Making a horse with heart. Watching the line.
I got to thinking earlier when I was watching this stupid show on RFD-TV. I have had people ask me in the past how I keep my horses from quitting on me so I thought about it and thought I would share my thoughts on training a horse that won't quit.
My philosophy on training is a lot different than other people. I never handle a horse without having high expectations for them. I expect more out of a green horse in his first week under saddle than many people do in the first month or 2. Some people choose to take 15 or 30 days just working on groundwork before ever introducing the saddle. If that is what works for you, that's great. It doesn't work for me. I would get incredibly bored and so would my horses. After getting an unhandled horse, it is seldom more than 1 or 2 days before I am trotting circles in the roundpen and usually no more than 4 or 5 before I have them on the trail or going through cattle. So many people start young horses with no expectations of how quickly they will move up in their training, content to just let the horse meander around the pen at a walk for a week before asking them for anything and not asking for more than a trot for a month or more. So many people would say that I move too fast and push the horse beyond their tolerance because I get them tired every session. But that is where the line comes into play. I haven't really been training that long in the grand scheme of things, just off and on for the last 10 years or so but I grew up with, IMHO, one of the greatest horsemen to ever sit astride an equine. I learned to read horses from him and from spending hours and days watching how they react to people and each other. Over these years, I have found that tired horses learn faster than fresh ones. They are more apt to pay attention to you and do what you are asking instead of worrying about "OMG, look at that cloud! Where are my buddies? OH, its a horse eating bush! Is that a rabbit I smell? Where is it, I want to go look. I wonder if that grass under my feet would taste good. I can't walk through that water, I'll melt!" and any number of other distractions that young horses notice. They are less likely to fight you just because they are feeling a little fresh that morning. I never get a horse tired by lunging them either. I expect a horse to know that the saddle, bride, and rider means it is time to go to work now and not screw around in a circle for half an hour working off their energy. They will need that energy by the time I am through working them.
A good horseman should be able to watch a horse, see the expressions in his eyes, ears, nostrils, neck, tail, feet, flanks, etc. and know exactly what the horse can withstand and what they cannot and the exact location of the fine line separating the two. Every time I handle a horse, I step them close to that line. Once you can read a horse, you can push them in their training. I get my best results when, each day, I push a horse just right up to that line and then let them ease back away from it. Each and every day, I push them to learn everything they are able and I keep a close eye on that line. When they get close to that line and are just almost ready to step into that void, I will back off. Go back to something simple that they have already mastered even if it is just standing there or walking in an easy circle. Each day I push that line and each day, I find that line has moved a little farther away and I can push them more. Each day, that line will move farther and farther into the horizon until no matter how hard you push, you just can't seem to find that line. Soon, the horse will learn that even though you will ask a lot from them, you will never push them to do more than what they are able. That's when they start giving you more, almost like they want to find out for themselves exactly how far they can go. They are more willing to try new, scary, or complicated things and you can almost see the lightbulb moment and their happiness after they complete the task set for them. They are eager to go to work because they seem to be fulfilled knowing that they are wanted and needed. I honestly believe that they begin to feel a connection to us just as we do to them. They begin to have their own expectations and want nothing more than to please us, if only for a pat on the neck and a soft word of thanks. It's like the little engine that could, they begin to believe that they can do things that sometimes even you wonder if they can. But because they believe they are strong enough or fast enough, then somehow the task ends up done. What they may lack in ability is made up for in heart. Ability and training give them the tools but heart wins the competitions. With horses like that, you can rope a house and there is only 2 options for an outcome when you ask them to drag it. Either the house comes off the foundation, or the horse will break every piece of tack you have and dig holes in the ground with his feet from trying.
People asked how a mustang with less than a year of riding that weighed about 900 pounds drug a 2000 pound steer out of a pen at a feedlot.
My answer: heart.
People ask how racehorses with broken legs keep running and still try to win the race.
My answer: heart.
I honestly believe that if you never expect anything during the training of a young horse, they know that you don't expect anything from them. They become content just to meander through life and the first time something happens that truely tests the horse, that line is suddenly precariously close. On the other side of that line is an endless black void called quit. Once a horse quits on you because you asked for too much, there is no getting them back. Every time they hit a wall after exposure to quit, they will just stop or turn around and go back instead of either soaring over it or crashing through it. Because they have failed before, they don't believe that they can succeed and so they don't even try. That's when a horse's spirit is truely broken.
Every once in a while, you will find a horse with a fighting spirit that just won't quit no matter how many times they trip over that line but those are very few and far between. In my 25 years of knowing horses, I have only ever met 1 that had truely been set up to fail time after time after time after time and was still willing to give everything he had and more every time you asked.
It takes years of observing and testing before you can consistently find that line on every horse. In the process of learning to spot the line, you may not see it until after it is behind you. Sometimes it just happens before you think it will. Sometimes you don't push a horse close enough to the line and it takes longer for it to fade into the distance or sometimes it will forever loom just past the shadow. Each horse has to be handled according to their own line. Some horses begin life with the line straddled between their hooves and others start with a line that is on the far blue horizon. Learn to spot it and then learn to work toward it without stepping over and you will forever be astride a horse with heart.
It is true what they say. Truely the best of horsemen do walk a fine line.
Always remember that feeling of looking at a big, open country over the ears of a good horse, seeing a new trail unwind ahead of you, and that ever-spectacular view from the top of the ridge!!! Follow my training blog: http://robertsontraining.blogspot.com/
Last edited by smrobs; 01-25-2010 at 06:00 PM.