Sunday, July 28, 2013


     When I talk to people, the issue of bonding keeps coming up.  I think though, that bonding is an incorrect concept, I believe trust is a better word for it but, ah well, people can call it what they will.
     Sure, it's nice to feed and groom your horse.  He likes it and we as people are gratified by doing it.  It helps you to get to know your horse better and the two of you can enjoy each other much like horses in the pasture who show affection with one another by grooming.  Grooming is an important social skill in the herd.  In general though, proper and frequent handling of horses helps them to be better "broke" in the sense of ease and safety (safety being a major issue).
     But, I truly believe that there is no replacement for having a working relationship with your horse.  No amount of grooming or cooing over a horse will give you that special relationship that working together as a team will.  Horses are not big dogs, they do not feel loyalty or gratitiude just because you throw them a flake of hay. Feeding your horse treats by hand only spoils him and can create a nasty biting habit.  Many horses who are spoiled through their owner's attempt to bond become resistant, stubborn, belligerant and even angry when asked to do something they don't want to do.  Remember, horses are herd animals, not human buddies. 
     If you're having problems learning to ride your horse and work as a team with him, the solution will not come through spoiling him and just handling him from the ground.  No amount of treats and petting will change a thing but your horse will be happy to take advantage of you in the meantime.  To really be a team with your horse, you must build trust through riding and working with your horse.  And if you aren't experienced enough to get through issues alone, you must find a coach, trainer or other person who is experienced in building teams.  
     Hopefully you got your horse with the intention of doing something with him and not just looking at him in the pasture so, next time you think about bonding, think about riding and building a trusting team instead.  I hope this thought helps!  See you next week, JD.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Choosing a Trainer or Coach

     Obviously, you must like, and hopefully respect or come to respect, the person you choose as a trainer or coach because you will be spending a lot of time and money with this person.  But, there are many other things to consider too which can make your time together much better.
     Often, I see people attempting to seek help from professionals who have little or no experience or expertise in the area the person is interested in.  In such a case, lasting results are rare and if you think about it, it really makes no sense for you to pay someone to "learn on the job" in the discipline you want to compete in or learn about. 
     To find a good match in a trainer or coach, you need to determine what your goals are.  You need to be realistic.  If you have an average horse and you don't have the money or inclination to purchase a higher quality horse, it's probably not a good idea to go to a trainer who's only interested in taking clients to Nationals or World.  Reality is, that trainer will probably never bother to know your horse's name, much less ever throw a leg up on him - and hopefully, they'll tell you this outright before they take your money. 
     Training and teaching styles are definitely something to consider too.  The methods used must suit not only you but also your horse.  No trainer succeeds with all horses.  You also need to think about what you're looking for personally.  Do you want to improve and learn, reach a goal, improve in the show ring?  Or, do you just want a safe hobby or maybe some social interaction?   No coach or teacher is right for everyone.  We all learn differently and we all teach differently.  Barn atmospheres vary greatly too.  Are you comfortable at the barn?  Do you look forward to your time at the barn (you should!)?  Are people too chatty, just wanting to talk when you want to ride or do they just want to ride and focus when you'd really like someone to talk to? 
     The trust factor is a very important component to consider.  Can you trust the welfare of your horse with this person?  Is he or she reliable?  There are some very talented people who for many reasons might not be good stewards for your or your horse's safety and welfare.  Are they too busy to help you when you get outside your comfort zone?  If you are not advanced in your skills and knowledge, they might not be a good choice for you.
     Lastly, training philosphies should make sense.  Training is not "gobbledy gook" it must be based on sound fundamentals and techniques that take you and horse through steps and achieve results - no matter what your goal is.  Hopefully I've given you some things to consider and, just like Goldilocks, you can find a trainer or coach, as well as a barn, that's "not too hot, not too cold, but just right!".  See you next week!  JD

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Different Viewpoint

     Do you ever try to look at things from your horse's perspective?  Do you try to think like your horse or even see things visually as a horse does  ("that's one pole, but those are a LOT of poles!)? 
I also like to remember how horses behave in the wild and in the herd and I like to teach my students to work with elementary things such as a horse's mental strong points - like memory and association. 
     If horses didn't have such good memories, they could never survive in the wild.  While their brains are small compared to their bodies and don't really have the ability to "think" and be logical like humans, they have strong association abilities that allow them to be trained.   (Though I must point out that you only have about a 6 second window for a horse to associate your action with his response or vice versa.  After that he's living in his new "present" and it does no good to discipline or reward because he won't associate it.)
     Horses also learn routines quickly and overall and they thrive on consistency.  This can be difficult when preparing for a pattern class though, too much of the same work over and over and your horse will just start to anticipate all your cues. Change up each ride enough that you achieve a goal or improvement but don't establish a rote routine - like "training" your horse to always turn left after a certain move.
     Horses are "hardwired" for their fear-flight syndrome.  This manifests itself in diverse ways, many times a horse that is unsure of himself in a training situation will simply go faster and that makes sense if you're a horse ("must go faster and get away when I'm nervous!").  This means that going back over training steps often will help your horse understand what you want so they can relax and the "fear-flight" syndrome disappears.  Most horses are also great atheletes and often take pride in their work.  If you reward them for this, they will often excel! 
     And, of course horses also need herd leadership - and that must be you.  I firmly believe every horse is born wild then, from the moment of their birth and through every interaction thereafter, we tame and teach them to fulfill their lifelong journey with us.  See how much more you can accomplish by learning to work with your horse's natural tendencies and see through his eyes and think like a horse!  See you next week, JD 

Monday, July 8, 2013


     My client Joanne Salisbury has a horse named SS Ekspresev +// (Ex) and boy does he express himself!  I call him "grumpy gus" in the barn but at a show he's very talented and is very rewarding to work with.  Joanne's other horses, VP Midnitestranger +// (Wes) and Rosies First Gold (Tilly) also love their jobs and they show it when they're working.
     My point is: I want horses to be allowed to show their individualities or "personalities".  I'm really very tired of watching horses that look like bored robots going around and around the arena, carrying their (usually) amateur riders around the ring with little or no help from the rider - each horse a copy cat of the horse in front and behind him, none seem to have any expression.  (And yes, I think every major breed is guilty of this.)
     Take the Western Pleasure and Hunter Pleasure worlds where we only reward and expect such complete perfection all the time.  Don't get me wrong, I strongly believe in excellence but we set ourselves up for abuse when expecting perfection - each horse the "Stepford wife" of his or her class.  Abuse starts to show up in how horses are handled and prepped for these classes, too many enhancing supplements and drugs are used to achieve what I think is an unrealistic look.  Frankly, it just takes the horsemanship right out of the equation.
     Joanne's mare Tilly, who Angela Wilson shows for her, can be difficult at times and certainly is not always perfect.  But, I've never seen her on a Working Hunter course when she didn't have her ears up, her eyes bright and obviously loved her job.  Wes also absolutely loves going to shows and is confidently interested in the Trail courses he's asked to work.  He's not bored or stressed or unhappy, he's just interested and in his element!  Even "grumpy gus" Ex is happier and more willing the longer we work with him and show him in his own style.
     Maybe it's time we as trainers, owners and judges, rethink how we want horses to go and look.  Hopefully by doing so, we will help people become better horsemen and allow their horses to express themselves.  Viva la difference!  See you next week.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Perfection (or.... The Lack Thereof)

     No horse is perfect and all riders, even top pros, make mistakes.  Compare riding to baseball - even the king, Felix Hernandez, has his off days.  I see riders expecting so much of their horses and some trainers expecting so much from their students.  No matter how hard they try, it seems like it's just never good enough.  This blows their confidence right out of the water.  I think confidence and belief in ourselves, in our horses and in our students is an important component of the overall success of any program.
     The pursuit of perfection can lead down a very slippery slope.  Over-schooling and excessive drilling in an attempt to get a "perfect ride" becomes destructive and counter-productive causing horses to become over-tired, sore and sometimes just plain lame.  Often, the best thing is to just be satisfied with the achievement of forward progress and say you're done for the day - or ready for the class.  I always want my horses to have some "try", some "want to", left in them when I quit riding.  I want them to be interested in their job and when showing, I want to leave the best for the show ring, not use it all up in the warm-up arena. 
     Many years ago, a very good horseman from California taught me to let my horses rest their neck and poll before I showed them.  Just relax while sitting on them or go for an easy ride around the show grounds.  No picking or constantly trying to keep their heads and necks set, just a long rein and a nice break.  Then, when I set them up for their entrance, they have a little more sparkle, a little more pizzaz, their mouth is fresher and I think they respond a little better.  Sometimes when horses start to get a little dull, a short break to relax can really help.  They get lighter in the bridle and collect up a little easier.  No one wants to be picked at constantly, especially our horses, it just dulls their senses as they tune out.
     Now, all of what I've said here really depends on knowing when your horse is ready to show or has tried to master the lesson for the day.  There is no substitute for knowing your horse, it's a vital part of good horsemanship.  Remember though, you can school what you want to teach right out of a horse.  Sometimes horses act up in the show arena because they know they can get away with it and they no longer want to perform or be picked at.  They left their "want to" and "try" in the warm-up arena!  Don't try to pursue perfection, pursue improvement instead. Consider a change of routine in your next warm up and see what happens.  Hope this helps, see you next week!  JD