I almost, almost, got in a pissing contest with a reader from my last post. Her comments were just enough to put me on the defense. Instead, I thought them through, the same way I would a tough training problem.
Sometimes, a horse will come across as sour, aggressive, or belligerent, simply because it doesn't understand what it is being asked to do. This usually stems from the horse having learned a negative response will help it avoid thinking a problem through.
In a nut shell, by being an asshole, it can stay in it's comfort zone.
While I was training, I learned I could fight with a horse like this, and because I knew more tricks than most horses, could force it to do what I wanted. This worked, but did nothing to improve the horse's outlook, and often ended up with me and my trainee being at odds for the time we were involved with each other.
The other option, which eventually became my standard approach, would be to abandon the specific maneuvers and straighten out the attitude. Once the horse and I were on the same page, we usually got back to training the stuff it was there for, and we would progress rapidly enough to make up for lost time. The bonus was giving the owner a trained horse with a much improved attitude.
The trick was to get the horse to think.
So, that's my goal today, to get some actual thinking going.
I'm a big believer in cross training my horses. It comes from my years with Mort. I had one horse, but I also had a lot of interests.
I started with gymkhanas and speed events. Then, I decided we needed to compete in the "morning events," halter, pleasure, horsemanship, trail and reining. You know, the events with the broke horses.
We dabbled in endurance, dressage and cross country jumping as the years went by.
Mort and I had various levels of success over the years, and in the end, I had a pretty awesome all around horse. He was hot as a pistol until his dying day, but I was extremely aware it was my lack of knowledge that made him that way. He inspired me to keep learning and to really dig deep and train my horses.
The most important thing I did in my quest for learning new things, was to search out an expert in each new endeavor. That wasn't too hard, since I was a broke kid without a trailer, who had trained her horse pretty much on her own. Just about everybody was an expert compared to me.
I was raised in a home where children shut up and listened. Questions needed to be thoroughly thought out and well timed. This approach opened (and still does) all kind of doors. In order to learn by observation instead of conversation, I had to be willing to suspend everything I thought I knew and just absorb the new information without comparison to my past experience.
I would suck up as much information as I could, then do my comparing on my own time. When I came to a dead halt, and couldn't get past a difference between what I knew and what I had just learned, why, there was my question.
My first introduction to dressage was from a young woman who rode and lived in the same neighborhood as my friend Karen. She was in college, I was in high school, her horse looked calm and amazing, my horse was wild and scattered, so she was obviously my next expert.
I rode with her three or four times before I had my first question.
"Why do you keep telling me to keep contact with my legs? When I put my legs on Mort he wants to run, so I ride with them off him."
My expert said, "You want balance between your leg contact and your mouth contact. You should be able to hold him between your legs and your bit. So a little squeeze from your legs and a light hold from your bit would tell him to walk."
I chewed on that one for....oh, I guess I still do. To this day, the word balance is in my head, and hopefully in my seat, hands, and legs -- every ride, every horse, every time.
Her advice wasn't perfect. But it was enough. It gave me a wonderful concept. Balance.
When I started riding endurance, I was too busy fighting with my friend Karen to learn much on my first several NATRC rides. It wasn't until my first 50 miler that I opened my mind instead of my mouth and started learning.
I found out that Mort's energy and trail-eating attitude were not considered hot. It was called forward, and, with some work, even a positive. His long legs, narrow chest, deep girth and slow heartbeat said he was born for endurance, in this case, he was more than a crappy quarter horse.
My rangy horse was an asset in this sport, not an embarrassment, it was wonderful.
He needed to be calmer. My endurance expert talked me into letting him go. I learned the concept of getting off his face.
As a kid, who wanted to do lots of things on the only horse she had, I was gaining lots of ground.
I had a decent background in Monte Foreman's Balanced Ride training. It had given me a guaranteed stop with a touch on Mort's neck.
My bare bones dressage had given me the concept of contact and balance.
Now, I was letting my horse go.
Three seemingly contradicting concepts.
Three thought processes that began to meld into a solid training approach I could call my own.
I didn't question the validity of any of these ideas. Each one had a purpose in each discipline. I didn't know it, but I was morphing into a horse trainer.
I also learned there are different horses that excel in different things.
Becky, my room-mate, freshman year at CSU, owned Arabs. She spent the summer working for a trainer and instead of pay, had received a well-bred yearling. She kept him at a barn in town in exchange for training colts. I had spent the summer working at a gas station and had leased Mort out so I could keep him while I was in school. Being an insecure, bratty and very jealous kid, I teased her unmercifully about her hot A-rabs.
On weekends, she often came home with me to ride. One afternoon we were leading the horses to our tack room (garage). Mort was snorting and playing and banging around as we walked.
"You know," Becky said, "for somebody who hates Arabs, you have the most Arab-y Quarter horse I've ever known."
Mort pulled at my shirt, then charged past, eyes wide, nostrils flared and his tail straight in the air.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
Mort hit the end of his lead-rope, flipped around to face me and squealed at my mom's horse, Murray.
Having Mort taught me I could learn anything I wanted. He could excel at some things, and his attitude and build would limit him in others.
Mort was not fast. He was an adequate barrel horse, but never one of the best.
Mort was wicked agile. He could scramble up anything I pointed him at and knock out a reliable 21 second pole pattern, with a few 20 second runs if I stayed the hell out of his way.
Mort was tough. He had strong legs, great feet, unending wind and an amazing extended trot he could hold all day.
Mort was high headed. His neck was long, thin and set too high to ever develop the level head set becoming popular in the show ring. Yes folks, I'm so old I remember when a Quarter Horse could work with his head higher than his withers.
He was built funny, if you were looking for a bull dog Quarter Horse.
He had a beautiful build if you wanted to cover fifty miles in under 8 hours, develop a rudimentary canter pirouette or find out his giant extend trot was considered "floaty" in the right arena.
The canter pirouette? I spent so many years hanging on his face while his hind end tried to run off with me, by the time I understood collection and started to get balance, it was amazing what he could do. Talk about your reverse training.
Here is what I know now. If I ride a certain discipline on a specific breed and I decide to learn something completely new and foreign to my way of thinking, I have learned how to get the most out of the experience. Most of the time I'll end up with some new information I can absorb into that junk closet in my head I call horse knowledge.
I study the new discipline as much as I can before my first lesson. The Internet has made this soooo easy. I can study the build and breed of the horses used in the sport. I can study the riding style and method, at least within my understanding.
Then, I can compare notes. If the horses I'm seeing are more of a rectangle than a square, if their legs are shorter than I'm used to, the heads lower and seem to be built downhill, then obviously there is a reason. That particular build must suit the sport it is used for.
I'll watch videos until my eyes bleed, trying to figure out how that particular form fits the function. Then I'll compare the form to my horse. Will his long legs make it hard to turn like those other horses? How about his headset? Will it slow down his movement? Is my horse agile like these horses are?
It doesn't matter to me if he is as good, I'm learning, not competing. But, seeing conformation differences gives me some intelligent questions to ask my new expert. In order to avoid being an insulting moron and hopefully be invited back, I'll phrase my questions in regards to my own horse.
"Are my horse's long skinny legs going to stop him from getting down in the dirt?"
"Could you explain why I can't get through my turn?"
After I have at least a vague idea of the conformation of the better horses in my sport, I move on to riding style.
Does the rider sit different? I'll watch and try to see why.
I'll do the same things with their hands, use of leg and method of impulsion.
I note the difference and try to figure out why.
If I just don't get it, then I've got another good question.
Again, I usually want to get invited back, so I try to phrase my question without a hidden opinion or judgement.
"When I ride, my horse just follows the trail without me doing anything, so this is hard for me to understand. How come you use your legs to move your horse in the herd?"
(The difference BTW, is the trail pulls the horse along, cutting horses push against the airspace of the cattle)
I already ran through most of the disciplines I played with as a kid. Once I was a pro, I still dabbled in other disciplines. I rode with three different dressage trainers, a reining trainer, a western riding trainer, two western pleasure trainers, a hunt seat trainer, two cutting horse trainers and as many reined cow horse trainers as I could. Each discipline uses different methods, types of horse and philosophies.
While I settled in with the Big K, it didn't stop me from learning from others, applying parts of what I learned to my program and thinking lots of deep thoughts. They all invited me back.
I am also, 100% willing to walk away from a trainer I think is full of shit. I have yet to condemn an entire breed or discipline from a bad experience with one trainer.
OK. I'm done.