many times that training is all about directing a horse’s thought. And I want to stress that a horse’s brain is not a muscle. A brain does not have moving parts. Even when it is working its hardest the brain does not need warming up. I don’t remember when I sat exams at university that the first few questions were not part of the test because the professor just offered them as “warm up” questions. If I ask a person their 3 times multiplication table do I need to warm their brain up with the 2 times table first? I don’t think so.

Therefore, it’s not okay to let a horse lose focus or be distracted or not be soft and responsive to your aids just because you are warming it up and have not yet begun the “proper work.” Yet more than once in the past few weeks I have heard from riders that they are just warming their horse up before they starting the session. When I pointed out some things about their horse that I felt needed addressing, it seemed less important to the rider than warming their horse up. A lady was lunging her horse at a clinic and it was very counter balanced. When I brought this to her attention she said, “Yeah I know, but I’m just warming her up first.” To me this is a completely bizarre concept. How does a horse know that it’s okay to ignore a rider and straightness doesn’t matter during the warm up, but know to get it’s act together when the real training begins? Where does this idea come from?

As I said, it’s okay if you want to physically warm up your horse with light exercise and stretches before starting the more strenuous aspect of a workout – if that’s what you want. Most horses don’t need it, but it does no harm. But it’s not okay to let the mental and emotional part of the training fall apart just because a person wants to physically warm a horse up.

Last year in Minnesota I showed the type of stretching exercises I get to do at several clinics.

flying Ross