“No Hats No Saddles People”
Since I was 12 years old people have been telling me that you can’t do that with horses… dogs… pigeons… crows… rabbits… rodents… raccoon… and one African Lioness. Even at this early age I had heard of people doing wonderful things training all kinds of animals. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid but I did manage to read every horse and dog book in the small town library. I quickly realized that many of the training principles were basic and common to all forms of training. One of the things I noticed is that each type of animal had different behavior characteristics, this influenced how they related to you. I didn’t formalized my understanding of it, I just did it. Some things I did, I would never do again, but many things I have refined on my own or through experiences with other knowledgeable people.
At the age of 13 I had my first obedience, liberty, and bridleless/saddleless trained horses. One of these in particular was my first real horse friend. He and my black lab went everywhere and did everything together. People got tired of saying you can’t do that because I kept coming back doing it. They would shake their heads when they would see me ride through town without tack, go home for lunch and leave my horse and dog on the lawn in a down-stay command. I figured that if I could teach my SPCA dog not to chase cattle through fences but to actually herd them, to hunt, pull a cart, and be a buddy to my pigeon and horse, heck it couldn’t be that hard to teach a slaughter house special to do the same. There wasn’t any Natural Horsemanship people around my area to show me pressure release games, so I figured it out on my own. However quaint it might have been, it was none the less communication.
Other People’s Projects
I couldn’t afford my own horse nor did I have any room for one at our house in town. So the only chances I had to be with horses was with other peoples’ projects – usually when they weren’t around. I wasn’t into “the rodeo buck them out” thing then and even less now. When I would see people try to buck out a horse and scare the hell out of them, I would sneak in at nights and go play with them. At first it upset some of these owners because they lost their sadistic thrill of watching a bunch of young and not so young want-to-be cowboys use their heads to break their falls.
The biggest thing I noticed was that these poor horses were terrified and many of them were just fighting for their lives. I trained several of these projects. I was turned off from the whole thing when my favourite was killed by a kick from a draft horse in the field. The final straw was when a Standardbred I had been re-training was raced before he was conditioned properly and died as a result of an injury in a race that I had refused to take part in. This all over a bet fabricated in a bar.
At the Track
At sixteen I managed to get a job at the race track with Standardbred horses. This came close to being a lifetime possibility if someone would have been willing to teach me how to train. At this time I was about ready to do anything to learn.
I mucked out stalls for 23 horses from 5:00am. till noon. Then I prepared horses for training till 5-6:00 pm. Then it was time to get horses ready for races 4 out 7 nights. These nights I could be seen cooling down three horses at a time, often dangling, suspended between them, till midnight. Fortunately the cafeteria knew of me and the length of my days and would leave the back door open so I could play pin-ball while they cooked me my midnight supper. I went to sleep in the tack room because I was going to be there shortly anyway and that saved time.
During this period every spare minute I had was spent playing with one of the 23 horses that they never had time for with 2 1/2 staff. They kept commenting how good the horses were yet they spent such little time with them. After six weeks I quit because it was apparent that the promised help and training opportunity were not coming any time soon.
This was the end of the horse thing for a while but I did manage in my late teens and early twenties, to play with dogs, an African Lioness, and a bit with a wolf. Very few people around knew much about them. The lioness was a salvage situation where a wonderful friend and I decided that however little we knew of lions we could provide a much better home for this cub then what it had. After a couple days of putting more wear and tear on my Motocross leathers then 3 years of racing ever did we started to research big time.
Our studies led us to believe that when Lisa became fearful and aggressive that we should offer our heads to rub which is a sign of friendship and also vulnerability. With reluctance I tried it but sure enough it worked well. We then applied many other behaviours common to lions to help become a good and unusual friend. Needless to say we left many a camper mouth open on our canoeing trips with a Great Dane, Lion, and a little white Heinz 57 dog.
At 21 year old I went to University and challenged the courses as a mature student as I had never graduated from grade ten. This I did on the advice of a drama professor at the University. It was an eye opener to say the least. I had always been interested in Physical Education and I eventually graduated with a degree in Physical Education as well as Certifying in Education. Even though I received an invitation to do my Masters, I decided that the practical component was more for me. An important skill I learned in my studies was analyzing skills in its live form or in video which would prove invaluable down the rode.
Go West Young Man
I went west after graduating to see about starting a fitness facility and found my wife instead. While in Calgary Karen and I inherited a project horse from her sister. Cheryl was quite good with horses but not having enough time for this horse, decided that it was better to pass him on to us. After changing this horses’ attitude toward being a good riding horse we sold him because one horse was not enough for the both of us and our situation was not adequate for more.
The fitness industry took us to the East Kootenays in British Columbia where we ended up getting back into horses to get away from the pressures of work. In short order we were addicted to them again. We soon were raising, training, and showing the gaited Peruvian Pasos.
For a while we ended up getting caught up in the traditional training methods for these horses but soon realized this was not for us. Some of the techniques were great and applied to all horses but some never suited any horse – being hung up in folklore that defied good horsemanship. Soon we went back to what we knew had been right all along. We bought up a bunch of beautiful, difficult horses and turned them into Champion horses. Back in those days we called them obedience trained horses. Karen and I had a reputation for developing bombproof horses. We eventually worked our way into getting some good breeding stock where we contested every division and developed a liking for exhibitions.
Paso people in general kept saying how different these horses were from any other breed and that these Peruvian training methods were the only method to train them – even if it destroyed many of them. There had been some good Peruvian trainers then, but most were not necessarily great clinicians. What they said was often not what they did. Unfortunately many participants ended up with bastardized versions of what they may have truly meant.
One of the best was Sixto Chavez. Some of what Sixto did was magic, but much was lost in the interpretation and translation. To this day I still remember him twirling a horse like Dr. Deb Bennett explains so well. His horses were totally released at the poll and could Gateado because the topline was relaxed and the bottom line could drive in a powerful crawling position like a cat.
The philosophies that affected me the most were those of the Dorrance brothers, Ray Hunt, and those of Classical riding. Other clinicians that left notable impressions on me were Deb Bennett, Harry Whitney, John Lyons, and Pat Parelli. Others also had a role in shaping me, such as the video I saw of Freddie Knei and his family of horsemen doing things that were natural to horses but so impressively formated in a circus type presentation. Also new people like my email buddy Allen Pogue who practices Circensic Dressage (Circus tricks & Dressage) with his version of endo-tapping techniques (relaxation cue or form used in training) developed by J.P. Giacomini.
Along the way I borrowed anything that made it easier for the horse to learn, regardless of their portfolio. Also I find that all of these good trainers do is teach the horse to relax by making what is natural to them a cue, to teach them what they were naturally capable of doing on cue. All of them cater to the horses’ needs while developing them into obedient, athletic partners.
This has tremendously influenced my melting pot of a philosophy. Consider the horse first and foremost. Understand it from the horse’s perspective. Teach them in their language with respect and compassion. Liberate and focus their natural abilities. Entice them to follow your lead in the Dance because they want to join the celebration. So it doesn’t matter to a horse what hat you wear or what saddle you ride in – what matters is the attitude of positive partnership and mutual respect, where your ideas (horses’ and yours) become one.
This is no small task but a worthy journey indeed. To understand your horse is to understand yourself because the two are entwined. The implications of this as a clinician is that if the horse and rider have an understanding that doesn’t prevent them from progressing to where they want to go, then leave what they have going for them alone. Communication is just that, however varied or quaint – if it works, who am I to say it is not the way? Change what needs to be changed, leave interpersonal differences alone. This is the spice in life.
Learn to Relate
I have found that the biggest difference between different disciplines is the degree one applies the same principle. Doma Vaquera, Reining, Dressage are less far apart then most would ever want to admit to. Those who understand horses and know a horse is a horse, first and foremost, are freed from these limitations that preset, shortsighted visions form. My desire is to help people relate to their horses so that they can learn to dance with their horses in whatever dance style they care to. The fundamentals of expressions are the same, the end product is left to the artistic rendition of the partnership.
The horse was bred to dance so the challenge for us is to enhance their expression and to facilitate it. After training many difficult horses for resale or for other people, I realized that the challenge was not the horses – but to assist those who would ride them to be more effective in their relationships with them.
A multitude of factors and experiences led me to where I am in my journey in a being a student of the horse. One of the most important being listening to yourself as well as your horse. Most people have better intuition than they think. It is a matter of discarding the fluff from the true substance. We all have to progress in our partnerships while being true to our style but in consideration of what is true and meaningful to the horse.
People need to learn to be independent thinkers – therefore self-confident, extrinsically and intrinsically knowledgeable. Many people have the aptitude to undertake this wonderful journey and maybe I will have the opportunity to facilitate it with what I have learned in my experiences. I am learning every day with every horse and rider. My Goal is to see more people having extraordinary and creative relationships with horses – enjoying them for what they are. To do this we have to look within ourselves and accept the blame for failure and not our horses. If we can make it understandable by simplifying it into small achievable steps and keep it interesting to them, the sky is the limit.