I think folks who spend any time around horses at all eventually begin to develop a working knowledge of general equine care. Specifically, most will know a little something about basic anatomy, basic veterinarian care as well as hoof and teeth care. Over the past thirty years or so, I have spent a great deal of time trying to learn as much about all these subjects as I could (as well as others) as a way to understand horses better in general, and how these things might effect equine behavior specifically.
I feel extremely lucky over the years to of had the opportunity to spend time with some of the top equine practitioners in the fields of equine chiropractic, hoof care, biomechanics, optometry, and general veterinary care. Because of this, whenever I run into a horse with problem behavior that doesn’t appear to stem directly from handling or training, I usually have a pretty good idea about which direction to look, or at the very least, who to call to get some answers.
Still, there was one subject when it comes to horse care that I admittedly let slide a little. I’m talking specifically here about the subject of proper equine dental care. I suppose this is due mostly to the fact that I just assumed that the amount of information I already had about the subject was enough for me to get by on. After all, I had a pretty good understanding of how to age a horse by looking at its teeth. I understood the concepts of hooks, ramps, waves, points, wolf’s teeth, extractions and bit seats, and I have been around and helped with more horses having their teeth floated than I care to remember.
So I suppose like a lot of horse folks, I just assumed the knowledge I had about teeth was sufficient enough, and seldom, if ever, did I even bother to question it or try to build on that knowledge. In fact, over the years I have watched as some of the vets and equine dentists that we used to take care of our own horse’s teeth went from doing the job by hand, to switching over to power tools, and I didn’t really even give it any thought. After all, they were the ones with the training and surely they wouldn’t intentionally do anything that would damage or otherwise harm the horse’s teeth via the tools they used.
From a training standpoint, when it came to me looking to a horse’s teeth as a possible cause for any behavioral issues…to be honest, not only was it one of the absolute last things I usually explored, but unless it was blatantly obvious that the horse’s teeth were actually the cause for the behavior, looking in that direction hardly ever crossed my mind. In cases like that I would usually look to other potential outside sources as the cause such as chiropractic issues, poor shoeing or trimming, ill fitting tack, etc.. Most times a solution would present itself, but every once in a while it wouldn’t.
Then this past summer, Crissi and I were fortunate enough to be introduced to Spencer LaFlure, an equine dentist from New York, and his lovely wife Judy. For years I had been hearing about Spencer and the type of work he does from some mutual friends, Tim Harvey and Trudy Cote, up in New Hampshire. I had always hoped to get a chance to meet Spencer, watch him work, and if the opportunity presented itself, to pick his brain a little about some of the behavioral issues I’d been seeing. Perhaps not coincidentally, Spencer had been scheduled to work on a couple of Tim and Trudy’s horses at the same time Crissi and I were to be at their place for a series of summer clinics, and luckily, we were all able to set some time aside to visit.
About a week prior to Spencer and Judy getting to Tim and Trudy’s place, Tim asked, almost in passing, if I’d be interested in taking a look at Spencer’s DVD, “A Horseman’s Guide to Natural Balance Dentistry”, to which I eagerly agreed. A couple nights later, Tim and I sat down in his living room, plugged the DVD in and began watching.
There are a handful of times in my life where I suddenly, and even unexpectedly, came across something that caused my knowledge base on certain subjects to take a major leap forward. One happened nearly thirty years ago when I learned about the benefits of chiropractic care for horses. Another was when I learned about saddle fit from a biomechanical perspective. And then I watched Spencer’s DVD on dentistry. Without exaggeration, I can honestly say I learned more about teeth in the first fifteen minutes of the DVD than I had ever been aware of up to that point. By the end of the DVD I felt as though I had sat through a college course on equine dental care.
I was all at once ecstatic about the new information I had just been exposed to, and saddened about the fact that I had undoubtedly, through my own ignorance on the subject, asked a great number of horses over the years to perform tasks they probably were unable to perform, due simply to issues they were having in their mouth. It was the same feeling I had gotten when I first learned about how chiropractic care can help eliminate physical issues that, up until then, I had always just assumed were training problems. Also through ignorance, and up till that point, I had pushed a lot of horses through situations they shouldn’t have been in, and had just assumed their lack of willingness to perform was more behavioral than physical.
A week later, Spencer and Judy arrived at Tim and Trudy’s place and no sooner had we gotten the introductions out of the way than I began picking his brain on a variety of teeth related questions that I now had. Crissi and I then spent the rest of the day watching him work on a number of horses, three of ours included. In amongst looking at the all the different mouths of the horses he worked on, feeling the teeth before and after he’d worked on them and getting a lot of questions answered, Spencer and I also found some common ground with our respective horse backgrounds. As a result, and not surprisingly, I suppose, he and I ended up spending a little of our time that day swapping stories from the “old days”.
Still, the thing that impressed me most about Spencer besides the work he did with the horses and how he handled them when he did it that work (Spencer is an excellent horseman), was his commanding knowledge of his craft, the integrity he used to perform it, and compassion he showed as he did. It was clear to me that this wasn’t a man satisfied with just being good at what he does. He was striving to be the best at what he does. And I don’t mean that he wants to be the best at what he does for many of the reasons a lot of folks strive to be the best at what they do…fame, fortune, bragging rights, etc. Spencer works daily at being the best at what he does so that he can be of the most help to every horse he comes in contact with. That, in and of itself, is a very rare thing indeed, these days.
Over the next several months, Spencer, Judy, Crissi and I had the opportunity spend more time together, having met up in New York, and again at our home here in Colorado where they came to visit for a couple days. Not only had we become good friends during that time, but Spencer was also kind enough to answer the many questions Crissi and I both still had about all things teeth related. I think its safe to say that after talking with Spencer, Crissi and I were both amazed at the wealth of knowledge he had, and his willingness to share that knowledge. In fact, the information I gained from Spencer during the time we’ve spent together has had such an impact on me that I am now looking for ways to attend the dental school that he teaches.
I don’t know that I would be attending the school to actually become an equine dentist, per se, although I certainly wouldn’t want to rule it out. But by the same token, now that I know how big a role a properly balanced mouth plays in a horse’s overall well being, and ultimately how many issues an improperly and unbalanced mouth can cause, it would certainly be worthwhile to try to gain as much knowledge on the subject as possible so that we could rule out teeth problems as a cause for any unwanted behavior before trying to train it out of them.
Now of course I realize there are probably a few folks that are reading this and wondering when I’m going to start explaining what it is that Spencer does that’s so different from what other equine vets or dentists do. Well, to be honest, we simply don’t have enough room here for me to go into all of the things that I learned from him, and continue to learn from him that made an impact on me. Let’s just suffice it to say that it is substantial.
So rather than trying to do that, perhaps what might be more beneficial is for folks that are interested in learning more about Spencer, what he does, how he does it, and why, to simply contact him directly. His website is: www.advancedwholehorsedentistry.com, and I highly recommend getting one of his DVDs. Believe me, after watching it you may never look at equine dentistry the same way again. I sure know I never will.
Some people are surprised to hear that we aren’t supporters of the bill that banned the slaughter of horses (for human consumption) in the United States. We realize that folks who were able to get the bill passed were trying to look out for the welfare of horses, but it arguably has actually done more harm for horses than it has good.
In the United States, anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 horses per year were going to slaughter before 2007. While there have been nice horses that ended up in the “killer pens,” no doubt there were more that went because of severe behavioral issues, chronic lameness’s, old age or were horses that, for whatever reason couldn’t find a home. It remains a sad fact that there were good, usable horses that didn’t find a home, but it is also a fact that many horses didn’t have to slowly starve to death, suffer with chronic pain or be otherwise mistreated. With the U.S. slaughterhouses now closed, however, the future for unwanted horses has dramatically changed. Not only that, but just because the slaughterhouses are closed, that doesn’t mean that unwanted horses aren’t still out there.
Not long ago at one of our clinics, an owner brought a horse that had been deemed dangerous by everyone who had come into contact with it, including the current owner. [We should note here that we see a fair number of horses that come to our clinics that the owners call “dangerous.” Usually what we see is a horse that is in pain, or defensive, but there are actually very few horses that we see we would consider dangerous. That being said, the horse mentioned in this story was truly dangerous.] This owner had grown up around animals on a farm and was a competent and skilled horse person. This horse had attacked her and other people unprovoked on numerous occasions. On working with this horse, and hearing about the history from the owner, it was clear that something seemed to be abnormally wrong. It didn’t appear to be a physical issue, but rather a severe emotional imbalance. After working with the horse and watching it’s reactions, I suggested that probably the best thing for this horse would be to put it down-and I never say that kind of thing lightly. While the owner had her opinion confirmed and was open to the idea, on the outside of the round pen people were saying, “Can’t something else be done?” “Give her more time!” “You can’t do that to the horse.” My suggestion to those folks was that if there were anybody there who would like to take this horse off of the owner’s hands, I was pretty sure she would give the horse away. What I heard this time was, “I don’t have the room.” “I don’t have the time to work with a horse like this.” “I already have enough horses.”
This is at the heart of the horse slaughter issue: everybody wants every horse to be saved (even the dangerous ones) they just don’t want them in their own backyard.
There are currently tens of thousands of horses with no place to go. Most horse rescue facilities, sanctuaries, and shelters are either at capacity or over, with more coming in every year. In the eastern United States, it can cost upwards of $1,200.00 to euthanize and dispose of one horse. In the West, since there is more space, there are many places over run with feral horses whose owners, unable to continue to care for them, simply turned them loose rather than being able to find a home for them. If an owner living in the West chooses to euthanize and dispose of their horse, it could cost upwards of $500.00.
Many unwanted horses are usually old or crippled or have severe behavioral issues. Since we no longer have slaughterhouses for horses, people are turning them out onto other people’s pastures, sneaking them in other people’s horse trailers at sales and auctions, or dumping them on public land. This isn’t necessarily due to human neglect, so much as current economics. What we mean by that is that there are a lot of folks who are having a difficult time just making ends meet. Add taking care of livestock, particularly horses, and the options are limited. In fact, we have heard several stories from people about taking their horses to a sale, only to have it cost them more in fuel to haul the horse to the sale than what the horse brought after it was sold. With fewer killer buyers in a market flooded with unwanted horses, horses at sales are bringing little to nothing. Most people are trying to do the right thing by their horse, only to find themselves in an almost impossible situation: they have a horse they can no longer afford to care for, but they can’t find it a home, can’t sell it, and can’t afford to have the horse euthanized.
We understand that there are many people who want to save horses by doing away with the slaughter industry. While it was a noble idea to do away with slaughter, things are actually worse for horses and the horse industry now than they were then.
And the debate is still alive. Earlier this year, we received an e-mail from the Humane Society of the United States, wanting us to write to our representatives in Washington D.C. in support of banning transporting horses for human consumption for slaughter in Canada and Mexico as well. In effect, what this means is that any horse born in the United States, no matter what physical or mental condition, now has to have a home. If we consider that the average backyard horse person spends between $9,000.00 and $11,000.00 per horse per year (assuming the horse lives on their property. This cost can jump another $3,000.00 to $5,000.00 if you board your horse) and the average household income in the United States in 2009 was $52,000.00, it becomes pretty clear why horses, even good ones, are having difficulty being placed in homes. Add to this that even people who could afford horses don’t necessarily want them and the chances of a horse finding a place to be are further limited.
As we see it, the problem isn’t that horses are being slaughtered and the meat being shipped to Europe and other countries for people to eat. Where the meat goes seems to be a moot point. The problem, as far as we’re concerned, lies in the transport and treatment of the horses going to slaughter. Right now horses are traveling farther and suffering more because of the closure of the U.S. slaughterhouses.
We are all aware of the horror stories about how horses bound for slaughter are treated; the kind of trucks they are taken in; their surroundings once they get there, sometimes after many hours or even days of transport; and the ineffective ways they are killed. These are the issues that should be remedied and regulated, not closing down the slaughterhouses all together. There are ways to modify and change how we treat horses that are being sold and shipped to slaughter. If we look at the cattle slaughter industry, for instance, we can see a shift that has happened since the mid-1970’s. One of the leaders of this change is Dr. Temple Grandin and her work with livestock slaughterhouses, particularly though, with cattle. She has designed and implemented quiet and effective means of slaughtering cattle that now over half the slaughterhouses in the United States use. If that can be done for the animals we eat, why not for the horses we care so much about?
Part of the confusion lies in the fact that horses, unlike other livestock such as cattle or pigs, are considered companion animals by many states. The economic truth is, however, a cow or pig or chicken has more monetary value after it’s death because most of us here in the states eat them. There’s a market for their meat. In the U.S., a horse has emotional and monetary value during it’s life, but not a whole lot of commercial use for it’s body after death. Demand for horse meat overseas, however, remains strong. The horse, it seems, is caught between two worlds: that of being treated both as livestock and companion animal by our nation’s laws.
In our opinion, we seem to have lost the sense of responsibility to our animals. We are only a couple of generations removed from our rural and agricultural past where the majority of people lived on farms and ranches. Living closer to animals on a daily basis, we understood the reality of good stewardship. Now it seems stewardship has to go hand-in-hand with some kind of cause. We can’t just say meat is meat. We have to say, it’s ok to eat a cow, but not ok to eat a horse. And because it’s not ok to eat a horse, it’s not ok to send them to slaughter, either.
The fact of the matter is that the way we have horses in our lives has changed along with our choices of where to live. The way we use horses these days is very different from how our grandparents used them, and the breeds of horses available to us today is only limited by our pocketbook and knowledge of what the world has to offer us. It is reasonable, then, to expect a change in our slaughter ideas, practices as well as legislation. It seems unreasonable, though, to ban and close the horse slaughter industry as a whole.
Now don’t get us wrong: we are not saying people should add horse meat to their diet, or that horses aren’t the beautiful, inspiring creatures they are. We have spent our lives seeking to bring a little more peace and a little more comfort to not only our own horses, but other people’s horses and the people who care for them. We have spent our lives working with not only horses, but cattle, dogs and other animals. We would have to say that we love and appreciate cattle as much as we do horses, or other creatures for that matter.
What we are saying is that for us the time has come to look at this issue a bit more clearly. Just because we have more of an emotional attachment to one animal over another, doesn’t necessarily mean it deserves more or less consideration. The ban on horse slaughter for human consumption seems to be a moral or personal preference argument rather than something to pass into federal law.
Whether it’s calling your vet out to euthanize your horse and bury him in your backyard or knowing you could send a horse away to slaughter and have that horse be safely and comfortably transported, and euthanized; it seems it would be more beneficial to horses and horse owners if all options were available.
Okay, I’m getting ready to climb out on a little limb here and talk about something that comes up a lot at our clinics, as well as in a number of the letters and emails we receive. It’s the subject of “natural horsemanship”.
Some people say that I am a “natural horseman” because I practice certain philosophies and techniques. Others say I’m not “natural” (oddly enough) for the very same reasons. If you ask me, I say that it seems pretty dang hard, if not impossible, to be - or not be - something that doesn’t even exist in the first place.
We’ll get back to that in a minute, but first, a quick history lesson. One might be surprised to learn that the term “natural horsemanship” didn’t really even exist prior to around 1985. You see, it was about that time that a well-known horse trainer coined the phrase and began using it as a marketing tool for a horse-training program he and his wife had developed. The term resonated with a lot of folks and whether people followed the program or not, they began using it as a way to define the methods and techniques they used to work with their horse. “I use natural horsemanship to train my horses.” Over the years the term has even morphed into what a lot of people might refer to as an actual equine discipline, like dressage, or reining or jumping. “I do natural horsemanship.”
Now, before going any further, it might be helpful to understand what the definition of the word natural, is. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as: being in accordance with or determined by nature. Dictionary.com defines the word as - existing in or formed by nature (opposed to artificial ): a natural bridge. So it seems to me that, in order for horsemanship to be truly natural, it must somehow match up with at least one of these, or at the very least, a similar definition. The problem is…nothing we do with horses does!
Lets start with the enclosures we keep them in. First, here’s a question. Not counting humans, how many other species of animal on the planet build enclosures of any kind in order to house or keep another species of animal captive? According to my research…none. So, while building enclosures to house other species of animals may be natural to humans (a statement that could be debated), it is certainly not natural to the animals being kept. As a result, if we are keeping our horses in any kind of man-made enclosure, no matter how big or small, it is unnatural to them.
Here are a couple more questions. How many species of wild animal (including horses) willingly allow another species of animal of any kind to restrain them? How many species of animal willingly allow another species of animal to climb on their back? So, if we physically restrain the horse in any way, or if we ride the horse, it is unnatural – not just to the horse but to us as well.
Okay, so there is our base line. Keeping a horse in a man-made enclosure is unnatural, and so is restraining and/or riding them because none of those things are in accordance with or determined by nature, or existing in or formed by nature. So now that we’ve established that keeping, restraining and riding horses is unnatural, the rest of what I am about to say may seem a bit redundant, but…what the heck. Lets go through it anyway.
Rope halters vs. web or leather halters. Seeing as how we have already established that restraining a horse is unnatural, the kind of halter one uses on their horse becomes personal preference. It is my personal belief that a web or leather flat halter is more humane than a knotted rope halter, but I don’t believe either is more “natural” than the other. And, truth be told, there are some instances when using a rope halter is actually going to be more beneficial for both horse and handler due to circumstances between the pair.
Large pasture or box stall. A man made enclosure of any kind or size has not been determined by nature nor was it existing in or formed by nature, so the bottom line is any enclosure is unnatural. Granted, a horse would probably be more comfortable in a pasture than a stall, but still, by definition it doesn’t change the fact that man made enclosures are unnatural.
Bit, bitless or bridle less. All three are unnatural, so it boils down to personal preference and comfort level of the horse and rider.
Saddle or no saddle. As was already stated, no mammal naturally allows another mammalian species to get on their back without some form of desensitization or training. So riding a horse in any way shape or form is again, by definition, an unnatural act. This then boils down to personal preference and the comfort level of the horse and rider. The majority of horses are probably going to be more comfortable with a rider’s weight dispersed over the most square inches of their back. With that in mind, a proper fitting saddle would probably be more comfortable for a horse than carrying a rider bareback.
Shoes or no shoes. At first glance, it would seem that keeping a horse barefoot would actually be more natural than putting shoes on, and if the horse were in the wild and not carrying a rider, I would agree. But domestic horses aren’t wild horses. Most domestic horses lack the sound quality of foot that the wild horse does due to selective breeding by man, so the domestic horse doesn’t have the luxury of having a foot that was determined by nature. In other words, many domestic horses do not (structurally) have a truly natural foot to begin with, so trying to give them one by having them go barefoot can, and often does, cause problems for both horse and rider.
Having a domestic horse go barefoot also doesn’t take into account the fact the horse must carry the weight of a rider over terrain that the horse often isn’t used to (in the case of a trail horse, for instance) which usually leads to lameness and/or soreness issues for the horse. Of course the answer to having a lame or sore “naturally barefoot” horse is to place a rubber boot over the entire foot to protect the sole – the logic of which (I must admit) escapes me. Common sense would tell me if I have to strap a boot on the foot to keep the horse from being lame, I might as well nail a shoe on. At least by doing that the horse will have 24-hour consistency in the way the foot feels as well as how it travels.
Now don’t get me wrong, here. I think its great when a horse’s foot is healthy enough for it to go barefoot year around, and over all kinds of terrains. In a case like that, it’s probably the best thing for the horse. But for a horse whose foot isn’t healthy enough, then doing what’s right for the horse is the way to go. If than means nailing a shoe on him, then that’s what I do.
It is my opinion that sometimes people’s ideology gets in the way of their common sense. Its like a dog owner who refuses to feed their dog meat because the owner is a vegetarian. Being vegetarian might be what’s best for the person, but it sure isn’t what’s best (nor is it natural) for the dog.
Because some people might have a hard time distinguishing between something that is natural or unnatural when it comes to working with horses, just for the fun of it, lets replace the words unnatural and natural with the words wet and dry while going over this. We can use the following question as a sort of template to go by: two men walk into a pond, one walks in up to his neck, the other up to his chest. Which one is still dry (natural)? The answer is obvious…neither one. They are both wet (unnatural). Wet is wet, and dry is dry. The only way one man would still be dry (natural) is if he hadn’t walked into the pond to begin with. The man who only walked into the pond up to his chest might be less wet…but he is still wet nonetheless.
I suppose in the end, it is important for us to keep in mind that all things natural are not necessarily good. A tornado is natural, but probably not terribly helpful when our house stands in its path. Arsenic is natural, so is locoweed, larkspur and black walnut. Of course we keep our horses and ourselves away from those things because they are not only harmful, but also deadly.
So next time we consider doing something for our horses simply because it flies under the flag of being “natural”, maybe we can allow some common sense to enter into our decision making first.
Filming a TV Pilot
(or, How a Digital Camera can Cause More Trouble than a Spooky Horse)
Our spring has been a very productive one, with Mark and I and our four legged crew driving coast-to-coast three times so far this year. We get to see springtime find it’s way to every part of the country, from the green rolling hills of California to the fragrant New England fruit trees in blossoms of pink, red and white.
One of our adventures this spring was having the opportunity to film Mark working with some students and their horses at Stephanie Roundy’s place in California. Our plans are to present this as a pilot for a potential TV series. The production company that did the filming are hoping to pitch it to the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic or RFD.
We met Vance while working with his daughter and her horse in Visalia this January. He was instrumental in putting this project together. Before he was a helicopter pilot, Vance worked in the film and television industry. He brought with him not only a cutting edge, digital camera that is part computer, but all the fun tools that bring it to life; large tripods that stand eight to ten feet tall, a 15 foot- long metal arm that has a mount for the camera at the end (called a jib), along with various lenses, screens to soften or add light, filters and lens shades. But all those tools are useless without the expertise and talent of the people behind them. We had the pleasure of also working with Paul and Gavin of Red Apple Production. They brought the artistry and flow to the project.
For the four and a half days we were shooting, there was a dynamic that started to emerge. When the cameras would malfunction, or the light was changing and we had to get a shot, or the camera hard drive would be full right in the middle of the process with the horse, or any of the other details that accompany filmmaking would go south, something interesting would happen. Typically when things don’t go well, frustration begins to build and sometimes tempers flare. There were a couple of times when Mark and I could feel things heading in that direction, but in the next instant Vance, Paul and Gavin would have a solution and we would move forward from there. There wasn’t any blaming, complaining, or general crabbiness once during the four and a half days that we were shooting. And this despite the fact that due to some software malfunctions on one of the cameras, we were almost two days behind on a four-day shoot.
The thing that was fascinating for us was watching how these guys were practicing some of the very same principles that we talk about in our clinics. On the surface it would appear that filming for TV and training horses are two different things. But, the longer we were involved in it, the more we felt the worlds of filming and horses merge. On the surface, the mediums with which we choose to express ourselves are quite different (though it seems that digital cameras can sometimes be as flighty as a spooked horse). And the end results are different, too; with horses we get to see them as they reach a more peaceful state of mind, and on film we get to see the artists interpretation of how the world looks to them. But contained within this swirling mass of supposed differences are some striking similarities.
Focus on the solution, not the problem.
For two days, the guys struggled with one of the camera’s that was a rental. They figured out that it was an experimental (or, beta) program that was conflicting with the camera’s internal program. Gavin (who used to work for Apple) figured out how to download and fix the camera so we didn’t have any unexpected halts during shooting. It might be a good idea to strive for the same thing with our horses. When we encounter something that is problematic between us and our horse, a better use of our energy would be to figure out what we want from our horse and start heading in that direction as soon as we can. Whether it is "right" or not is almost always irrelevant. What is important to understand is that the solution lies within the problem, not outside of it.
Wait for things to become right, instead of forcing them.
One evening, as we were finishing up in the round pen, the dust through the green trees was floating in the setting sun. Paul and Gavin wanted to finish the shoot when a certain light came through, so we waited an extra 15 minutes. During that waiting time, Gavin was double-checking the camera and practicing swinging the jib at different speeds and getting the right angle for the shot. When the time came, everything fell into place and he got the shot easily. We see the same thing between horses and people. When we force a horse to figure something out, what we get is a lot of lightness—the horse will do the thing we “trained” them to do, but not with any understanding or peace of mind about it. However, if we just keep presenting the same information with patience, in a day or two days or two months, the thing we were looking for is bound to show up.
When we rush or become hurried, accidents can happen.
The only time that the guys were in a hurry is the only time that there was an accident-the jib fell off the back of a moving truck, with the hi-tech camera attached to it. Fortunately, Paul saved it. They later admitted that they had gotten in a hurry and missed things. We can all, as horse people, certainly relate to times when we have pushed or rushed our horses and they have let us know (in sometimes rather dramatic ways), that hurrying to get the job done is not going to work.
Keep a positive attitude.
The first two days of the shoot we struggled with the rental camera that kept crashing (because internally it is a computer), dumping previous footage that we had to reshoot, audio mishaps, and Mark and I trying to figure out how to best work maneuvering not only with a horse and a person, but two cameras as well. Even when we could only film one person that day (and we had planned on working with two) we did the best we could. There was one evening when Gavin thought he had filmed the shot of a lifetime-he was really excited, until he tried to play it back and discovered that the camera had filmed nothing. By that time the light had changed, and the camera was crashing again. Instead of dwelling on it, he put the camera away, and we ended up getting the same shot two days later. During that time, we also had the benefit of perfect weather, catching up with old friends and getting to know new ones, and learning a whole lot about what goes on behind the cameras. Although there was plenty to be frustrated about, there was also a lot to enjoy.
Do what needs to be done, and not any more or less.
Among all the mishaps and glitches, one thing became rapidly clear. These guys were not going to waste any time moaning about it, wishing it were different or expending any extra energy. They put their heads together, figured out the solution and then went with it. And it worked, every time. Many times with our horses, we spend so much energy and time NOT accepting what is going on that we lose sight of the fact that we could also be looking for a way to flow with the situation, instead of fight it. So while this adage could apply to a physical action (using a whip on your leg to ask a horse to go forward, as opposed to using a whole lot of leg and tiring yourself and the horse out), it also very much applies to how we use our energy on a day-to-day basis. Do we do what needs to be done efficiently, or do we run in circles first?
You would think this would be a no-brainer. But somewhere along the way a lot of us have forgotten that being with a horse can be fun! I remember being 12 years old, having a blast whipping around barrels, the wind in my hair and the horse galloping underneath me (well, it probably wasn’t a gallop, but it was fast for someone who spent their time in a chair reading books). Hanging out with Vance, Gavin and Paul and watching them at their craft, in the midst of all the glitches, was a reminder that when we are truly absorbed by our craft, it can be an incredibly joyful experience. They joked around with us, shared their knowledge, and got really excited when they captured a shot, or saw something they didn’t expect and then got it on film. It was fun for us to learn about how the cameras work, and the world behind it all. It was fun for us to see our work through the eyes of people who didn’t know a lot about horses. At one point, they filmed Stephanie’s herd in slow motion. We all watched the playback and were excited. Here we all were, guys who didn’t know a lot about horses but knew how to film in such a way that it was beautiful, and Mark and I who know about horses, but nothing about filming. All of us were excited at the footage, perhaps for different reasons, but for a couple of minutes our worlds came together, and we weren’t that different after all. And for four days, we all got to be 12 again—we weren’t too bothered by problems, and played in the warm California springtime with horses and cameras.
As of today, the footage is being edited and then going to post-production for graphics, etc. We will be sure to let you all know if anything comes of it.
We want to thank Vance, Paul and Gavin for their interest, talent and total involvement in our fledgling project. We also want to thank all the riders who took the time to participate, Vance’s wife Janice who kept us clean and well fed, his daughter Cortney for keeping us entertained, and especially Stephanie Roundy, who let us invade and rearrange her ranch for five days. We couldn’t have done it without you all!
Starting Colts with Tim and Trudy
and the Dog Whisperer Revisited
As most of you know, I stopped starting colts for folks in clinics about six or seven years ago. There were a couple reasons for this decision. The first being the way I start colts doesn’t really lend itself very well to the four-day clinic format we were using at the time. That format was much the same as it is today…work with one horse and rider at a time for an hour or so, then move on to the next horse and rider.
The second reason was whenever I start colts; I seldom work with them for more than an hour a day anyway, so when I first started doing clinics I figured (perhaps naively), that folks would be okay with that. Over time, however, I found that not only did some owners expect us to work with their colts for longer than the horse was ready for, but many also expected to be farther along then they would get at the end of each daily session.
Even though I made it as clear as possible that we would only go as fast as the colt was ready to go, and that my version of “starting” the colt may or may not include getting on the colt during the time we had, many folks still wanted to hurry the process. This always seemed to put undue pressure on both the owner and the horse, which seldom makes for a positive outcome.
So, as a result, I simply stopped doing colt starting in clinics. Besides, there are plenty of clinicians out there that don’t have a problem with starting colts in a relatively quick manner. I didn’t need to be one of them.
Then, a few years ago I met Tim Harvey. Tim was hosting a clinic for us at his place in Rhode Island and after our initial visit when we arrived at his farm; he introduced me to his horse Tico. At the time Tico was a six or seven year-old Mustang Tim had adopted when the horse was around a year and a half old. Tim had been using Tico as a breeding stallion (pasture breeding) since then, but had recently had him gelded and wanted to get him started under saddle.
The problem was, Tico was virtually untouchable. Standing in his pen, Tico was wary of pretty much everything and everybody – with the exception of Tim who could get up to him and catch him – eventually. Although Tim was a very experienced horseman in his own right, he told me he needed help starting Tico and asked if I could help him. I explained my colt starting policy…which basically was that I didn’t start colts anymore during clinics for the reasons I already talked about.
Tim told me he was absolutely in no hurry to get Tico under saddle, but rather what he wanted was to take as much time as it took so that he could keep Tico’s spirit and personality intact. He told me if it took ten years to get that accomplished, that would be all right with him – and he meant it.
With that, I agreed to give Tim a hand with Tico. In our book A Life With Horses, the early stages of Tico’s starting process are pretty well documented, so I won’t go into that too much here. Suffice it to say that during a number of clinics over a year-and-a half period, Tim and Tico progressed in leaps and bounds. So much so that in just two years after that first encounter with the pair in Rhode Island, Tim and Tico were not only out trail riding together, but Tim also was using him to scout for Moose near his home in New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife Trudi.
Then, last fall, Tim asked if I could help him start one of Tico’s sons, Soley. By this time Tim and I had become pretty good buddies and knowing Tim’s background and the way he understands and works with his horses, I once again agreed. At the time Soley was a pretty rambunctious four year-old who needed more help with learning how to learn than actually getting him under saddle. So at that first clinic, that was primarily what we worked on. It was clear with all the handling Tim and Trudi had already done with the colt that getting him under saddle wouldn’t really be much of a problem. Getting Soley to understand it would.
As we did with Tico, I worked with Soley during the clinic and then gave Tim some homework to do until the next time we saw them. That time came in March of this year when Tim and Trudy brought Soley, Tico and Trudy’s horse Symbol to the farm in Florida where we do a few clinics every early spring, In fact, this was where we did most of the initial work with Tico just a couple years earlier.
Tim had done some of the initial work with Soley back in the fall after we had left, which included getting him under saddle and getting on his back, but very little else. Then winter hit in New England and that put a stop to pretty much any and all work with the colt, until now. Before getting to Florida, Tim and Trudy had pretty much decided to turn the remainder of the colt’s start over to Trudy.
Now, Trudi is one of the finest horsewomen I’ve ever met. Not only can she easily ride pretty much anything with hair on it and look good while she’s doing it, she also has what seems like an eternal smile on her face that can only come from the sheer childlike joy she gets just being around horses.
Trudi and I spent the first two days of the clinic going over Soley’s ground work – longing and ground driving, mostly. On the third day, we saddled the colt and bridled him up (again, both things that had already been done with him last fall), then continuing ground driving with him until we were both confident he understood how to stop turn and back up when asked. On the fourth day, Trudi got up on Soley’s back and took her first ride on him.
At first Soley didn’t seem to have any idea what to do with a rider on his back and as a result, instead of going forward, all he could do was back up. I helped out by leading Soley forward for short distances until he got the idea, and then let him and Trudi go for a short, uneventful ride around the round pen.
After thirty minutes or so, Soley had calmly done everything Trudi asked of him and we decided to call it a day.
With the clinic over, Tim and Trudy and Crissi and I departed to a small horse campground about an hour south of the venue for a few days of R&R before Crissi and I needed to head for Georgia for a couple days of private lessons. The campground was only a half-mile or so from a state forest with hundreds of miles of riding trails, and we all decided to take advantage of our time there to get a little riding in.
Because Trudi’s horse, Symbol, (who has a number of chronic physical issues) wasn’t sound enough to ride, Trudi decided to take Soley out for his first trail ride. The forest is full of wide, sandy trails. So with Tim on Tico, Trudi on Soley and Crissi and I on our horses, the four of us went out for a ride through the forest.
Once on the trails, Crissi took the lead, with me following behind her, then Trudi and finally Tim on Tico. Soley seemed a little confused at first, but very quickly caught on to what we were doing and soon was quietly following Crissi and I. As the ride progressed, Trudi would slowly change places with one of us in the line and toward the end of the ride even got Soley out in front for a few short stints.
The next day, we once again took the horses out into the forest. This time we were on the same trail as the previous day, just traveling the loop in the opposite direction of how we had ridden it the day before. Tim and Trudi on their horses spent the majority of the ride out in front, with all of us, including Trudi and Soley doing several short trots along some long, upward sloping areas on the trail. By the third day, Trudi and Soley not only spent the majority of the ride out in front, but also worked in some trotting and loping. This was the same horse that only four days earlier needed to be led in the round pen to get him moving forward!
Sadly, Crissi and I had to leave the next day to work up in Georgia, but we did hear from Tim a few days later when he called and said Trudi and Soley had been improving in leaps and bounds. Not a surprise considering how well the two had been working together.
Now the main reason I bring up this little story is to illustrate a couple of fundamental beliefs that I have when it comes to working with horses. The first, and probably most important, is we should always work with the horse at the speed they are able to go, not some preconceived idea of how fast we think they should be learning.
Case in point: from the time we started working with Tico, a virtually unhandled, six year old wild horse, until the time someone was on his back, took nearly two years. However, when the time came to get up on him, the process was as calm and uneventful as if he had been accepting a rider on his back all his life. But the point is, HE was ready. All the homework had been done, and he understood completely what was going on. It may have taken two years…but it was time well spent.
On the other hand there is Soley. Also a mustang, although he lived his entire life in a domestic situation and had been handled a lot over the years. Getting him started under saddle took much less time. All together, probably no more than twenty hours total from the time we first got him started in the process last fall until the time Trudi first got on his back in Florida.
Two horses owned by the same two people, using relatively the same starting process, but each horse treated as the individuals they are and worked with in the time frame the horse needed to move at, not the time frame the human wanted to move at. In the end, both horses ended up in the same place – reliable mounts for their owners. This also illustrates the second point I wanted to bring up. The fact that both Tim and Trudi were as patient with their horses as they needed to be, but also kept them moving forward when they were ready to go. To me, that is what being a horseman is all about and a tribute to these two wonderful folks and their horses.
The truth be told, if more folks could see their way to working with their young horses the way Tim and Trudi do, I might still be starting colts in clinics!
The Dog Whisperer Revisited
We wanted to take a minute and thank all of you who took the time to write to us concerning our blog on The Dog Whisperer. We found the feedback very interesting to say the least! While the vast majority of the letters we received (both from professional dog trainers as well as from folks who weren’t) were in support of the article, Cesar Millan, and his show, there were a few letters we received that were a little less so.
The thing we found extremely interesting about some (certainly not all) of the less positive comments we received was how easy it was for folks (who espouse positive training with dogs) to turn to negativity and personal attacks on Crissi and I because our thoughts didn’t match up with theirs. Which, interestingly enough, was one of the points of the blog in the first place – how can we truly be positive with animals and see things from their perspective, when we can’t even see things from another human’s perspective?
I think Crissi summed it up best when she said, “It is striking to note that life moves all around us, always changing, and here we are, immobilizing ourselves with a certain theory, or method, or ideology. What if some of the answers lie in our ability to adapt and respond to each situation (or animal) as best we can given what we know? What if we could transcend being caught in our human opinions and strive to see through the eyes of another species? When it comes to training methods whether it is dogs, horses, cats, or giraffes no training method is all bad, nor is it all good. The same could be said of the people who use those methods.”
The bottom line – as I see it – is we don’t always have to agree with one another. But would it be such a bad thing to try and understand one another?
Shoulder surgery and “The Dog Whisperer.”
By: Mark and Crissi
Three days after returning from New Zealand in December of last year, Mark had shoulder surgery. While he was recovering, we got the chance to watch a lot of TV. More than we had in probably the whole year. As many of you know, there is not a whole lot on TV, and even less during the day. Except that week, when Mark was lying around, we found that the National Geographic Channel was running Cesar Millan’s “Dog Whisperer,” as a marathon. After four days, when Mark was able to get around easier, I got sick first with a cold and then a sinus infection. And “The Dog Whisperer,” was still running as a marathon! Now, Mark and I don’t have a lot of spare time, and we hadn’t ever really paid attention to TV. And we didn’t know who Cesar Millan was…though we do now.
Mark says, “What I noticed about Cesar was that there are a lot of parallels between what he does with dogs, and what we do with horses. Specifically, the use of energy, the stress on calmly and consistently maintaining boundaries and the focus on the dog reaching a calm, balanced state of mind as opposed to a worried or frantic state of mind. Another similarity we noticed was that many of the really troubled dogs that were being brought to Cesar (like some of the horses that are brought to us), are exhibiting behaviors that if had been dealt with when the animal showed early signs of it, would have taken almost nothing to redirect to a more positive behavior. Because the behavior had gone on for an extended period of time-sometimes years-by the time the dog got to him, it was either frantic, dangerous or both. The measures Cesar took to help the dog were very direct and to the point. Although he obviously has methods and principles he follows, he dealt with each dog as an individual.
Another similarity I noticed between his work with dogs and ours with horses is that he was as soft as he could be with each dog. It may not have been as soft as he wanted to be, but it was important for him to be as effective as possible, as quickly as possible. While we don’t necessarily agree with the language that he is using, the results he gets transcend language. What I mean by that is that the dog understood what was happening, understood what he was looking for and ultimately returned to a learning frame of mind. The behavior that caused the dog to be frantic or worried or dangerous changed to him being calmer and in a state of mind that was much easier to deal with for everyone involved. At that point, it was easier for the dog to learn a different, more positive behavior.”
From my own perspective, I think Cesar is clear, has a thorough knowledge of dogs, and gives sound, practical advice to the dog’s owners. It is also obvious (to me, at least) that he really likes what he does. In every episode we watched (and there were a lot of them), he kept a calm balanced state of mind no matter if he was walking a dog or if the dog was biting him. He remained calm whether the owners took an active interest in what he was saying, or had some sort of aversion to it. In other words, he practices (at least on the show) what he teaches. Mark and I spend a fair amount of time not only honing our skills with horses, but seeking to understand people better as well. We have both been teaching long enough to know when someone is feeling how they say they are feeling. It seems to me that it would be very difficult to fake a calm, balanced state of mind. I also like the fact that Cesar posts a notice that the method he is showing is not the ONLY method, and that the viewer should seek out something that feels right for them and their dog.
Once Mark and I were both on the mend, I got onto the internet to research where this guy had come from and find out what people were saying about “The Dog Whisperer.” I was a little surprised to find any number of news and dog training sites vilifying his show, and criticizing National Geographic for giving him such a prestigious spot on their network. I read about how his methods are “outdated,” “abusive,” and how various animal rights organizations would like to see his show off the air, and have Cesar personally fined, if not jailed. I read several articles that talked about how he is setting dog training back to the “stone ages,” how the method of “positive reinforcement” has been proven to work the best. I read the criticism about the country he is from, ridiculing his ethnicity behind veiled comments about his accent and “slick looks.” While I am not naïve enough to believe all things Internet, I also was a little surprised by the tone of some of the attacks-for some of them went beyond clear-headed criticism almost to personal slander.
Mark adds, “The thing that struck me about the negativity surrounding Cesar’s work is that they didn’t just attack the methods, they also attacked him as a person. I also have a hard time understanding how his methods could be ‘outdated.’ When something that clearly works, and moves the relationship forward in a positive way, is labeled ‘outdated’ it doesn’t make sense. It reminds me of a comment from someone at one of our clinics who watched us ground drive a colt. She came to us and said that a well known trainer told her that ‘ground driving with lines is obsolete.’ Because this trainer ground drives without lines, it infers that having a horse attached to lines is no longer needed. I guess it is my view that both are valuable. Driving without lines can help a horse and handler work off of body language, and driving with lines helps the horse learn to work off of body language and give to pressure of the bit. It also gives the handler a chance to practice how the pressure feels between them and the horse through the line itself, not to mention the added bonus that the horse learns how to stop, turn, and back up before we even get on their backs.
We could take that a step further and say that fighting with swords is obsolete. However, many of the martial arts speak about the value of sword work as a way to develop balance, timing, focus and intent. These are all things that can be used in every day life.
It is interesting that the very people who are advocating positive reinforcement, speak so negatively about a person who isn’t doing the same thing they are. For our animals it is only positive reinforcement, but when it comes to talking about people, it’s all negative! If this is the case, how positive are they being with their dogs, because their training philosophies don’t permeate the rest of their life. It is hard for me to believe their intentions are good. It is hard for me to believe that there is only one way. Your grass won’t be any greener just because you throw gasoline on your neighbor’s lawn. ”
So, after having said all this, we want to add that this is in no way an endorsement or criticism of Cesar Millan, his show, or his work. Rather, both Mark and I were struck by how similar the principles he uses with dogs are to the principles that have been guiding Mark his whole life in working with horses. It was an interesting experience to witness these principles at work in another species, and hear the rational behind them from someone we have never met. We are all talking about the human becoming the leader, being clear and fair, attaining a calm state of mind-for both human and animal.
It might be that it is ok for some people to have dogs that bark at the door, jump on people, take food from the table, and pull them along for walks. This is not a criticism; it is just what is. The same could be said of horses. Some people are ok with horses that push into them, lay their ears back when being fed, that won’t stand still to be groomed or saddled, that bite or rear or buck. Again-not a criticism. It is just what is. The question that comes to our minds, however, is this: is what we are doing through the training methods we use looking out for the welfare and well being of the animal, or not? We often choose the methods we do because they resonate in some way with us, not necessarily because it is the best thing for that animal at that particular time.
It is striking to note that life moves all around us, always changing, and here we are, immobilizing ourselves with a certain theory, or method, or ideology. What if some of the answers lie in our ability to adapt and respond to each situation (or animal) as best we can given what we know? What if we could transcend being caught in our human opinions and strive to see through the eyes of another species? When it comes to training methods whether it is dogs, horses, cats, or giraffes no training method is all bad, nor is it all good. The same could be said of the people who use those methods.
We guess that in the end, it matters less what training method is being adhered to and more that the person has the animal’s best interest in mind. What matters is that we can give the animal the help it needs at a time when it will be most beneficial. What matters is keeping our calm balanced mind, even at times when it seems others have lost theirs.
This is one of the many adventures that Mark and I have embarked upon this past year. We have gone coast-to-coast five times, been overseas twice and have had a very busy and full 2008. It has been full of a lot of great folks and their horses, friends far and near who join us on the path. Periodically, we will be sharing our travels with you.
On one of our trips, we managed to stop by (what used to be) Walter Pruit's place, where Mark spent so much time with "the old man." Forty years later it is still there, though all of the structures Mark remembers are gone. As we walked the land, Mark would tell me where each of the barns, paddocks and pastures were. Where each story that I know so well happened. We even found a fence post that he had set when he was ten years old-the only reminder of what had once been. It was an incredibly stirring day for me. I felt as though I had gotten to know Walter, and Mark a little bit better. I thought you might enjoy hearing about it, too.
The one lane gravel road that Mark rode his bike down to get to Walter's place is now two lane and paved, lined with low, square houses with neat yards out in front. What is left of the pastures are now surrounded by those houses. Looking at that small patch of wildflower-covered land today, unless you knew the history, you would not guess that this once large area was home to barns, paddocks, fences, an arena and a boy and a man working with the many horses who passed through there. You would not know that the seeds that were planted in those years were not in the earth, to germinate the next spring with sun and rain, but in a gangly boy who loved horses and would one day share what the old man taught him with so many folks around the world.
I often think on this. Mark has told me some stories, memories of what the old man gave him of his own background, which are few, and sparse. It seems that life conspired to bring the young Walter and a Native American man into one another's lives at just the right time. And that Walter's character and this man's teachings about horses matured into how Walter would one day work with Mark. Now Mark carries these teachings, including his own growth and insights to every person and horse with which he works.
The span of this work, when viewed from this perspective, feels enormous to me. But a mouse would think a cat enormous, too, unless the cat were placed next to a lion. The Work (as Mark refers to it) is at once great and small. And it spans, in the scheme of that phenomenon we call time, but a short chapter. This way of working with horses is at once ours, and not ours at all. How can we lay claim to something that started in the early 1900's with an unknown man meeting an unknown boy in a flat, wild territory? How could anyone know that those seeds that were planted then, would yield a harvest that would spread itself so far and wide? The mystery, and beauty of it all is humbling. How much we don't know. How much we are guided, if we but let life flow through us. How much goodness there is in life, if we but look for it.
So here we are, nearly one hundred years later. On the outside of it, things may look more advanced than what Walter saw in his days. On the inside of it, however, I believe we haven't changed much. Many of us share the same longing, the same wishes for ourselves and our families that our grandparents and great grandparents did. On the outside of it, the horses we have look like they have changed as well; different sizes, shapes and uses now abound. On the inside of the horse, though, beats the same heart. It makes sense to me, then, that what Walter learned in his youth, practiced at all the ranches he worked on and finally taught to Mark is a bridge of sorts, a span of knowledge through time that looks beyond surface changes and gets right to the heart of things.
We hope you are doing well, and finding your own joy these days. Please check back periodically; we will have more adventures we would like to share with you!