An Invitation – The Horseman’s Calling – Part 2

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I tried to keep pace with the furore following the Horseman’s Calling and it made interesting reading.  Epona TV got involved as did other well known and less well known personalities in the world of  horsemanship.  They blogged, they tweeted, they Facebooked…  for a very short time the Internet was full of comment.

There was massive criticism of the event itself, it was undoubtedly an unusual and stressful situation for the horses involved.  Was it more stressful than going to a show?  I’m not sure.  There was also massive criticism of the trainers who took part, in particular Jason Webb.  Video clips of him putting a horse under pressure were circulated.  Many asserted that the horses he dealt with would have been so traumatised that they’d never recover, they were ruined.  The obvious insinuation was that there are trainers out there somewhere who would have done a better job without putting the horses under such horrible conditions.  Some even said they could… but…

…they wouldn’t be involved in an event that put horses into such a fearful situation.

…they disapproved of the competitive element involved.

Certainly though, we were sure from what was said that there were people who could do so much better and who would treat horses ethically.

Oh, how I would like to see that, honestly I would, I’ve heard about these legendary people and I’d love to see them in action.

The thing is though, what would they do?  Jason and his fellow participants in the competition spend their lives training horses to do what most horse owners require of them  People want to ride their horses, they want to handle them safely, they want to take them out and about to competitions.  Jason and Tom, Dan and Grant and Guy all help people to meet those aims.  Like it or not, at the end of the day the horses don’t come out at the end of the process shut down and robotic, and they go on to happy and productive lives with their owners.

All I can say to the people who are accusing Jason and the others of traumatising horses is that this is not my experience.  Even though I felt they could have done less and given an impressive insight into their abilities, even though I agree that some horses were probably pushed too far in the time available, I doubt very much that those horses were mentally destroyed by the experience.  The reason I say that is because I have seen horses after they have stayed with Jason and similar trainers.  They return home in a better situation, without losing their essential spirit.

Take Jason for example, because I know him a bit and I’ve seen him work with horses belonging to friends of mine.  Jason helped with problems my friends had with their horses and showed care and dedication in his work.  Maybe sometimes it didn’t look pretty, who knows?  I didn’t see the process but I did see the end result.  That was horses and owners who had a new understanding between them and who were both happier as a result.  I suppose it was fair to say that they went from dangerous situations to being safer.

Before I say more I want to make one thing clear.  Please do not accuse me of “labelling” horse being unsafe or even dangerous as if I’m applying some black mark to that horse’s report card that will stay with that horse for the rest of their life.  A horse will generally become dangerous as a result of it’s experience in life, they aren’t somehow bad or evil.  Some people seem to take offence at a horse being referred to as being dangerous and appear to leap to the conclusion that a nasty “personal” judgement is being made about the animal.  I think that’s a big leap to make.  I might say a horse is dangerous as a fact, but it’s a result of where they are mentally, not a character assassination.

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My little horse Fin is a good example.  He had awful mental problems when he came to live with me, he couldn’t live in or out comfortably.  He spent the first two weeks hiding under a hedge.  If something happened to upset him he panicked so much that he would run blind through or over anything, including me.  This meant that he was dangerous.  It didn’t change the fact that he was also the sweetest little horse you could want to be around, who loved to be with people and chatted to me as I approached, or sometimes even looked at him.  His behaviour made him dangerous, but it didn’t make him bad.

I always think that inside most “problem horses” there is a small, scared and kind horse waiting to get out.  That doesn’t change the fact that their behaviour can be dangerous to them or people around them.  Luckily this doesn‘t have to be situation that stays with them for the rest of their lives, how sad would that be?

So what do trainers like Jason do with these sad and often dangerous horses?  They change their behaviour so that they can move forward and live in our world.  Apart from when he’s starting a horse, Jason is unlikely to be sent horses that are happy, relaxed and causing their people no problems.  It’s not cheap to send a horse away to a trainer so they tend to arrive with him when their humans are stuck for ideas, frightened or at their wit’s end.  If a horse bolts when approached by tractors, Jason is likely to be able to help it to change, bring their owner in to show them how, and send them home happier and safer.  If a healthy horse bolts, rears or bucks, it’s likely that Jason can help with that.  He’ll generally also be able to help in the case of a horse that attacks with teeth, hooves or both.

Can the trainers from the positive side of the fence offer similar help with ridden as well as handling behaviour problems?  I don’t know.  I’ve seen horses learn to be less fearful with these trainers, also to spin, bow, lay down, pick up objects and target on flags.  This all looks like great fun and is pretty interesting.  My question is – what next?  Once the horse is happy to be handled, interested in what the trainer is doing, has learnt some diverting tricks, does anyone take them on to the saddle, the bridle, a rider and hacking out?

So here it is.  Where is the more positive trainer who is prepared to show how they would take an un-started horse and develop it to the point where it is being ridden calmly under saddle?  No pressure to take part in a competition.  No requirement to do this in front of crowds.  No urgency to meet a tight timescale.  Please show us what you would do, people who love horses and have their interests at heart need to see you.

I would host this, as some know, hosting is what I do!  I can find a venue where there would be an audience, but I suspect that wouldn’t be right.  So I can find a venue that is private where just a few people can be invited to record on video.  I could even provide a big field in a secluded spot and make it available for a couple of months.  Just ask, I will make it happen.

This isn’t a challenge, it’s an invitation.  It’s made in good faith because I believe that if you want to change what people do you have to show an alternative, you have to win hearts and minds, there is no other way.  Attacking them from the sidelines and speculating on how things could be done better, without showing the alternative – it just isn’t going to do the job.  Sorry and all that…

Horsemans’s Calling

I went to this event last weekend and I’ve been trying to work out some sort of blog about it ever since. I took pages and pages of notes during the times that the trainers were working in the arena, bit I don’t really want to reproduce chunks of those here. The reason for that… well, I’ve got my theories about what the trainers had in mind while they were working, and what they thought was going on, but I could be completely wrong. Also, I tried typing something up that was just reporting without emotion or putting my own interpretation on things, and it just didn’t work. So, let’s see how we go with a different approach shall we? This is my personal view. I don’t claim to be an expert, and if people disagree with me that’s fine, they can go and set out their opinions in their blogs maybe.

So first – what was it all about? Well some brave souls, I understand Grant Bazin was one of them, thought it might be an idea to bring the sort of young horse starting type of challenge that is held in the US and other countries to the UK. You get three trainers, and three young horses, the trainers work with the young horses over a period of time, following some rules, and at the end a winner is announced. It’s pretty controversial really.

The organisers of the Challenge said on their website:

“Each individual trainer or clinician works with the horses’ welfare at the forefront of their thinking and will provide an excellent educational opportunity. In addition to this profits from the demonstration arena, which will be adjacent to trade stands, will go towards our chosen horse related charity of the year.”

Which sounds good in theory, but there’s been some frankly piss poor treatment of young horses in these competitions in the past. We’ve seen youngsters chased about in round pens in terror, horses flooded and overwhelmed by the way they’ve been treated, and little 2 year old babies ridden round by hefty cowboys in western saddles. Would be horrendous wouldn’t it?

The organisers of this event wanted to avoid these situations. So they asked for horses to be 3 years old, to have already been exposed to a similar environment for example being shown in hand. They were at pains to emphasise that none of the elements of the competition were compulsory, and that if the trainer didn’t feel that it was in the best interest of the horse, or that the horse was not ready for a rider, then they could choose to leave out the ridden goals given in the rules and be judged on their groundwork and preparation of the horse for a rider.

The first test for the organisers came before the competition started, when they looked at the youngsters provided and saw that they weren’t developed enough for the competition, and hadn’t had the ring experience they had hoped. So the first day started with an announcement that these babies would be used just for un-judged demos, and other horses would come for the competition. This happened, and horses were also withdrawn from the event because one got footsore, and another was deemed unsuitable by the vet judge when she started to work in the round pen. (Looked a bit lame to me, but who knows?).

So what of the actual event? I had mixed reactions. I am sure by now that a lot of people will be stating that all of the horses were treated abusively and the event shouldn’t have taken place at all. I respect their opinions. However, young horses that are going to get out and about and compete will always face similarly stressful situations, so I guess my feeling is that the event itself isn’t so wrong it shouldn’t happen. I always enjoy a chance to meet up with people I know and some that I don’t.  Having been and watched, I do not think the format of the event results in the young horses getting the best experience they could in that public setting. Or that it results in the spectators seeing the best they representation they could of the style of training on display. I also worry about the tendency for people to go away and “try this at home”. But of course that does apply to any situation where anyone is showing others how they will do anything! Even clicker and other positive reinforcement training can be highly traumatic for a horse if some wannabe has a go without guidance and gets it horribly wrong.

I’m not soft on horses, but I try to treat them with kindness and recognise that they quite easily get scared by the demands we place on them, and give them a bit of slack. What I’m saying is that I’m not a positive reinforcement trainer’s dream… but…

The baby horses in the round pens were scared. They were also stressed by the fact that they’d been separated from their companions. They were just horses being horses, I don’t think it’s helpful to apply labels like dominant just because a horse goes to run over us. Their motivation is fear. Calling them dominant somehow seems to give approval to humans deciding they need to gain “respect” or become a “leader”, generally by forceful means. This doesn’t mean that we can’t take some action to stop a horse running over us, I am suggesting that our perception is important and is going to affect our actions – the way we treat the animal in front of us. Maybe thinking of the horse as being afraid rather than dangerous and dominant might lead people to avoid shanking, just for example.

All of the trainers got their competition horses ridden, and two of them had them walking, trotting and cantering and going over obstacles – the goals set out for the competition. One trainer stopped riding his horse with 15 minutes to spare and without cantering or going over obstacles, which was a good call I think as she was getting tired and a bit unbalanced in trot. She looked sticky in her hind end – I’d have thought the vet judge would have been quick to declare her lame had that been the case. I think this horse looked the most “finished” of the three in terms of what people might have expected to see at the end..

Some things I pondered, without singling out any trainer in particular:

  • Round pen work isn’t always about Join Up and sending a horse away strongly. It can be more about allowing a horse to move, but looking for the tiniest hint that they want to come to the human and stepping back to encourage that, then building on that connection. I wonder about the need for quite so much chasing, and for me there was too much.
  • Some people have a lot more “energy” and “life” about them than others, put simply they are live wires. Do they happen to get a lot of “lively/feisty/challenging” horses to deal with, or do the horses pick up on that bundle of energy and react to it? Some people push horses into movement without realising they are doing it.
  • While all of the trainers demonstrated clearly that they know their stuff, and can certainly start horses, I’d have been perfectly happy to have seen them do less. Again, without singling anyone out, it was really nice to see a trainer soothing a horse all over with his hands, or taking up a brush and giving a horse a bit of attention that was clearly appreciated. They could have done less, not got as much done in the way of tasks, but have helped their equines to deal with the fear caused by the environment, find calm and stay calm throughout. That would have been just as impressive to me. As it went it still felt like a race to an end.
  • I’m reminded of a trainer I know who came to a clinic with a new mantra, which was the word “less”. It transformed his horsemanship and made a lasting impression on me. I think that all of the trainers in the Horseman’s Calling could do “less” and would find they got more from the horses. That maybe applies more to some than others. It’s about setting things up and not being afraid or too impatient, or to feel too short of time to just wait. I was watching Ray Hunt on DVD teaching colt starting a week or so ago, he was watching a cowboy leading a colt through a gate, the colt baulked and stopped, the cowboy made a move to do something and Ray told him to just wait. Then the horse softened and walked nicely through the gate. There were more than a few times at the weekend when I was thinking “wait…!”. But then we all know this stuff is really easy when you’re watching rather than doing don’t we?
  •  Next time, I understand a next time is being planned, maybe we will see more radically different approaches. Maybe someone from a clicker or other positive reinforcement background will come forward to throw a sharp contrast. I know some will argue on principal that they wouldn’t support such an event, because it’s a stressful environment for a horse. However, I’m sure they could help a horse through that and it would be really good to see how it’s done. Ideally we all get to prepare our horses for the future, but every now and then life throws us the unexpected – an emergency trip to the vet, maybe even some minor disaster at home – and we all need a plan to help our horses through it.

I’ve got to add that for me it was hugely frustrating to leave the event with no idea of how the judges decided who had won. It felt like arrogance to me, as it did when the vet judge wouldn’t say why a horse was rejected for the competition after going into the round pen. “Now she’s working on a circle I think she looks a bit lame on her near hind” wouldn’t have hurt. There was something to the effect of protecting the owner, who of course had put their horse up for a public even and some free education. We were told why one of the day 1 demo horses didn’t come back; she was footy after working in the pen straight after a trim, I can’t work out the difference.

Personally I would much prefer that young horse starting and loading wasn’t presented as a competition and I doubt I’d attend this again (but never say never). I’m not going to object to horses being exposed to stressful environments because that happens to them in many ways as they take part in shows, hack out, visit vets etc. I feel that as long as there is a competition with a title awarded at the end it is human nature to push to tick the most boxes and show off a bit, and that’s never going to be the best for the horse.  Respect to the organisers and those involved for trying though.

I chopped a huge bit out of the middle of this blog where I struggled to express how I feel abut what I saw last weekend. I don’t share the extreme disgust for everything the three trainers did that some seem to be expressing. I do however feel that there were points where horses were pushed too hard, too fast, too far. I wanted to convey that, although I was fine with a lot of what I saw, there were definitely bits where I wasn’t. I wanted to capture why I wasn’t OK with what I was seeing in those uncomfortable minutes. Yesterday I put this all aside and left it to go for a ride with a friend because I just couldn’t find the words. Today I opened up my laptop and like a gift from the gods (or Jen!) there was this quote:

“The horse is very sensitive.
He can feel a fly land on him.
I know you all know this, because you put fly spray on your horses. He can feel a fly land on him, yet you’re tugging on him, pulling on him like he weighs a million pounds.
You’re not working with what nature gave you; you’re DESTROYING what nature gave you.” – Ray Hunt

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Don’t Hit the Sloe Gin: 7 tips for Successful Horse Clinic Trainers

I don’t know if any pro trainers will be interested in taking advice from a humble clinic organiser and attendee like me, but I’m going to throw this out there anyway just to round off my series of blogs about clinics. Anyway, I’ve taken part in a lot of these events, either with my horse or my comfy chair, and I think I’ve worked out a few things that make for a good clinic, and some things that don’t. Feel free to ignore.

oz Continue reading

Watch Don’t Teach: How to be the Perfect Horse Clinic Spectator

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Well, OK, that might sound obvious, but bear with me…

Watching clinics can be a really good learning experience, not only do you have the safety of sitting back and learning from the mistakes of others, but I find that it’s sometimes much easier to understand what’s going on in the arena from a bit of a distance, without my horse. So, most clinics you go to there will be a gathering of “speccies” in attendance clutching notebooks and mugs of tea. If they’re at one of my clinics I’ll have warned them to think a bit about the English weather so they will have waterproofs, sunglasses, polar fleeces and suncream. They’ll probably also have lots of sweeties and chocolate and expectant looks. At a lot of clinics the riders will not ride for the whole day, so they will be in the ranks, normally cadging sweeties and chocolate on the grounds that they earned it. If you feed them cake, most riders will be your next best friend and share what the clinic is meaning to them.

I’ve got 7 top tips for species: Continue reading

Bring Sun Cream, Wellies and Your Horse: A Beginners Guide to Riding on a Horse Clinic

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So, you’ve agonised over whether you are brave enough to ride on a clinic.

You’ve chosen the clinic with a trainer that you like, and you’ve saved for the last 9 months to pay for your ticket and transport. How do you make sure that you get what you and your horse need out of the experience?

First of all, prepare carefully. Read the clinic information, and if there is anything you’re not sure of, ask. What accommodation is provided for your horse? Do you need to bring fencing, hay, mucking out tools? Make lists if you need to so that you are sure to pack all the tack and other gear you need.

Obviously you need to make sure you know where you’ll be sleeping, but that seems to be a secondary consideration for most people, who get much more stressed about what’s going to happen to their horse or pony than where they will lay their head at night. Continue reading

Sloe Gin and Drugged Horses: The Dangers of Organising a Horse Clinic

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I’ve organised more clinics than I can count, for some great horse trainers including Steve Halfpenny, Tom Widdicombe, Amanda Barton, Dave Stuart and various Parelli Natural Horsemanship instructors.

It’s been… interesting………

Feel free to disagree with me, but I think that the most important people at the clinic are the horses, ponies and the people who came with them. In other words, the paying customers. When people come to clinics they have a lot invested in the event. They might be nervous, out of their comfort zone, and managing to afford to be there might be a huge challenge for them. So I try to treat them well. Having said that, the things that can go wrong on clinics, and the weird things that people come up with to test the diplomatic skills of clinic organisers are many. As a result, my clinic booking information now stretches to four pages as I try to cover every eventuality. And yet every time, I can expect something to happen that leaves me thinking “WTF?” as I clutch a glass of sloe gin in the peace of my tent at the end of the day. (Sloe gin, cider and fruit flavoured vodka are highly recommended, if not essential sustenance for anyone venturing into the world of organising clinics).

So, bold clinic organisers, I suggest that you get together a good set of clinic information, and get everyone to sign at the end to say they have read it. Preferably in blood. To guide you on this process, here are some of the things that people might just do. Continue reading