Some years ago there was a book making the rounds called, "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." I sometimes think that everything I've learned about horses I learned from my first one. She was my horse trainer's kindergarten, although I didn't realize how much or just what I was learning from her at the time. It took some years of seasoning for me to understand all of Sue's lessons.
Rafsu wasn't the first horse I worked with but she was the first one I owned. I was 19 at the time. She was a picture pretty bay Arabian mare trimmed with white that stood about 15 hands. I saw her when she was 18 months old and sold an electric guitar to make the first $50 payment on her. So I guess you could say that besides training me how to be a trainer, she's also the reason I'm not a rock star today.
Everybody said you shouldn't ride a horse until it was 2 years old so I decided to work her in a round pen. Everybody had one in those days and 34 feet across was considered the perfect dimension for a round pen. From the middle, you could stretch out your arm and reach them with a longe whip anywhere they were in the pen. You could really keep them moving and turning and boggle their minds.
So I worked Sue for 6 months. I pushed her around the round pen, yelled at her to whoa, startled her into turns and stops and eventually she just ran around and worked off verbal commands. Everybody said I was a really good trainer because I could make her do all that stuff and, of course, I believe them. In those days, I figured that the horse had to obey anything I said instantly and louder I said it, the faster she'd learn.
The day she turned two, I saddled Sue in the morning and rode her round and around the pen. Then I went up and down the road. Then up and down the hill into the orchard. There was a trail ride scheduled at our farm that afternoon and, heck, the sweat had dried, so I figured it was OK to try her on the ride. So she rode along and did everything and everyone was real impressed that she was just a baby horse and doing so well. I figured a broke horse was a trained horse and ready to do anything I asked her to do.
At that stage in my training to be a trainer, I did not understand the concept of methodically applied pressures to create a feeling of a shape that you wanted the horse to take. I tried to teach Sue to turn from saddle pressure by standing in one stirrup and pulling on the saddle horn. That didn't work so I tried putting more weight in the stirrup and pulling harder on the horn because I thought if something was supposed to work, doing it "louder" would work better.
Sue didn't understand backing very well. I'd pull back on my big curb bit but she just didn't get it. So I decided if I got her pointing uphill in the orchard, gravity and that big bit would get her moving back. But she got her feet tangled in the tall grass and wound up going over backwards. I figured if you set a situation up so the horse could only go the direction you wanted, they would have to learn.
Another time, I was trying to open a gap in a fence line from the saddle and Sue was getting antsy and dancing around and eyeing a roll of wire laying there because we were stringing new fence. I finally gave up and, since the roll of wire was the heaviest thing in sight, I decided to tie her to that while I opened the gap. She was quivering and shaking but she was paying attention to me because I'd taught her I was the biggest baddest thing around and she'd better pay attention to me. But she forgot that lesson and wound up backing down the hill with the wire banging against her chest until she backed up to the barn. I figured she was just acting like a crazy Arab.
There were other fiascos, too, but you get the picture. Sue's lessons didn't sink in right away. I started watching other trainers, studying what they did that worked or didn't work. There was one guy who was pretty dramatic. And when the horse's didn't get it, he'd get dramatic to the point of being abusive. He wasn't too successful. Another fellow had some dramatic techniques, too, but he took the pressure off at just the right time to move the horse in the direction he wanted it to go. Then there was a European trainer who taught me the power of real manners to move people and horse and help them understand what he wanted.
I had a day job doing time and motion studies in those early days. It got me in the habit of breaking everything I saw down into the smallest possible pieces and studying how those pieces could be put together different ways. I applied that method to what I was learning about training horses.
Eventually I became what I call a born again horseman. Finally the lessons Sue and other horses had been trying to teach me in those early years became crystal clear. Breaking isn't communication. Relentless repetition is just another form of breaking. Louder isn't better. When you run out of tactics, call it a day and learn some new tactics rather than resorting to violence or profanity. Use pressures to shape a horse but never take them past the point where the horse is comfortable. Anything that elevates a horse's excitement level is dangerous and if you fight with them when they feel they are in danger, it only makes the danger more real. And I could go on.
My point here isn't to tell you how many mistakes I made in those early years before I learned the concept of methodically applied corridors of pressures that the horse can feel as a shape you want him to take. Mistakes you make honestly as you work at becoming a horse trainer are OK as long as you learn from them. Those mistakes are due to a lack of education and they mean that you need to go out and get more education if you're going to become a better horseman.
I had Sue for 12 years. She did a lot of winning in the show ring and the foals she gave me literally bought the farm that became Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre. So I owe her for that. As I came to a better understanding of true communication between horses and humans, I also came to realize how much more I owed her. Despite all my mistakes, she forgave me. Despite my lack of tact or methodology, she always tried hard for me. She was a fantastic horse who learned in spite of me.
So the next time you come across a horse that's stupid or stubborn or flighty or unforgiving, bless them. They're just trying to teach you another lesson in horse-human communication. Pay attention because they're your real teachers.
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Updated: October 2005.