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.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why the new style of trainers confuses me

Saturday, I was privileged to work with a lovely young trainer named Jacob Bowman, or Jake.  He is from the Buck style of training, which I think falls into the "Natural Horsemanship" category.  I'm pretty sure I'll be told if I'm wrong (please!) but this is my understanding of it.

I have always ridden English.  I started out jumping, and then moved to dressage.  For those who know about English riding, flat work usually comes before going over fences, but well... lets just say my early years weren't with the best trainers.  I spent many years in dressage, learning how to fix the problems I had been taught.  I learned some VERY bad things, from unsafe riding, to less then stellar horsemanship.  I also learned how to fix both of those things.

I also started in horses with cheap ponies.  Not bad ponies mind you, just ones that I didn't pay a lot for.  My first horse was a 4 month old colt (intact).  Yes, he got gelded, but still, it was an interesting learning experience.  My second horse was a "she can't be broke, so we'll make her a brood mare" Thoroughbred, who was the best jumper I ever rode.  Can't be broke?!  I climbed on her back the second week I owned her, and have been riding her for over 13 years now.  From there, I worked with rank untrained horses, what I call "domestic mustangs".  These are the horses that were bred by a less then stellar breeder who wanted babies, and wanted money, but didn't think they had to DO anything to get it.  By 4 years old, they still hadn't even had a person pet them, let alone halter or pick their feet!  Riding?  Yeah, not in the near future.

Together, I think this background gives me some unique insights on training horses and riders.  I am NOT the best trainer in the world.  I also do not think there is "one right way" to do anything.  I do think that raising a horse and rider team is a lot like raising a child - each one is different.

So I went to this clinic (I'm going to call it a clinic for lack of a better term.  Basically it was a lot of lessons back to back, with questions and answers, but not the typical clinic format).  I had a ball, spent time with friends, and learned many new ways to do things.  I also saw a lot of things I just don't get.  I want to talk about some of that, and my impressions on it, because I know with my reader base, I'm likely to have someone out there able to explain it.

I have to say here, that I am not saying any of this is BAD, I am simply saying that I don't understand it.  I asked a lot of questions, and got answers, but the answers didn't necessarily fulfill my overwhelming desire to completely wrap my mind around the concept.  I have always been a "why" learner, and the clinic, while enjoyable, left me confused.  Is Jake a good trainer?  Yes, I think he's completely average.  He does nothing mean to the horses, and I trust his skills enough to let him work with my horses.  With that said, until I know more, I probably wouldn't give him free rein, because I don't know that his techniques could achieve what my end goals are.  He's a nice guy, and I think that I learned a few things from him, but I still have questions.

The tack:

I think the first question I asked was about the rope halters.  Why are they used?

For those who don't know, a rope halter is more severe then a larger width nylon halter.  The thin diameter of the rope, plus the knots along it, all give more pressure with each command (or tug).  With a hard enough pull, rope halters can actually hurt.  The entire process was described as "kind and gentle" type training, and yet the fact that using a severe training aid was the first tool required kinda struck me as odd.

Let me put this another way.  When I start my young horses in a bridle, I use the mildest bit I can.  Often it is a rubber snaffle, or a hollow mouth, large diameter snaffle.  I prefer a French link, to reduce the chance of the "nut cracker" effect, and O rings, to "blur" some of the rein signals.  Some horses don't like that bit though, and so I work through my choices to find what works for that horse.

Some horses like a thinner mouth, so they get a clear signal with out heavy pressure, or don't feel as if they are gagging.  Some horses like a simple snaffle, so they can lift it with their tongue when not engaged. We increase the "severity" of the bit (the amount of pressure and signal given to the mouth with a single pound of pressure from the hands) only when we have no other option.  This is considered to be a "good" method of training in the industry.

Why then wouldn't we do the same with a halter?  Use the mildest, and work up to a more severe if and only if it is needed?

I was given an answer that barely satisfied me, but made more questions the more I think about it.   Jake's answer was that the halter doesn't give unnecessary pressure unless it was used, but then if he needs it, he has it.  Ok, that makes sense to a point, but the more I think about it, it really doesn't.

If I put a twisted wire snaffle in my horse's mouth, I could say the same thing, right?  If I don't USE it, then it doesn't matter how severe it is!  If I'm on a loose rein, well, I just have it in case I need it, right? And yet, most people get a bad feeling about this.  We always say we should only move up in severity when we NEED to, right?

Shouldn't we reward the horse for responding lightly?  When working Katy in a rope halter, I actually found her to be LESS responsive.  Granted, it wasn't a fair test, since it was also her first time away from home, first time working with this man, and first time being asked to do these moves.  Would she have reacted the same in her normal halter though?  No way to ever know!

And hence, I'm looking for an answer as to why we accept the use of more severity in some cases, but not in others.  No, really.... Any one know?

I also asked about working a horse in the bridle.  I have always gotten my babies to wear a bridle about the time we start ground work (roughly 2 - 3 years of age) and quickly moved to doing all of my work from a bit.  Jake said that he didn't like this method, because it could desensitize a horse's mouth.

Sounds good at first, but again, I can't stop thinking, and ended up with more questions!

So, if that's the case, then why do we pull the horse's head around to flex them, when we are riding in the bridle?  Isn't that dulling their mouths too?  Is that pressure in any way different from what I use when lunging?  Is it because I do things slowly, that Jake and I are speaking completely different languages?  I honestly don't know.

What I do know, is that by the time I have a horse lunging, I am giving all signals lightly, from the bridle, and the horse then understands the concept asked when I am in the saddle.  I ground drive, and teach the horses to give to pressure, both from the sides, and for the halt.  I have only ever had a horse run out on me, on the bridle, once.  I simply let go, so as not to crack her in the mouth.  In most cases, I correct the behavior before the horse runs out, with simple and soft touches on the bit.  Just as you would do in the saddle.

So why then, is using the bit for ground work a bad thing?  Isn't it the handler that makes the difference, and not the tack?

The Human:

When working with horses, there are 2 parts to the team: the horse and the human.  It doesn't matter if that is on the ground, or in the saddle, the human is always a significant part of the equation.  This clinic had my friends riding.  I'm going to pick on some, because I know they won't be hurt.

First thing I noticed, was Rachel.  She was riding Moon, and trying to get her mare to accept contact with the bridle.  Moon has been improving, but she still tries to evade the bit.  Rachel is NOT a showman, and she gets nervous when all eyes are on her.  Things were no different that day.  Her first few laps, her body said "uh oh, every one is watching ME!" and was stiffer then she normally rides.  We all understand, since none of us really want to be the center of attention... we just want to play with our ponies.

Rachel's nerves resulting in stiff hands and arms though.  As she asked Moon to take contact, she would alternate between mildly chucking her girl in the mouth, and dropping all contact.  Her contact was stationary, not elastic (no harm came to the horse, this was all a very minor oopsie).  Jake never commented on this though.  I'm not sure if it's because he knew she was nervous, or if it's because his experience is training horses.

Which is where I again get confused.  If he trains only horses, then why wasn't he on the horse, teaching the horse, and then giving it back to the rider?  If he doesn't care to or isn't confident enough to train the riders as well, then he needs to remove them from the equation.  Conversely, if he does train humans to ride better (or handle better) then why didn't he tell her simply to relax her arms and hands?  She obviously wasn't aware she was doing it... other wise she wouldn't be doing it!  There are few people who make riding errors on purpose.

In another situation, he was helping Heather (yes, another one) back up her mare.  Piper is a large, green, and very strong girl.  She was avoiding the bit by locking up.  In other words, the more Heather pulled, the less Piper did.  No flexing, no moving her feet, just "I am a stone draft horse, and you little humans can not move me".  Piper sometimes is passive aggressive like this, and she knows she is bigger then us.  Having worked with her, I know how to stop that, but this was Jake's first time with Piper or Heather.

Jake never once encouraged Heather to shift her wight though.  He only focused on the bridle, and the horse's head.

He did that a few times actually.  All of his concerns seemed to be on the horse's head.  Now, I mentioned that I'm from an English background.  I was always taught that we ride the horse from back to front, and the head "sets itself when you do it right".  Which leads me right into the next topic.

Differences in technique:

The way I was taught to ride and bring up a  young horse is very different then the way that Jake does it.  As an example, I was taught that straightness and rhythm come first.  Jake works on flexion and elasticity.  I was taught to solidify the foundation before moving on, while Jake works on showing everything to the horse, and then improving the parts.

I am not saying that one of these methods is better then the other.  I'm merely pointing out that I am aware we do things differently (to help show my reasons for confusion).

I heard Jake say a few times that you need to get the horse's head down.  The horses he was talking about here not high headed, just not dragging their noses either.  In reality these horses were hollow through the back (see Moon, the black and white paint, above).  Jake never even tried to discuss engaging the hind end, he simply had the riders bring the heads back to the chest.

Later, after I left, my mother asked something similar.  Jake said (according to mom, so this is well through the grapevine) that in order to attain collection, the horse has to have its' head brought back to its chest.  NO!  No no no no nononononononononon!  Collection has nothing to do with "head set" (that's actually a very dirty word to some riders) and everything to do with ROUNDNESS through the back.  You have to get the horse impulsion from the hind, lift in the fore, and acceptance of the bridle.  Not a single bit of that has anything to do with pulling a horse's head back.

Now, if you're riding a trained horse, then you can "set the wall" for the horse, and drive them into their head from the hind, resulting in the back rounding.  These horses understand it though, because they are broke.  A young, green, or novice horse will not get that when you try to set the wall.

Again though, none of this theory was discussed.  I'm not sure if Jake ever explained "collection" (it's a hard thing to explain, almost as bad as "half halt") but I do know that my friends didn't walk away with much large scale theory on riding, just tips and tricks for specific things.  That's not a bad thing!  The fact that my friends found ways to improve their riding, and to ask questions of their horses that result in the right answer... that's wonderful!

My point, is simply to question everything, and learn as much as I can from it.

Overall Impressions:

Here's the part where I may upset my friends.  It's not intentional, and I hope I don't offend those who really like his style, but I was unimpressed.  Jake is a good trainer, but a weak instructor.  He works well with the horses, but he needs to work on explaining riding, and putting more emphasis on the riding aspect of the partnership.

In a lot of ways, I felt like he was speaking empty words and platitudes to the others.  The horses are improving, but the riders are not.  This results in the horses taking the brunt of the mistakes in chucks to the mouth, whacks to the ribs, and signals that confuse the horse and set the horse up for failure.  The clinic gave me the feeling that by allowing the riders to see the changes in their horses, he was fueling the rider egos, and there by forming a bond with them.

Now let me explain what I mean there.  When you get a positive response, you get an endorphin release.  This feels good (like a high) and makes you strive to repeat it.  It's how human brains work - well most mammalian brains actually.  The riders got the THING they asked for, but did not get the foundation in their riding to repeat it well on their own.  In some cases they did, but not all.  This is a false sense of accomplishment, as the rider is learning pieces of how to ride, and not a natural flow of how to ride.

In other words, I might learn that to move the horse's hips over, I use the outside leg behind the girth.  This doesn't help me understand how to do a half pass though, because the concept of moving the horse away from pressure, and separating the horse into parts was never discussed.  The information necessary to make the leap from "disengaging the hind quarters under saddle" to "half pass is a disengagement of the hips and shoulders in the same direction" was never made.  For many riders, the idea of "over" being the same as "around" is not a natural jump.

Now, with that said, I also understand that Jake only had a limited time with each of us.  He's young, he's vivacious, and he's oozing with potential, but he isn't quite there yet.  Like I said, I'd call him a completely average trainer at this point.  He's great at interactions with the horses, but he needs to research the theories and concepts (that evil book learnin' part) behind riding.  I also know that I'm a complete dork, and will ask the questions that so few others would even think of, but as a trainer, you should either be able to think on the fly, and find an answer, or inherently know why.  If not, you should admit it, and Jake didn't do that.

Granted, I wasn't there to pick him apart, and I didn't push even when I didn't feel completely sure of the answer, because I don't want to be 'that person' who sounds like a know it all.  But I do know a crap ton.  I dedicated my life to horses, and I'm a walking "Cliff Claven" of horse knowledge.  It's a rather useless trait to have at parties, I might add.

I would gladly let Jake work with any of my horses though, but I would not trust his techniques for my own riding improvement.  It's not the discipline either.  I found Rod (Of the IPHDA) to be a much more aware and concise riding instructor, who could improve ME, and thus improve my horses work.  Jake is a "colt starter" in my mind, while Rod is a finisher, though, and maybe that is the difference.  Jake understands how to fix a lack of understanding, while Rod knows how to communicate the finer details with the horses.

And yet, I can't help but think that Jake's style of training is like a toxic relationship.  Not how he trains the horses mind you, but how he handles the humans.  He makes the humans rely on him, not become self sufficient, and thus increases his chances for another lesson (fee).  The riders believe that he's the answer to their problems, and forgets that they are that answer.

I don't train many of my friends.  Few of them take lessons with me, and I am certainly not about to push lessons on them.  I don't like to put the riders in a position where they do not feel confident, and so I do things slower (and charge less to compensate).  At the same time, I offer tidbits of advice when we ride together, but I'm not about to stop MY enjoyment of my horses to give a free lesson.  Most of my friends get this, and don't hold it against me.  I get so few chances to just PLAY with my horses, that the times I do get are priceless to me.

I also encourage my friends to explore every trainer they can (who won't hurt them or their horses) and take what works, and discard the rest.  I know that Leah felt guilty for being excited about this clinic, because she has always looked to me to learn from.  I'm THRILLED that she went, and so happy that she learned things, that I almost don't want to post this, asking so many questions.  Kris has found so many answers to her problems from this trainer, that she's gained confidence in leaps and bounds.

But, I also want people to see how I choose what works, and what doesn't.  I'm not some super uber horseman.  I ride at lower levels, I know what I know, and know how much I need to learn.  I do question everything though.  To me, this is a part of expanding ones self as a horseman, and gaining even more from the lesson then just the time in the saddle, or at the end of the rope.  Jake answered a few questions for me that I had been stumped about (disengaging the horse's shoulders from the ground, and asking for side passing or half passing from the ground) and I feel that I learned a lot.  I also ended up with as many questions as those that were answered.

It's my opinion that a great horseman always has questions.   With out questions, you have little room to learn.  If you wonder, and then seek out the knowledge to those ponderings, then you are improving.  As horsemen, we owe it to our partners, the 4 legged ones, to always work to be better, just as they do for us.

Overall, I really enjoyed the clinic.  I took a week to write this up, because I wanted to think about it, before I verbally vomited on the blog.  I'm hoping that some of my friends, maybe even some who were at the clinic, maybe some who use this type of training elsewhere, can help me wrap my mind around the bits that don't make sense.  Even though I am an English rider first, I am not a discipline snob!  I think all riding is good riding, so long as the horse is happy.  A great horseman doesn't care about the saddle, the clothes, or such trivial things... they care about the communication with the horse, and strive to understand all aspects of it.  ALL aspects of it, and I hope that I'm always able to learn.