by Laura Crum
Lately I’ve been reading some interesting blog posts about “lightness” in a horse and the general subject of communication between horse and rider. I’ve heard some neat ideas—and I have some thoughts of my own to offer today. What follows may not be a concept that most will agree with, but I’m not shy about bringing up controversial subjects, because I believe the discussion that sometimes results can be very productive. So here goes: In my experience it is sometimes the very concept of “training” and often the agenda that goes with a “horse trainer” that gets in the way of the communication and harmony we are trying to achieve with our horses.
Now I’ve spent many, many years in the company of horse trainers, and learned a lot from them. And then some of it I had to unlearn. I’d venture to say that at this point in my life I get along with my horses better and “read” them better than I ever have in my life. And a lot of what I do now is quite contrary to what those horse trainers taught me. But there’s plenty that I owe to them. Today I want to discuss the process of outgrowing a “training” mindset, and what that can sometimes do to improve communication between horse and rider.
My own path has gone like this: I rode for many years in my youth without instruction and learned to be comfortable with my horses and get along with them. I did many things that some might consider ambitious—jumping, trail riding for long hours in rough country by myself, galloping across big open fields, riding bareback…etc. All of it—my ability to stay on, my degree of relaxation, my ability to communicate with the horse-- just evolved and was largely instinctual. Eventually I decided I wanted to compete, and in my 20’s I got very passionate about cowhorses, and I began to take lessons from and then work for various cowhorse and cutting horse trainers. I learned enough to be able to competently train a horse on my own. I progressed as a horseman. In some ways, anyway.
Here’s what actually happened. You be the judge. The very first cowhorse competition I ever entered, I was 19 and I rode one of my uncle’s rope horses, who was a pretty good cowhorse in a very workmanlike way. This was a ranch cowhorse class, which, in those days, meant that you did the cow work portion of a bridle horse class and not the dry work. Which was a good thing, because my rope horse mount could no more have done the dry work than he could have flown to the moon. But he would work a cow.
Now, I didn’t take any lessons to prepare for this class. My sole bit of knowledge came from watching a few bridle horse classes in the past and practicing at home in the roping arena. My lack of experience cannot be overstated. I really knew nothing. I had entered in our local county fair, there was a buckle up for first place and at least twenty entries, some of whom were riding pretty fancy horses. I had no prayer of placing, realistically.
I won the class. (If you don’t believe me, say so, and I’ll post a photo of the buckle.) It was the first buckle I had ever won, the first cowhorse class I had ever competed in, and I was hooked. I wanted to learn everything about this wonderful sport, and I wanted to do lots more of it.
(If you are wondering why I won—and a few other people wondered that at the time—the answer is simple. The judge was a rancher who was looking for a horse you’d actually like to use on a ranch, and the fancier turns that some of the other horses made did not impress him as much as the solid way my horse worked. My focus was simply on getting the job done. I also drew a good cow. When a gal riding an ex-bridle horse protested at the placing, the judge’s response was “I’d rather have that roan son of a bitch than your flashy black mare on my ranch any day, so that’s how I placed em.”)
Anyway, from this beginning I went on to work for half a dozen cowhorse and cutting horse trainers and I learned a lot. I also unlearned a lot. I was taught to sit deep, rather than the somewhat forward stance I’d evolved from riding with ropers; I was taught training techniques I’d never heard of, and then techniques that were the exact opposite of the first techniques; I used fairly severe bits and training devices that were all new to me and eventually became old hat, and I competed for ten years and only won one other buckle. Oh, I placed and won various awards, but I did not become any kind of superstar in competition. During this time I started at least fifty colts myself and helped train probably a hundred others. I was definitely getting a lot of experience with horse training.
Eventually I got burned out on judged competition, for a whole lot of reasons that I’ve written about before so won’t belabor now. I started competing at team roping (a timed event) and I trained quite a few horses to be competent team roping horses, using the techniques I’d learned from the cowhorse and cutting horse people and combining them with the knowledge I had of roping and rope horses. I made some pretty nice horses. Two of which (now retired) are still living with me (and sound). I’m pretty proud of what I accomplished. But at a certain point I was ready to be done training horses. I didn’t want the stress, I didn’t want to get hurt (too old to take the rough knocks), and--I’m finally getting to my point—I was kind of sick of the whole “training” process.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a definite need for horse trainers and horse training—but there’s a downside, too. When you are training a horse you are perpetually in the “teacher” role with that horse. The dialogue goes something like this. “No, I want you to depart in this lead, not that one.” “No, you need to check when I pull on the reins, not raise your head and bull forward harder.” “Yes, that’s right, that’s what I wanted,” (appropriate release/reward). Even when you take your young/green horse for a trail ride, you are teaching him the behavior you want. “Just relax, its not that scary, yes, you must walk by that bush…etc”. There is an adversarial aspect to this because your student isn’t always keen to learn every aspect of the job you are teaching him, especially when certain things are genuinely difficult to do and require effort and hard work. Thus horse training, though it can be very rewarding, can also be stressful for both horse and rider.
There’s another problem, too. Horse training requires that the “trainer” be constantly “telling” the horse what is wanted. And this is a two-edged sword. If a person gets too deeply absorbed in this mindset, virtually all his/her riding time becomes a “lesson”—both for themselves and the horse. And a lot of the joy, as well as the intuitive communication, can go out of the process. And, as I was starting to see, this “trainer” attitude can, at a certain point, actually take a horse backwards.
What do I mean by this? Well, let me give you an example. A certain older man who rode with our small group of ropers considered himself to be a trainer. He frequently gave advice –both to those who asked and those who didn’t—on how to re-train rope horses in order to make them better “broke”. It wasn’t lost on me that those who tried to follow this advice almost always ended up with horses that did not work as well as they had previous to the re-training. It wasn’t that the advice was so much wrong, as I came to see. It was more that the horses didn’t need training.
So this was my first sticking point. I was tired of this trainer mindset: “You need to keep improving, both yourself and your horse. Take lessons, keep training, even on a broke horse.” I could see that this didn’t really work. I knew I was sick of the ego involved in that point of view. But what was the alternative?
I have to admit, I stumbled upon the answer more by chance and laziness (and maybe instinct/intuition) than by any logical progression. Sick of trainers and training young horses and the whole training mindset, I bought two broke horses for my son and myself to trail ride and just went to enjoying them. I absolutely did not “train” on them in any way. They both knew their job; they both had their idiosyncracies. I devoted myself to meeting them in the middle. I expected them to do the job I had for them and to be obedient; I did not pick on them about unimportant details or try to retrain them. I respected them as competent partners who could do the work I had—and didn’t demean them by treating them like colts. And I achieved a very different relationship with them than what I had had with the horses I trained.
As I said, this situation arose partly from my own laziness. But another factor was all the harm I had seen done by trying to re-train broke horses. The older man I mentioned above was the catalyst who taught me this very important lesson. He would buy a broke, competent rope horse and immediately go to retraining the animal. Most rope horses tend to carry themselves a little rigidly (its helpful in the job they have to do), they like to lope in the left lead (they need to be in this lead to make the turn on a roping run), and they are often a bit high headed. This man would take a twelve year old horse that was a solid competitive horse, put a snaffle bit on him and try to correct these “faults”. He would insist the horse “give” his head, lope in the right lead…etc. Some horses accepted this (eventually) and learned to do these things the guy wanted. Some became more and more frustrated and eventually blew up. You couldn’t even rope on them any more. But all of them grew far less confident as rope horses and began having problems they hadn’t had before. It was easy to see that the “retraining” had undermined their confidence in themselves and their understanding of their job. Overall, no matter what it achieved, it was a negative for them emotionally.
My own approach became very different. It was based on respect for a horse that could do a competent job. With my two bombproof trail horses (who were ex team roping horses), if they wanted to lope in the left lead, I just loped to the left. I let them pack their heads how they wanted, as long as they went where I told them. I made no effort to tune up their rather lazy responses to cues for a turn on the haunches in the arena. I insisted on obedience—if we said lope, they were to lope. If we said cross the creek, they were to cross. But as long as they were obedient, solid, safe riding horses, I did not correct them to speak of on technical details. And I was absolutely amazed at the harmony we achieved.
These horses very soon made it clear that they WOULD meet me in the middle. Many of their small negative behaviors simply fell away. They became very relaxed and their degree of reliability, always high, just went up and up. They trusted us and they were confident in themselves and what their job was. They faced any situation that came up out riding with their confidence intact. We seldom argued about anything. My palomino gelding (Sunny) went from a horse my friend called “Small Nasty” to a horse he admitted was a really nice cooperative citizen. And all these good things came about from a LACK of “training.”
I have read some interesting things on other horse blogs (Horse Genes, Mugwump Chronicles, A Year With Horses, Hick Chic—all listed on the sidebar—to name just the posts I happened to see) about “lightness” and I find it fascinating that Sunny and I have achieved a certain sort of “lightness”, albeit not what most people mean by that, through our non-training approach. Sunny is not light in the bridle, he is a clunky mover in many ways, and he just ain’t technically “light”. But this tough minded little guy has become such a willing partner on the trail that when I approach an obstacle, say some rock and logs that we must cross, I can think “the left side looks easier” and the horse will make for that spot. Virtually every time. I am riding him on a loose rein, in a hackamore, and the most I ever have to do is touch the opposite side of his neck with that slack rein and the horse is right where I want him. In that sense, on the trail, he is light. He somehow “hears” my thought and aligns himself with my intent. We work together almost without a physical cue.
There has been quite a bit of discussion in the comments on other blogs about how this sort of “lightness” can be achieved, and I can say that in my particular case it came about through my non training approach. This approach can be boiled down to 1) respect what the horse knows, and 2) remain in charge. In short, though I don’t pick on my savvy old horses about unimportant details, I also don’t brook any insubordination. I remain the boss. Most of the problems with broke horses arise (in my opinion) from over “training” and/or by not staying in charge (not being a good leader). There is a very big difference between allowing a rope horse who is uncomfortable in the right lead to lope in the left lead, and letting that same lazy horse refuse to pick up the lope on your cue. There is an equal difference between “listening” when your trail horse lets you know that a section of trail or obstacle looks/feels dangerous to him, and allowing a horse to balk at an obstacle and refuse it—particularly one you know is safe. (For those who want to know, in the first case the horse sends the message “I’m worried about this but I’ll do it if you tell me to.” In the second case the horse sends the message “I don’t want to do this and I’m refusing." Two different messages.)
Now I am the first to say this non-training approach is not going to work in all situations. Young horses need to be taught to do their job. Horses with a dangerous, problem behavior need retraining, if possible. But a great many older horses really benefit from being met in the middle this way, given a job they understand and are let to do, without being picked on (otherwise known as trained on). So now I want to go back to the statement I made at the beginning of the post.
If you have a green horse, you may need help training him. If you have a problem with your horse, you may need help training him. If you want to compete successfully in a certain event, you may need help from a trainer who is experienced at that event. But if your horse is doing the job you need him to do, you may want to consider not messing with success. You may want to resist that trainer/horseman who is so sure you need to “teach” that old pony to take his right lead, or give his head. You may want to think twice about the advice to take your solid older horse and put that snaffle bit on him and treat him like a colt. Because that approach, in my experience, is more likely to send you backward then forward, and is very capable of giving you problems that you don’t currently have.
Sometimes you’re better off just to enjoy what your horse can do and simply ride him with an uncluttered mind (thanks Kate), focusing on getting the job done (whatever your job is), and not always trying to “perfect” or improve your horse’s performance. Sometimes “training” can get in the way of that intuitive communication that results in “lightness.”
(One example of this that happened for me was when -in the midst of my training days- I began riding a broke rope horse I had not trained myself. This was Flanigan. Flanigan had certain strengths and faults, as all horses do, and just as I have done with my trail horses, I simply met him in the middle and tried to get along. I insisted he do his job--every horse will need the occasional reminder-- but I didn’t sweat over or try to correct his minor peculiarities. I considered him a “made” horse and I knew darn well that he understood a good deal more about the job of team roping than I did. I certainly didn’t try to “train” him in any way. We achieved an extremely harmonious partnership, and in some ways I was able to work with Flanigan more easily than the horses I had trained myself. Why? Because I wasn’t in “trainer” mindset with him. I wasn’t trying to be his teacher. And he wasn’t relating to me as the trainer/teacher. I was the boss, yes. Not the trainer. It made a subtle but important difference in how we communicated. The funny thing was that my friend, Wally, riding Gunner, a horse I had trained, found Gunner to be amazingly light, responsive and “in his hand”—but then, he didn’t train him. He just roped on him.)
So there’s my insight on lightness/communication. Sometimes its best not to train—just ride. This isn’t going to be helpful in all situations, but if you, like me, are riding a broke horse in the double digits, I think its worth contemplating a little. (And Terri, when you talked about the difference between the horses you rode in Africa and your show horses at home, I am thinking this is where some of the difference comes from. What do you think? )
I know a lot of people will probably disagree with the statements I’ve made in this post, and I am very happy to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to state your own approach to this subject in the comments.