Peter Campbell, clinician
To me, “horsemanship” means the development of one’s self. It’s a simple idea. We’re working on ourselves, developing the discipline that allows us to understand what the horse needs from us and how best to present ideas to the horse. Achieve that, and you’ll find that working with your horse becomes a whole lot easier.
In my earliest days working with horses, in the 1970s, Tom Dorrance’s methods weren’t yet prevalent. His methodology was still under the radar in much of the horse world. Horse handlers tended to try and dominate horses, and used some approaches that were pretty harsh. Even then, I never liked trouble with horses, never liked to see one that thought he needed to buck or feel like he was in a bad situation. Finding a path that was clear of those troubles, though, was a challenge.
When I was around 14, an outfitter I worked with had a leased pack horse named Lucky. Everyone in the outfitting operation seemed to have trouble getting along with Lucky, and considered him nearly impossible to shoe. The horse, though, offered a different experience to his owner, an older fellow. He could get the horse shod, where few others would even make the attempt. I remember thinking that, where Lucky was concerned, there was obviously something everyone but the old man was missing.
In those days, the preferred solution for most “problem horses,” was to get on and ride, to put on miles and put in time. The reality, though, is that miles and wet saddle blankets aren’t what make good horses. If you’re working at the wrong thing through all those hours and miles, a horse will simply get tougher and tighter. If you work at the right thing, though, and a horse gets some meaning out of it, the lessons will stick. It won’t be a function of hours and miles.
Over time, you start to see what you need to offer the horse to help him do what you’re asking of him. You learn to see where the horse is coming from, and learn to recognize the ways his instinct for self-preservation shows itself. It all begins to make sense. When your horse encounters something that makes him uncomfortable and he responds positively to your encouragement, giving you his trust, you’re in a delicate position. If you get your horse into trouble after he’s given you that trust, he begins to question your judgment. After all, the last time he trusted you, it got him into trouble. What riders often define as problem behavior in a horse is really the horse’s attempt to protect himself.
Working with horses presents a unique challenge. When you begin, you really don’t know what you don’t know Ironically, it’s by making mistakes and exercising bad judgment that you begin to collect the experiences that make good judgment possible. Those lessons build upon one another, and it often takes later experiences to shine light on previous lessons and give them meaning.
Years before I knew Tom, I had a little bay mare with a habit of rearing. It wasn’t violent, but she’d jump in the air. I took her to a friend for help. The standard procedure then was to over-and-under a rearing horse. He did, and she stopped, but the problem wasn’t solved. On later rides, she still reared with me.
When I worked with Tom, I rode a horse that had the same problem with rearing. I shared with Tom my previous experience with the bay mare. He explained that over-and-undering a horse might get it to move, but when you really needed to count on the horse, that kind of negative behavior, rearing, would always surface again. Over-and-undering wouldn’t have taught the horse not to rear, Tom explained. It would’ve only made him afraid, and would’ve done nothing to change the horse’s mind about rearing. Without having had that previous experience with the bay mare, and without having made mistakes in trying to manage her rearing, I might not have understood what Tom was saying to me.
Working with horses has taught me to have discipline in everything I do; to be particular, but not critical; to revel in small, rather than big accomplishments; to keep offering myself to the horse and, even though the horse might not be at a hundred percent, to keep offering; and to not force things. It’ll always take time to get somewhere but, one day, you’ll get on your horse and you’ll feel a difference. The horse will have turned loose, mentally. Patience might not be the word. You do end up waiting on your horse, but waiting isn’t necessarily doing nothing. You’re just not making things happen.
Unfortunately, when a horse resists, most people will do one of two things: quit, or go to beating on the horse. If you can instead simply wait, your horse will make it. And it’s when the horse is in the most trouble, when he’s in his darkest hour and putting up the most resistance, that he’ll often make a breakthrough. It’s in those moments that you need to be at peace, to keep offering, and to reward every little effort. It’s those little steps, those little victories, that help a horse understand what you’re trying to get across to him.
It can be the same with people. Early in my attempts at teaching, I tried to make riders understand. I figured that, since I had this driving fire to figure this out, everyone else must have the same desire. When a student had a problem, I’d push hard to help her. Now, I’m able to let students work at trying to understand and, as long as it’s not a dangerous situation, I can let them find the answers and revel in the small accomplishments they make along the way. If they make 30 seconds of progress, I celebrate that, rather than obsessing over making all the progress possible, all at once.
At a clinic, a student might be working with a horse, trying to make something happen. I’ll tell her to keep offering. The horse might not make his breakthrough at the clinic, but I might come back a year later and see that things are working. The horse is now walking in a straight line or stopping smoothly. And from the look on the student’s face, I can tell that his insides have changed. He’s no longer frustrated.
Some horsemen reach a point where they feel like nothing can stump them. They figure they’ve been around, seen it all, and that there’s nothing they can’t figure out. I’ve learned, though, that as you spend more time with horses, you realize there’s always so much more to know. Whatever ego you begin with, horses will eventually get it in check and you’ll leave every situation feeling like there’s still so much to learn.
Excerpted from Willing Partners: Insight on Stockmanship Copyright 2012 © The Frontier Project Inc & Peter Campbell Horsemanshp LLC Reprinted by permission: The Frontier Project Inc & Peter Campbell Horsemanshp LLC