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Training the trainer

My two horses are very dear to me. Both need work.

Peppy is a light gray quarter horse (looks white with a hint of shadow on his butt. His tail is supposed to be white, but it’s become permanently stained from the red Georgia clay). He came to me well trained and wonderfully mannered. He is now pushy and lazy. My fault. I seem to have a problem remembering a 1000 pound horse is NOT a 60 pound dog. You could say I treat the horses like the chickens – I enjoy watching them and puttering with them, but I settle for minimum maintenance, always thinking I’ll do fill in the blank tomorrow.  I tend to love on ‘em and give ‘em treats even when undeserved (sort of like my husband) feeling as if they demand a good chunk of time even without the extra effort. I feed them day in and day out, have them shoed and wormed like clockwork, and groom them  when I’m inspired to do so or they become so dirty I’m embarrassed to call them mine. They go months without being ridden or worked and when I do take them out, I let them have their way too often. They are overfed and underworked, as horses go. So, their attitude is not unlike that slight edge of nastiness and spoiled sense of entitlement that teenagers get when they are being raised by over indulgent parents. Doesn’t mean they are bad kids, only that they have forgotten who the boss is.

Joy is my drop dead beautiful saddle bred pinto. Her striking coloring, muscular body and brilliant blue eyes make people stop in their tracks just to admire her equestrian splendor. I discovered her in a herd on a breeding farm. She’d been there for six years, mingling with other forgotten horses, getting lazy and fat. I happened to be there to look at another horse, but when I saw her I became immediately smitten. No other horse would do. Since Joy’s been with me, she’s lost weight, gained muscle, and turned into the beauty I knew was hidden underneath all that slack muscle lumped on top of an over-grazed figure. I feel she is far happier living here where daily action keeps her alert and a pair of warm hands are quick to rub her nose, than she ever could have been abandoned in a field  – even if the grass was greener and more a-plenty there.   

Her lack of training is due to the simple fact that no one has bothered to teach her manners. She happens to be very people-oriented and sweet beyond measure. She wants to be with humans all the time and has a sincere curiosity about the world. She stands at the fence watching Mark on the tractor digging out the creek, or me planting bulbs or feeding the rabbits, fascinated and friendly. She’s extremely smart, can open the gate herself and has a willingness to please. As such, when she does get a small dose of training, she responds very well. This is the sign of a potentially great horse.

I was promised some intense training when I bought her, but it didn’t materialize (lots of excuses). I was quoted a price that included 60 days of daily training, begining on the ground in the ring, as most good training does. Joy would be neck reigned, would stand still, would be bomb proof, side-step at the gate . . . etc… etc…. What I got was a horse that was simply saddle broke and “ridable”, accomplished in a few sessions of power play with a grumbling cowboy wrestling with her from the saddle wearing spurs.  As such, I paid way too much for her, because training is imperative to establishing a horse’s worth. Untrained horses, even pretty ones, are considered useless, except to a meat factory, and sadly, that is where many of them end up.

I didn’t do enough research to really understand the breed. I did do some reading, but somehow I missed that all saddlebreds are high strung and best suited for advanced riders and/or people seeking energetic show horses. I was looking for a calm, bomb proof trail horse that I could put Neva or other beginning riders on. One of the factors that keep me from riding daily is that I must go alone. I’ve been able to handle whatever horses we’ve owned, but when I spend the entire time worrying about whoever is riding with me losing control from my ill mannered, underworked horses, riding becomes more a stress than carefree joy. As such, most of the riding I’ve done has been day long affairs with friends who have their own horses – that’s fun, but not the ideal I had when I set out to keep two horses.

No matter how much training Joy gets, she’ll never be a calm, easygoing horse. Again – my fault. I knew darn well what I needed, but bought what I wanted instead- I succumbed to an instinctual connection I felt for the animal. Then, I trusted someone I barely knew to train the horse to be something other than what she obviously was. I wanted to believe they would and could turn her into the horse of my dreams. Everyone knows that when it comes to horses, what you see is what you get – and even so, you take your chances, praying the seller hasn’t found a way to camouflage more serious flaws. It was a very foolish and delusional hope to think that this wild beauty was going to magically turn into a well behaved, highly trained horse in a few months. What ya gonna do? I chalk it up to another one of those Hendry learning experiences of which we’ve had so many since moving to the country. Learning to “live simply” has actually been very complex. This transition has been a minefield of hard lessons and expensive mistakes while we struggle to carve a life of self sufficiency and harmony with nature.  The rat race was something we longed to escape, but it was at least chartered territory.

Even if Joy isn’t the perfect horse for anyone and everyone, she is certainly loved. She makes an impressive and challenging mount for me, and she is my horse, after all, so there is no reason tshe has to be user friendly for the masses. I have Peppy for whomever might want to be my riding companion.

Meanwhile, people say, “Put that Pinto in some shows and she’ll blow the competition out of the water – then she’ll be worth 20 times what you paid.” That is all well and good, but it’s sort of like saying, “Take that little child with no dance training yet good flexibility and throw her on Broadway and she’ll be a star…” The point is, the long hard road between here and there is not only grueling and takes time, energy and investment – it also requires teachers who know what they’re doing. In dance, I do. In horses, I don’t.

I can pay someone to train her, but honestly, it becomes so cost prohibitive that it takes the fun out of owning a horse for me. Horses are not my life passion. They’re simply a recreational joy and once the sacrifices demanded of a hobby outweigh the pleasure you get in return, the pleasure ceases to be pleasurable. I can’t stand situations where you find yourself doing a cost analysis to determine if the investment of your recreational dollars is measuring up. I just want to relax and enjoy those things in life that you can’t put a price on – leisure time being one.

I adore my horses. I love how they neigh and come running whenever they see my car. I love how they rub their noses against my jacket and act jealous of each other when I give either one a bit of attention. I especially love watching them come charging across the pasture when I call. Joy looks like a refined racehorse with her head held high, her chiseled body most striking when in motion. With her long legs and powerful build, she is always a good 50 paces in front of the others. Peppy follows behind, determined to catch up because he’s established his authority as leader in this herd even if he is of common stock. He’s my main man, and he knows it. Dumpy donkey trots in the rear as if to say, “Hey guys, wait for me. . .” (He’s wins the prize for cuteness.)

The weather has turned lovely as spring peeks around the corner. Flowers are in bloom, the sun is high, and a cool breeze makes being outside uplifting. I have a terrific barn now, a 50 foot ring for training, and two well bred horses that sincerely want to please me, despite their innocently adapted ill manners. It’s time to dig in and do something with these resources or sell the farm – literally.

Life has taught me that if you want a job done right, you have to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. So, pondering my dilemma, I got it into my head to train the horses on my own. Only one small flaw in this plan. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m an average rider with minimum training, no real horse experience to speak of, and  limited time to invest. Humm…. The odds are stacked against my success. All I have going for me is the fact that I don’t fear animals bigger than me. Of course, this doesn’t deter me in any way. I figure whatever doesn’t kill me is good for building character – and while I might be a big fat failure at the project, I’ll at least learn something in the process. And there’s always the chance I’ll succeed.  Then, I could breed Joy, train her offspring and sell her to some thrilled person like me who lusts for a horse that is both beautiful AND well trained. It would pay for the upkeep of my own horses for a year. I could then enjoy a high end hobby with a balanced budget. How cool would that be?

So, I started purchasing Clinton Anderson horse training DVD’s on e-bay. This man  happens to be a brilliant young cowboy from the outback with a lovely accent and an even lovelier way with horses. He is firm but kind, has a logic to his system and has become world famous due to his well organized training system and the positive results people get when implementing his advice (and he’s famous thanks to some great marketing too, I’m guessing). These tapes aren’t cheap, but they’re much less of an investment than hiring a trainer or enrolling in horse clinics. Best of all, they give me the foundation required for ongoing success. Just as Peppy began a well trained horse and lost it, an understanding of ongoing training practices is important. If the owner doesn’t follow through and reinforce what is learned, horses soon slip back into bad habits – like kids (or husbands). Consistency is key. Logic dictates it’s just as important (maybe MORE important) to train me as it is to train the horse.

I walk on my treadmill about an hour a day, so I’ve taken to watching my new training tapes during this time. I plod along, huffing and puffing, staring at the TV and thinking it all looks rather easy. Of course, I’m sure in real life it won’t be nearly as smooth going. Clinton only needs to stare into a horse’s eyes and they’re ready to roll over for him. Joy and Peppy will no doubt paw the ground, whinny and give me the evil eye once I attempt the same. But at the same time, horse training looks like something I’d be a natural at. Training horses is sort of like a dance. You stand in the center of the ring doing a series of arm gestures and clicking your tongue, flailing a whip at the horse’s hindquarters to make them run a certain direction. Meanwhile, you circle the pen at the horse’s flank putting in some miles yourself – good workout, and since I’ve become a failure at running in Georgia (and I’m now a treadmill sissy) this may be a nice substitute. Every once in a while, at just the right moment, you must trot backward to cut the horse off at the shoulder without breaking eye contact. This forces the animal to turn into you rather than into the fence and change direction – turning their hindquarters to you is an unacceptable sign of disrespect. There is a grace required and a level of coordination on the part of the trainer. I watched a student lesson and the girl looked very clumsy and uncomfortable, getting tangled in her own whip and tiring out quickly. I may have problems, but that won’t be one. When it comes to spatial awareness and moving on my feet, I’m well versed. I even choreographed a dance with a whip once. I happen to have experience lashing and moving with rhythm and style.  How many adults can claim that?

I’ve watched the series on training on the ground twice already and feel confident I’m ready to do the exercises. I then moved on to Riding with Confidence level 1 ( a four DVD set) and feel this is all within my range as well. It is a simple set of riding exercises anyone who is familiar with a horse can do. I have level 2 and 3 of the riding series to study later, after I successfully get the horses through the paces of level one. I have ordered a DVD series for dressage (which is the exercises and training skills needed for showing horses –something Joy was born to do so I might as well see if it’s possible for the two of us), and a few short subject DVD’s – like training horses with lunging techniques, teaching them to tie calmly, etc. Amazing, the resources available to people now a days thanks to computers and DVD’s etc…

I’m sure I’ll be average at best at training horses, but it will be fun to see what I’m capable of. I might even get my son to video me in the ring bossing those horses around to post on the blog one of these days. Showing off might be a good incentive for me to keep at it. Wouldn’t want to lose face as a cow-girl in training with friends who still insist I lost my mind and went of the deep end when I left dance and moved to the hills.

So, today, I plan to begin the horse training process. I’m committing an hour a day to working with them – five days a week. I assume weather and life will get in the way of anything more. It would be better to give each horse an hour each, but who am I kidding? Failure begins when you set up a plan you’re unlikely to follow.  Better to keep a new project within a time frame you can handle, in my opinion. You can always add more time or effort when you’re on a roll, but first set a minimum you positively can handle so you don’t shrug your shoulders and give up too soon because the follow through is “too much”. At least, that’s the theory I’m leaning on. And honestly, finding an extra 5 hours in my week is going to be tough as is.
I have a few hours to myself today before I get swallowed by family and work commitments. The weather is beautiful. I plan to begin by visiting my bees and checking out how they fared the winter. I must set up two more hives so all is ready when my shipment of 6 pounds of bees and two queens arrives at the end of the month. Then, I will spend an hour in the ring cutting away the roots and sticks that are sticking up out of the dirt in my ring. I already did this a few months ago, but the freshly leveled area settled over the winter and it needs a bit more maintenance to make ready for the work to come. I’ll return to the house in about two hours, tired and wanting a nap, but I’ll put in my treadmill time regardless and watch another tape for inspiration. Tomorrow is my birthday, but the next day I’ll begin the actual training with Peppy and hope this whole thing is as simple as it looks.

Ya never know what you are capable of until you try – and having a few well trained horses is only one of the benefits I’ll get from hanging on, one more time, to the belief that anything’s possible

About Ginny East Shaddock

Ginny is the owner of Heartwood Yoga Institute. She is an ERYT-500 Yoga teacher, C-IAYT Yoga therapist, RCYT & Ayurveda Counselor who loves nature, gardening, and creative arts. She has an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University, and a BA in Business Administration from Eckerd College. She teaches writing and is the creator of the memoir writing program, "Yoga on the Page" combining the teaching of yoga to writing personal stories with integrity, intention, and heart.

One response »

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