Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Watch the line.

I have often been asked how I get my horses to the point that they won't ever quit when I ask them to do something and I have done quite a bit of thinking about that recently. I thought it might be a good thing to share at the start of this whole thing so that people can get an idea of my mentality in regards to training.

My philosophy on training horses is a lot different than most other people. I never handle a horse without having high expectations for them. I expect more out of a green horse in the first week under saddle than many people do in the first month or two. Some people choose to take 15 or 30 days just working on groundwork before ever introducing the saddle. If that is what works for you, that's great. It doesn't work for me. I would get incredibly bored and so would my horses. After getting an unhandled horse, it is seldom more than 1 or 2 days before I am trotting circles in the roundpen and usually no more than 4 or 5 before I have them on the trail or going through cattle.

So many people start young horses with no expectations of how quickly they could or would move through their training with just a bit of pushing. They are content to just allow their horse to meander around the pen at a walk or being led for the first week under saddle before asking them for any response to rider cues. Those people also generally spend another month before ever introducing the horse to the lope or real turns or backing up. So many people would say that I move too fast and push the horse beyond their tolerance because I get them tired every session, but that is where the line comes into play.

I haven't really been training that long in the grand scheme of things, just off and on for the last 10 years or so but I grew up with, in my honest opinion, one of the greatest horsemen to ever sit astride an equine. I learned to read horses from him and from spending hours and days watching how they react to people and other horses, their mannerisms and attitudes. Over these short years, I have found that tired horses learn faster than fresh ones. When they are tired, they are more apt to pay attention to what you are trying to teach them rather than worrying about "Oh wow, look at that cloud! Where are my buddies? OH, it's a horse eating bush! Is that a rabbit I smell? Where is it? Can I go look for it? I wonder if that grass I'm walking on would taste good. I can't walk through that water, I'll melt!" and any number of other distractions a young horse will encounter. They learn that fighting only results in more work and thus, being more tired before the real work begins. This results in a horse that is less likely to misbehave at the first of the ride, even if they are feeling a bit fresh that morning. I never get a horse tired by lunging them either. I expect a horse to know that the saddle, bridle, and rider means it is time to go to work now, not screw around going in circles for a half an hour working off that extra energy. They need that extra energy by the time I am through working them.

The Line:
A good horseman should be able to watch a horse, see the expressions in his eyes, ears, nostrils, neck, tail, flanks, feet, and every other part of his body and know exactly what the horse can withstand and what they cannot and the exact location of the fine line separating the two. Every time I handle a horse, I step them close to that line. Once you can read a horse, you can push them in their training. I get my best results when, each day, I push a horse just right up to that line and then let them ease back away from it. Each and every day, I push them to learn everything they are able and I keep a close eye on that line. When they get close to that line and are just almost ready to step into the void on the other side, I will back off. I go back to something that they are comfortable with, something that they have already mastered, even if it is just standing there or walking in an easy circle.

Each day, I push that line and each day, I find that line has moved a little farther away and I can push them more. Each day, that line will move farther and farther into the horizon until no matter how hard you push, you just can't seem to find the line. Soon, the horse will learn that even though you will often ask a lot from them, you will not ask them for more than they are able to do. That's when they start giving you more, almost like they want to find out for themselves exactly how far they can go. They are more willing to try new, scary, or complicated things and you can almost see the lightbulb moment when they understand and the happiness after they complete the task set for them. They are eager to go to work because they seem to be fulfilled knowing that they are wanted and needed. I honestly believe that they begin to feel a connection to us just as we do to them. They begin to have their own expectations and want nothing more than to please us, if only for a pat on the neck and a soft word of thanks.

It's like the little engine that could, they begin to believe that they can do things that sometimes even you wonder if it isn't too much for them. Because they believe that they are fast enough or strong enough, then somehow the task ends up done regardless of how difficult it was. What they may lack in ability can be mostly made up for in heart. Ability and training are the tools in a horse's arsenal, but the heart is what decides the winner. With horses like that, you can rope a brick house and there are only 2 possible outcomes when you ask them to drag it; either the house will be pulled off it's foundation or the horse will break every piece of tack you have and dig holes in the ground with his feet until you ask him to stop trying.

People ask how my mustang that was out of the wild not even a year and weighed maybe 900 pounds drug a 2000 pound steer out of a pen at a feedlot.
My answer: heart.

People ask how a racehorse with a broken leg keeps running and giving his all to cross that wire first.
My answer: heart.

I honestly believe that if you never expect anything during the training of a young horse, they know that you don't expect anything from them. They become content just to meander through life and the first time something happens that truly tests the horse, that line is suddenly precariously close. On the other side of that line is an endless black void called QUIT. Once a horse quits on you because you ask him for too much, there is no getting him back. Every time they hit a wall, they will either stop dead in their tracks or tuck tail and run instead of soaring over it or crashing through it. Because they have given their all failed before, they don't believe that they can succeed so they don't even try. That's when a horse's spirit is truly broken.

Every once in a while, you will find a horse with a fighter spirit that just won't quit no matter how many times they are flung into the vast abyss on the other side of the line; however, those horses are very few and far between. In my 25 years of being around countless horses, I have only ever met one horse like that. He had been abused, terrorized, and truly set up to fail time after time after time after time but was still willing to give everything he had and more to do whatever you asked of him.

It takes years of observing and testing before you can consistently find that line on every horse. In the process of learning to spot the line, you may not see it until after it is already behind you. Sometimes it just happens before you think it will. Sometimes you don't push a horse close enough to the line and it takes longer for it to fade into the distance or sometimes it will forever loom just past their own shadow. Each horse has to be handled according to their own line. Some horses begin life with the line straddled between their hooves and others start with a line that is on the far blue horizon. Learn to spot it and then learn to work toward it without stepping over to the other side and you will forever be astride a horse with heart.

It is true what they say. Truly the best of horsemen do walk a fine line.


  1. Hey, it is Honeysuga from the forum, just wanted to tell you what an awesome post this in and that I hope you reach for your dreams and expect as much and more of yourself than you do with the horses you love and strive to be nothing but the best! Good luck and happy trails!

  2. Wow, this was a great post. Very inspiring. I love the metaphor of the line. I never really thought of it in those terms before, but it is definitely something I will be thinking about from now on. Keep up the great posts.

  3. Yes! I so totally agree! I think some people tend to baby their horses too much and in so doing create a weak horse. But then when you are too rough and mean you break their willingness to work and give their heart.

  4. Your post was inspirational. I, too, have just made the leap from school teacher to full time horse trainer. of course, my fist subject was a spoiled 3 year old colt that had NO respect for people. And then, I bought a 4 year old Saddlebred who is super sensitive and a little unconfident. I typed in horse confidence on the internet and got you!. So, i will look for that line and expect more from him. it is ironic that after all of the colts I have started NOT being a trainer, those were really easy. Now that I am calling myself a trainer, the job just got difficult. grrrr, I hate it when my confidence is shaken.....