Category: Experiences Along the Way

Sample chapters from the book Experiences Along the Way by Joe Andrews


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.

Chapter 5

Picking Up Princess

We are not always presented with ideal situations. Sometimes we have to do a lot of adjusting and be willing to take the time to keep horse and human safe. Kim and I had been musing about this for weeks. Our friends were purchasing a weanling filly for their son’s birthday. Kim had been giving Paul lessons for about a year. In preparation for getting his own filly, he had been working with our young horses. Now it was time for us to pick up Princess.

    We had suggested that Princess be weaned with other foals in a corral and be given about two weeks away from her mother before she was moved to her new home. That would give them some time to begin to interact with her and reduce her stress by making this change in her life gradually. As circumstances would have it, things were not done that way. When the mare’s owner decided it was time to wean Princess, the filly was run into a small pen by herself and our friends were told to come get their horse. We made arrangements to pick up Princess that evening at 7:00; we didn’t have an opportunity to work with her before then. What a daunting task it was, to teach this baby to accept human touch, to become comfortable with a lead rope, to allow us to put a halter on her head, to give to pressure, to lead, to load into a trailer, and to travel safely starting so late at night! Our first priority was that Princess was not to get hurt, and we were not to get hurt. Safety was everything time was not an issue.

    I had a previous commitment that evening, so Kim went to meet Mike and his wife at the farm where Princess was waiting. There was junk all over the place; treasures to some. Kim negotiated the narrow, curved drive between a large manure pile and the round pen to a small turnaround. Access to the long row of pens was blocked by a hot walker; therefore, backing up to Princess’s pen was not an option. Kim found herself in a challenging situation. Not having had much human contact and having just lost the security of her mother, Princess was flighty. Princess’s pen, near the far end of the alley, was in poor repair. Jagged, broken boards, exposed nails, and piles of the kind of junk that collect on a farm over the years severely limited the amount of pressure that could be safely put on her. The foal next to Princess had a ghastly gash on the back of its front leg from an exposed T-post.

    When Mike and Kim entered Princess’s pen, they found one thing in their favor. Princess, who was hungry, had just been given a few flakes of hay. Her strong desire to get something to eat momentarily overrode her fear of people; therefore, touching her was not a problem. The hay drew her back when she left. As Kim started to introduce the halter, Princess, less hungry now, didn’t want anything to do with it and moved off. Determined to take the time it took to get this done without injury, Mike stationed himself about halfway down the pen, and Kim stayed near the hay by the gate, creating a kind of human round pen. Each time Princess ran past them they would reached out to touch her. As she quieted down, Mike and Kim gradually worked their way closer and closer together.

    Princess was making them devise ways to encourage her to want to be with them. Kim began to put a little more pressure on Princess by tossing a lead rope over Princess’s back when the filly came near Kim. Mike tried to make things soft and comfortable when Princess came near him. To get Princess even more comfortable with Mike, he switched places with Kim and let Princess have some more hay, because by then she was hungry again. While Princess was eating, Mike approached and retreated with the halter. Princess moved away a little, but for the most part, Mike could touch Princess’s ears, head, and neck. Princess would not allow the halter to go over her nose, but Mike slipped the lead rope around her neck and took it off and put it on again several times.

    Kim knew from experience what could happen the first time a young, nervous horse was asked to give to the pressure of the lead rope. She had to get Princess out of that pen. There was no room to drift with her, and the fences were so dangerous Princess would likely get hurt if she slammed into them, or she might flip over in a state of panic. By this time it was 9:30 P.M.. Again, time really wasn’t an issue, but it was interesting keeping track of how long each step in the progression took.

    Mike and Kim discussed their plan to get Princess from the pen to the trailer. Mike’s wife was stationed at the gate. After she opened the gate, she was to stand in the alley, blocking the path to the other horses. Kim would run to the other end of the alley, by the hot walker, and block the stallion pens. Because Mike could only get a lead rope around Princess’s neck, Kim talked to him about keeping a forty-five-degree angle on Princess. That forty-five-degree angle was his safety and power position to disengage the hind end. Kim mentioned all the things Princess might do out of self-preservation before she started to look for the release. And the most important thing was for Mike to NOT LET GO.

    When Mike’s wife opened the gate, Princess shot out with Mike in tow. Princess, weighing about 300 pounds, dragged Mike, weighing about 185 pounds, toward the mares before she turned. Mike kept the forty-five-degree angle the entire way and never let go. Princess ran again, Mike still in tow. This time, when she turned, she ran in circles around Mike before she stopped, frozen. Mike took this opportunity to pet her and let her settle. After Princess had calmed down, Mike moved off at an angle to start teaching her to lead, one step at a time; first a step to the right, then a step to the left. Princess’s first few steps were erratic, sometimes tentative, sometimes lunging forward or sideways. Kim explained to Mike that if Princess did elect to throw herself down, he must hold her head up with the rope to keep it from hitting the ground. By being persistent, and releasing for each forward movement, it was amazing how fast Princess seemed to go from panic to understanding. Soon Mike could lead her with a loop of slack in the rope, and when she did leave, she turned back as soon as she felt pressure.

    Try to imagine all the changes in Princess’s life up to this point. Next she was presented with a strange cave, the trailer. It sounded wrong and smelled strange, and the lighting was hard on her eyes. It must have looked like a death trap. By approaching and retreating, Mike asked Princess to stand near the trailer. She quickly became comfortable standing at the back of the trailer and sniffing it but would go no further.

    It was after 11:00 P.M. when I arrived. Mike and Kim were tired and were running out of ideas. I had another lead rope with me so that Princess could be haltered properly. By this time, she willingly accepted the halter. Mike had been reassuring Princess all evening by rubbing and petting her. Princess had become comfortable with his touch, and she was comfortable with me. I began asking her to step from side to side, trying to encourage her to try a step into the trailer. It looked, for a moment, like we might be making progress. Princess brought her hind feet under her for balance and lifted her front leg up to paw the trailer. Our hope, however, was short-lived. That was the extent of Princess’s try, and it seemed to convince her that we were asking her to do an impossible task.

    Princess had hit a plateau. She was comfortable with us, and she was comfortable standing just outside the trailer. It was time to make outside the trailer uncomfortable and inside the trailer a good place. Kim stood to the side of Princess and tapped her croup, stopping with the slightest indication that Princess was thinking about going forward. I was inside the trailer, encouraging Princess with the lead rope. Kim and I became good at timing our releases equally. It was as if we were reading each other’s mind. Princess began to understand. She tried many times to lift herself into the trailer. Knowing her final try would be a big one, I moved to the front of the trailer to give Princess plenty of room. She took all the room I gave her with one big leap into the trailer. It didn’t take Princess long to find the hay we had for her. Petting her as she ate, I made sure she was content before I slipped the halter off, leaving her loose in the trailer.

    It was 1:00 A.M. when we made the short drive to Princess’s new home. She was still eating the hay when we pulled in. I stepped into the trailer and haltered Princess like she had been doing it her entire life. She softly leapt out of the trailer and was led to her new paddock without incident. We had accomplished our goal: Princess had not been hurt, and we had not been hurt. It was incredible how much Princess learned in a few hours. We were all impressed with how her understanding developed with each step. Princess was a good find. Paul is one lucky kid. We knew he would be happy when he woke up.

Chapter 13


    “Where’s the camera?” Karen asked excitedly. She hurried toward the house, anxious to record what was happening. “No one is going to believe this if we don’t get a picture!

    Bob and Karen had been sitting in the shade of their gooseneck trailer with Beauty’s owner. When Karen saw me take my saddle off the fence, she came over to the round pen for a closer look. When Bob saw the saddle slide onto Beauty’s back, and Beauty just stood there, he joined Karen. There was one minor glitch when I clumsily dropped the rear cinch. The buckle hit Beauty in the flank and she squirted forward, dropping my saddle on the ground. I calmed Beauty and set my saddle on her back again. This time I managed to cinch it up without startling her. That’s when Karen went for her camera.

    With Karen shooting pictures, I moved Beauty around on the end of the lead rope. Soon I was climbing the fence to give Beauty the experience of seeing someone above her. It didn’t take long at all for Beauty to find a place to stand next to me. She really seemed to take comfort in being near me. I rubbed her, patted the saddle, leaned over so she could see me on both sides of her at the same time, and moved the off-side stirrup around. That’s when Michael, Beauty’s owner, left the shade and came down to the pen.

    Putting my leg over Beauty’s back several times, and rubbing my foot across her rump just behind the saddle, I satisfied myself that those things didn’t trouble her. Staying committed to the fence, I briefly eased into the saddle. Having repeated that several times, to make sure it was not a fluke that Beauty stayed calm, I let go of the fence with one hand and petted Beauty’s neck as I sat there on her back. It seemed like a good spot to stop for the day.

   “I thought Beauty was supposed to be a dangerous horse,” I heard Karen say as I was taking the saddle off and brushing Beauty’s back.

    “She is a dangerous horse,” I joked. “Someone’s going to get around her and start liking Arabs.”

    The first time I worked with Beauty, I had expected to spend the entire session in the pasture following her around, looking for an opportunity to back off and draw her to me. She had the reputation of being impossible to catch. As I approached, there were several other horses around her. I took my time, petting each one as I worked my way toward Beauty. By the time I got to her, Beauty was interested in getting some of that attention, too. I rubbed her a little, rubbed another horse that was within reach, rubbed Beauty again, and simply put a halter on her.

    I led Beauty to the round pen, turned her loose, and began grooming her. If she stood still, I curried and brushed her. If she walked off, I drove her away just a little faster than she left on her own. I would keep a little pressure on Beauty by walking toward her until she looked my way. By backing off, I encouraged her to stop with her attention on me. Then I would approach her and continue grooming. Soon Beauty was staying with me and was even following me around the pen. I had to drive her off so that I could work on catching her.

    Alternating between working at liberty and doing ground work in the halter, I “caught” Beauty at least half a dozen times. I would walk right up to her, put my arm over her neck, and hold the nose band of the halter open. Beauty would look for the halter, put her nose in the opening, and slide it up her face. So much for being impossible to catch.

    The next week, when I went back to work with Beauty, her owner asked if I could get her into a trailer. I only had an hour, and I needed to spend some time developing my ability to place her feet. I spent the first half-hour in the round pen getting Beauty’s attention and moving her feet with the feel I had through the lead rope. When I could lead her past me, step her hip over, back her up, and step her shoulder over, I went to the trailer. With only half an hour left to work on trailer loading, I could not promise that Beauty would get in the trailer that day, but it would be a good start.

    Beauty was apprehensive about the trailer. She stopped just before stepping on the ramp and was looking for a way to leave. I petted her and stepped her feet back and forth, just like I had done in the round pen. Soon Beauty’s front foot stepped on the ramp. I praised her and petted her, then took her away from the trailer. I wanted to create a spot a little ways away from the trailer where Beauty could relax and be with me. I alternated between moving Beauty up to the trailer and taking her back to our nice place. When I sent Beauty away from our spot, I did as little directing as possible; just enough to keep her headed toward the trailer. When she stopped in front of the trailer, I directed her forward and encouraged her to take another step by tapping her with the end of the lead rope. Rewarding each try, and praising her a lot, developed Beauty’s confidence. Before my time was up, Beauty was walking in and backing out of the trailer calmly.

    I had no intention of saddling Beauty that third session, let alone sitting on her back. I had never gotten so far with a horse in such a short time. However, she was doing extremely well, and the saddle was there on the fence. It just seemed like the thing to do. I made sure Beauty was okay with each step before proceeding, and she accepted whatever I did with her. I was astonished when Michael, thanking me for the work I had done, said, “We thought for a long time that Beauty was an untrainable little mare.”

Chapter 16

Supporting Curl

    My stomach came up into my chest and I got short of breath as I saw the commotion below me. We were descending a very narrow set of switch-backs on a steep hillside. Kit’s horse had spooked dropping a foot over the edge. It was a tense moment, but they recovered nicely. I was glad to be on the ground leading my horse.

    I had gotten off Curl a couple of miles earlier, on top of the narrow ridge. Years of dude string use had worn the trail into a deep rut and Curl was having a problem with that. The ridge was narrow enough I did not feel comfortable with the way she kept jumping out of the rut, so I chose to walk. Now we were coming off that ridge into the valley below.

When I reached the bottom, Linda commented on how nice it was that I had a horse I could lead down a narrow trail like that. She said her horse would crowd her too much and she felt safer on its back. I pointed out that I had been working on having Curl stay back for two miles before we got to the switch-backs. Even though I had been doing a lot of walking on this trail ride, I was getting some good things accomplished with my horse.

    We were in an area none of us had ridden before, the map we had was not detailed enough, and Curl was very green. All that boiled down to having a good ride until the group became confused. We would be riding along nicely, come to a trail junction, and in the midst of the groups indecision, Curl would just fall apart. I didn’t feel capable of handling the situation well in the saddle, so when ever that happened, I got off and walked a ways. When the group was more focused, and Curl was in a good frame of mind, I got back on. I walked about eight miles that weekend, and Curl got exposed to a lot of varied terrain that I don’t have around home, without me over exposing her because of my lack of ability to handle it well from the saddle. I was concerned that I may be teaching Curl to act up whenever she wanted to get out of doing something; that proved not to be the case. It actually was a turning point in our relationship. After that experience I was much more able to support her when she was troubled, or should I say, she was much more able to trust my support?

    Here is my take on it. Horses know their survival depends on the herd leader. They are much more at ease following a leader, but, because of the way leadership is tied to their survival, they are ready to assume the leadership role. In other words, when I failed to be a worthy leader Curl’s self-preservation came up, and she took over with ideas of her own. There is an awful lot involved in being a worthy leader. Having a clear plan in mind just happened to be the aspect of leadership that Curl initially reacted to. My insecurity in handling her in that situation, quickly led to an avalanche of failure in other aspects of leadership. By getting off I was able to put aside that insecurity, and could again be a worthy leader. There was no magic in getting off, it was just what I needed to do for me to make the necessary change in my mental state. By giving Curl the experience of being able to trust me to be a worthy leader, our relationship strengthened. This is what I see as supporting the horse, being a worthy leader.

Chapter 19

Patterns and Feel

    I was puzzled as I watched Krista working her horse in the hay field. I liked how soft and responsive Little Bit seemed. She went out on a circle with very gentle direction and no additional support. She stepped her hind foot under nicely, rocked back and came across with the shoulder; it all looked good. I’d been trying to help Krista figure out why some days she had an extraordinarily good time, and other days she was barely able to keep Little Bit under control. I knew this inconsistency should show up in the ground work. Then it hit me. As good as it looked physically, there was no mental connection between them. I asked Krista if she would like to see a different way to put her ground work exercises together, just to break up the monotony. She agreed, offering me the leadrope.

    Leaving the shade of the cottonwood tree, I walked out into the grass, still damp from the last irrigating. I asked Little Bit to move her shoulder one step. She went out on a circle. I stopped her and tried again with the same result. Bending Little Bit toward me, I asked for her hip to yield away one step. Little Bit walked her hind end around her front end for half of a circle and lined up facing me. Although Little Bit was moving calmly and responding to very soft suggestions, the feel I presented was not communicating my intent; it was cueing a pattern. That’s where the mental connection had broken down.

    This is exactly what Bill Dorrance talks about on page 343 of his book, True Horsemanship Through Feel. He says, “Don’t get into a pattern and repeat the same thing over and over again because the horse will stay more responsive to your feel if there’s variety worked into the things you do with him. The main problem with patterns is that the horse gets so he can’t follow a feel outside that pattern. You don’t want the horse to get an idea that he should be making any moves towards something he thinks is correct if it means that he avoids your feel to do it, because that’s the horse taking over, and he’s liable to do that if he’s just rehearsing those patterns.”

    A hawk landed in one of the trees at the edge of the field and seemed to watch me as I worked with Little Bit one step at a time. I prepared her, getting the right bend in her body and shifting her balance to unweight the foot I wanted her to move. Then I did as little as possible to move that foot, releasing as soon as the movement started. If Little Bit did more than I asked, I stopped her and put her feet back where I wanted them. This level of precision resulted in getting her mind. Little Bit concentrated on me, understanding and acting on my intent.

    Several months later, while Krista and I were riding up on the mesa behind the ranch, I commented on how great it was to have a calm, steady horse like Little Bit along to support my youngster. I was impressed with the adjustment Krista had made. Breaking out of her own pattern, she and Little Bit had regained their mental connection. Now Little Bit was the calm, consistent horse she had been striving for.

Chapter 31

The Gift of a Ride

    I was really enjoying this ride! The trail following Middle St. Vrain Creek into the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area was beautiful. I loved the aroma of the pines, the sound of the rushing brook cascading down the rocks, the freshness of the cool mountain air. But it was how well my horse, Prince, and I were communicating that was making this ride so special. Months of effort had blossomed into a thrilling unity.

    For the most part, I let Prince decide how to negotiate the rocky trail; but there were spots where I would make that decision, and guide him with a light neck rein. When Prince looked off into the woods, concerned about a sound or smell, I reassured him by rubbing the reins lightly against his neck. If he got interested in grass along side the trail, lifting the reins slightly repositioned his head. I marveled at the subtlety of our communication and reminisced about how it got to be this way.

    First, I quit pulling Prince around with the reins. Instead, I used the reins to help shape and balance him. It was my responsibility to prepare him for the step I wanted. When I did this, the reins became a lot more meaningful.

    Next I began to steer by focusing on where I wanted to go, directing Prince’s attention to that place, and allowing his natural curiosity to take him there. This opened the door to a whole new level of lightness. I found it didn’t take much to direct his attention, perhaps a slight lifting of the rein, the rolling of a toe, or even just shifting my body. With this approach, I became much more in tune with Prince, mentally.

    Being more aware of Prince’s attention enabled me to anticipate his apprehension. By noticing sooner, it took less to support him and he gave me a higher level of trust. It was as if Prince decided I wasn’t out to lunch after all. I was there for him when he needed me, and all it took to reassure him was rubbing him lightly on the neck with the reins.

    The last step toward lightness involved blending in with Prince’s movements. I needed to do more than just stay loose; I needed to feel the movement. Feeling that movement and going with it eliminated the brace Prince used to protect himself from my jolting in the saddle. That made it easier for him to negotiate the rough terrain.

    Eating my lunch in a grassy meadow by the creek, I felt so small. I was awed by the magnificence of the cliffs towering above me and humbled by the gift Prince had given me.

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