A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Training Horses as an Art Form

I'm not the best rider in the world.  Not even close.  I work hard to keep my toes from pointing out, yet have never truly succeeded in that.  I go right into a chair seat when things go wrong.  And of course there are the confidence issues.  I have plenty.

And yet, I start horses and fix problems.  Oh sure, it's the easiest type of training to get into.  Lets be honest here.  Big name trainers can pick and choose their clients, and very few of them are willing to get hurt by someone else's horse.  The big market for no-name trainers is in the "this could kill you" category.  Starting horses under saddle, and fixing problems definately is in the "this could kill you" category.

And yet, it's the thing I love most.  Kinda.

My only problem with starting youngsters is their owners.  No offense to any of my clients in the past, but humans are an impatient species.  We want it, and we want it NOW!  Oh hell yeah I've been the same way.  That doesn't make it right.

When I work with a horse, I prefer to work with the horse on my terms, at the horse's time frame.  We humans don't all learn at the same speed, so why would we expect an animal with a brain the size of a golf ball to do so?

Well, I can actually answer that one for ya.  It is called the dollar.  Who wants to pay for an EXTRA month of training on a horse?  I can't think of a single person who is standing around screaming for that particular pleasure.  When we work with our own horses, we never feel the need to rush.  When we have bills to pay, and someone else is doing the dirty work, most of us feel a bit of need to rush!  It's normal, and it's not really a BAD thing.  It's just something we as horse owners need to be honest about.

So, because of that, I find that I LOVE starting my own babies, but hate working with other people's babies.  Oh I have no problems at all with helping an owner start their own horse.  When you lay in the saddle you can easily feel the tension, stress, and fear in a horse.  That doesn't mean that you will feel it when someone else lays in the saddle though.  It isn't always something you can see either.  My problem is two fold you see.  First off, I'm tired of getting hurt.  I don't really need any more concussions for a bit!  Secondly, it's not fair to the horse to push it past what it can handle.  Oh sure, there are plenty of trainers out there who will do that.  Yet I began training my own horses because I didn't LIKE how "those" trainers would handle the horses.

So, if you want fast, please take your horse to someone else.  When I have a horse in for training, I feel that the HORSE is my client, not the owner.  Sure, the owner writes the checks, but the horse is who I am there to answer to.  That is how it should be, and that is how I am able to sleep at night.  I won't tie down a horse, or whip a horse into submission just for a few bucks.  If I have to resort to that, then I will quit, and go get a job at McDonald's!

But with all that said, I still love training horses.  I love the feel of the horse when it understands something.  I can get high on the enthusiasm from the horse.  I am amused by the wobbly steps of a young horse as it learns to carry a rider.  And there are no words for the feel of a perfectly executed move under saddle.  It's pure poetry.

Now Jae, my better half, is a relatively new horseman.  He gets it, and the whole horse thing just makes sense to him, but he doesn't really have the hours to be a top notch horseman yet.  On the ground, he's the person I trust most.  We can work together with out talking, and I know what his next move will be with out even looking, just as he knows mine.  Yet, he couldn't sit a canter if he wanted to.  Working with him, I often find it strange that some people can't train their own horses, or just can't "get" what their horses are thinking. 

I keep thinking that with a little advice, any one can do it, yet Jae tells me that I have a "real gift" for what I do.  It's hard for me to wrap my mind around anyone having a "gift" for empathy.  And empathy is really all there is to training a horse.  At least to starting them under saddle, and fixing their problems.  Higher end, discipline specific stuff - yeah, that takes skill and know how.

And then I stop and watch people.  Not even people with their horses.  Just people being people.  They miss obvious body language, the ignore stress and fear in others, and they forget how to empathize at all.  We've all seen it happen.  And if humans have that much trouble understanding other humans, then how much harder is it to understand a completely different species?

And then, on my day off I started watching horsey movies.  From Buck to Secretariat, with a little Black Beauty thrown in for good measure.  When I finished, I started thinking - and for me, that usually means tangent after tangent goes through my head.  I can either make Jae want to kill me for rambling on about something he doesn't really care about, or I can blog about it.

So here we are, eh? 

I started thinking about why I am not the "best" trainer out there (yeah, yesterday's blog, what can I say) and what it would mean to BE the "best".

I think the only answer to that is the ability to communicate with humans.  There are many amazing horse trainers in this world, who will never be appreciated, because they can't make the horse's owner "get it".  How ironic that the skills most needed in horse training are not the skills most rewarded!  Look at Pat Parelli, John Lyons, Clinton Anderson, and any other trainer with a TV show.  What do they have in common?  They can make people listen.

That doesn't mean they are good trainers though.  I've seen Anderson in a chair seat, bouncing horribly on a horse's back.  I've seen Lyons allow a 2 year old to push him around.  I've seen Parelli's public criticism (some is deserved, others isn't).  Not a one of them is a perfect trainer, but then again, who is?

And then there's the riding.

Lets be honest here, we expect our trainers to be excellent riders.  We want them to make our horses amazing for us under saddle!  The whole purpose of paying 300, 400, 500, 800, a few thousand a month, is so that we can simply step up and ride, with out worrying about much.  For some, that means with out worrying about learning to RIDE.

And really, how many of you have taken riding lessons?  How many of you learned to ride the hard way, by eating some dirt?  How many of you are just winging it?  Now a real dose of reality.... how many of you blame your horse for your own lack of skills?

Don't get me wrong, I see no problems with a poor rider wanting their horse trained to cover for them.  I mean, that's why first time horse owners are told to get an experienced horse, right?  But our culture pushes us to assume that the fault lies outside of ourselves.  It can't be MY bad riding that is the problem, it must be the bit, the saddle, or the horse's lack of training.

In so many cases though, it's simply a problem of communication.  You ask, the horse doesn't get it, but tries to give an answer.  It answers wrong, and problems start.

So, this gets me to the point of my whole post here today.  Learning to ride, and my thoughts on it.

I've taken lessons.  WOW have I taken lessons!  Almost all of them were English.  Jumping, dressage, flat work, I've been there and been yelled at for it.  Want to know what I learned?

I didn't need lessons.

No, it's not something that I do that is magical.  Rather, what I needed to do, was to learn to listen to my horse.  No matter how many people yelled at me to put my legs back, my heels down, or steady my hands, what I needed most was to feel how my actions impacted my horse.  And oddly, it was a baby fresh under saddle who taught me the most.

See, I have minor scoliosis.  I have rheumatoid arthritis.  I have some old injuries that bother me, and I have crooked legs.  My toes naturally point out, like a LOT, because my lower leg attaches crooked at the knee.  My left turns out much more then my right.  In other words, riding "straight" in the saddle is pretty much impossible for me.  Instead, I had to learn to ride "balanced" and it took a 3 year old Arabian to teach me that.

When I sat "straight" my right hip pushed into him, so he drifted left.  I swore I had the world's most crooked horse!  Then a friend asked if it was me.  She pointed out that horses are honest, and if he travels straight on the lunge, or at liberty, then the only reason he'd be crooked under saddle was me.  It was a light bulb moment.

From there, I began to play at how I sat a horse.  I leaned, I stood, I bent, and I pressed.  Everything I did had a reaction from my silly young gelding.  Now, I don't really recommend you try this at home, unless you are as crazy as I was, and under 30!  I ended up teaching Boo to rear, just because I didn't exactly know what I was asking.  I then turned that into a levade, and only on command.  I tried to learn to ask for a specific leg, and it resulted in a type of Spanish Walk/pawwing thing, which I fixed many years later into a bit better of a Spanish Walk.  In other words, I experimented, and I learned SO MUCH from it.

And now, I train horses for other people.  I try so hard to make the horse's learning match the rider's.  If the rider tends to sit a certain way, then I too try to sit like that.  If the rider has a certain mannerism, then I try to mimic it.  Oddly, I find that I learn as much as the horse in this process.

I mean, it isn't something that is easy to put into words.  And yet, I find myself thinking obsessively about the art of riding a horse.  Not the proper skills, but the moment of feel.  The nuances that say "walk to canter" not "walk to trot" or the symbiotic feeling you have when executing a perfect side pass.  Sure, a good instructor could tell you ever muscle to flex in order to ask for that, but so can a good horse.  The only way to feel it, is to FEEL it.

I swear, some days I want to get my students drunk, and put them on a packer, and see what happens.  Granted, my students are all legal to drink, my horses are safe, and I'm not nearly that stupid, but you get the idea.  Take away the inhibitions, and allow people to FEEL what happens between them and their horse.

I watched Leah trying to canter Jaz the other day, and it was amazing.  She couldn't get him to canter when she asked, because she wasn't really sure what she was doing.  The moment she stopped trying, and just felt it, and allowed it to happen, he transitioned nicely under her.  Leah was relaxed and moved almost perfectly with her horse, and her smile was amazing.  It's moments like that which I wish I could learn to share with people.  I wish I could explain to them what that feels like, and how to relax into it.

So I have to ponder, is training horses really about training the HORSE?  What we ask them to do are things that are natural for them to do.  Rather, could it be that in order to be an excellent horse trainer, you have to be a good people trainer?  Is it the balance of both?

I don't really know.  So far, most of my clients are those willing to listen, and to try their hearts out for their horses.  Finding ways to explain it to them is much more of an art then a science.  Going against the standard knowledge of "lessons for you, and training for your horse" and trying to convince people to stop THINKING about how to ride, and to just FEEL it.  That takes talent.  I think it's an art form, and one that I hope to master.  Because really, it's not about what I can do on your horse.

What matters is what you can do on your horse.


  1. I don't train horses for other people - thank heavens!, but I try to employ what I think of as Slow Horsemanship when I work with my horses. And it's all about listening to and feeling the horse, which requires undivided attention, and that's a skill that can be developed but I expect it helps to be a "noticer" by inclination. It's always amazing to me what people miss when they're around horses.

    I prefer the people who work with horses in a way that looks like grass growing - if there's a lot of flash and a lot of show, I'm really not interested - that's to wow the public and has nothing to do with good training.

    And in 99% of the cases, it's the rider's issue not the horse's. And in the other 1% it's more than likely something the horse was taught to do by some other rider . . .

  2. Thank God, I'm teachable.

  3. And, BTW, I did admit all along that Jaz was just looking out for me because I didn't know how to ask him properly. He's a good boy. It's always Operator Error.

  4. Yes you did, and I'm SO impressed with you for knowing it the whole time, and having such an amazing attitude about it. Your glowed with happiness when it happened, and just shrugged it off when it didn't. We could all learn a thing or 2 from that type of attitude! At least I know I could... I get so frustrated when it doesn't just come to me.

  5. Good post! I have only had jumping lessons for a few months as a teenager. I quickly decided that I was wasting my time riding the schooling horses when I had two super horses of my own. Everything I know, I learned from reading books and actually riding. I do think I "get it". Even though I don't ride "pretty", I understand that it's all about the horse and getting them to feel good and act as I expect them to. I feel like I am super sensitive to people's moods too.

    I do not like to take on older horses, or other people's problems, as a rule. That can get a person killed. lol! I love to start the babies and teach basics. I guess that's why I have all "half-broke" horses. They work for me but aren't finished enough to do anything with, competition wise. It's been years since I started a young one and here I am taking one on in my old age. I get to start riding Yalla! in a few months. Wish me luck.