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About the cover

Talking Horses 

Reader Questions, Answered

Responsibility lives in your barn.

by Scott Thomson



Q: How much do you think a trainer should be riding a horse for the owner?

A: To paraphrase a philosophy about learning: Tell me what to do and I'll probably forget it; show me what to do and I may remember; have me do it and I'll remember it forever.

During my first clinic, the clinician would take an owner's horse and "tune him up" under saddle in front of the entire class. The clinician would make the horse look beautiful. The owner would beam with pride, aspire to the same level of excellence, and, more important (for the clinician), buy more lessons, clinics, equipment and videos. It was "aspirational" marketing at its best, and it really worked.

Then I noticed that when the owner took the horse back, within about an hour the horse looked exactly like it did before the trainer rode him. So, maybe the real variable in how a horse develops is the skill of the person in the saddle at that moment and not what a trainer puts in.

For me, the ONLY thing that matters to YOUR horse is what YOU can do — not what I, your best friend or some other trainer can do. I ride every horse of every student, but when and how much is different in every situation. With an older horse or a re-start, I may ride the horse right away to determine his physical/mental abilities. In a younger or dangerous horse, it may come later after a solid foundation is established from the ground. With an experienced rider, I can help more by being the eyes on the ground to see what small changes can improve results. With a less experienced rider, a good visual from horseback can help make progress.

I believe my job, and that of any good teacher, is to empower the owner to improve your own skills and your horse. This doesn't happen by showing the owner I'm a better rider who can make the horse do amazing things, or by simply putting miles on the horse. As radical as it sounds, I believe the more time a trainer spends riding your horse, the slower your progress will be in developing your own riding relationship with your horse.


Q: I have a rescue horse that clearly has had some major trauma — can I bring the horse back myself or do I need a trainer who specializes in such cases?

A: This is a great question and I applaud you for having a rescue horse. I've lost count of how many horses like this I've worked with — from trailer wrecks to lion attacks to human abuse, I think I've seen it all. Sadly, just like people, not all of them can be brought back.

An unavoidable trap you fall into when you hear the words rescue, abused or traumatized applied to any animal is thinking the solution is only about love, kindness and gentleness. This is critical for an animal during rehabilitation, but more important is the kind of handling horses seek as part of their basic nature. The things humans do to horses don't really go on in the herd, so giving the horse what would be normal in a herd — clear communication with body language, an easily understood hierarchy, experienced and savvy leadership, and maybe a buddy or two — probably brings the horse back faster than anything else.

Back in Washington I worked with a woman who had rescued a beautiful thoroughbred. The horse had a frightening accident in a starting gate, flipping over backwards, breaking a back leg. Rather than put the horse down on the spot, the breeder elected instead for a complicated surgery to repair the damage. When the horse had recovered enough, it was offered for rescue.

For two years, the horse was a pretty solid citizen, getting tremendous love and kindness from the new owner. She started to do some light riding and eventually got out on the trails. Then the wheels came off. He bucked her off on a familiar trail; he was impossible to lead; he blew up if asked to go through a gate or tight spot. He wouldn't go near the trailer. For whatever reason, now confident of his physical abilities and the soundness of his leg, all the bad memories of that awful accident resurfaced.

Overwhelmed by the change, the owner did what many people would do. She found a trainer who "specialized" in bringing back traumatized horses and arranged to send her horse off for as long as it would take to "fix" him. After about two months the trainer said he was good to go.

Within a few weeks, the horse was right back to where he was before sending him off.

That's when I got involved. We worked together over the next year, meeting twice per month — I guided, she did the work. A year later she was riding the horse again on the trails in just a rope halter and having no problems with leading, gates and tight spaces. Over the next few years she taught him how to pull a cart, and even a sleigh during a couple of snowy winters. He goes in the trailer — nervously but safely — for dressage clinics and new places to ride. Now, almost 10 years since I met her, she has a great all-around horse in his mid-teens with many more good years in front of them.

Did she do anything wrong sending this horse to a "specialist"? No, except for one thing: She was not involved in the process. She was not there to see what was done, how it was done, or to learn techniques she might need to handle a relapse. She believed training, or in this case rehab work, was programming, and once the training was in there the job was done.

Depending on the trauma and the resulting behavior, you may need some professional help to deal with your rescue horse. But, for your horses's long-term mental health, you need to be involved in the process. If you've sent him off to someone, arrange to be there as much as possible to see what is being done, why and how. If possible, work alongside the trainer to develop skills that match your personality and physical abilities, not those of the trainer's, so you can help your horse when he's home with you. All horses need this commitment from the owner, especially those that have experienced a traumatic event.


Q: My horse has some frustrating behavioral problems. I've sent him to several trainers but nothing ever seems to stay fixed. What can I do?

A: In defense of all the good trainers out there, maybe you shouldn't blame the trainers.

I might respond differently if your trainers have been the kind that didn't demand you be involved and learn what is being done, the kind that want to keep the techniques and "magic" to themselves.

In my first clinic, after watching my horse throw a couple of good rodeo bucks, the teacher said, "You put that in there!" I responded, "I just bought the damn horse, how could I have put that in there already?" Of course, my horse didn't buck for him. Years later I figured out what he was trying to say — I had to have the relationship with the horse and had to learn how to work things out. My horse was my responsibility.

One of my early students had a horse she bought as a yearling. The horse was now 12 and had some awful habits, some very dangerous. I heard a long rant about all the different trainers who'd been involved and how none had fixed the problems. What I didn't hear was anything about what the owner had tried to do with the horse. That told me everything I needed to know. The owner thought commitment to doing the right thing for the horse meant spending the money to send the horse off, not putting in the hours to learn the skills herself.

Your responsibility for your horse goes way beyond the fun stuff — the feeding, grooming, riding and love. It involves a serious commitment to improving your own skills and knowledge so you can see and hear what your horse is "saying" to you. Seeking outside help with a problem is fine, but in the end the horse is going to look to you for the help he needs every day. If you don't commit to doing this, then what the horse does or becomes falls squarely on your shoulders, not some third-party trainer.

There is no app for good horsemanship, only your effort and commitment.




Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at hsthomson@msn.com or (575) 388-1830.

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