I was lucky to have been born into a horse-loving family. My mom was an English rider with a passion for dressage, and my dad was a cowboy and a farrier who worked on ranches and Thoroughbred farms. So there was lots of diversity at the dinner table, where we had many unique conversations about how to solve problems with particular horses and plenty of discussions about what we do.
I started out as an English rider and became a working cowboy when I left school at 14 to live the life of Louis L’Amour. At the Quilchena Cattle Company in British Columbia, I lived in a cow camp with six cowboys, a dozen dogs and a cook. Working cattle every day from the back of a horse was a dream come true.
Along the way I received guidance from many wonderful mentors of every stripe. In fact, my passion for teaching horsemanship developed because I see so many people running into challenges with their horses, and I feel that it is my responsibility to assist others as I was helped. But beyond that, I also find it incredibly rewarding to see people achieve successes, and I love to go out there and help folks understand how to handle their horses better.
I teach riders of all disciplines and of all levels. So often, I discover, the essential problem boils down to teaching the horse to look at us, their handlers, first as an ally and a friend, and second, as a leader. Instead, I find too many horses who are seeking leadership from their herdmates, rather than their handler, or relying on their own instincts. A horse whose handler doesn’t provide leadership will fall back into three major instinctive patterns: flight, fight or freeze.
• Flight mode is when a horse becomes spooky, oversensitive and herd-bound.
• Fight mode is what happens when a horse cannot flee. Instead, he’ll run into pressure and push against the bit.
• Freeze mode is another self-defense mechanism that people often don’t understand very well. A horse who freezes locks up his body and pent-up emotions until suddenly it all explodes out. This is the horse who seems to buck out of nowhere. Or the horse might seem to be standing quietly but then all of a sudden he violently pulls back.
The goal when playing with horses is to get them past these instincts to the point where they look first to their people for comfort and leadership. We want our horses to be connected, sensitive and focused on us for the answers.
After that, one of the first things we need to do—aside from any specific exercise, task or goal we might have—is to teach our horses how to learn.
I once had a horse in Wellington, Florida, who was so pent-up from confinement after a surgery on his leg that his handlers couldn’t hand-walk him as requested by the veterinarian. Anytime they tried, the horse would just explode and break away. Even with two people holding onto him with chains, he would rear and risk reinjury.
In desperation, they asked me to help this beautiful jumper. And I thought, I want to hand-walk him and I want him to do it quietly and I want him to dissipate some of this energy, but I can’t let him run or trot, so I am going to teach him to become trainable. Teach him to learn.
There was a board at the edge of the stall, so I stood at the door, and I taught him to put his foot on the edge. First his left foot, then his right foot, then his left again. We built up a conversation and a dialogue, and in about 20 minutes, we had reached the point where I could bring him out of the stall into the barn alley.
We headed down the aisle, and each time he started to get worked up I would just head somewhere and ask him to put his foot on something, and he would get right back to thinking again. On our way out of the barn, he started to become reactionary, so I went to the edge of the lawn and had him put his foot on the wooden lawn edger between the gravel and the grass. We finished our short walk with no further incidents.
This simple concept—of teaching a horse to become teachable before we worry about any specific exercise—is so important. I share this idea with people every day. Once we’ve created an open mind in a horse, we build on that to go on to all kinds of exercises: flying lead changes, loading into a horse trailer, picking up feet. Because, really, all the lessons begin to weave together, and they are all connected like a web once you start to build this partnership and a trusting communication with a horse.
I have had a lifetime with horses, but for many years when I was young, I was “only a rider.” Eventually I started to think about what it meant to be a true horseman. This has nothing to do with any particular discipline. Instead it is about trying to know everything about the horse and doing the best we can by him with regard to care and training—and then focusing on becoming better riders and better leaders.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #443, August 2014.