Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Review - Old Men and Horses: a Gift of Horsemanship

It's time for another book review! I just finished reading another wonderful book recommended by jmk of Buckskin and Bay. The book is Old Men and Horses: a Gift of Horsemanship, by Ross Jacobs. It is a fictional account of the learning a teenage boy receives from two old horsemen, Walt and Amos. In the process, the boy makes many of the same mistakes all of us (at least me) make with horses. Although it is a work of fiction, apparently much of what happens in the book is based on things the author experienced personally, including with Harry Whitney. Much like the book I reviewed a while ago, A Horse's Thought: a Journey into Honest Horsemanship, by Tom Moates, these books are about our relationship with horses and only incidentally about technique. (If you are interested in the earlier review, you'll find it here.) Both books are included in the Equestrian Wisdom and History Series published by the Long Riders' Guild Press. This book also reminds me of the stories Mark Rashid tells in his books about his experiences with the Old Man.

Here are some thoughts from the book, to get you interested:

It is also been my observation that some of the most effective horse riders have been people with less than perfect technique. Most of us spend a lifetime learning to become better riders and for most of us this means riding in the perfect position and using the perfect aids with perfect timing. Why is this? I believe it is because nobody is teaching the effectiveness of "intent". Consistency and intent beat technique and position every time. A horse can rise above the obstacle of a rider with less than perfect balance or understanding of the aids, if the rider is clear in what they are trying to achieve. (p. 37)

If a person strives to gain the most out of a relationship with a horse, they need to have a fair degree of humility. One needs to accept that the horse has a great deal to teach us and that nobody knows more about the needs of the horse than the horse. From experience, I can tell you that this is incredibly difficult to achieve. Most people have a very strong sense of superiority when it comes to animals. We believe that we are smarter and we know what's best. It's almost impossible to discard this smugness because it is so vigorously fueled by the notion of owning the animal. If I own an animal, I must be the superior. This is how most of us think whether we admit it or not. I believe when we have this attitude toward our horses we inevitably make it the horses' responsibility to obey our wishes. . . .[T]he most important job [people who have horses] have is to make the horse feel good inside himself. [H]aving horses in your life is about accepting a responsibility for their well-being on the inside and on the outside - it isn't about ownership and it isn't about what a horse owes us. (p. 49-51)

I think a large part of [the old men's] secret with horses was that they never saw any horse as other than an equal. Today trainers talk about dominance and submission, alpha horses and herd behaviour. But for the old men, there was never any talk about who was boss and who was in control. To them, working with a horse was a co-operative venture. (p. 63)

Amos once said to me, "The difference between horsemanship and good horsemanship is the difference between having a horse work for you and having a horse work with you." (p. 66)

"Don't try to make it happen. Set it up so it can happen. If you ask a horse to deal with his fears and then beat him up for being afraid - you'll just confirm in his own mind that he was right to be afraid." (p. 69)

Horses don't bite, kick, rear, toss their heads, run you down, pin their ears, etc., because it is fun or because they are out to get you. They have their reasons, and they are always genuine reasons. We may not understand their reasons and that is often when we say they are being pigs or they are doing it deliberately. . . . Don't make it any harder than necessary on a horse. Always try to make the option you want them to choose the easiest option. You shouldn't try to make the wrong thing so difficult that it is almost impossible. There is a huge difference between making the wrong response so hard that they can't choose it and making the right response so easy that they want to choose it. (p. 71)

"Most folks try to impose their own idea on a horse, instead of letting their idea be the horse's idea and allowing the horse to do the job." . . . [A]s I watched more and more people training their horses I saw them imposing their ideas on the horse. This was often accompanied by some great battles. Admittedly there was always a winner and often times it was the rider, but unfortunately there was always a loser too. It seemed to me that Walt had been trying to teach me that there should be no losers. (p. 88)

There is nothing wrong with a horse getting scared. Being scared and insecure is a way of life for horses. That's why they are first and foremost animals of flight. But what Amos was saying was that if you do get your horse scared you must make sure of two things: first, don't allow something that worries a horse become something that terrifies a horse. You do this by not over-facing a horse into a situation that is too difficult to handle for them. This is best done by making sure there is a way out of the worry that the horse can find fairly easily. The second criteria is to ensure you never leave the horse in the worried state. Make sure she comes out the other side of the fear in a more relaxed frame of mind. (p. 103)

. . . I began to understand that truly great horse people don't subscribe to methods or a system because they had learned the importance of "feel" and what it means to work with the inside of the horse. They are people who understand the restrictions and limitations of a structured system when it comes to educating horses. The best horse people have a philosophy that does not waiver, but they have ways of doing things that waiver all the time - from horse to horse and moment to moment. (p. 105)

These quotes, and other bits of wisdom, are interspersed with wonderful stories about specific horses and their people, that give life to the thoughts. I enjoyed this book immensely - I could barely put it down!


  1. I like the way you provide quotes from the book to give us a taste of the topics that he covers. Thanks.

  2. NM is right, the quotes are an awesome way to get us interested. Very nice way to do a review. :o)

    I particularly like that first quote. It really speaks to me, because I feel like I'm not a very good rider if you look at technique and position, but Panama and I have an awesome connection so we usually get the job done, no matter how good it looks.

  3. "Don't try to make it happen. Set it up so it can happen."

    This is EXACTLY the philosophy I've adopted with Bonnie lately. Don't try to force it (bad me) and just set her and us up for success. Make it so it can happen. I had the best ride ever on her this morning, so many things came together for us in one ride.

    I liked all of the quotes you chose that one just happened to really hit home with me right now. I must read this book!

  4. I found this book while reading thru Tom Widdicomb's blog and website, Eight Horses, One Winter. One of his subscribers mentioned the author and I googled Ross Jacobs.
    I, too, loved it and mentioned on my blog. Wonderful of you to keep spreading the word about all these great horse books/trainers Kate!

  5. Thanks. Sounds like a great book. Those "old horsemen" are the true masters. I often used to admire some of the old cowboys who used to ride around here. They never looked "classic" in their horses, but, wow, could they ride!!

  6. "To them, working with a horse was a co-operative venture." I couldn't agree more. I apprenticed with an old reining trainer in high school, and I learned more about working with young horses than I did during my years as an undergrad pursuing a degree in equine studies.

  7. Thanks Kate!
    I always love to get a tip on a good book, and it was nice of you also to include some sections. It immediately awakened a need. I think this one soon will be find on my (overloaded) bookshelf!

  8. Thanks for sharing the interesting review. Sounds like a book that I could benefit from. Don't you ever find it confusing how many 'experts' there are out there that are ful of advice and information? How does one sort through it all and find the truly 'good stuff'?



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