I have been around horses, ponies and minis for over 30 years, and have studied the training methods of many trainers and clinicians. In doing so, I have distilled out what I term ‘Common Sense Horsemanship’ that encourages a partnership between the equine and its rider or driver. Key elements are:
Fitness for tasks
Those who have influenced me most include:
Stewart Christie, BHSI
Sheila Thom, BHSI
John S. Wilson, Licensed Racing Trainer (now a Steward of the Jockey Club in UK)
Linda A. Perratt, Licensed Racing Trainer
Charlie Williams, retired Licensed Racing Trainer
Also, all the horses, ponies and minis I have had the pleasure of working with, especially Final Approach (Melvie - Thoroughbred), Charlie’s Coup (Charlie - Thoroughbred), Boots Scootin’ Boogie (Boots - Mini) and my black stallion friend, Colliery Alick (Dales Pony).
I have found that equines do ‘communicate’ with their humans, or try to. The problem is often that the owner or trainer does not understand. They may not use a spoken language, but their reactions, gestures and attitudes are there to read, if you know what to look for. In 2008, I started working with a really nice Thoroughbred that had reached Intermediate level in Eventing. He had been out of work for over 18 months, and needed to be taken back to basic fitness work to rebuild his muscle structure. After 4 weeks of ground work, we started under saddle, and it was immediately obvious that he was not happy. The horse is a total gentleman, so there was no violent refusal to work, but he would plant his feet and would not move forward into trot. Firm application of the leg aid would generate a stamp of a back foot. He was saying ‘no’. In a situation like this, my methodology is to check out the physical first, and move on to the mental if nothing is structurally wrong. A visit from a chiropractor and two follow up treatments from an equine masseuse put this particular horse’s spine back in order, and when he suddenly exhibited the same behavior a few weeks later, we immediately sensed he was in discomfort again. This time he had probably rolled in his stall and got a bit twisted, and a chiropractic treatment solved the problem.
How often do I like to work horses and ponies in training? It depends on the animal, the work we are doing, and the owner’s long term goals. Each animal is different, and I try to understand how they are reacting and build the schedule to suit, in consultation with the owners.
When starting a youngster, I do not like to overload the brain. I find it very effective to work on a particular topic and then allow a day or two for the animal to think about what it has done. That way I get less nervous reactions and panic attacks. It is also important to make the work 'fun' for the student, so they want to do it next time.
Over the last 2 years, I have successfully retrained a number of driving ponies that have been in wrecks. With these, I go back to basic driving training and get back to a comfort zone, where they show no signs of fright. Then I build up again until we can hitch and drive with confidence. Sometimes, I have allowed 4 or 5 days between driving sessions, just lunging on other days to remind the animal of who is in charge (herd leader) and to trust that I will not ask them to do anything that will hurt them.
Having spent some thirteen years attached to Cree Lodge Racing Stables in Ayr, Scotland as an amateur assistant, I have a great love for, and affinity with, Thoroughbreds. On arrival in the USA in 1998, I went looking for an ex track horse to reschool for a second career. I was fortunate to acquire Charlie’s Coup, a 5 furlong sprinter, from Neil Silva, his breeder, owner and trainer. Over the last 11 years I have tried various training methods on Charlie, and he has greatly helped my development as a trainer. One day he might even drive!
Each animal is an intellectual, as well as a physical challenge. It is not my policy to ‘demand’ obedience and subservience from the equine. I believe that the human has, or should have, more intelligence than the animal and, therefore, should be able to convince them to perform tasks, provided they are not unreasonable. To achieve this, handlers have to position themselves as ‘herd leaders’, and this can be challenging with a stallion, a dominant mare or a very nervous animal. The proof that these methods work are the number of happy animals seen in their owners’ barns, or are returned to satisfied clients.