Saturday, June 15, 2013


Tim was a hurting unit.

His wreck with Tally had left him with a cracked head, broken ribs and a bruised ego.

He was conflicted and saddened by the whole train wreck. The hardest part about the whole mess was where it put him emotionally.

We met at the barn for a talk and some tactical planning. As I pulled in, it was a relief to see Tim had haltered Tally and led her out to graze in the deep grass around the wash racks. At least he wasn't avoiding her.

"I just don't understand why she did it," he said.

"A slipped saddle is a nightmare for a horse like Tally," I told him. "She needs to be able to count on things and incident free riding needs to be a pretty high on the list. Your job is to create the incident free ride."

"You make it sound like this was my fault. How am I supposed to help her when she explodes every time something goes wrong? I've been working so hard on developing a bond with her, I'm starting to think she doesn't really like me."

It is your fault, I thought.

The phrase "developing a bond" had long been a pain in my butt. I kept running into this line from more and more of my customers. For the most part, I heard it from new horse owners who thought it would be a good idea to buy a two-year-old for their pre-teen daughter, so they could grow up together, or from total green-horns, who were convinced, after watching a few GaWaNi Pony Boy videos, they could start a colt by themselves, as long as they properly bonded with their horse's spirit. Then they would adopt a mustang. Then, there were my favorites, the "I'm too afraid to ride, so I'll bond instead," folks.
Most of these situations only meant I had a steady paycheck, because somebody had to straighten these messes out, but this was more. I liked Tally a bunch and I liked Tim too. I wanted them to make it.

His sad and angry face told me he had fallen into this trap. He felt he had done everything he could to open his heart to his horse, he was sure Tally loved him, yet here she was, splattering him all over the arena fence. He looked very much like a man who discovered his girlfriend at the firing range using a picture of his face as a target.

I took a deep breath, reached for some empathy and tried to verbalize my thoughts.

"Where we get in trouble with our horses is when we assume they react and think like we do. We're being unfair to them when we mix up our translation of love with theirs. The concept of bonding is a prime example. It's pretty clear to me Tally thinks you're one of the best people she ever met. She also knows that's exactly what you are, people, and that she is a horse. She will never, ever be confused on this issue.

"I don't treat her like she's human," Tim said. His annoyance rang clear as a school bell.

"I'm glad to hear it," I said.

 "All of the stuff I worried about when you asked to buy her is coming up. She's green, she was a bitch to get started, she has a huge flight reaction to things she thinks might hurt her. You're a good rider Tim, but I'm not sure you've sorted out what it takes to own a horse like this.
"If Tally feels her life is in danger she's going to try to run, and run hard, we talked this to death before you bought her. As far as I'm concerned, what you get when you have a "bond" is a horse that likes hanging out with you, but it doesn't translate to the saddle."

"She doesn't even try to bolt with you," Tim said. "It's like she's tricking me, she likes you better. Tally wants to be your horse."

This was the crux of the issue. Something I ran into often, that I had felt, understood in my gut, but never had tried to completely sort out in my thoughts, much less talk through with someone.

We stood in silence, with me leaning against the wash rack, studying the rut I was digging in the gravel with the rowel of my spur.Tim dragged his fingers through Tally's long mane. She lipped his shirt, with sleepy eyes and a hip cocked, her heavy tail twitched slowly at an occasional fly.

"With me and Tally, it isn't about like or love, I finally said. "It's trust. Some of the things I've done to her wouldn't hold up to your idea of kindness. They certainly didn't seem kind to Tally's way of thinking."

Tim gave me a sharp look and flattened his hand against Tally's neck. I smiled at his mamma bear reaction.

"The thing is, everything I did with her and to her had a purpose. She came out of each session unhurt and with a little more understanding of what was expected.

"As time went on, Tally started to get me. She knew there was a trade-off. If she did what I wanted, then she was given what she wanted, which at first, was being left alone. She had no use for people, she wanted to be turned out and let be, but if I was going to insist on messing with her, she could get me to back off if she cooperated.

"The important thing to remember here, Tim, is I never worried about whether or not she liked me. That wasn't what our deal was. She did start to trust me. She could trust me to keep her safe, to get her through everything I wanted of her, without getting her hurt.

"I made mistakes, but I didn't make them twice," I looked steadily at him. When his face turned red and he looked at the ground I knew he was thinking of the twice rolled saddle as much as I was.

"If I had some independent thoughts on training her I ran them by the Big K, I didn't hide them from him or try out the advice of somebody else without checking in. With a horse this tricky I knew I needed the input of the person I trust the most when it comes to training. I owed it to Tally to be as honest and fair as I could, my ego couldn't be a part of working with her."

Tim's face sulled up and his shoulders started to stiffen. I needed to back off.

"I have horses who like me," I said. "Sonita does, but have you ever seen me assume our friendship will save my ass if she's in a mood?"

Tim shook his head, but I got a smile out of him.

"If I took it personal when she blows up at a tractor, well, that just means I'm trying to make her a person. She's a horse. Liking or not liking me means nothing to her when she thinks she might get eaten by the feed cart.

"At the same time, Sonita trusts me to get her by the tractor. I've done it hundreds of times, she knows we always survive, so she doesn't completely unload on me. I had her trust way before I had her friendship.

"If a herd of horses is grazing in a field, they'll stay close to their friends. They groom and play with each other, join forces to take the best grass away from weaker horses, keep watch over each other's babies, all kinds of things that make it clear they are friends.Then, when a plane flies low overhead or a pack of dogs starts harassing them, what do they do?"

I waited while Tim worked through things.

"Well, they run," he finally said.

"Do they hang around and wait to see how their friends are doing?"

"I don't know, he answered.

"They run like hell. Tails in the air, every man for themselves. Horses trust their speed and the power of the group.This is why I asked you to spend time watching a group of broodmares on pasture. If Tally blows, she's getting out of Dodge. If she thinks of you at all, she's thinking, 'Run Tim run!'" She is not worrying about whether you ride well enough to stay on. If you had seen a herd in a full run you might understand it better."

"I did watch them!" Tim protested.

"You drove out to the pasture I told you about and watched the horses?"

"Well, no, I watched the dudes in the big corral, they said it was the same."

"Who exactly, is they?" I started, then I caught myself. "Don't tell me, there's no point. The behavior of a dozen 100-year-old dudes and a herd of broodies with their foals on two hundred acres is not the same. If you trusted me, you'd get that by now, because you would have seen the difference yourself."

"It's not that I don't trust you," Tim protested, "it's just that..." He shut his mouth, there really wasn't a good response here.

"I treat you like I do my horses," I said, "I don't ask you to do things to make nice, I'm trying my damnedest to help you survive your mare."

There was a long, very awkward pause. I waited.

"What's next?" Tim finally asked.

I had to give him points, he wasn't throwing in the towel.

"We saddle Tally and then I ride her," I answered.

"Nobody can get her saddled," Tim said, he was distraught enough for me to see there were some more going on's Tim hadn't felt like sharing.

I shoved my anger and frustration somewhere deep inside, then added the cold fear coiled in my stomach.
Tally was going to take a big dose of calm and I knew she trusted me to give it to her. I found the calm I needed and let it wash over me.

"She'll be fine," I said, "let's go get saddled."


  1. GaWaNi Pony has always been one of my favorite clinicians - I went to the Equine Affair Horse Expo by my house a couple of times, and he was the most down to earth, least gimmicky clinician I encountered.

    That said, I'll admit I was surprised by practical he was, after buying his Horse, Follow Closely book (no regrets, still one of my favorite books, although mostly for the pictures), so maybe you're onto something.

    There's some good stuff to chew on in this story.

  2. I really hope Tim eventually understands that horses don't see the world the way people do. It can make things so much easier, or at least more understandable.

  3. Yes! My boss/friend just sent out her horse who is a spin and bolter; she's been hurt several times and is now letting a trainer with the the mare. Only I think the mare needs more...just lots and lots of saddle time, a calm rider who will work with her, and build, not only her confidence but her trust. My mare has learned that no matter how much that log may want to eat her, we are going to ride past it and it will be okay. Please don't torture us and make us wait too long for the next installment! Thank you !!!

  4. Yay! Tally story!!!!! *does happy dance*
    Lots of stuff to think about too......

  5. My first thought on seeing the post title was, "Yay, Tally!". By the time I got halfway through it was, "Poor Tally! She didn't have a chance here."

  6. I have a tendency to humanize my horses...even though I know that it is the wrong thing to do. I'[m enjoying the lesson here, can't wait to hear more.

  7. Poor Tim, that's a tough lesson to learn, but it's better to learn it as soon as possible. Or stick to the old, broke horses that kids and grandma's can ride.

    One of my best friends, who passed away 3 months ago, trained horses for a living, and almost all of her clients were the "afraid/incapable of riding so lets get a good bond going" type. She was ruthless with them, she didn't accept excuses. The "Petie's having a bad day because he doesn't like rain" stuff drove her crazy, and may get you banished. God,I miss her. And she was authentically 1/4 Native American, unlike GW boy, who hasn't got a drop of Native blood. I don't want to offend anyone (like Becky) but I can't stand that guy.

  8. Powerful story... I am amazed at how you craft your tales, and I am itching to hear how you solve this tangle!

    bonita of A Riding Habit

  9. Tally! Tally! Tally!
    Thank you Mugs!
    Also great reminders for us city kids - horses are really horses. :-)

  10. started out bad and just as it seems like you were getting though to him something else comes up. Poor Tally.

  11. You handled Tim very well...hope he understands the importance of following seem to have a problem with that sometimes. Great story again.

  12. Makes me wonder if Tim would take your advice more seriously if you were a male, rather than a female, trainer. Arg!

    As usual, captivating and honest writing. Thanks!!

  13. I went through last night and re-read all of the Tally stories. I am working with a kid who is a novice rider, and doesn't understand the concept of establishing a relationship based on trust. The kid continually allows the horse to make decisions... The he doesn't like this or that while she's working with him. The assignment that I gave was to read all of the Tally stories. The overwhelming message I get from these is establishing trust and respect by being kind, firm, and fair is in the end what will save your ass when things go wrong. Thank you Mugs for sharing your experiences with all of us. There

  14. Tim sounds just like my SO, Charlie. His horses "walk" all over him, drives me nuts but he's "bonding. He won't ride unless it's perfect" - the wind isn't blowing, sun is shining, no clouds in the sky, etc. He won't ride them in the woods (horse eating trees), won't ride them down by the interstate (fenced in area but if they get loose), etc, etc. I just grit my teeth and say, His Horses, His Way, My Horses, My Way. Course, I have 2 of his horses at my place and, gee, guess who gets a dose of "reality". Thanks for the Tally story, alot to chew on.

  15. Unknown -- I was hoping I was standing up for Tim a little better.
    The guy was tough. He rode all the time, as a matter of fact, he got in his mess with Tally because he wanted to tide every day, and I was only available 3 x a week.
    He was very new to horses, and as usual for new horse owners he was drowning in unsolicited advice.
    He wanted to ride so much, he wanted to do everything right. When I started with my first horse, I didn't listen to anybody and I sure didn't want to hear it was going to take years of hard work to get anywhere.

  16. I have been struggling with the differences in concepts from different trainers/riders. I thought EVERYBODY knew better than I did so always listened to info that came my way. I now have a very very good instructor that I can trust to do the right thing for me and my horse but STILL have fallen into that "everybody says" trap. It is hard to break a life long . . . What do you call it? Person who listens to bad or poorly timed advise. Your story really brings it home to me. Thank you.

  17. wow, great story with lots to digest. my big TB is calm and willing at home, or accompanied anywhere by his pasture buddy, but an anxiety ridden, tense, explosive ride when alone at shows. can't get out of the warm up ring into a class yet. spent over two hours riding him to get him to focus on work and calm down. have a coach helping me, but this story drives home how much more riding i have to do at home and away to get him to trust me to take care of him. i love how your stories distill those key ideas into something we can all identify with, thanks.

  18. As always, YAY! TALLY STORY.

    The irony at boarding barns is that usually the people with the best info aren't going to speak up ("interfere") unless asked, because they've been around the boarding block, so the newbies get flooded with not always great advice.

    Anonymous, your novice might want to go by my favorite thought of "I will not allow a thousand pound animal with the brain the size of a tangerine to make the decisions in my relationship." ;-)

    I find some of his thoughts on observing horses from GWN very insightful and interesting, but I think as a rider or trainer, past the basic level, he is horrible. Personal choice. ('Cause Becky knows I love her.)

    Horses need to have both respect and trust for the rider or handler if things are to go well. You can get by with one or the other, but not truly well for long.

    People are too likely to add in the human emotions that go along with trust and respect that are not horse possible. The HUMAN respects the horse and his needs and capabilities, which includes accidentally killing you through no real fault of his own. The human TRUSTS as much as you can trust the training you've put into an ANIMAL that has it's own thoughts, feelings, and wants.

    And we love them though and through anyway. I've trusted horses in ways not in line with the thoughts above, and I've been lucky, but anytime you place your trust in a horse, it is possible that you may be maimed or killed. As a thinking person it is our job to accept and own that and respect the horse.

  19. Thank you for the TALLY story! Big THANK YOU for putting into words what I believe about "bonding". Hooey! It's like doing busywork on the job...something that takes up time and makes a worker look productive, but the end result doesn't mean a hill of beans. Some people do this because it feels good, familiar, and they actually enjoy it. I call that occupational masturbation - not really getting anywhere, just doing it because it feels good. Bonding is another such activity. Do it because it feels good, but it's not going to translate to better horsemanship in the saddle.