Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Beyond Pressure and Release - the Next Step on the Road

It's always amazed me how, at a point where you're struggling with something, a way to move forward appears just as you really need it. I've been struggling with my horsemanship and how to move beyond where I am now - I've gotten a bit stuck and haven't known where to go next.

For me, horsemanship is a journey, not a destination. It's a bit like climbing a mountain range - you work long and hard to ascend a mountain, reach the top and enjoy the view. But from there, you can see that there is another mountain beyond that is even higher. You can decide to stay where you are - at the top of the mountain you're on, or move on to the next mountain by descending to the valley and then climbing up again.

So far in my horsemanship journey, I've climbed two mountains. The first was my long experience in traditional riding, where I became proficient at riding and even training horses to do various mechanical tasks, such as jumping, lower level dressage and jumping cross-country. I rode a lot of horses successfully, including some considered difficult by others, and was successful - many ribbons and prizes. But although my horses did what I wanted, and I liked them, they were really just mechanical horses. My technique was good, but the whole thing was hollow. I blithely accepted what I now consider unacceptable training techniques and gadgets. I was at the top of the first mountain. I had had small glimpses of the real deal when I was a pre-teen riding my own horses without any instruction - I had one mare who would do anything I asked or even thought.

I was at the top of the first mountain. The breaking point was a very bad experience we had with Dawn and our trainer at the time. Dawn was a green horse, and our trainer attempted, by the use of force that became more and more excessive, to make Dawn jump a grid that was far beyond her understanding and abilities at the time. As the horse became more and more frantic and the trainer more and more violent - the horse "had to be forced to do it or otherwise it would learn it could disobey", I knew we were done, with that trainer and that way of training - I'm a slow learner and I should have caught on much sooner. I pulled my daughters from lessons, and my horses from training and gave my notice to leave the stable. Overnight, Dawn went from a sweet horse to one that was vicious - she had lost her trust in people. I kept my younger daughter away from her for about a week - she was especially angry at my daughter - and worked with and just barely managed to get her back. That's how vicious horses are made - they aren't born that way.

We brought all our horses home to our barn and tried to figure out what to do - we'd never ridden without a trainer. We knew there had to be another way, but we didn't have a clue what it was. And then, seemingly by chance, we basically tripped and fell over Mark Rashid and his way of working with horses - a friend told us to go audit one of his clinics. Over the next 5 years, and a number of clinics that we audited and rode in, we made amazing progress with our horses, using methods that looked to build true partnership with the horse using much more subtle and effective methods. This required rebuilding our horsemanship, and how we worked with and related to horses, from scratch - we descended into the valley and climbed the next mountain.

I've just realized - today - that I've reached the top of the next mountain. I know how to do a lot of stuff "correctly" - without the use of force and gadgets and in a way that produces good results with the horse, using pressure and release techniques. I've got a whole bag of tricks for lots of circumstances. But the real deal is still missing - not because of any deficiency in what Mark has taught us, but because of my own lack of comprehension and understanding. You know how you can hear something, and even see it, a thousand times, and not really get it? I've been feeling stuck in my horsemanship in a couple of ways. First, with Maisie, I can do much more than I could before with her, and mostly softly, but there are still situations where she is troubled and I haven't been able to help her. And then there's Dawn. My younger daughter is going off to college in the fall, and Dawn will effectively become my horse. Dawn is troubled in a number of ways, and I was worried and apprehensive about how I would approach working with her - she's a big challenge to me as it is very difficult to connect with her and keep her attention, and she is extremely spooky and reactive.

Just today, I began to see the outlines of the next mountain, and I'm very excited. The journey into the valley will require tearing down and building anew what I have learned, and adding to it, in the journey that is horsemanship. The catalyst for this is first, my feeling stuck, second, my encountering, just today, a book by Tom Moates about his learning from Harry Whitney and Harry's approach to horsemanship, and, third, the fact that I will be auditing a Mark Rashid clinic starting Friday. The combination of events is virtually miraculous - this time I think I may actually begin to really hear what Mark is saying and see what he is doing.

I need in a subsequent post to describe where I see this going - the book by Tom Moates about Harry Whitney has sparked the beginnings of increased understanding and I'm going to write more about that. I haven't been this excited in years about where horsemanship is going to take me next!


  1. Great post...I experienced those same mountains..and still see many in front of me. My best advice is to trust in your "building blocks" and step up your game by asking more of your horses whether it is in precision, gait, or the next level. My trainer told me once.."your horse is no longer in kindergarten...she is third grade, ask for more!" In the words of Walter Zettl, push your horse to the limit, but not over the limit. Good luck...look forward to hearing more about your journey!

  2. How exciting. It is so encouraging to have goals and a way to get to them. What a journey a life with horses is!!! Can't wait ot hear more about it.

  3. A very thoughtful post. Horsemanship is as much about training ourselves and the way we think as it is learning to ride and train horses well.

  4. When I tell people I have been riding for over 45 years and I am going for a lesson, then look at me with wide, questioning eyes and say, "You're still taking lessons? Don't you know how to ride yet?"

    Nope. And I never will, even if I do train a horse to Grand Prix. Learning to train and ride is an endless adventure. I am glad you have your mountain climbing gear strapped on.

  5. Nice story Kate. I am looking forward to hearing about all your adventures.

  6. What a great post, Kate. I'm excited for you, I look forward to hearing more!!!!

  7. What does auditing a clinic mean? I know about auditing courses at a University...

  8. Kate, I'm glad you had the same Ah Ha! moment I had after I reading the book. Now you need to read Old Men and Horses when Deb is finished with it. Oh and I have another one now too I just started...

  9. Great post Kate! I am going to use your analogy about the mountain climbing to view my journey with my own horses. Can't wait to hear more about it!

  10. Golden the Pony Girl - some clinics permit auditors, not just riders - you pay to sit there for the day and observe. Some clinics work better than others for this - some clinicians let auditors fully participate, say by asking questions, while others don't. It's a great way to (much more cheaply) learn about a particular clinician before you decide to ride with them, and to learn what you can from clinicians you either couldn't ride with (I couldn't ride in an advanced dressage clinic but I might want to attend one) or wouldn't want to because their style isn't one you want to work in.

  11. Great post. I feel like we have probably lived parallel lives. I climbed the first mountain only to be disappointed by the training methods used on my horses and myself and my daughters. We had to find a better way and we did.
    Now that we are approaching the second(or third) mountain range we are much more relaxed and not worrying about shows, ribbons etc... just enjoying the journey with our horses and where it will take us together. We are constantly learning and searching for new ways to better our understanding of our horses and to use training methods that compliment the natural willingness and goodness they have shown us over the years.

  12. You know, I think some of my best training happened when I was 13 and got my first horse who was only 2. I couldn't ride her, I didn't have instruction, and just went out and spent a lot of time doing mostly nothing. Oh we worked on the basics- bing tied up, feet, trailers, sacking out etc. and spent a lot of time going for walks in the woods and down the roads. Since I didn't have instruction and wasn't preparing for competition, I just went on instinct. Now she's 25 and is the most trusting, kindest, gentlest, most forgiving horse I've ever worked with. She took 2 junior riders to the top of their careers in the show world, and will go anywhere you point her because she trusts people.
    I don't know, sometimes I wish for the patience I had back then!

  13. Wow, great post, Kate. You've got me excited for you. I look forward to reading about where horsemanship takes you next. :o)

    I love that "Aha!" moment when something you've been hearing finally makes sense. I've had that happen several times lately with Panama, albeit on a much smaller scale.


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