I’ve known Kate for some years now and love the way she teaches her “Soft and Sound” approach to horsemanship. Kathleen first came to my attention when she was teaching in support of Mark Rashid at his clinics and I was impressed with her sympathetic teaching style. So when I heard that they were going to get together I had to be there. A good friend and I headed off to Dorset for the event, staying with my lovely cousin and her husband for a couple of nights.
I’m not going to talk in detail about any of the riders and horses that we saw on the day, and it’s not my style to get highly technical. So I’ll just give you my overall impressions of the day and the thoughts I went away with.
At the start of the day it was explained that things would be quite informal. Riders had volunteered to take part and we would look at how Kate would work with them and their horses, with Kathleen chipping in as the urge took her. The purpose was to look at how two traditions, Buckeroo and French Classical, complimented each other – both sharing their roots in the European classical schools.
Kate told us that her aim was to produce safe, happy and sound horses that were good in any environment. She was a fan of in-hand work with all horses because “hands were more intelligent than bums” – which is a good point when you think about it! Kate trains with French Classical master Philippe Karl, so a lot of what she has learned about the use of the hands, the critical role of balance, the use of the seat and legs, and training all horses according to their individual needs is based on his teaching and expertise.
Kathleen had become interested in the California bridle horse. Those horsemen were known for their strong and secretive tradition, secretive because the knowledge they had was valuable when they were competing for work. This interest had led her to look at the classical texts; where it had originated. She had been training in the “buckaroo” style, which somewhat simplified the process. That style was reflected in the teachings of Ray Hunt and the Dorrances. It was all about training horses to carry themselves in a healthy posture that would become more elevated with progression. Both schools produced a vaquero horse, which was primarily a working horse with “function, beauty and art”.
It was interesting for me, having spent much time scribbling while Jeff Sanders shared his knowledge of the California tradition, to hear some of Kathleen’s impressions. This either reflects the fact that I’ve only been exposed to one horseman with a long family tradition in that background, or maybe it is a reflection of the secrecy surrounding the teachings. One example I noted was that Kathleen as under the impression that the California vaquero would start a horse with a “stiff and clunky” bosal, which is not my experience.
There was a bit of a chat about bosals, some people had no experience of them and one lady rode her horse in a hackamore. I’ll try to pull it all together here. Of course I had to chip in and share the advice I’d been given by Jeff that a bosal should be hugely flexible and fitted precisely, so no clunking and bumping. (I’ve spent hours practising wrapping my bosal with the horsehair mecate and trying to get a snug fit on Celebrity’s face!). Kathleen emphasised that a bosal is a sophisticated device, she mentioned that she is just starting her first hackamore horse. It acts on the jaw and is precise, which is why you maybe wouldn’t ride for long in a rope halter, it moves and lacks precision. Using a bosal is an art form; it is not an escape from the bit.
It was nice to see the two trainers working in a complementary way with the horse and rider using the hackamore. The horse was over-flexing and breaking at the 3rd vertebrae. Kathleen suggested a light “bump” to ask for some elevation and open the throat. Then they tried Kate’s suggestion of slowing the horse down at the same time as changing the balance, and that did work. Note from me – I’ve been taught to never bump on the bosal, but I’ve noticed several horsemen from the buckaroo tradition use it effectively.
They talked about what they meant by “behind the bit”. To Kathleen this means literally behind the bit and she said that a horse wearing a spade bit or bosal needed to be slightly behind. Kate talked about “on the bit” – meaning that you want the horse to make contact with your hand through the rein without leaning. The horse lightens the contact by releasing its jaw. She wants the horse to be on the bit… but maybe not as we conventionally know it…
Some interesting differences emerged:
Kathleen felt (and so did I) that the horses would benefit from some of her groundwork before starting on the French classical work under saddle . That would stop them having a tendency to run their handlers over and to be light on their feet. Quotes from Ray Hunt:
“Light without trouble.”
“Mentally your horse should weigh nothing.”
“The horse should be your feet.”
From Kate’s point of view the classical approach would try to avoid letting the horse make too many mistakes. Kathleen would not have the same emphasis and felt that would be micro-managing. She felt that she would be more likely to build a foundation that prepared the horse for different things. Both systems aim to produce, calm, functional, physically able horses.
Improving the bend – Kate would use “bend straight” – fleche droit. Kathleen spotted a big difference here, if she was improving the bend the outside rein would be completely passive. Kate – the aim would be to ultimately make the outside rein the primary rein, and it helps to control the outside shoulder. Kathleen – yes, but that comes later with a bridle horse, in her opinion the horse they were working with wasn’t ready.
There was much emphasis on correct flexion (at the poll, ears level etc), which would avoid weighting the shoulder. Kate reminded us that it was important to reward quality and movement in the early days after just a couple of good steps.
Kathleen mentioned that she felt that a horse should be able to fill in for you. We can’t expect riders to be 100% sound or body-aware so when she is training a horse she builds in some tolerance.
We looked at Kathleen working with a young horse. She started with leading and the horse understanding her “bubble”. She stressed the importance of being symmetrical, so if you choose to lead from the shoulder make sure that you do it from both sides. Kate pointed out that you need to watch out for your horse leaning towards you as this will affect their balance. Remember that horses only have to do something once in order to learn it, for example leaning on the bit. Even if you make a correction you are building in something good.
When using a 1-rein stop be aware of what happens to the horse’s balance at the end. The horse should be preparing to stop in balance; if not you have a balance problem to address. Balance is about linking the rein to the hind end. Lateral flexion is to a line across your chest, you should not take the hand further up as you will unbalance and could tip the horse. The hand would only come further up in an emergency. A correct 1-rein stop comes from the inside front hoof stopping (this was interesting as so many trainers talk just about hind legs crossing under).
Kathleen mentioned “natural horsemanship” style desensitisation and that one of the problems is that they tend to do it while the horse is standing still. The feet are locked and the mind has gone away. She felt that it needed to be done while the horse was moving.
Kathleen was in favour of longlining as it teaches a horse to be good to hack out; they learn to go first. She would use a leather head collar and start off in the school to make sure that stop and turn were established. Kate is also in favour of long lining, but not from the bit as it adds a backward traction on the mouth.
There was some discussion about bits and bitting. The thing I picked up on there was the view that some horses might need a flash to keep the bit stable. I was reminded of good old Buck Brannaman, who would say that the flash was “a crutch to make up for sorry horsemanship”. I wrote that down verbatim while watching him teach in Liverpool. Controversial, but I have to agree!
Talking of Buck… he uses the idea of having a horse working in a rectangle. That is explained in this article in the Eclectic Horseman https://eclectic-horseman.com/centering-your-horse/ Kate and Kathleen discussed having a horse moving towards being at peace in the rectangle, rather than away from pressure.
This is turning into a long entry, so probably time to draw to a close. As you’ll see I haven’t picked up on some of the more technical discussion on the day, to be honest that tends to sail past me so I don’t take notes. I’ll leave that to someone who is cleverer about that stuff. Let’s just summarise:
In her conclusion Kate spoke about how useful she had found it to reflect on getting the basics right, before starting the more disciplined work in hand and under saddle. The example at the workshop was a horse that did not want anything happening on its right side. Kathleen demonstrated clearly that there were some fundamentals to address before asking that horse to work in the bridle on groundwork. It was a powerful demonstration of how so often a horse may need to go back one, two or even more steps before moving forward.
Kathleen commented on the difference in pace – the buckaroo would tend to work with “life” in, whereas the classical approach might slow the horse down to help him learn and improve his balance. She felt that the careful soft and sound approach that Kate was using in conjunction with training with Philippe Karl filled in an important gap for her. To date nothing she had been doing had addressed physical issues, which was why she had contacted Kate.
For me, a brilliant and interesting day. Well worth the travel and 3 days away. As Kathleen said, good horsemen get together all the time, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future”.
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