Breaking vs Training vs Relationship

bronc We’ve all seen the rodeo bronc rider-and we may have ridden a few bucks in our days of riding. I know I have-none as seriously into as a rodeo horse, but definitely intended to deposit my fanny somewhere other than where it was at the time. Only one consistently successful was a Shetland pony mare who, as it happened, foaled the next day. No one had a clue. But she could buck!

Most of us are pretty much of the persuasion (or at least I hope we are) that the old grab a wild one out of the corral, rope him, throw a saddle on him, and climb up with the objective of riding the bucks out of the horse ‘eventually’ is at best ineffective, hard on both man and horse, and makes for a horse that is never totally reliable. Any time you train with force and fear you can never truly trust that the training will hold when you need it the most.

But it was fast-or so they thought at the time. We now know that if you take enough time to start with that it will take less time in the long run. I know for a fact it sure does save a lot of wear and tear on both human and horse.

lunging But if you don’t do it that way, do you do it this way? Do you use all the straps, bits, lines, and gimmicks? Don’t get me wrong-I’ve got a few in my barn. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. What I can tell you now-after 50 years of study, experimentation, and a lot of thought-is this-most of this stuff is pretty damn near useless and is humans trying to find a way to shortcut their way into doing things correctly. Bottom line-if you aren’t getting the result that you want, you aren’t asking the horse the correct question. It is not the horse that is wrong-it’s you. And it nearly knocked me on my fat fanny when I realized that.

dressagesans Which brings me to this-why are we still requiring dressage competitors to use double bridles, spurs, and a dressage whip, when you can get the exact same frame as Xenophon’s horse without a bridle or a saddle? Dressage should be about the communication between horse and rider, shouldn’t it? In its purest form, you should not need anything. What do you see with this horse? Face is vertical, fully collected, round and beautiful sitting trot. Isn’t this what we are really after?

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Most People Think That They Are Seeing The Whole Picture-They Aren’t


This is a print by an artist named Bev Dolittle that I happen to admire greatly. Her talent is amazing. I own several of her limited edition prints although this is not one of them. I can’t afford it. But it is the one that drew me to her-because there is so much more to be seen in her work.

People do this with horses-they look at what the Natural Horsemanship clinicians and practioners are doing and think “well, shoot, I can wiggle a rope and wave a stick around”-and they might even get initial results. The problem lies in the fact that there is so much MORE to it that merely that. It lies in timing, watching the horse’s reactions, knowing the horse’s personality, knowing your own personality, knowing whether both of you are right that second in time, bringing the correct ask, looking for the correct response, giving the correct reward at the precise right instant. All of this happens in the blink of an eye. It takes practice, skill, and determination to do. You do not just attend one event and come away an expert on the techniques-although, Lord Knows, many have tried and gone on to bad mouth natural horsemanship.

Back to Dolittle’s work-you see trees, snow, and a red fox, right? Look more closely. There are also two braves riding appaloosas through the trees. Ah! Now you can’t un-see them. Life is like that. It’s like stopping and getting to know just a little something about a beggar on a street-once you do, you’ll see all of them as real people with real stories and real problems. Nothing is ever the same again. 

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Pebble In Your Shoe

Okay, so this isn’t about your shoes-or is it? You’ll have to decide.

Got to thinking-how often do you check the fit of the saddle? Oh, I know you do when you first get it, but after that? If you’re like most people, the answer-never. Why is that?

Saddles are to horses like a shoe is to us-they encase a sensitive weightbearing portion of their anatomy. They have to move and carry weight while wearing them. So do our feet. If the fit is off-or a pebble gets in there, major pain and everybody gets cranky.

For horses-depending somewhat on breed and individual temperament-you’ll get anything from a stoic, slight unwillingness to work, to snapping at you when the offending saddle is brought out and girthed up (oh, you thought the horse was just being ‘cinchy’? Think again),  to bolting and outright runaways, and sometimes rodeo bucking. If anyone is around who is at all knowledgeable-and, I swear to the heavens above, these people seem to be in woefully short supply, if they check the horse’s back and girth area, the edema, swelling, and tenderness will be readily apparent. Sometimes there can be even be raw open sores.
“But the saddle fit when I got it!”

Uh, huh. Heard that one before.

Lots of things happen. The horse was two then-and then matured. That means the horse grew-in height, width, muscle mass. The saddle didn’t change, but the horse did. Oops.

Or you were only riding one-two days a week at most when you got the saddle. Now you are riding  6-and usually 2-3 hours at a time. Your horse’s build has changed with the work. Things are very different now.

The opposite is also true-if you quit riding, the horse also changes shape-gets rounder and flabbier. They’re no different from us.

They also change with age. That back can start to sway a bit. Maybe you need to correct for bridging. Or there’s been an injury and there’s a crookedness now that didn’t used to be there. Perhaps your saddle got warped from sitting in a hot car trunk and you didn’t realize it and that’s causing problems. Have you checked?

And while we’re here-do NOT use your hand to check fit. When was the last time you rode with your hand under the saddle? I don’t believe I ever have. How should you check it? Nifty tool sitting in your kitchen called a spatula. The thin metal ones are best. They should slide easily between the horse and saddle. Too tight-problem. Too easy-problem. Nice consistent tension-just right.

Now check that girth for being really clean and go riding.

Learning the Right Way

This is something that, in my experience, 99% of people will not take the time to do. Oh, there’ll be those who will SAY they do and some of them will even do to the lengths of hanging out a shingle of being a “certified ___ level trainer of the ____ ” school of thought. I know, I know-there are a boatload of trainers out there and there are almost as many YouTube videos decrying each and every one of them because of ……….

Let me tell you my thoughts. A real professional doesn’t need to bad mouth anybody. They just don’t. It isn’t necessary. You find somebody who is trying to tear somebody down? RUN LIKE HELL. They have issues that you do not want to deal with and one of them is going to be ‘it’s my way or the highway’. They’re control freaks.

Look for somebody who takes lessons and who is humble enough to know that there is still something to learn-in equitation, horsemanship, horsekeeping, psychology, education of horses and people, nutrition, farriery, dentistry, massage therapy, etc.  Make sure that you check to make sure that the lessons have changed over time to reflect advances in knowledge. But also make sure that there is a deep respect for the ways of old that worked.

Just going with the clinician that is popular or the one that your barn favors may or may not be the best idea. I know it can be hard to be the only one who does _____ in a barn that does something else. I’ve been there. Remember this-you can teach them some new stuff-I know I did and started a number of them questioning what they were doing. It’s okay to do that.

Where did I end up? Parelli. I’m not totally on board with everything, but it comes closest to what I want. More later.

The Path of Horsemanship

I won’t lie-I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about horses. Downright cocky in fact. I’d owned and ridden horses for 20 years and read absolutely everything I could possibly get my hands on. Tried out a great deal of it and, in my arrogance, thought I was pretty good at it.

  • Then along came an invitation to go see a fellow do a demo on horsemanship nearby. He was from California at the time and rode a pretty little black Quarter mare. He started doing a bunch of things in that arena that I had never seen done with a horse. Then he worked with some horses some people had brought in-and problems just disappeared. Didn’t use all the whips, bits, and straps that I knew about. Instead there was a simple rope halter and a 12 foot lead.

He brought a black stallion into Ithe arena that he’d just gotten out of Canada. Said he’d been told the horse could buck-and the horse really put on a show doing exactly that. The man said that there once was a time when he would have ridden that horse bucking like that, but now he did things differently. He told the story of the horse-and why he had trust issues. Then he started working with him.

I still thought there had to be some sort of funny business going on. A year or so later, I got an invitation to another event of this man’s but up in North Carolina. The invitation was an email and I wrote back for some reason or other telling the person that I didn’t believe this stuff and that it had to be phony. She wrote back-and offered me free tickets if I’d just go. Since this was a two day all day thing, and I could take a friend, oh, heck why not?

Best thing I ever did-for several reasons.

  • I got a huge heaping dose of humility. (The most dangerous person in the world is the one who thinks they know it all-and they know not what they don’t know. Run from them.)
  • I met Natural Horsemanship head on-and found out that my knowledge base had huge gaping holes in it.
  • I met Pat and Linda Parelli. (Didn’t make an impression on them, but they did me.)
  • I learned about Stolen Horse International from Debi Metcalfe-who is now a friend, too!
  • I learned that taking the time that it takes takes less time.
  • I learned that the horse is never wrong-you asked the wrong question.
  • and there was much more.

I’ll never learn everything-I know that now. I’m grateful for that lesson. But I will confess to one thing-now when I see the things that I bought and used on my horses hanging in my tack room, I hang my head in shame and apologize to my horses.  I will never do those things again.