Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who Was Your Trainer?

My first riding instruction came from Anna Sewell. I read "Black Beauty" when I was 7 or 8 years old.

I loved horses with an uncontrolled passion, but it was the passion of a child with no experience. I wanted to run like Roy Rogers and Trigger, have a horse which reared and screamed like Fury and loved only me like my friend Flicka.

Black Beauty opened my eyes and heart to the hard life of a horse trying to survive in the harsh world of man.

Anna Sewell taught me to emphasize and sympathize with the potential cruelty waiting for a kind-hearted, thinking, feeling animal tied to humans forever through no choice of their own.

Marguerite Henry followed and gave me the need to run wild and free on a horse who chose to spend time with me. Walter Farley made my desire to fly on the back of my closest friend even stronger. Reading through the Black Stallion series and watching Alec grow into a competent and caring horseman under the careful tutelage of Henry planted a seed of thought. In order to become a real equestrian, to truly understand this magical animal I was going to need a mentor.

I wasn't a child who listened, not in school, not at home, but I understood the importance of listening to someone who could teach me about horses.

My first real, honest to God instruction came from Mark Reynor, the owner of a local dude stable. Mark taught me how to sit a trot, neck rein and suck it up when I didn't get to ride the beautiful horse I was hoping to ride and instead was given the scabby, icky ones nobody wanted.

My next instructor was my best friend from junior high through high school. She taught me how to saddle a horse, the joyous difference between a dude horse and an owned horse, and through my years being friends with Karen, I developed a ferocious desire to compete, that I still have and struggle with to this day.

During this same period of time I rode with Mike Craig. He opened my eyes to the magic of training without force, but with the use of timing and rhythm. He taught a training approach he learned from Monte Foreman, a innovative and intuitive trainer wrapped in the exterior of a gruff and surly old cowboy. I became not only a better rider, but discovered a curiosity which translated into a need to train my own horses, no matter what discipline I might be caught up in at the time.

As my life's path unrolled in front of me I eventually became a horse trainer. When I entered this incredibly competitive field I was many years behind my peers, not only in method and awareness, but in age as well.

I began to catch up with the help of Devin Warren. Devin is a beautiful rider, sleek and professional, and I met him while learning to ride an extremely difficult stallion in events I had no understanding of.

I was supposed to show this horse in Western Pleasure, Reining, Western Riding and Trail. I was so lost I came to the conclusion everything I had learned until that moment was crap. It was wrong, wrong, wrong. I threw everything away and started over.

Horses were now my business and I had to be a pro. I learned to use a German martingale, a correction bit and the value of a tie wall. I found my core, my legs and learned how to remember a pattern.

I learned how to create drive in slow motion, find control through the feet of my horse instead of my hands, and that Western Pleasure wasn't my deal.

My next trainer and true mentor was the Big K. Over several years he introduced me to Reined Cow Horse. The event gave me everything I had ever wanted, finesse, beauty, technical challenge and speed. He taught me to throw away all my gadgets.

I learned to train a horse from the ground up without a noseband, without a martingale, without heavy use of my hands.

I advanced into a world of the highest levels of horsemanship I had ever seen and the most horrific treatment of horses I had ever witnessed. I learned to love the fire and sensitivity of a winning bridle horse and to take pride in not only being able to ride them, but to train them. I also began to question every single aspect of what I was doing.

Slowly my past began to seep back into my awareness. I remembered Mark telling me I needed to learn to feel the rhythm of my horse's gaits, so I could tell when I was riding him until he was footsore.

The patience it took to feel a horse onto his leads or to encourage a youngster to lope up his first trail came from Mike, not the "hurry up and ride them through" world I was in then. I realized my horses stopped better, turned harder and understood their job better if I let them find their way through a slow building of cues and giving them time to think.

I left the Big K bitter and disillusioned. I struck out on my own and finally had time to think. I began to develop the theories and ideas that had been kept on the back burner for so many years. My training became better, cleaner, kinder, and more precise.

My final trainer was a retired veterinarian who had me starting her colts. She had ridden dressage in her youth and had been an Olympic team alternate many years before. She recognized a "touch of the classics" in my style and was happy to comply when I asked her for lessons.

My western ways no more interfered than my cutting saddle as we practiced and discussed shoulders, hips, balance and forward. The language of the horse was no different no matter the trappings and some final bricks fell into place. I worked and sweated and strained my brain, it was great.

Since I retired I have made peace with all of my mentors. Whether they were complete horsemen or trainers doesn't matter anymore. Each was instrumental in my development and each had something to offer.

I still think like a trainer, I'm currently working on lead changes on a straight line every eight strides. My immediate goal is to trim it down to four.I still try to learn, cutting is probably the hardest thing I've done, but I love it.

I am enjoying immensely my time with just my two personal horses. Our relationships are peaceful and filled with joy, I'm remembering the lessons taught by perhaps my greatest mentor of all, Mort, my first horse. I can appreciate the shine and scent of a sun soaked summer coat. I am finally able to just hang around and visit with my horses. Sometimes I saddle up and we meander  the same way I did as a kid. Every once in a while we blow across the prairie at full speed just because we can.

So who was your trainer?


  1. A wicked PITA dressage schoolmaster that gleefully points out the minute errors in my position with every variety of sucky equine behavior known to devious equine minds. He loved to point out that the "dressage" I was taught on different horses was NOT correct, as I obviously was not (fill in the blank...sitting straight, being soft, quiet, still...). Now, as I am a year and a half out from the Lyme induced tonic clonic seizure, at 24he is still the best teacher to point out the strange crookedness disease, neurological damage, and medical school have done to my body. Luckily for me, he is much kinder to me now than he was before my illness.

  2. I never had a long-term instructor. My most consistent trainers have been books, and pieces of knowledge picked up from all over the place.
    And horses of course. Lots of 'em :)
    Maybe I'll find a mentor someday - I sure hope so!

  3. Walter Farley's The Black Stallion for sure followed by the local hunter/jumper barn where I initially learned how to fall off nearly every lesson because they told me to hold on (tighter) with my legs. Of course, there was still something to be learned from that and it did not deter me. ;) Years later I discovered something called "dressage" and it has remained my passion ever since.

    I have an awesome teacher now, who challenges me and often makes me rethink and relearn how I do things. Not easy but always worthwhile. My horse is also an incredible teacher, despite the fact that I have been doing this riding thing a lot longer than him. He can be very kind and willing, but also refuses to compromise when I am "doing it wrong". He will not tolerate strong or aggressive riding, like some larger warmbloods that I used to ride, and has challenged me to become a better rider. Like a good teacher, he rewards me with hidden talents and a bond like I have never experienced before.

  4. I read all the same books you did as a child. Several times, and they confirmed in me my need for a horse.

    My first horsaii "mentor" was my mother's best friend. She owned a stallion, who was being trained and shown by her son-in-law at a reining/cutting barn (don't ask) and a "regular" little QH, ex ranch horse. I leased a couple of horses there and rode with her and learned the basics of riding, and the joy of just spending time with a well trained horse.

    After I became a horse owner, I decided to take some lessons and become a good rider. I tried some local Western instructors, and I did a lot of reading. There were a couple of people at the barn where I boarded who took dressage lessons. I decided it wouldn't hurt to learn a little about that, and would serve me well in any discipline I chose. So, I did "cowboy dressage" many years before anyone coined the phrase.

    I ended up training with several dressage trainers, never showed in it, and finally learned to ride in the actual tack. No matter who I trained with in dressage I learned that they all yelled (I think you have to to be heard) and expected you to instantly follow their commands, no complaining, no whining, no questions during the lesson. And you had best follow directions to the letter even if they made no sense to you, and you swore you needed another arm and leg to do the things they were telling you.

    A few years ago I met a local woman through a rescue. She has a story alot like yours, Mugs. I don't know how long she's been training professionally, but it's been the focus of her life since she can remember. She started in WP and worked with some BN trainers. She moved on to cutting and had some successful mentors there too. I met her when I looked at a horse she had rescued and retrained. I did end up buying the horse and we became friends.

    I went with her on training jobs and rescues whenever I could, and learned a lot from her about the ideas and methods of Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers. Being around her opened my eyes to the plight of horses, especially as the economy began its downturn. I also learned a lot about the incredible stupidity of many horse owners, and witnessed how easy it is to turn a good horse into a dangerous animal. I also saw many examples of people who thought of themselves as breeders, whose only motivation was ribbons, trophys and buckles. They had no plan for the foals they produced, some of them had a hard time breeding foals whose legs all went in the same direction. I also ended up with a nice WP bred paint colt from one of those farms. He was unweaned and they were about to ship him to an auction (not enough white). My friend talked them into keeping him long enough to halter break him and find him a home. He's a very nice horse now.

    I guess that friend is one of the reasons I love this blog, it reminds me of her, and of her frustrations in trying to educate people about their horses, and think about what they were doing. I also realized that a lot of people would really benefit from an old style dressage instructor, they just need to ride their horse and shut up, stop whining, stop making excuses.

  5. Will you be offended if I take your question and turn it into a blogpost on my own blog instead? You just woke up the writing bug in me.

    With the exception of the people I want to write about on my blog, most of my trainers have always been on paper:

    Desmond Morris: Why Does a Horse Whinny and Everything Else You Wanted to Know ----taught me about horse body language

    Horse, Follow Closely: Not the best training manual, but it taught me that nothing can really replace just plain spending time with your horse. Plus, there is a picture of him charging bareback up a slope that makes the little hairs on my hand stand up.

    My Friend Flicka: There's a scene where all the horses come up to greet him and he has to whirl in a circle with a bucket to get room. It just plain never occurred to me it could be dangerous to have a herd of horses around you. Don't laugh.

    The Black Stallion and my mother: The Black Stallion for all the HOURS AND HOURS AND HOURS I spent rererereading that series---and my mother for putting it into perspective when I was searching for my first horse: "If you want to say no to this horse and keep searching for your 'Black Stallion' that's fine- but if you do, you darn sure better be able to ride like Alec Ramsey.

    Mugwump Chronicles: No, I'm not being a kiss a**. You have no idea how awesome this blog is to those of us who really, really want to learn but don't really have access to lessons. It doesn't replace real lessons/time on the horse, but understanding the concept and being able to at least know what you WANT to do sure makes those actual lesson-with-a-breathing-live-trainer click that much faster.

    Larry Trocha: THAAAAAAAAAAAAANK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU for telling me about this guy. Between your blog and his video series, I might actually learn how to ride one day.

  6. Becky- Use anything from this blog anywhere you like.

  7. Black Beauty was where it was at for me, too. I loved that book. I loved Ginger, especially. All that heart and all that fire coming to such a sad end. Of course, I didn't get that I had gotten that, when I was younger, and I still kept trying to ride like I was trying to win a fight. The knowledge was not conscious; I just felt like an ass when I rode.

  8. I was going to post a comment but like Becky, my response got too wordy so I'll put it on my blog. Here's one section that relates specifically to this blog...

    All the family at Butte Star Ranch in Sutter for teaching me about how to sort cows. I got to watch a one rider and dog team sort by themselves. Amazing to get to see a real ranch dog do his job. I should have been born on a big ranch 100 years ago, I swear it.

    Fugly Horse of the Day for teaching me to look at the horse world and my role in it, for helping when I got involved in a local abuse issue, and for introducing me to Mugs. Janet for teaching me the importance of respect and fairness in training. Also for giving it to me straight when I needed it and reminding me to ride like Ben. Now if I can just master my timing and feel I’ll be 20 steps ahead of where I was before I started reading this blog.

    I’m also enjoying Larry Trocha’s newsletters. He’s really close to me so I’m thinking I might go down to watch one of his cow clinics next summer..

    Especially to Grace and December, my girls, for teaching me mares aren’t all bad and helping me get over a lot of my fears, each in their own way.

  9. Anna Sewell. I still have a copy of Black Beauty beside my bed and I've tried to live and practice with those lessons in mind. Maggie, my first horse. We are going on 15 years and I still learn from her and by working with her. Dick Pieper.

  10. Wow, you just brought back soooo many memories. I think I have read all the same books as a child. My mother said she thought "horse" was my first word so she should have known. I started riding at a local stable taking lessons and then moved to the "go pick one and saddle up" group of kids. The weekly Wednesday lessons were the bain of my brothers as they got to drive me and had to pick me up for 3 years running. Janet was the regular teacher for the life of me I wish I could remember he last name. She was patient and kind and made me get back on after my first buck off. I have taken lessons from various local trainers and watched countless "clinics". This blog has brought back countless memories... My best trainer was my grade, bay mare Lady..She taught me patience and how to sit a horse. She was not a horse I would buy for a newbie but she taught me alot. I miss her alot. The all day rides on the power lines with my friends.... I got her tattooed on my leg as a reminder of all she taught me. I only wish we knew more about hot feeds back then as I now know I was feeding jet fuel to my hot horse.. But man could she run...

  11. I learned a lot from the Saddle Club series.. loved those books!

    (and all the books you mentioned, too!)


  12. sweetlillena- dick piepers hackamore video is priceless

  13. Well, I have used a few of Larry Trocha's videos too :)

    We need to talk. I will FB message U.

    If you can do a clinic w/Dick and his assistant Vera, I highly recommend it. It will be a total freakin blast.

  14. I never even rode a horse (except a pony ride where they lead you) until my parents bought me my first horse when I was 13. Alfie, my 13.3 hh palomino Welsh/Appaloosa was my primary riding instructor. Then along came Shannon and the rest of my four legged friends...

    Mary Cabell Self- Riding, Step by Step; George H. Morris- Hunter Seat Equitation; and Alois Podhajsky- The complete Training of Horse and Rider were my bibles as a teenager. Through their printed words on horsemanship and riding I sorted out what to do and how to do it.

    It's funny, I used to dream of riding hunter/jumpers but that never happened. I've owned Arabs most of my life and I much prefer the small horses to the big ones.

  15. I never competed at any high level so I think "instructors" not trainers. I was privileged and lucky to have two larger than life characters as instructors. The one who started me was Raye Lane of Scotts Creek, SA (Aust), sadly she died in the 1970s and there is so far nothing about her life on the web. The other was Marian Malecki who was a great character.

    I'm laughing out loud reading the Malecki stories on this thread. He was a very proper Polish dressage guy, again based in South Australia, and he was a terror! but a loveable terror - and I survived him, I rather think it was him putting up with me. Anyway, having more determination than talent, I ended up a decent rider thanks to those two.

  16. THat link again:

  17. Like you, Anna Sewell was the first, followed by all the others you mentioned. Recently, I received a Chincoteague pony tree ornament as a thank you gift for a recommendation letter for a colleague. She did not know what that would mean to me; she just happened to be in Virginia when she got the call about the promotion. Next thing I'm surprised and blubbering in my office, with this very special gift that touched me all the way to my childhood.

    To return to the subject:

    FHOTD has been my best instructor. My daughter has had all formal instruction while I sat on the sidelines, wrote the checks, and absorbed as much information as I could. We trail ride together, and she got a horse about five years before I did. FHOTD was a lens that helped me see what a true ass our former 4H advisor was - right down to his twisted wire snaffle. FHOTD (and the rest of the community) were there when it came time to make the decision to put down our beloved Appy boy.

    Mugwump Chronicles came along, and I have actually used the "I am a horse trainer....I strive to be fair" in grad school discussion board classes. "What do you do if your pupil is 100x stronger, is 5 times bigger, and cannot speak?" Consistency. Clarity in communication. Fairness. Listening. Reflection on one's own behaviors and how to improve them.

    Finally, my constant teacher, my hot little mare, The Queen of Denial, TWH. She's a trail walking fool and my alter ego.

  18. I was an absolutely horse crazy nutso kid!! But my parents were dairy farmers and there was no tolerance for horses. Yet they let me purchase a horse with money I had saved and I continued to ride all my life but never had a trainer until I was married with kids. I'm sure there is a special paddock up in heaven for my first gelding because he survived my ignorance and loved me despite it. He was so well trained and as devoted to me as I was him. Still I didn't know about even basic horse care like hoof trimming, worming, teeth, etc. I guess my first horse 4H club was the first time I learned anything remotely close to horse care.

    My adult trainer is a hoot!! She is still one of my good friends and just so knowledgeable yet full of common sense. She had a very cutting sense of humor too so we often walked away from lessons with a "Sheila-ism" or two. One day my friend asked if she should get spurs to which Sheila responded - "well now that would be like giving a monkey a piece of broken glass now wouldn't it?"

    I guess my training came from riding a lot of different horses and just a lot of time spent in the saddle. When I ended up at a boarding stable as an adult I would often watch my friends lesson in order to pick up tips and pointers. I also was not afraid to ask questions no matter how silly I thought they were.

    Now I have a young friend that comes to my house and she works with my kids, our horses and me, in exchange for riding time. She is awesome and for a twenty something has already more knowledge than many horse people my own age.

    Like a lot of other people here I think my best trainers were my horses...each one has taught me so many different things. I owe a lot to my past equine friends.

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