Process and Purpose

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In working with a horse, it is important that one focuses on and understands the connection between the physical process of training the animal and the ultimate goal or purpose for which the horse is being trained. The physical process of training a horse is made up of countless small interactions between horse and rider, and it is important that all of these interactions are carefully considered by the rider. If one interacts carelessly with a horse or does not ensure that each interaction supports the ultimate training goal, the horse is likely to become dull or resistant in his response.

Often times, there are multiple interconnected purposes behind any given process of training. For example, if the training process consists of encouraging a horse to engage physically and mentally, the immediate purpose might be to facilitate a compassionate and clear understanding between the horse and the rider. This purpose may, however, lead to a secondary purpose, such as allowing a horse to think independently, seeking and finding answers for himself.

This example is reflected in the process of starting colts and the purpose behind it. First, in the round pen you indirectly connect the horse’s feet and mind to yourself by correctly positioning yourself in relation to the horse. This process builds the connection necessary for a smooth transition to a direct form of connection, such as halter work. The same concept can then be applied to the transition from halter work to saddle work, in that direct connection between horse and rider via the halter will pave the way for a successful connection between horse and rider under saddle. Ultimately, this direct connection will mean that the human is able to communicate clearly with the horse and support the desired training outcome of fluid, controlled movement of the feet.

Just as correct halter work and saddle work build on the movements of indirect communication established in the round pen, each interaction builds on and refines the foundations of the horse’s training. Complete refinement can only be achieved if there is an even trajectory from indirect connection to direct connection in the horse’s training and each element is in harmony with all the others. Each process must reflect the ultimate purpose and build upon previous processes, never deserting any piece of the training along the way.

With consistent quality work, this process of building connection creates a horse that is the same in all areas of horsemanship, no matter what the given circumstances may be. With a cultivated awareness of purpose behind each element of the horsemanship process, you can reap unimaginable benefits for both yourself and your horse. Beware, though – it takes great desire, effort, and self-reflection to reap the benefits, and all of this has very little to do with the horse. It’s all to do with you!

Patch Job Junkies

Something that has always bothered me is patch jobs, or in other words, temporary fixes. Problems that are patched always come back to haunt you in the long run.  Patch jobs only delay the inevitable, and a problem that wasn’t dealt with properly when it arose the first time can become catastrophic due to continued deterioration.  If a problem does arise, deal with it properly and save yourself time, money, and stress.

Of course the best way to go about things is to avoid problems altogether by maintaining control of every situation and putting preventative measures into place, but as well all know, life happens. If you’re not able to handle something properly from the start and you’re presented with a problem, go ahead and fix it completely before moving on to the next priority.  Once you have something fixed, stay ahead of it with proper maintenance and don’t let it deteriorate causing the same problem to arise again and again.  This is the only way to get ahead, otherwise you will find yourself in a state of continual crisis management never allowing you a moment to progress beyond the current situation.  An endless cycle of patching will take place until finally everything crumbles in on you and puts you even further behind the eight ball.

So maybe the proper title for this post should be ‘get ahead and stay ahead’.  I can’t tell you how many horses I have dealt with that this pertains to, or, more accurately, horse owners I have dealt with that think there is a short term miracle patch job.  This leads me to the subject of unrealistic expectations.  Sure there are some issues that can be fixed or greatly improved in one session such as trailer loading, bridling, and other more specific situational issues, but all in all, if problems with a horse are not addressed every time you work with the animal, the issues will always creep back in.

If an owner wants to keep his horse respectable on the ground and in the saddle, then he must establish this foundation from the start.  I’m talking about the foundation that Buck Brannaman, Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and countless others started teaching.  Once you have that, you can always come back to it if a problem arises.  If there is a problem and the horse doesn’t have a solid foundation, then I can only say that there is no time like the present to put one in place.

Ultimately, the foundation builds confidence in the horse by providing it with guiding support in the form of the rider’s ability to connect with the horse physically and mentally through timing, feel, and balance.  If your horse has this to begin with, the rest is easy as long as you take the foundation with you as you go.

Here is where patch jobs present a problem with horses – a horse that has no foundation and is put into training has nothing to fall back on when a problem occurs. The problem only gets worse with time until the point where a dangerous situation exists or where the horse completely gives up.  If a horse gets to this point, yes, a person could put one ride on them and make them look better, but as soon as the patch is done the horse will go right back into its old habits.  In order to fix a horse like this, it takes time and consistency.

Don’t let a horse get to this point. Don’t try to fix problems with patch jobs that will ultimately lead to major issues requiring serious repair that can take forever to get back on the right track.  Try to do it right from the beginning, but if that’s not possible, then fix a problem properly and stay ahead of it from there on out.  Learn from the mistakes you make along the way so that you can avoid them in the future.  If you’re going to do something, then you had best do it in the right way; if you don’t, it will not be a matter of if it goes wrong, but rather a matter of when and how badly it will go wrong. This is especially important for situations involving horses and people in that a problem with the animal can easily become a dangerous life-or-death issue.

The only thing I know is that I don’t know!

For the past two winters in Wellington, Florida, I have had the privilege of studying under George Morris one or two days a week. Over this time, I have found myself consumed by the effort to understand what skills and philosophies lead those who are masters at their trade along the path to ‘enlightenment’. I use the term enlightenment cautiously, not in a Voodoo god-like way, but in the sense of a deeper awareness and understanding of the world as it exists. When I refer to masters, I mean those who are able to refine their craft beyond the basic level that is comprehensible to most others.

A typical day spent with George was as follows:

After he had worked out for an hour at a nearby gym, George and I met for breakfast at 7 am. From there we hit the road, venturing to many different barns where he would ride, educate, and mentor many of the top riders and horses at every level.  He usually started out by riding a few horses, then progress to teaching a few individual lessons, and finally wrap up his instruction with a clinic.  Following the morning’s work, we would head back to his house for a few hours – but only after his usual stop at Dunkin Donuts for a large hot chocolate with whipped cream! While George occupied himself with the editing of his autobiography, I was left to browse his library and read his books and the notes that he had jotted down on their pages. In the afternoon, we would head to the show grounds where I got to observe him as he walked and discussed the course with several riders, both those he was responsible for coaching and those he wasn’t. My favorite part of these afternoons was standing with him as his students rode.  He could see every mistake before it happened and every bad distance long before the horse took off. His understanding of the horse’s correctness to the jump was so well established by his years of riding and teaching that George knew what was going to happen before the horse ever did.

On one of the last days I spent with George during the winter season, he said something that had an enormous impact on my thinking. As usual, we met for breakfast, said our good mornings, and sat down. It was not uncharacteristic on such occasions for George to start the conversation by exhaling loudly and then delivering a simple but mind-blowing comment.  On this day his comment was, “You know what keeps me waking up every day?  The drive to continue to learn, the hunger to be better for the horse, the fact that the only thing that is confirmed every day is that I don’t know. The only thing I know is that I don’t know.” This is a classic example of George’s sage-like advice: spontaneous yet full of priceless wisdom.  Only after some time had passed and I had let his statement sink in did I realize how significant it was.

This statement of George’s that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” encapsulates much of what it takes to achieve self-mastery. This in itself is a complicated subject, but for now I will only discuss what the statement means to me.

Simply put, the day you stop learning is the day you think that you have ‘arrived’, that you have reached the pinnacle of your potential, that there is no need to continue studying, applying, and refining your skills. You have reached a state of stagnation from which there is no forward progress. There is no more desire to conduct experiments in hopes of bettering your understanding and improving your awareness. You have become mechanized and routine in your approach to dealing with all situations, and you have lost sensitivity for the moment at hand.  As a result, a person who has reached this ‘pinnacle’ tends to treat everyone as though they were machines, providing one-size-fits-all answers instead of tailoring his approach to any particular situation. A teacher who has himself ceased to learn will be unable to help others think, cultivate the desire to improve, and develop an awareness of their influence on their surroundings.

As George made clear in his statement, he has never stopped learning.  He often tells me during a phone conversation or breakfast that after a recent breakthrough with a horse, he realized that he has been doing something wrong his entire life. He laughs to think that for all that time he had been teaching it wrongly. He still has a hard time believing that others listen to him when he teaches because he has these seemingly constant breakthroughs, no matter how small they are, that revise his previous understanding of the horse.

Another thing that working with George brought to my attention is his voracious reading and his struggle to understand the many variations and details of classical horsemanship.  He will read a specific book many times over the years, whenever his mood or current interest inclines him toward it. Seeing some of the books he has gone through over and over again with countless underlines, side notes, and comments in different inks has led me to appreciate just how many times he has been through the same book with different insights resulting from his labors. Each time George rereads a book, he peels back another layer of the onion to reveal a new meaning.

Depending on where I am in my journey, George’s seemingly simple statement that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” takes many different forms, always presenting itself in a new light to reflect my current circumstances.  The sentiment behind these simple words is one that is embraced by masters in all disciplines.  The details of the “not knowing” may have slight differences depending on who is professing their ignorance, but the meaning as a whole is applicable to all areas of study and life.

Any masters who have reached refinement to the degree of enlightenment have seemingly simple, short phrases that are so straightforward that they seem trite or untrue to those who hear them. On a lifelong journey of learning, however, the continuous breakdown of these sayings reveals the complexity and deeper truth behind the words. It is only with examination and explanation that these phrases can become accessible and helpful to students at all levels. I hope that I can build an awareness of these phrases in others by explaining my thought process as I myself try to understand the deeper meaning behind them by writing about them.

I feel so fortunate for the mentors and masters I have had and will have the pleasure to study under. It is hard to imagine a life without them.

Emulate, Never Idolize

DSC_0018Whenever a person starts to idolize another human they put a lid on their own potential, condemning themselves to acting and doing everything like their idol. This forever holds that person one step below their idol because they think they can never reach the idol’s level.  
Instead of idolizing, emulate the good qualities and look up to that person as a teacher. Always respect your teachers and be the best student you can, but never stop questioning your own opinions of everything along the way. You may never get there, but at least you’re leaving the door open to the possibility of surpassing them with a lifetime dedicated to the art of your deep seeded passion and individual growth. 

Through continuous study, application, and reflection, your idols themselves continued growing a little bit every day, working hard to reach their current level of mastery. There is no such thing as overnight success, only overnight recognition of the prior work someone has put forth to master an art form.  

Don’t worry about where you end up, act on what you can do to grow in the moment while keeping your dreams of your future open to change. By becoming aware of who you want to be, you become conscious of who you are on a day-to-day basis. From there you’re able to figure out why some days you stagnate and others you succeed, and you learn from both scenarios. Understanding the reasons for both will allow you to know what helped you succeed or what caused you to fall short. When you apply this knowledge to tomorrow’s efforts, you will continue to grow! 

Find the best teachers you can and follow them back through history. Learn to emulate their great examples and apply what works for you with dreams of adding to the legacy of the art form you’re pursuing. 

The 3 methods to conducive change

 

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As a person continues to work with and learn from horses and people, patterns should start to arise. These patterns appear throughout the process of learning when one dedicates time specifically to the further understanding both of oneself and of others. One such pattern has to do with the three ways of communicating change in an effective manner.

 

Energy:  When working to create a change, a person must continuously read the other’s actions and thoughts in order to adjust appropriately through soft or firm actions.  There are times when you might have to be big, loud, firm and very active to get someone else in a learning frame of mind.  Other times, however, you may already have their attention, so you are soft, quiet, and slow to allow time for others to think and react.  The key is to be able to recognize whether the horse/person is in a mental state conducive to learning or is completely checked out so that you can balance your energy appropriately.

 

Time:  Patience is the name of the game, whether it is one 5 hour session or 10 years worth of sessions. Sometimes to get the best improvement in others we need to allow them to make a change on their own terms, allowing them to explore all other possible ways before coming to the desired outcome on their own.  This takes great patience and control over your own needs and “results now” mindset.  Know that the slower you go with consistency, allowing others to make mistakes without punishment, the more sound others are going to be both physically and mentally.

 

Strategy:   Furthering one’s knowledge and thinking continually helps one to react appropriately in moments when action is necessary.  Run continuous experiments from one horse/person to the next.  Try to get your desired results from others in an appropriate manner through realistic expectations.  Offer a series of objectives, trying to figure out what fits others in a way they are challenged but not overwhelmed.  Do not push others to the point that they get the fight, flight, checked-out, or shut-down response, and try to keep them in a state of being reassured, engaged, relaxed, and open minded.  Strategy is a continuous learning process. Always look for small changes that can be made to make it easier on others in the future.


The key is to keep others in a learning frame of mind while pushing their comfort zones with a little pressure. This will get the desired refined outcome by combining smaller objectives in harmony.

Horsemanship Cannot Be Bought?

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A long time ago I read a quote from Bill Dorrance that said “Horsemanship is not for sale”. I refused to believe it for many reasons, the main one being if I were to pursue my dream of someday becoming a true horseman, I needed to find a way to make a living at the same time. As with many lessons in the horsemanship world, it takes time for true meanings to reveal themselves to you, or, at the very least, for you to peel another layer away to get closer to the true meaning!

One day it clicked while I was putting together all my current horse knowledge for a speech I was giving on leadership through horses. I shouldn’t be trying to sell horsemanship, I need to be selling leadership. What do I mean by leadership? Well in the words of Bill Dorrance, it’s mentoring and teaching others to take “an approach to learning that combines the flexibility of thought and action with a willingness to experiment to indefinitely  postpone negative judgment”. In my translation of that, it’s teaching people to live their lives in a way that’s not about the horse, it’s about you!

That is why my mission is to help people develop leadership skills through the teachings of horsemanship, because the only way people will see any results with their horse is if they first create results within themselves!

Horsemanship cannot be bought from anyone. It can only be earned through the 3 key factors stated by Bill Dorrance:
1. Burning desire to learn

2. Time to practice

3. Mentoring

As I think about horsemanship in the world today, I find myself trying to guide people to those 3 key factors.  I truly believe the only way to lead your horse is by learning how to first lead yourself.

In the coming weeks I will break down my current translation of the 3 success factors that the true horsemen have laid out for each and every one of us.

Thank you to the greats, Bill and Tom Dorrance, along with Ray Hunt. A special thanks to Buck Brannaman for the continuation of the study! Without them, where would we be?

Are Disciplines Getting Too Focused?

 

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Today there are so many different variations of disciplines within disciplines that “Good Horsemanship” is being skipped over in hopes of reaching the highest level within a specific discipline sooner.   In my journey of horsemanship, I find myself being asked what discipline I do. It is a question I couldn’t answer at first and kind of despised because people just categorized me under “western”. Actually, I am working towards making a very well-rounded and versatile classical dressage horse that could be taken into any other discipline out there.  People are getting too caught up in the appearance, style, or status behind certain disciplines.  Every horse should be given the respect and dignity of being started with the basics then improved through the continual development towards classical dressage, while also having their perspective and education level taken into account during every single ride. The rider should allow the horse to be at ease no matter what discipline he or she is pursuing, all the while never dropping the basics or flat work along the way to focus solely on the desired end result.

Without the basics, you shouldn’t be allowed to do anything else with your horse.  As long as you have the basics working for you, if anything happens along your journey, you can always come back to the basics to fix your mistakes and ask your horse for forgiveness.   So many horses are so specialized that you can’t do anything outside that particular horse’s and rider’s comfort zones.  For instance, take a dressage pony that does “great” in the arena but as soon as you try to leave the arena it looks like someone gave the horse a shot of pure adrenaline. It shies at everything and freaks out because it has never been exposed to anything else.  As another example, consider a rodeo horse taken into a dressage ring to do flat work. It looks like a llama on speed because there are no basic horsemanship skills put into the horse.  Not all are this way, just using examples, but imagine if you had the basics in the horse to be able to do all disciplines?

Whether it be western, dressage, jumper, polo, rodeo, or any other discipline, neither your attire nor the name behind what you do should matter.  What does matter to me is that you could take a jumper and go rope a cow off of them, or a western horse and go into the dressage ring without people judging your tack, or a barrel racer into the jumping arena and have collection without the horse running off like an antelope on red bull, or take a dressage pony and be able to gather horses with them without ever noticing a difference in the relaxed demeanor of the horse.  Most of all, the horse should respectfully enjoy every bit of what they do, no matter what it is!

Recently I took a trip to Florida and was able to take a jumping lesson on a beautifully huge horse!  The horse was great at its job, but there were no foundation in the horse.  I tried taking the same horse around the property and found the lack of foundation pretty quick.  It was a one dimensional horse, which ultimately there is nothing wrong with, but imagine the fun in being able to take that same horse to show in classical dressage, or go rope a cow, or enjoy a ride around the property without any fear.  I then rode my horse that day, roped some horses, did some classical dressage work to warm him up, jumped some small jumps, tried to pull a golf cart out of the mud with my rope, and then used him to show groundwork and saddle work in a lesson.  Point being, the fun of taking my horse to do all those jobs without ever having any fear along the way is based on the foundation that the horse was started with and still working at!

On a funny note, I felt and sure I looked like a rookie in an English saddle with the stirrups put way up in the lesson.  Note that I learned a ton from that lesson and it moved me forward significantly in my journey, which I will touch on in the future!

Imagine the fun you and your horse could have just by having the basics from the start.  All horses should have the right to being brought up with the basics to enjoy a life of peace and not live a life in fear.   All riders should know the basics to give that respect to the horse!  You should know where each foot is at all times, you should know your horse’s mental state, and most of all, if you put yourself in your horses position throughout his entire life, would you have been able to learn and would you have enjoyed the journey along the way?

I know that my greatest struggle as I am progressing is taking into account if the horse enjoys it or if he feels like it’s a dictatorship in which he reacts but doesn’t necessarily enjoy.  When I am working at something I tend to get result focused.  While I can get a horse to look pretty, how does the horse feel about me after I get there?

I hope you take away from this the feeling that it doesn’t matter what the label behind what you do is but more importantly that you have the foundation put in your horse to safely pursue and excel at any discipline while continuing your education on the basics and flat work of classical dressage!  All along the journey, try to put yourself in your horses position to see if the journey would be enjoyable to you.

Application to Daily Life:

Now imagine a child being raised from the young age of 4 years old to reach the highest level of a discipline without ever going through the basics. Imagine he is pushed to reach the top tier of a discipline through coaches yelling, screaming, and demanding that the child reaches perfection within the discipline from the very first day of practice.  Now compile 4, 6, 10, or even 20 years on top of that without the demand for perfection decreasing, or if anything increasing over the years.  Now imagine that child was you?  How would you have responded to this?  Would you have lasted more than a couple of years?  Say you did and reached the top level of competition. Would you be happy once you reached that level?  Would you have enjoyed the journey?  Would you even enjoy your life looking back on any of it?

Now imagine replacing the child with your horse and imagine that horse is you,  Would that have changed anything you have done in the past or will do in the future of your journey?