Wednesday, November 10, 2010


by Laura Crum

I have a friend who regards herself as a perpetual student of horsemanship. (Uhmm, I guess it might be more accurate to describe her as a friendly acquaintance.) She goes to lots of clinics, takes lessons from various trainers, puts her long suffering horse in training from time to time…you get the picture. I am not going to comment here on whether I think all this “learning” is improving her horsemanship. Its debatable, in my eyes. But that’s not my topic.

This gal used to try to convince me to watch her newest, latest, and greatest video by yet another trendy clinician, or even go to a clinic with her. For the last ten years, since I quit training and competing, I’ve been hugely uninterested in this stuff, and she just doesn’t get it. “Don’t you want to keep learning?” she asks, and I can tell by her tone and expression that she thinks it would be an unfathomable sin for me to say, “no.”

So, I don’t say no. But I am stymied by what to say. Because what I really think she wouldn’t understand, and I don’t seem to have the skill to explain it to her. Thus, I am going to attempt to explain what I feel on this subject here, and perhaps you all can give me some feedback on whether I got my point across.

This “friend” knows me from the days when I used to train and compete, and she can’t understand why I gave it up and am uninterested in it now. She doesn’t see how I can be satisfied by peaceful, uneventful rides through the hills with my son, on our two steady, reliable trail horses. She can’t comprehend that all the cow work I am doing is just gathering the roping cattle and putting them through the chutes, as well as teaching my kid to work a cow (in the most rudimentary and relaxed way) on his retired team roping horse. She thinks I ought to want to do more.

The truth is that I don’t want to do more, but I am learning. I am just not learning things she would understand or value. And I am not learning “techniques” or even concepts from some other clever human, I am learning from my horses and the world around me.

I am learning how not to be in a hurry, how not to have goals that are more complicated than completing the ride we’re currently on. I am learning to watch a horse, or a hawk, and understand what I am seeing. I am learning to pay attention to the little things, and comprehend the language of animals…and plants and clouds. I am learning to be peaceful, and to interact with my horses in a way that’s rewarding for both of us. My horses like to be ridden, now that our rides are not stressful or too demanding. They meet me at the gate when I go to catch them. And I get ready to ride without that old anxious knot in my stomach. That knot was so familiar and constant that I took it for granted. It was part of working with horses, I thought. But guess what? Its gone. Now that I’ve taken the pressure off myself and them.

Am I learning new things? Yes. I am constantly amazed at how much my horses and I connect now, how much they obviously like me, how much information we can share. My horses always seemed fond of me, but there is a whole new dimension to this when the horse trusts that he is not going to be asked to do something he is heartily sick and tired of doing. Suddenly the partnership has a genuinely two-way feel. I am still the boss, but my horses throw in willingly with me because they like and understand our “work”. They would rather be ridden than not.

I am learning the ways of our trails, their moods at all seasons. I am finding the small ponds in the hills, and learning what the frogs have to say, as well as how many days it takes the muddy slope to dry out enough to be ridable after a rain. I am learning what my horses think as they take in the world around them. I discovered that Sunny thinks a coyote pup is interesting, not scary, and that both Sunny and Henry are far more eager to go out on a trail ride than to walk through the gate to the arena.

Are my horses and I learning new tricks? No. We don’t need new tricks. We’re happy observing the woods and weather and loping along with our friends. This is a joy to us all, and we don’t need more.

If my friend enjoys her clinics and her training and her “learning”, that’s great for her. I don’t think her horse is enjoying his life quite as much as my horses are enjoying their lives, but certainly she’s not torturing the poor critter. I’m not putting her down. I’m simply saying there’s more than one way of learning. I spent many many years pursuing the form of learning “horsemanship” that my friend is interested in, and there is definitely merit in it. But there are other ways of learning to be with horses, and it is those ways I’m exploring now. To be fair, I might not have the tools to explore this new way of learning had I not spent many years learning from trainers who were more accomplished horsemen than I was. So formal “learning” had its place in my education. Its just not the place I’m in right now.

I don’t know how to explain this to my “friend” when she hands me yet another clinician’s video. Perhaps I’m getting a little testy. Last time I said, “It ain’t about videos. At least for me.” And I don’t think she got that at all. Any suggestions?

I do understand that many horses enjoy their work and their “training”, particularly if the rider is knowledgable and sensitive to the horse’s feelings. My two little “bombproof” geldings are essentially lazy, intelligent horses who prefer a walk in the woods and a look at different country to repetitive work in the arena (they both used to be team roping horses). That there are horses who have other preferences, I’m well aware. That there are riders who don’t enjoy trail riding and prefer the challenges of more formal arena work, I’m also aware. Certainly for many years (like almost twenty years) I trained and competed fairly relentlessly at cutting and then team roping. So I really get that space. I’m just not in it now.

Again, I’m not trying to “dis” formal learning through lessons and/or videos—I think it has its place. I’m trying to explain that there are other ways of learning and interacting with horses that can be equally positive and rewarding. What’s your opinion on this subject?


Mrs. Mom said...

1st sentence, I thought- shoot, that could be ANY of us! But... not so much after reading further.

I feel bad for the folks who don't get the idea/ concept that you can indeed learn more from your horse (and your surroundings) than constantly attending clinics etc.

That's a priceless education right there IMO.

How to tell her though? I don't think there IS a way to tell her Laura, that she'll understand. Folks like that seem to think that the only source of knowledge comes from other people and not the critters they share space with.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Mrs Mom. You got my point exactly. I think your last paragraph says it all.

Shanster said...

I think whatever you enjoy doing, that is what you do.

I've never really understood people who push their ideas. I understand a friendly invite to watch a current DVD a couple times but when the answer is obviously no, I don't understand the constant pushing or sleeve tugging to do something a person isn't interested in.

I absolutely understand where you are at and I think it's wonderful. There are hundreds of ways we enjoy our horses...

Anonymous said...

I've been where your acquaintance is, so I can sort of remember how that was and can understand where she's coming from. But I'm in a different place now.

I think sometimes people have to be ready to learn from their horses, rather than just learning techniques to apply to horses. I think technique is much overrated - paying attention to the horse and building the relationship is much more important, as is the recognition of how individual each horse is and how we have to adapt what we do to each horse. Maybe she'll get there in her own time, and maybe she won't.

That said, I do some stuff that could be called "work" with my horses, particularly if there's an issue that needs to be addressed, but I try to make it creative and fun, although I do sometimes get that knot in my stomach - mostly lack of confidence I guess. And I do attend clinics with one horseman - Mark Rashid - because every time I do I learn more from him about how to listen to, and "be", with horses. The first couple of years I rode with Mark all I could absorb was the technique parts but I'm working to broaden my approach beyond that.

I don't know if that makes any sense at all!

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--Yes! There are so many different ways to enjoy horses and lots and lots of them are good. Why then do so many folks go out of their way to try to convert others to their own way of thinking? I may not be a student of or particularly enamored with "natural horsemanship", but if its working for you and your horse, I have no wish to rain on your parade. I have totally never offered the "friend" mentioned in the blog post any suggestions that she do as I do, which makes me wonder why she feels so free to "encourage" me to behave as she does.

Kate--You always make good sense. and congratulations on choosing and buying Pie--he looks like a dandy. I enjoy your posts about him.

I really like the way you put this: "I think technique is much overrated--paying attention to the horse and building the relationship is much more important, as is the recognition of how individual each horse is and how we have to adapt what we do to each horse." Amen to that. The "smacking around" that my horse Sunny wants and needs from time to time would be an absolute disaster if applied to my horse Plumber. And Twister, my boarder, is a horse that you can't even raise your voice to without going backward. They are all very different, and no one method or technique works on them all. You have to pay attention to the horse that's in front of you.

Gayle Carline said...

I'm in the unique position here of being in training. I've been with the same trainer since I started riding 12 years ago (I was 45 and had never been on a horse). Training is important to me because one of my horses does compete in AQHA trail. I trust my trainer implicitly. She treats all her horses well and works with each client to pull their best from them.

It was important to me to be with a trainer because, in addition to not knowing how to ride, I had no knowledge of how to be safe around a horse, how to read their body language, etc. I needed to learn technique just as a language to start communicating with horses in general. Now that I know more, I can relax and learn about my horse directly, as well as from my trainer's coaching.

That being said, I would PROBABLY not run from clinic to clinic if I wasn't with a trainer. I need consistency, and I think my horse does, too. As long as a technique is not abusive, you need to work it long enough to know whether it's useful.

Anonymous said...

Well, if I wasn't a perpetual student of the horse I wouldn't have read this blog yesterday. But I think it's easy to forget the reason for learning, and that is to make your horse's life better.

I've owned, ridden, shown and been in training for years. Now I'm newly retired and want to go back to my original reason for having a horse, to go out trail riding, to be able to relax and feel safe on a good horse. I haven't ridden much in the last 3 years, and now I have a 4 yr old green horse (I know bad choice), and I have a young trainer working with him. I have to keep telling her it's ok to let him relax and pack her around. He got lucky in life, he got me. He gets to be relaxed and just learn to carry me.

It seems like the whole clinic thing is about creating a language between people, and I won't argue with the value of that. But for me that's not really what it's all about, it's really just about the horse and making their jobs easier and their lives better. Being outside a pen is the best way I know to experience real horsemanship.

Laura Crum said...

redhorse--You sound just like me. I totally second everything you said in your comment. And yes, in a sense, I, too, am a perpetual student of horsemanship because I keep on learning about what works for my horses (and me) and how we can have happier lives together. Thanks for a very insightful comment.

Gayle--I have complete respect for a person such as yourself who is training and competing in a reasonable, thoughtful way with the good of her horse at heart. Its a path I was on for many years and I learned a lot from it. As for the clinics, I think people can learn about horses from such things--I just think they can also learn in other ways. And learning to be a horseman takes time, whichever path you're on. There are lots of good paths, and it sounds to me like you're on one.

horsegenes said...


It is like get unwanted email... just hit the delete button. You aren't going to be able to curb what comes out of her mouth any more than you can control the wind. Answer her questions with a question... When she asks you "Don't you want to keep learning? Say "What makes you think that I am not still learning?" When she suggests a clinic or video ask her "What do say about trail riding?" Of course I can be a complete and total smart ass without feeling any remorse at all. That approach isn't for everyone.

Laura Crum said...

kel--I wish I were more like you. I tend to avoid the situation/person/confrontation, and then, if cornered once too often, I snap, and say something truly testy (and heartfelt). Then I feel bad and stew about it--I don't actually mean to be hurtful--its just that I don't like folks pushing my boundries. It would be much better if I could just be a smartass and not worry about it. I like your approach. But I never think of the right smartass thing to say until later.

horsegenes said...

laura - be careful of what you wish for... sometimes my alligator mouth overloads my chickadee ass!

Anonymous said...

I'd say print this post out and mail it to her.....

kippen64 said...

But you are constantly improving your horses. Every time you get on a horse, it improves or it grows worse. Yours are improving but just not in ways that your friend understands. You could tell her that you are fine tuning your horses to do the jobs that they have now, and that you are not interested in giving them new jobs, although you do appreciate her interest in the matter.

Anonymous said...

This may not be a horse-y issue as much as a personality trait. Some people need to have everyone agree with what they are doing in order to validate their chosen path.

One of the wonders of horses is that there are so many ways to enjoy them. Ruling out abuse, there is no "wrong" style, IMO.

It sounds to me like your focus has changed greatly since your son arrived...and that you've found a way to combine your love for him and your love of horses. Perfect for you, maybe not this friend. I agree with the others that you'll probably never be able to explain it to her...


Laura Crum said...

stillearning--Good to hear from you--I always enjoy your insights. You are right that my focus has changed since I had my son. And you are also right that what I do would probably not work for many--too low key, not much excitement, no challenge. To each his own, exactly as you say. Since I have no wish to encourage others to emulate me, I am stymied by those who try to "push" their agenda. "This is what good horsemanship is" and the like of that. I agree with you. If you are not abusing the horse and your method is making you happy then its fine.

kippen64--I don't see myself as "improving" my horses, but in a sense, I understand what you mean. Our partnership is working for us and continues to work well--I think these solid horses have taught me as much as I've taught them. Its a real joy to have a horse you can trust, and they are that. (Mind you, I still dot the i's--I'm a very cautious, thoughtful horseperson.) Nonetheless, these horses do take care of us, and I'm aware of that. You're right. I don't want to teach them new jobs--I'm happy with how well they do the job I bought them for.

Anonymous said...

Laura, I'm one of those who'll pick up a book or maybe watch a video, because over the years I've found that I can learn new pieces useful in my daily work without picking up on someone's program completely. I'll also learn things I don't want to do from that.

But it's a personality thing. Even when I used to rent trail horses, I'd want to school a little bit. But I always like leaving the horse moving a little bit better at the end of a session than at the beginning.

Personality thing. If I were younger I'd probably be an eventer.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--For me, I think, its almost a "rebound" thing. I loved trail riding as a teenager, and then, in my twenties, I moved into a space where I was just obsessed with learning to train and compete on first cowhorses, then cutting horses, then team roping horses. This phase lasted twenty years. It probably contributed to the demise of my first marriage. I rode (and trained) every day. I hauled jillions of miles to get to yet another practice and/or competition. I took lots of lessons; I worked as an assistant to half a dozen trainers (and you probably know how intense that can be). I spent A LOT of money that I really didn't have to spend. I put a lot of pressure on myself and my horses. I won some stuff; I trained some good horses. I was probably the main trainer/rider for at least a hundred young horses. But by the time I gave it all up (at 40, more or less), I had reached a place of burn out. And when I took up riding horses again with my young son, all urge to train and compete was totally absent (I even hate hauling, though I do it.) So I think, for me, I'm suffering a little bit from having been too obsessed with training and learning and competing.

Jami Davenport said...

Laura, I'm torn between wanting to do what you're now doing with horses and wanting to continue to do dressage. I completely understand where you're coming from. I also know someday in the future, I'll be right where you are and enjoying every minute of it.

Anonymous said...

Laura, I think you're exactly right about what causes your feelings, and given your history, there's no question about it being the thing to do for you.

For me, honestly, I don't know if I would have reacted the same way with the same background, but it is really hard to say. A lot has to do with temperament.

(Interestingly, apparently Mocha was practicing reined cowhorse moves on the pony mule at the barn. What on earth is going through that horse's mind?)

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--Doesn't Mocha have cowhorse bloodlines? I seem to remember this. I have certainly seen many horses of cowhorse breeding "choose" to work cows, ponies, young horses...etc while loose in the pasture, even if they've had no formal training in this area. Its bred into them. Have you ever worked Mocha on a cow?

Anonymous said...

Laura--yes, you remember correctly, Mocha has Doc O'Lena and Gay Bar King bloodlines both top and bottom. I like to joke that she channels great-great grandma (several times over) Poco Lena sometimes.

I'd love to put her to cows sometime, but just haven't had the opportunity. Don't have my own truck and trailer, for one, for another, not many chances in this part of Oregon.