How my relationship with horses evolved

As many of you already know, I spend my winters with my horses and my friends Jim Wooldridge and Sara Dill at Timber Creek Farm in Camden, South Carolina. At Timber Creek I relax, work horses and pick my friends’ brains.

Many of you have heard me tell the humbling story of how my mare Daisy and I started our relationship together. For those of you who haven’t heard it, I’ll tell it here, as it’s key to what we’re going to talk about this month. I learned a lot from Daisy very quickly – mostly how far short my horsemanship was from where I wanted it to be.

When I bought Daisy, I had not yet seen or met her. I bought her based on photos exchanged via e-mail and the report that a friend who went to see her in person sent me while I was teaching in England. Daisy’s breeder/owner told me, truthfully, that she “hadn’t done much with her.” I did not ask her what she meant by that.

Daisy was 3 years old, about 15.3 hands and about 1000 pounds when I picked her up. She’d lived on the same farm and with the same horses all her life. Based on her age, her size, and her quiet and friendly nature, I assumed that she would at least lead, load, tie and do feet.

Well, the day I picked her up, it took about an hour and a half to load her. Assumption number one out the window. A couple of days later, it took 20 minutes to lead her out of a 3-acre pasture. Assumption number two gone. So what do I do? I tied her up and tried to pick up her feet! Assumptions three and four gone like the wind.

Thinking back on it now, I’m embarrassed at how many assumptions I made about that horse and how long it’s taken me to fix some of the problems that I created with her due to my assumptions. Leading and loading were the easy ones; it’s taken the past three years for us to get a handle on tying and feet. Those would have gone a lot smoother for us if I hadn’t ignored what my horse was telling me because of the assumptions I’d made that in had nothing to do with her.

That was poor horsemanship on my part, plain and simple. If I had simply looked at the horse for what she was at the time, it’d been OBVIOUS where to start with her. But I was blinded by my assumptions that were based on her age and her size. If it walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, it was a duck. If it acted like a horse who didn’t know anything and it looked like a horse who didn’t know anything, it probably didn’t know anything. Simple, really.

But we get pretty far from this. We can make lots of assumptions about horses based on a lot of things: age, breed, size, discipline, good looks or lack thereof, origin, who trained it, or maybe what it’s supposedly done previously. We assume a 9-year-old horse that’s been ridden is “broke”. We assume a big horse is heavy. We assume Quarter Horses are quiet and Arabians are spirited. We assume gaited horses are gaited.

And then there are expectations that can color our vision. Your horse doesn’t know he wears the mantle of “horse of a lifetime”. He doesn’t know he was bred to jump, or cut cows, or run reining patterns. He doesn’t know he sold at Keenland as a yearling for $500,000.

If I needed a reminder of the “Duck” rule, I got a colt in for training in late October who is reiterating the lesson. He looked like quite the conundrum when he came in; a foundation-bred four-year-old Quarter Horse gelding with a sweet, quiet, friendly presentation who had some training issues. I found myself wanting to complicate the process of figuring him out, but decided to take a few weeks to just see what he knew. Very little, it turned out. He didn’t lunge or ground drive, he was scared of ropes, he’d hold his breath for saddling. When I told the owner about the colt’s concern for ropes, he said he had photos of the horse being roped off of at two and a half years old. I don’t doubt it one bit.

Then I rode him. I rode him in the round pen, and he felt JUST like a first or second ride colt. Unsteady, unconfident, worried, happy to just stand still and think this through. And then it dawned on me. If it quacks like a duck… This colt FELT like a first or second ride colt. So treat him like one. That was the answer of what to do with him. If I could do that, we’d get all the holes filled in along the way. Here’s this colt who seemed like he should be further than he was, after having been under saddle for two years. But for whatever reason, he wasn’t. But perhaps, if we could meet him right where he was, he could come on through and not have to have troubles. If he had the tools to understand his job and understand his world and understand the cues he’d be given, maybe he could just feel better.

We’ll see how it goes. It’s worth noting that we also had the chiropractor and vet and farrier look at this horse before doing any training work with him.

The lovely thing about this colt is that he’s enabled me to spend a lot of time studying round pen and ground work. He was pretty troubled about ropes, so I have become familiar with handling a lariat, a tool I haven’t used before. We have worked a lot on the colt’s inside and outside turns, his push and his draw, and then using the push and draw to do really pretty, soft transitions and to have him carry a certain shape as he travels in the pen.

Some of you may have heard me say this year that after 34 years in horses, and 15 years of exploring what is commonly called “natural horsemanship”, I am just now beginning to actually see and feel the very real connection between what happens on the ground and what happens in the saddle. I’ve intellectually understood the connection, and I’ve certainly given it “lip service”, but it’s only in the past year or so that it’s become a reality for me. I assume there is a lot more beyond what I’m beginning to see now. Layers and layers, as always.

So if our horse looks like he’s broke and feels like he’s broke and goes like he’s broke, he probably is. If he can’t lead, can’t tie, can’t catch, can’t load, can’t pick up his feet, can’t saddle, can’t bridle, and/or can’t mount, he probably isn’t terribly broke. If we could just see these things with unbiased eyes, things would get a whole lot simpler.

We owe it to our horses to be thorough. If we leave a hole somewhere now, it’s the horse that suffers for it later. When we get in a hurry or we get those assumptions blinding us, our work becomes about us and not about the horse. If we look and listen and ask questions of him, he’ll tell us what we need to know

My horse riding Falls

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