by Scott Thomson
Early this past summer I had the opportunity to go on the road to do some clinic work and give some individual lessons. I covered over 2,200 miles and saw good chunks of four different states. Along the way I met and worked with some good horses and some dedicated and committed horse owners.
These periods of concentrated horsemanship, working with people and their horses all day long, and sometimes well into the night, remind me of why I decided to pursue my horse journey in the first place. I get very energized by horse owners who are curious and anxious to learn and try new things. My goal when I started doing this was to make things as personal and individualized as possible, providing real solutions and information that incorporated Western and English traditions as well as the evolving science of horse care. Taking this out to a wider audience is just plain fun.
There were three things that really stuck in my mind from this trip, all I think good lessons for any horse owner:
1. There is no such thing as a bomb-proof horse. In one group I was fortunate enough to have a trainer who was interested in learning some new approaches to help grow his own business. In this particular case we were working on obstacles and scary objects, and going through the steps a horse would take to solve a problem by himself — the squeeze game, approach and retreat, rewarding small tries, opening and closing doors, etc. We were using a simple tarp for the exercise. We had done all this on the ground, and were now duplicating the techniques under saddle.
Given that I had an experienced trainer on his horse — a horse that had been over hundreds of tarps and was used in cutting and roping competitions, annual branding on a ranch, lessons, and just about anything else you could do with a horse — I assumed this would be an easy and smooth demonstration of how to do it.
The rider did a perfect job of showing how each step would ultimately lead to success. He had brought the horse up to the tarp with calmness and good leadership, and I was on the ground describing to the group what had happened and what we would do next. He asked the horse to take a step on to the tarp in exactly the right way. Next thing I knew I was flat on my back in the dirt as the horse jumped and bucked sideways, coming right over top of me and getting the rider halfway out of the saddle. Only the last bit of athletic ability I had kept me from being seriously hurt, and only the skill of the rider kept him in the saddle.
Only the horse knew why that particular tarp on that day in that location was too scary to deal with. I fell asleep at the switch, as did the rider, both of us assuming this was a routine task for a horse of this level. We didn't "ride every stride" and nearly paid the price.
Moral of the story: Make sure you're always testing your horse and yourself under pressure. And never assume that old Fluffy can't become a frightened flight animal in the blink of an eye, no matter how many times he's seen or done something. I hate to keep getting proved right about this, but with every new wreck I see or hear about, I know many riders just aren't taking it seriously.
2. You are responsible for yourself and your horse, so trust your own instincts above all else. In one group I had a student who was as dedicated and passionate about horses as anyone I've met. She came to horses late in life. About 10 years ago, she was starting to take lessons on her wonderful new horse, a three-year-old quarterhorse that was started beautifully and showed a good mind. A pretty well-known clinician was coming to town, and her trainer told her she was ready for a clinic, even though she was very green.
As often happens, there were way too many people in the clinic, and the range of horse breeds, ages and rider skill levels created the classic accident waiting to happen. Now, I'm in the horse business and I can tell you the easiest way to make money is to fill up a clinic with lots of people and auditors, give broad-stroke instructions for a few days, sell some stuff, take your money and head to the next stop. Profitable and cost effective. I've done it, but won't do it again.
In this case someone paid a tremendous price. As everyone was sitting on their horses and the clinician was gassing on about something, a young rider on a two-year-old horse wasn't paying attention. Her horse bolted and ran into the horse of this woman. Her horse jumped out from under her and she hit the dirt hard. After dusting herself off, she knew she didn't feel right, but got the old "cowgirl up" and "get back on the horse" refrain from the group. She couldn't lift her left leg to reach the stirrup, so went around to the right and was offered a leg up by the clinician. He threw her up with such force and her pain was so great that she passed out, went all the way over the horse and hit the ground on the other side.
Here's the sad part. Her injuries — physical and mental — were so great that it was 10 years before she could get back on her beautiful horse. The horse is now 13 and it was a joyous and tearful moment when she got back on her horse with me for the first time. It was just simply walking on a lead rope, but for her after her ordeal, like riding in the Olympics.
Did she do anything wrong? Not much in my book. With such a green rider, her "trainer" should have said audit a clinic first, don't ride in it. The clinician should have thought more about safety and crowding than butts in the saddle. What she should have done was recognize she wasn't ready for this, get off her horse and go watch — trust her instincts, not anyone else's. And she yielded to peer pressure. Don't ignore pain and the power of adrenaline and get back on a horse after a bad fall. Most of us are recreational riders, but this is a dangerous sport. It's OK to say no to something that doesn't feel right or that makes you too nervous. And it's OK to ask for your money back at a clinic or lesson if you think it is too crowded, badly organized and possibly dangerous for you.
3. Those of us with horses are a bit selfish. In one of my groups there was a young woman who was obviously very talented with horses. Turns out she and her husband had a training business of their own, mostly developing cutting, roping and ranch horses, and giving riding lessons. She was very quiet during our sessions.
I was pretty shaken when I found out she had lost her husband just two months before — to a horse accident. An expert rider, doing something he had done hundreds of times before, his horse went one way while he went another. The kind of thing that happens with horses. He hit the ground, hit his head and was killed on the spot. No helmet (doctors said one would have saved him). He left a young wife a widow with three kids. I was honored she was using my clinic to start trying to put her life back together.
It made me think of something else, too. Most of us have other people in our lives — spouses, kids, parents, lifelong friends. What happens to us, good and bad, affects many others. If you ride horses, maybe you ought to think about that a bit more. Taking every step possible to make our passion as safe as it can be — constantly improving our skills, wearing safety equipment, riding only to your level, buying the right horse, getting professional help (not just advice from a friend), keeping our horses fit and healthy — seems like something we owe to all those other people in our lives. It's not just about what we like to do.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.