Exploring Horsemanship Blog: Horseman's Calling - Karen Fitzpatrick

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I went to this event last weekend and I've been trying to work out some sort of blog about it ever since. I took pages and pages of notes during the times that the trainers were working in the arena, bit I don't really want to reproduce chunks of those here. The reason for that... well, I've got my theories about what the trainers had in mind while they were working, and what they thought was going on, but I could be completely wrong. Also, I tried typing something up that was just reporting without emotion or putting my own interpretation on things, and it just didn't work. So, let's see how we go with a different approach shall we? This is my personal view. I don't claim to be an expert, and if people disagree with me that's fine, they can go and set out their opinions in their blogs maybe.

So first - what was it all about? Well some brave souls, I understand Grant Bazin was one of them, thought it might be an idea to bring the sort of young horse starting type of challenge that is held in the US and other countries to the UK. You get three trainers, and three young horses, the trainers work with the young horses over a period of time, following some rules, and at the end a winner is announced. It's pretty controversial really.

The organisers of the Challenge said on their website:

"Each individual trainer or clinician works with the horses' welfare at the forefront of their thinking and will provide an excellent educational opportunity. In addition to this profits from the demonstration arena, which will be adjacent to trade stands, will go towards our chosen horse related charity of the year."

Which sounds good in theory, but there's been some frankly piss poor treatment of young horses in these competitions in the past. We've seen youngsters chased about in round pens in terror, horses flooded and overwhelmed by the way they've been treated, and little 2 year old babies ridden round by hefty cowboys in western saddles. Would be horrendous wouldn't it?

The organisers of this event wanted to avoid these situations. So they asked for horses to be 3 years old, to have already been exposed to a similar environment for example being shown in hand. They were at pains to emphasise that none of the elements of the competition were compulsory, and that if the trainer didn't feel that it was in the best interest of the horse, or that the horse was not ready for a rider, then they could choose to leave out the ridden goals given in the rules and be judged on their groundwork and preparation of the horse for a rider.

The first test for the organisers came before the competition started, when they looked at the youngsters provided and saw that they weren't developed enough for the competition, and hadn't had the ring experience they had hoped. So the first day started with an announcement that these babies would be used just for un-judged demos, and other horses would come for the competition. This happened, and horses were also withdrawn from the event because one got footsore, and another was deemed unsuitable by the vet judge when she started to work in the round pen. (Looked a bit lame to me, but who knows?).

So what of the actual event? I had mixed reactions. I am sure by now that a lot of people will be stating that all of the horses were treated abusively and the event shouldn't have taken place at all. I respect their opinions. However, young horses that are going to get out and about and compete will always face similarly stressful situations, so I guess my feeling is that the event itself isn't so wrong it shouldn't happen. I always enjoy a chance to meet up with people I know and some that I don't. Having been and watched, I do not think the format of the event results in the young horses getting the best experience they could in that public setting. Or that it results in the spectators seeing the best they representation they could of the style of training on display. I also worry about the tendency for people to go away and "try this at home". But of course that does apply to any situation where anyone is showing others how they will do anything! Even clicker and other positive reinforcement training can be highly traumatic for a horse if some wannabe has a go without guidance and gets it horribly wrong.

I'm not soft on horses, but I try to treat them with kindness and recognise that they quite easily get scared by the demands we place on them, and give them a bit of slack. What I'm saying is that I'm not a positive reinforcement trainer's dream... but...

The baby horses in the round pens were scared. They were also stressed by the fact that they'd been separated from their companions. They were just horses being horses, I don't think it's helpful to apply labels like dominant just because a horse goes to run over us. Their motivation is fear. Calling them dominant somehow seems to give approval to humans deciding they need to gain "respect" or become a "leader", generally by forceful means. This doesn't mean that we can't take some action to stop a horse running over us, I am suggesting that our perception is important and is going to affect our actions - the way we treat the animal in front of us. Maybe thinking of the horse as being afraid rather than dangerous and dominant might lead people to avoid shanking, just for example.

All of the trainers got their competition horses ridden, and two of them had them walking, trotting and cantering and going over obstacles - the goals set out for the competition. One trainer stopped riding his horse with 15 minutes to spare and without cantering or going over obstacles, which was a good call I think as she was getting tired and a bit unbalanced in trot. She looked sticky in her hind end - I'd have thought the vet judge would have been quick to declare her lame had that been the case. I think this horse looked the most "finished" of the three in terms of what people might have expected to see at the end.

Some things I pondered, without singling out any trainer in particular:

  • Round pen work isn't always about Join Up and sending a horse away strongly. It can be more about allowing a horse to move, but looking for the tiniest hint that they want to come to the human and stepping back to encourage that, then building on that connection. I wonder about the need for quite so much chasing, and for me there was too much.

  • Some people have a lot more "energy" and "life" about them than others, put simply they are live wires. Do they happen to get a lot of "lively/feisty/challenging" horses to deal with, or do the horses pick up on that bundle of energy and react to it? Some people push horses into movement without realising they are doing it.

  • While all of the trainers demonstrated clearly that they know their stuff, and can certainly start horses, I'd have been perfectly happy to have seen them do less. Again, without singling anyone out, it was really nice to see a trainer soothing a horse all over with his hands, or taking up a brush and giving a horse a bit of attention that was clearly appreciated. They could have done less, not got as much done in the way of tasks, but have helped their equines to deal with the fear caused by the environment, find calm and stay calm throughout. That would have been just as impressive to me. As it went it still felt like a race to an end.

  • I'm reminded of a trainer I know who came to a clinic with a new mantra, which was the word "less". It transformed his horsemanship and made a lasting impression on me. I think that all of the trainers in the Horseman's Calling could do "less" and would find they got more from the horses. That maybe applies more to some than others. It's about setting things up and not being afraid or too impatient, or to feel too short of time to just wait. I was watching Ray Hunt on DVD teaching colt starting a week or so ago, he was watching a cowboy leading a colt through a gate, the colt baulked and stopped, the cowboy made a move to do something and Ray told him to just wait. Then the horse softened and walked nicely through the gate. There were more than a few times at the weekend when I was thinking "wait...!". But then we all know this stuff is really easy when you're watching rather than doing don't we?

  • Next time, I understand a next time is being planned, maybe we will see more radically different approaches. Maybe someone from a clicker or other positive reinforcement background will come forward to throw a sharp contrast. I know some will argue on principal that they wouldn't support such an event, because it's a stressful environment for a horse. However, I'm sure they could help a horse through that and it would be really good to see how it's done. Ideally we all get to prepare our horses for the future, but every now and then life throws us the unexpected - an emergency trip to the vet, maybe even some minor disaster at home - and we all need a plan to help our horses through it.

I've got to add that for me it was hugely frustrating to leave the event with no idea of how the judges decided who had won. It felt like arrogance to me, as it did when the vet judge wouldn't say why a horse was rejected for the competition after going into the round pen. "Now she's working on a circle I think she looks a bit lame on her near hind" wouldn't have hurt. There was something to the effect of protecting the owner, who of course had put their horse up for a public event and some free education. We were told why one of the day 1 demo horses didn't come back; she was footy after working in the pen straight after a trim, I can't work out the difference.

Personally I would much prefer that young horse starting and loading wasn't presented as a competition and I doubt I'd attend this again (but never say never). I'm not going to object to horses being exposed to stressful environments because that happens to them in many ways as they take part in shows, hack out, visit vets etc. I feel that as long as there is a competition with a title awarded at the end it is human nature to push to tick the most boxes and show off a bit, and that's never going to be the best for the horse. Respect to the organisers and those involved for trying though.

I chopped a huge bit out of the middle of this blog where I struggled to express how I feel abut what I saw last weekend. I don't share the extreme disgust for everything the three trainers did that some seem to be expressing. I do however feel that there were points where horses were pushed too hard, too fast, too far. I wanted to convey that, although I was fine with a lot of what I saw, there were definitely bits where I wasn't. I wanted to capture why I wasn't OK with what I was seeing in those uncomfortable minutes. Yesterday I put this all aside and left it to go for a ride with a friend because I just couldn't find the words. Today I opened up my laptop and like a gift from the gods (or Jen!) there was this quote:

"The horse is very sensitive. He can feel a fly land on him. I know you all know this, because you put fly spray on your horses. He can feel a fly land on him, yet you're tugging on him, pulling on him like he weighs a million pounds. You're not working with what nature gave you; you're DESTROYING what nature gave you." - Ray Hunt

First posted on http://exploringhorsemanship.com/. Reprinted with kind permission from Karen Fitzpatrick.