What You Say About Your Horse Says More About You

What You Say About Your Horse Says More About You

This is an Open Letter to my staff, students, farriers, and vets -- everybody that handles horses on our property. This letter holds two challenges for you, and both are reminders for myself. We will hold each other accountable.

I will get to the challenges in a moment, first let me back up to explain my thought process.  

Emotional attributes of Horsemen I admire and try to replicate are: Thoughtfulness, Patience, Empathy, and Enthusiasm.

Of these, my biggest struggle is with Patience. The times with horses that I am most embarrassed about are when I lost it.  

Over the years, as I learn more, develop more skills, am willing to seek out more knowledge, and ask for help when I get stuck, Patience has deserted me less and less. 

I have seen many, many (thousands) of people lose their temper with horses. Tempers can be caused by being Angry, Frustrated, Scared, Stressed, Tired, or Impatient. I shouldn’t have to mention being intoxicated or high, but I will. These make us emotionally imbalanced.

"The times with horses that I am most embarrassed about are when I lost it. "

David O’Connor told me a story recently. Whenever he has a “family” dinner gathering, he always has the younger working students set the table and put the dishes away after. He has them look guests in the eye. Shake the hands of owners (pre-COVID). Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘how can I help?’.  

David tried, in previous years, to emphasize the importance of being polite and sociable by explaining to the kids that if they are not born into money, and they want to compete at the top of this sport, they will need owners. One does not get owners by being rude or forgettable. (This does not mean being courteous and well-mannered are not also ends in themselves. They are.)

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This year, David has switched tactics. He emphasized that being polite is the first step in developing emotional fitness. Being polite, when intimidated or shy, is not easy. Emotional fitness is to an athlete like silence is to a hunting owl.

The way we talk about horses often demonstrates one’s emotional fitness. So the first challenge is to stop calling horses "asshole" or "jerk."  

(Note to reader: there are cuss words in this article, and I have included them to shock you in the way that I am shocked at the adjectives people use about horses.)  

If you are emotionally imbalanced, if you are nervous or frustrated, you have options. Take a step back. Reevaluate. Change the situation. Put the horse back in a stall. Get help. Call me. Seriously, call me. We can blanket that horse for the first time in the round pen later today so he doesn’t kick you. Or I can show you how to prepare your horse for saddling so he doesn’t bite you. Perhaps he is bucking because he is in pain, so let’s fix that.

Moments of emotional imbalance are inevitable. What is not inevitable, or acceptable, is spreading that imbalance around with four-letter words, like coughing COVID-19 into a crowd.  

I get it. It is not fun to feel intimidated, and training horses can be frustrating. Here is a great quote from reiner Craig Johnson: “If your goal is to develop your horse to it’s peak potential in a discipline, be prepared to deal with the unavoidable resistance, confusion, stubbornness, bad attitude, anger, aggressiveness, doubt, loss of trust, and wrong decisions until you arrive on the other side. There will be challenges with your horse too.”

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What is wrong with calling your horse a Little F*cker? The first is that it is intellectually lazy. It is a catch-all term that is not precise. It does not describe the behavior in a helpful way.

The second thing wrong is it encourages emotional imbalance. And while, admittedly, some people can use words like "bastard", and still work with my horse kindly, it unconsciously gives permission to my other staff and students (and two year old son) to use the same words. There is a good chance they do not have the same control you might have.  

The third is that words like "idiot" are not productive. What is productive is to keep yourself safe and to ask for help. Learn how to be proactive, not reactive. Remember that just because you failed to predict the horse was going to bite you does not mean it was unpredictable. Best of all, train the horse. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

"If I believe one thing about training horses, it is that there is always a better way."

When I interviewed Christlot Boylen a few years ago I asked her “What does being a horseman mean to you?” 

“A horseman,” she said, “will understand the twitch of an ear, or the nod of a head. They have empathy and they understand immediately how to react. They are always aware, and they react to the first signal. They know when to hold on, and when to let go. They put the horse in a position to win, not lose.”

Christilot, I remember, paused to find the right words. “It’s subtle… With horsemen, you don’t see the problems because they don’t go there. With others, they see it a second too late. Then you have issues.”

Training is another word for teaching. It is up to us to teach the horse. I have never found it helpful to expect a horse to know things. Or to expect them to train themselves. If they have a behavior I don’t want, I should take the time to find the cause - maybe it's pain, or confusion. It's my responsibility to train them to behave differently. If you work here, it's your responsibility as well.  

If you are in a hurry, it's not helpful for me to say to you, “Don’t make a career with animals," cause I get it. We all gotta pay the bills. Instead, in my barn, at my farm, I want to take the time in the short term, to save time in the long run. So this is your second challenge: Learn to see the frustrations as interesting. Learn how to thoughtfully, joyfully, and with an understanding of the horse's nature, teach them a better way.  

The vast majority of horses (I hesitate to say all out of principle) learn their unwanted behaviors from people. People relate to horses in different ways.  

Some trainers view horses as having fixed hierarchies within the herd, and with people as well. This group is likely to interpret a horse as being “dominant” or “submissive” with people. Words like "respect" and "trust" are often used. Occasionally, "wicked" or "evil".

Others do not attribute higher mental capabilities to horses, therefore the horse may not necessarily “trust” the rider or handler, but simply responds to trained cues. Like my phone, the horse doesn't do what I want it to do, only what it is programmed to do or what I tell it to do.

A third model of horse training is where the horse is generally seen as a “willing-to-please” animal, like a Golden Retriever. But while most horses are seen as benevolent and cooperative, it also paves the way for punishing so-called “naughty” behaviors.

All of this to say, we filter our horses' behaviors through our own lens of how we view the world. Often it reflects our own standing in the world, or how the world has spoken to us. People that have achieved success by having lots of discipline in their own lives often believe the same obedience is important for their horses. At the other end of the spectrum, a talented lady I met was sexually abused as a child, and she has responded by never wanting to force her way on other people or animals. Her horses are never punished. Every behavior is their choice. The horses get a treat if they do it, but if they choose not to, there is no consequence.

There is often nothing wrong with having a bias. Is it possible not to? And there are, after all, many ways to train horses. What is important is first recognizing our own bias; second, always looking for a better way.  

If I believe one thing about training horses, it is that there is always a better way. If I get better, then I I look for an even better way.

The words we use about horses reflects how we view them, which in turn affects how we work with them. The words we use affect the emotional balance of us, our horses, and of the people around us who may be working with our horses.

At your farm, you can call horses whatever you want, but at Copperline Farm, we are not going to call them anything you wouldn’t call me to my face and still want to keep your job. Because here, we believe that words are part of being polite. Being polite is the first step to the emotional fitness we require to step into the biggest arenas in the world, and to win.   

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