Friday’s Opinion

This summer has provided a wonderful opportunity to focus on some of the farm-owned horses at Halcyon Acres. We shipped out the last Thoroughbred client horse at the end of May (with only a single talented older client horse remaining – a  non-TB therapy project) and had a couple of months before the next wave of starting under saddle horses began shipping in. That hiatus provided a great learning experience and an excuse to put full-focus on listening to the horse.  It’s been an enriching endeavor for both the humans and horses involved in this awakening.

Natural Horsemanship –Really?

There’s a whole lot of buzz – and controversy – going on right now about current popular horse training precepts. While much of the criticism is centered on one business entity (and that corporate mentality is the problem – whether horsemen once or not, much of the focus has turned away from the horse and horsemanship in deference to the marketing machine minds that now rule these profit centers), the hubbub isn’t the result of a single method (or individual). There has been a festering groundswell of distaste for messages that are being put out there that stop considering the horse (and the novices trying to establish an understanding and bond) and, instead, are designed to drive maximum traffic to products or services for sale. This is starting to backfire for some. The resulting conversation about the wisdom of formula approaches for equines should lead to a savvier human component and happier horses.

It’s not that tough to listen to the horse if you’re willing to patiently watch and learn how each communicates. This usually requires spending time with an open mind around a particular horse, or horses in general, to get a feel what they are trying to tell you. Some people have a natural talent for interpreting a horse’s messages. Still, every horse is different and few equines appreciate an inflexible, pre-determined and dictatorial game plan (and yes, pun intended, this applies to what some label as games too) that has the human calling all the shots and the horse reduced to begging for treats or tuning out to avoid torture. Novices (and some so-called professionals) rarely realize how much damage they can do when they get the urge to orchestrate training with rituals. Horses appreciate a routine they can count on, but I haven’t met any that enjoy a training regimen that ignores the horse’s input in the process.

This moniker has been hijacked from those who had a deep understanding about personally connecting with a horse and redefined and assigned to a branding strategy to create revenue from money makers that offer answers without regard for the horse. Sad.

Novice horse riders need better information

Novices aren’t to blame when they believe the messages they are inundated with that offer tips and tricks to “easily” go it alone without regard to their horse’s issues. Of course, these secrets are only revealed to those that pay $97 for a DVD or learn from someone certified through an expensive qualification process (where money trumps skill for the designation). It’s a crime that beginners are “blamed” by their selected cult leaders if things don’t work out for them “because they didn’t follow instructions”. People who claim they have a “one size fits all” solution for horse training are charlatans, in my opinion. It’s sad to see what happens to the people and horses that adhere to practices that expect the horse to “get with their program”.

There’s no exact science when it comes to working with green horses. The secret isn’t a method – it’s learning how to read each horse with a willingness to include them in the conversation.  It takes time and experience to get there. Those who continue to encourage novice riders to pair up with green horses because their silver bullet (available for cash, credit card or cleared check) provides a catch-all solution to any horse/human challenges should be called out, shunned and shut down. There’s no horsemanship left in the minds of these folks – only dollar signs. it’s unconscionable to put novices in such potentially dangerous situations that also damage the horse ‘s psyche – sometimes for life. It’s ironic that the current blame being put on so many for unwanted horses doesn’t seem to include some of the biggest remote contributors.

If your horse doesn’t beg for the opportunity to train (and this doesn’t mean doing tricks for treats), you’re doing something wrong.

Ask the horse what they want to do

Buster is special - here he is helping Carl enjoy a safe first ride alone.

The nice thing about schooling farm-owned horses (vs. client projects), is you can ask the horse what they want. Even young horses will tell you when they’re ready to begin working under saddle (and in the case here sometimes – way past ready to the point of getting frustrated that they don’t have a job). Watch, listen and then offer training as an activity (keeping it fun by including the horse in the conversation), and you might be amazed at how eager the horse is to work. Even better (provided you’ve developed a skill for reading a horse’s proclivities), you can be flexible and insightful as you set the foundation for a career path that a horse will enjoy.

We culled out three to train in earnest this summer. One was a four-year-old Irish Draught Sport Horse filly (Clover) that has been begging to go back to work. The second, a six-year-old Thoroughbred gelding (Cowboy), has been our go-to farm hand since the age of two and was showing signs of boredom. Play Play was our third selection, who was sidelined with a hock injury that resulted from a kick (she probably had it coming – she’s the only mare in the herd who is aggressive without cause – likely due to fear issues, but still, with this amiable herd, being nasty too often has a price).

Clover’s back in training (for the third time – shoemaker’s children) and loving it. We started this filly late in her three-year-old year, spent a little time on her this spring and have recently put her into a daily schooling routine. She, along with Cowboy, dismisses herself from the herd and is waiting at the gate at the scheduled time they come in for training.

Miss a training day with Clover now and she’ll let you know about her displeasure that day – and pay you back the next (she’s a character). Cowboy is so thrilled to be transitioning over to English and a direct rein vs. the Western riding that sometimes confused him. He’s relishing dressage and jumping work and eager to understand new requests. He’s a character too. He begs (to train, eat, move – whatever he wants that he’s not doing at the moment) by curling a front leg and will stand as a tripod until his wish is granted.

Speak up

It’s sad that some of the most celebrated equine “gurus” these days lost sight of their horsemanship and altruistic ways a long time ago. Most started with some decent ideas, accomplishments and intentions. The harm they’re doing to riders and horses now, though, with pat answers that include “I have a product to fix that horse,” is immense.

I’m not seeing a witch hunt, I’m seeing and industry correction. And it’s a good thing for the future of our horses and the people who love them.

Attacks won’t help the horses – nor the novices who have been buffaloed by the material they’re eager to soak up as gospel. Better guidance and solutions will. It’s time for those who operate with integrity in this industry to reach out to people who don’t know what they don’t know. Offer problem-solving tactics they can embrace and understand – including cautionary notes on marketing messages that appeal to their emotional drivers, but fail to reveal the truth. Be there as counsel to help those struggling with ideas to guide them with insight to reach their horse in a customized fashion. It’s time too, for industry players with character around the globe to align in a way that helps those thinking about a first horse purchase or stuck with a project beyond their abilities to reach out to people who can help – and really care.

Be a part of the solution

Who’d like to be a part of a free forum at Horse Sense and Cents (we may need to locate this on the BookConductors site, but we’ll offer a seamless link here) that offers novice riders and first-time hours buyers input from seasoned equine professionals for good strategies and decisions from the onset? Whether you’re an equine novice or professional, please share your ideas on how we can make this a useful resource. Feel free to e-mail me directly, comment on the blog or call (585) 554-4612 if this is something that appeals to you.

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