Wednesday, October 9, 2013

New Horse Owners, Boarding Barns and Doing the Right Thing

The comments following the latest Tally post brought up some great issues -- some very near and dear to my heart.

While dealing with the result of poor Tim's attempts at independent horsemanship,  riding a horse he owned, but really wasn't ready for, I was getting a crash course in responsible horse training and the human condition.

Here's the thing. The entire situation was my fault. Not Tim's, not the well intentioned, fairly dim advice he was getting drowned with, not the NH wannabe trainers that frequented the barn and were dying to get their hands on Tally. It was mine.

I certainly didn't understand that at the time. There are many reasons this story is tough for me, the biggest being having to face and accept my responsibility. When I took Tally on as a project, I was in the most dangerous place a horse trainer can be. I had just enough knowledge to cause a whole lot of trouble and was still naive enough to not understand the potential repercussions.

Normally, I try to get my philosophy across through my stories. This time, I'm going to break protocol and spell a few things out. I didn't sort this stuff out until many years later and I have reached a limit in my story telling ability. I can't figure out how to get my message out without getting all boring and lecture-y in the telling. Plus, these are concerns I really want to share, without making you guys figure them out, right or wrong, while I sit back and watch (like I usually do). So, I'll do it now, and then get back to the telling.

These are the core beliefs I held at that time. Some I still adhere to, some I have either let go or dramatically modified.

1. All horses deserve a chance.

2. No horse is too much to rehabilitate.

3. Anybody who wants it bad enough can learn to train a horse.

4. "Feel" can be taught to anyone - because I could see and read a situation, anybody could learn to do the same.

5. Because I was developing an effective training method it was the "right" one for every horse and rider.

6. Any horse can be taught to be at least competent in any situation.

7. ***A horse's affection/behavior on the ground translates to behavior under saddle.***

I never, ever, should have sold Tally to Tim. Instead of listening to him and understanding what he needed, I let him talk me into what he thought he wanted.

Tim was new to horses. He loved the animal, the romance of looking like a cowboy and the challenge. All very good reasons to get into horses. He wanted to get into reining. He was 45 years old, had never ridden, was a well-to-do architect with oodles of discretionary income, and had the time to invest in a life-long dream.

He was at the perfect barn for him. It was filled with people of the same ilk, that mostly rode trails and muddled around with some kind of NH training, and run well by a couple who had been working with this type of rider their entire career.

He needed to be mounted on a solid minded, sound bodied, six to ten-year-old ranch gelding, with enough talent to be shaped into a green rider/rookie reining horse. Tim would have had the joy of learning to ride on a quality horse and I would have gotten a healthy share of that discretionary income by teaching them both the basics of reining. He might (probably would) have become something of a rock star at that barn full of bored wealthy horse owners and I might (probably would) have picked up a bunch more clients to molly coddle their way to reining 101.

Tim had potential, drive, a great work ethic and a gentle, horse magnet soul. Tally saw it and was drawn to it. Tim was flattered by my "wild" mare's attention and fell in love.

If I had understood all of this, I would have given him a firm, "Step away from the rehab mare," and guided him on to the next horse he fell for, out of a group of carefully selected prospects that would take us where we needed to go. He would have fallen just as hard, been happier, and certainly safer, if I had done my job.

But I didn't get it.

The barn full of judgmental critics? Personally, I can hardly point fingers. They watched Tim buy a horse he could only ride under my direction -- and then saw why. To them, it translated to "stupid trainer." C'mon, let's be honest, how many times have we thought it, seen it, said it?

They had horses they could ride. Their horses didn't behave like Tally. They were not experienced in the cow horse world, so they didn't recognize her potential or her talent. They just saw a small, snorty, emotional, spooky,maybe dangerous horse with mutton withers that kept rolling her saddle.

They weren't wrong. Tally was all those things. I truly thought she would be OK, because if she was handled just so, she seemed to work things out. I was sure I could teach anybody what "just so" meant. What I wasn't seeing was reality. Not everybody wants, or should even try, to take on the Tally's of the world. My responsibility as a trainer is to factor in who and what people are. Not to try to mold them into my version of Horaii, but to help them find their own.

In the barn chaff's (boarders) mind, with their input, their trainer, their videos, Tim could have the same thing they did -- nice horses.Which he could have, if I had the sense to mount him on the right-minded horse. He couldn't appreciate Tally's abilities, he certainly couldn't ride her to her potential, and he didn't need to. The people who were being so critical couldn't ride her either, but they didn't know that. None of them had been exposed to a horse like Tally before and there was no earthly reason for them to be. I just didn't understand.

Here's the deal. It wasn't ego that caused this big fat swampy morass of a fubar. It was my insecurity, my lack of confidence, my utter conviction that if I could do it, anybody could. I had so little self esteem it never occurred to me that my knowledge, experience and ability might add up to more than what I could teach through lessons. It was almost the undoing of both Tally and Tim.


  1. So respect your experience and honest, Mugs. I read this post and thought, wow, have I been there. And I still need the occasional, figurative slap upside the head to remind myself of the points you outlined :)
    #1. Slowly getting over it. Or, at least, trying to be smarter about the "projects" I take on.
    #2. After 2 bad ones I thought I could save, both of which hurt me (one bad enough I had to take a month off from riding her, so proceeded to spend a thousand dollars and three trainers' time - she hurt all 3 of them, too, and they were "pros") - I've finally gotten through my head, is unfortunately false. She, by the way, proved #7 false as well...

    #4 and #6 ... Everyone around me wants to know why I don't give lessons when they watch me to x or y with a green horse. Thank you for putting into words what I've been trying to explain for at least 5 years.

  2. I'm no horse trainer, but I can actually relate a little. I have two horses, an 8-year-old Arab and a 4-year-old QH. The 11-year-old I nanny for was leasing the Arab for the better part of the year, and suddenly at the end of the summer she wanted to switch to the QH. I couldn't understand, because Panama -- the Arab -- is my first horse, my soul horse, and although we have had our struggles, we've learned to communicate with one another exceptionally well. What I didn't realize was how hard it would be for someone else, especially an 11-year-old, to copy that way of communication. Panama is an absolute gem with the rank beginners, but once riders get to an intermediate level, he expects them to do things a certain way -- my way, essentially -- and he gets a bit annoyed if they don't. I don't know if it's a product of my having been the only one riding him for so long, or if it's just his personality... In any case, it turned out that the QH, despite the fact that he is greener and lazier than my Arab, was a much better fit for the girl. If I'd seen that earlier on I probably could have saved both her and Panama some anxiety and frustration.

  3. I'm very curious as to the 'rewrite' of those seven points. What are they today? I could guess, but they'd be based on my horse experience, which isn't nearly as extensive as Mug's.

  4. I'm trying to guess, but the only one I can possibly think that you still adhere to is #1. #s 3 and 4, well I divide all people I meet into two groups, people who can or could ride and people who will never be able to no matter what. Some people just lack the personality to ever be more than a passenger.

  5. neversummer - I no longer divide people into anything. I know too many well meaning, completely oblivious people who have maintained healthy, happy horses. Spoiled, ill mannered, over-vetted, over supplemented, unridden, rubber necked horses - but happy, healthy and in a home.My goal is to welcome anybody who wants to do right by their horse -- and have as much info as I can offer available.

  6. Anon - That info, I can get across through stories.

  7. Once again, Thank you Mugs for your perception, your honesty and your stories.
    I guess I am one of those pampered NH owners and am lucky enough to have horses who are willing to take care of me and instructors who are willing to meet me where I am and help me get a little further.
    I have always been sad my first horse wasn't a Morgan. Maybe my instructor knew what she was doing when she discouraged that?
    I love my horses and in my advancing age and limitations, they allow me to keep riding, and dismounting safely.
    There, I said it. Becky, share that story.

  8. Dee Dee, I know some lovely, good minded gentle Morgans. It's not the breed....

  9. I totally agree with #1. I've had more than my share of horses who "required" that I do certain things "just so." I've given up on that, and now I require that they do certain things just so. Like letting me get on and off in complete safety. In my advanced age I realize that my original needs in a horse, a quiet, well built but short, well trained horse is what I need (and want) again.

  10. Love this post! My entire experience as a horse owner started off because a friend (self proclaimed horse trainer) convinced me a green horse she was training would be perfect for me. The first few years were a battle, sometimes uphill and often downhill, and only within the last year or two have I really felt like I might be stepping past the "green" stage for both of us. I learned long ago that a horse doesn't always just need miles under the saddle, but that the rider needs to continuously work to understand what they want from that horse and what might best work for it to succeed. Our story has turned out for the better and the more I think about it, the more I might be inclined to refer to myself as Horsaii someday.

  11. This is my favourite post you've ever written. Thank you for your honesty and explanations.

  12. Ah - I misunderstood the paragraph that starts with "Normally". I thought you were going to also spell out your _current_ philosophy as it applies to those seven points and/or what happened with Tim and Tally. Not just tell you what you thought then.

  13. I can identify completely with the notion of every horse can be salvaged. It really rocked my world when I found one that could not, not as long as I was caring for it. Sometimes you just have to know your limits.

  14. Ah yes, I have one not quite as bad as Tally but could be, she was on a dude string after 30 days of training for 3 yrs then sold to a lady who trail rode her successfully a couple of years...then...let her tiny daughter have her for pony club :( This mare thought mindless circles and jumping were for the birds and she promptly dumped the kid several times, where upon then put her up. I ended up buying her from the local dealer for 900 bucks. She and I mesh well. Neither of us 'do' english, if you can go around it why the heck jump it! Slow is better than fast. Its taken a LOT of time to get her to respect me and I have no doubt at all she would throw a bucking fit if I popped a kid on her and asked for mindless circles. But for me she is solid and we have an
    agreement, or at least I think so :)

  15. Posts like these are why I had to go to the clinic, and I had to come out of my hole to post. I am learning and growing but unfortunately I am learning a lot of things the hard way. I didn't realize until my concussion last year that my lack of confidence in my training was one of the biggest problems with my training. I got on that horse after a sleepless night worrying that I had made a mistake, and my real mistake came when I got on him knowing I was pushing his limits, but feeling like I had to make sure I wasn't being too easy on him. Now I look back and get very angry at the part of myself that allows little comments from people, and self doubt to keep me from riding and living the way I want to.

  16. I totally feel for you Anon.

    The bad news, learning and growing doesn't seem to stop. Just yesterday I was thinking that I feel sorry for my gelding because he didn't get to have me as an owner back when I was still a good rider. I'm having to learn to ride with a different body than what I had 30 years ago. I bet he would have been so happy to have a rider who could match his athletic ability.

    The good news is, he really is learning to be the horse I want and need (except he's still 4 inches too tall). I really have learned to read him (and others), I've learned my limits and I've learned what I need to be safe and feel confident. The hell with the rest, and the hell with anyone watching and being critical.

  17. Anon - You got that right. Except, in order to successfully train, we can't even be angry with ourselves. Anger doesn't fit in with training horses. Not anywhere.
    Like you, I let outside comments plant doubt, then start wearing away at my knowledge and instincts.
    These days, i'm finding if I understand the reasons behind the critics, from their own insecurities, their need to prove themselves, actual input (there's a thought!) and just plain meanness, then I can let them go.
    I'm always looking for a better way, but have finally come to understand my way of doing things works pretty damn good.

  18. One of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn, and continue to learn is that you cannot teach "feel". On the rare occasions that someone does grasp it; it is the most wonderful thing to watch happen.. its like when a black and white picture is colorized.. but it is rare :)

    The other toughie was that a rider doesn't have to "feel" it to enjoy riding.. struggle with that one still.. how can you NOT want to improve, learn, grow both as an individual and with your horse?!? Still floors me that I ride with folks who do nothing more than get their horse out of the pasture, slap a saddle on them and sit like a sack of potatoes for several hours. BUT, their horses are well taken care of and they seem to enjoy the outings as much as their riders.. so I am trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to just breathe deep and enjoy the ride.

  19. Francis - Look at it this way. Can you imagine how tough it is for a horse lover to want all those things, but even after riding for years, they just can't "feel" what we want them to?
    It makes me much more sympathetic.

  20. Well here's another post for me to save. I'm getting requests for help with horse shopping. It's complicated. I have to know the rider well enough to figure out what she needs, get her to articulate what she wants or thinks she wants / needs, and then read the ad carefully to see what they're REALLY saying about the horse. If it gets as far as going to see the horse, I'll have to read him well enough to figure out if they'd be a good fit. (And yes I'm going to ask to be paid for this.)

    That's a lot of reading and figuring, eh?

    I'm still stubbornly clinging to the idea that riders can be taught "feel" and I use that word in lessons, but maybe expectations have to be lowered in some cases. I mean, I'm still trying to teach myself. So yeah maybe I'll let you know how that goes...

  21. As one of those people without 'feel,' it is not about not wanting to learn, or do better, or even improve the partnership with the horse. Some people have it, some people don't. Getting mad or uppity about it is like berating someone for not being tall enough to reach an item on the top shelf. The persistence of the "horse-whisperers-only" attitude is one of the things that makes it really difficult for the rest of us. Is it any wonder that there are so many half-baked 'trainers' out there when a lot of horse people act like only trainers deserve to own horses? Horsemanship ain't a clubhouse. It's not like there's limited space, and it sure as heck isn't that there aren't enough horses. I don't get why it's a personal affront that some of us who don't have special powers still like to ride and, heck, just to be around horses. So what if a lot of us feel lucky if we manage to ride twice a week, because the only way to afford our horses is to work long days at very stressful, decidedly horse-free jobs? As long as the animal is well cared for, what does it matter if it never reaches its "full potential" or does anything fancier than plod down the trail? Besides, all of those kind old packers who are too talentless and boring for the trainer types still need homes:)

  22. I really like the top shelf analogy! I have figured out that people enjoy their horses (and dogs) on different levels.. some have to compete and win .. some are happy to just look out at a pasture full of shiny horses. I am not into competition at this point in my life.. and many of mine are shiny pasture ponies.

  23. I have to disagree about teaching feel. I think you can teach feel, you just need an entirely different set of tools - and goals - when teaching a rider. It's about being explicit about the many small things riders do that are what we call "feel." And I think sometimes trainers don't want to teach it, or don't have the language to do so... But to say you either have or don't have it, is just not so. Even those riders with a natural feel have to develop it.

  24. I understand that, as well-intentioned as Tim and his fellow boarders were, it wasn't a good fit and he should have been directed to a more suitable horse. I did not intend to imply that everything was his fault. My point, my feeling, is that it was counterproductive for Tim to continue to be defensive after things went so badly. I was also alarmed that he allowed someone to tie Tally's leg up when she had such a violent flight response. I thought it could have ended very badly, with a terrified, mangled horse. I'm glad this didn't happen, though I am sorry that it was a difficult learning process for everyone involved. I hope that Tim and Tally went on to live happy lives.

    This post brought up some sobering realities for me. I have been the oblivious horse owner who had a great deal of affection for my horse. He died of colic when I was 16, and I have learned a lot since then, to the point I feel embarrassed to think of the mistakes I made with him. I always trying to do my best, but I was very young. He tolerated me with patience, but I wish I could have been better for him. These days, I still love seeing horses, reading about horses, browsing sale ads, and so on, but ownership is not an option, and is not likely to be in the foreseeable future. I admire people who keep getting back in the saddle.

    Heidi, I know what you mean about how complicated it can be to help someone find a horse. My mother has asked me to help her to buy another horse. The last time I did this for her, she selected a completely unsuitable youngster that was way beyond her ability. She did not listen to warnings about the horse's behavior during the test rides and ended up in the hospital on multiple occasions. I have directed her to a local training facility that specializes in matching riders with suitable horses. An objective opinion would be better all around. I don't want to be involved in the process at all.

  25. I really appreciate the honesty of this post, but I'm really struggling with discouragement after my last two encounters with professional trainers. The first nearly ruined my horse physically. The second was great for my horse but it's hard to describe succiently how demoralizing he was to me as an owner/rider. I just want to learn and do right by my horse and maybe even build some confidence, but that seems to be asking too much. Just wanted to let you know that there are owners out there who want to learn and are willing to work at it, but can't find a good trainer.