It Takes More Than Technique
I would like to pass on to you something that was handed down to me. It is a nontraditional approach to training horses. This approach develops a relationship with a horse based on trust, understanding, and communication. It comes from adjusting to fit the individual horse you are dealing with at any particular moment. The best way to describe this way of helping horses, without it sounding too much like a recipe, is to share my actual experiences with you. If it were possible, I would sit down with you on a grassy hillside in the warm afternoon sun some late spring day and swap stories about the horses we have ridden. Short of that, I offer you the stories in this book. Let me start by introducing myself.
The son of missionary parents, I spent my early years on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in northern Nevada. It was ranching country, where most people raised registered Herefords and alfalfa hay. We lived in town, and most of my horse riding experiences consisted of riding Smokey, my grandfather’s horse, when we visited his farm in southern Idaho.
I have a distinct memory of a severe fall I took at about nine years of age. This memory revisited me years later in the form of a vivid flashback. The pinto pony I was riding was trying his hardest to keep up with his friend, a larger palomino mare that was galloping down the side of the road. I remember the feeling of being totally out of control and then the saddle slipped. I fell into the bar ditch and ended up against a fence post. I got a lump on my head and my ribs hurt something awful. The next day I had the nicest horseshoe-shaped bruise on my backside. After that, I don’t think I rode a horse again except for a few rides on Smokey until I met Kim.
Kim loved horses. While we were dating, she talked me into renting horses and riding with her. By the time we got married, Kim had me convinced that we would buy our own horses someday. We started saving spare change and using it to buy tack. One Christmas we bought each other saddles. I made a pair of saddle racks, and we kept our saddles in the corner of the bedroom. After we bought our first house, we were able to get our first horses and use the tack we had been collecting. It was on one of those first rides on our new horses that I had the flashback of my childhood fall. I saw the palomino mare. I smelled the freshly burned bar ditch. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of being totally out of control. I’m not sure which scared me the most feeling the saddle start to slip or seeing and smelling things that weren’t there.
Kim and I only wanted two horses. We had a camper and trailer and enjoyed taking our horses to the mountains on weekends. One Friday morning, just before a weekend trip, my mare Tippy presented us with a foal. It was a complete surprise, so we named him Sirprize and canceled our camping trip. When Sirprize had become my main riding horse, and his mother was hardly getting any use, we decided to sell the mare so that we could get back to having just two horses. Within a couple of months of selling Tippy, we were given Chip. Because we couldn’t seem to only have two horses, we decided to try to get the horses to pay for themselves. Things just got out of hand from that point.
When I first became interested in training horses, I wasn’t thinking of horsemanship, I was looking for answers to problems. I would go to clinics, thinking maybe this person would have the answer. My horse, however, didn’t always respond the way the horse at the clinic responded. I began to understand that these clinicians had something I didn’t have. As I became aware of horsemanship, I could see there was more to it than learning a certain technique. Different techniques were needed to fit different situations. I thought that horsemanship must be the ability to know which technique to use. With that in mind, I set out to develop a large tool kit of techniques gathered from different sources.
I went to see clinicians like Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, John Lyons, and Pat Parrelli whenever they were in my area. I studied their books and videos, along with other books and tapes by classically trained authors. I applied these techniques to a variety of horses, in a variety of situations. As valuable as I found these techniques, what helped me understand horsemanship the most was a change in my attitude toward training. I found I needed to work with each horse as an individual, adjusting my actions to fit that horse. And, I was introduced to the idea of actually communicating my intention to the horse through the feel I present, rather than conditioning a horse to respond without thinking to a specific cue.
A mental connection occurs when you work with this kind of feel. I have seen horses change how they are acting simply because I took hold of the lead rope. It is like shaking hands with fifty different people. Some of those handshakes would feel good to you, some would be too firm, some would be too soft, and some would make you want to go wash your hands. If your job depended on how people felt about your handshake, you would learn how to have a handshake that felt good. Horsemanship runs deeper than learning a set of principles. It is about developing the skill to fit the individual horse, to offer that good handshake, and make a mental connection.
It takes experience, measured not only in time but also in the variety of horses you work with, to develop this skill. I hope that the stories in this book will help you develop your own horsemanship skills. So, let me tell you a story or two.