To Walk the Walk

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are all just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love…and then we return home.” Aboriginal Proverb

During a Q/A during one of our recent clinics, an auditor asked if there were any of the current trainers or clinicians out there today that I admire or follow on a regular basis. I explained that there were many horsemen and women that I admire, but not many that I follow.

The reason I haven’t hitched my wagon to other trainers or clinicians is that I haven’t really come across anybody (yet) in the horse world who really exemplifies an aspect of horsemanship (and life) that I not only feel is most important, but also of which I would like to gain better understanding.

Let me explain. When I was very young and just getting into horses, I had the great honor of working with a man who I feel was the finest horseman I have ever met. Watching him work with a horse was like watching someone perform magic, especially for a young and impressionable boy, which is what I was back then. But even back then, and setting his amazing skills with horses aside, I realized there was an intangible quality to him that was not only very special, but that I just assumed was inherent in everybody who worked with horses.

He had a way about him that could put both animals and people at ease just by him being near – a quiet confidence, free of ego, that assured everything was going to be okay, even when it seemed as though maybe it wouldn’t be – and a true kindness that seemed to permeate all that he did and all that he came in contact with. It wasn’t really so much what he did, however, but who he was, and at least for me, that was the key.

At the time, being with him on his little horse ranch had been my only experience with horses or horse people, so I had nothing to compare it to and so, as I said, I just assumed all horse people possessed these same qualities. I also knew these were qualities that I didn’t have, but again, somehow just assumed that if I stayed with horses long enough, I would develop them over time.

Unfortunately, as I grew older and moved into the real world of horses, I slowly began to realize that these particular qualities inherent to my old friend were not as common in others as I had first thought or expected. In fact, I began seeing almost the complete opposite in many of the horse people I ran across.

I watched people whose ego seemed to override their common sense, and who would routinely push horses much faster and harder than they were ready to go, almost always to the detriment of the horse. The more of this I saw, the more I began to realize that in the “real” world, this kind of horse work appeared to be more the norm than the exception, and for a time I became quite discouraged over it.

Time passed, however, and as I began working various ranches and training for private individuals, I got away from actively looking for somebody with the same qualities as my old friend. I did, however, always keep my eyes and ears open just in case I happened to run across someone who might have those qualities, and I continued to work with horses in a way that I believed honored what I had learned from him all those years before.

Then, in the late 1980’s a friend and former employee on a ranch I managed invited me to a one day demonstration that was to be given by a trainer that he said worked with horses much the same way that I did. I eagerly went, hoping that my buddy may have found someone with those qualities that I had grown up with.

The morning of the demo, the trainer was presented with a troubled five-year old Morgan that had yet to be started. As the trainer went into the round pen with the horse, his demeanor and temperament toward the horse seemed very much like my old friend’s, and as he began his work with the horse, it was as if I had stepped back in time to that little horse ranch of my childhood. I watched and listened intently as the trainer eased his way around the Morgan, and throughout the morning the little horse had transformed from being wide eyed and terrified of everything and everybody, to being as quiet as a church mouse, attentively following the trainer’s every move and request.

By the time we broke for lunch, I was convinced that I was watching someone who lived what he taught, and couldn’t wait to see what he might do with a different horse after lunch. Of course, that was assuming that, having gotten the Morgan to such a great place that morning, that he was finished with the little gelding

I was a bit surprised, and a little confused that afternoon when I saw the little Morgan still in the round pen. I was even more confused when the trainer began talking about the horse having trouble with “respect” (something he hadn’t even mentioned during the morning session) and then a bit shocked when he hurried the little horse through a first time saddling, which the gelding didn’t take well.

The trainer no sooner had the cinch of his saddle tight on the horse than the gelding exploded, bucking, balling and crashing into the panels of the pen. The trainer kept the gelding moving forward by tossing the end of a lariat at him and eventually the gelding lined out and after a time, stopped, sides heaving and drenched in sweat.

The trainer then got on the young horse and the whole thing started all over again with the horse bucking, bolting, balling and crashing into the fence. To his credit, the trainer was able to stay with the Morgan the entire time, eventually riding him into a state of exhaustion. He did do some very nice work with the horse after all of that, and the truth is, I did pick up some new handling and training ideas throughout the day. But for me, that was all it was, just more technique and not at all what I had originally hoped to see or feel.

Over the next several years I would hear about other trainers and clinicians who sounded as if they had the qualities I had seen in my old friend, but each time I went to see them or watch one of their videos or talk to them in person, I knew almost right away that it wasn’t the case. (As a side note here, it was also during this time when I heard about Tom Dorrance for the first time, who I am certain possessed the qualities I had experienced growing up. But unfortunately, I never had the honor of meeting or watching him in person.)

Now again, while I most certainly appreciated, respected and admired many of these trainers, as well as their skills and what they were able to accomplish with a horse, and while there was always something to be learned from each and every one of them, the simple truth is that none that I came in contact with were teaching what I really wanted to learn. Maybe a better way to say that is – they weren’t living what I wanted to learn. And for me, that was the important part.

I knew what I was looking for could not be turned on when it was convenient and turned off when it was not. It seemed to either be part of who the person was or it wasn’t. To that end, I watched over and over as trainers and clinicians would take all the time in the world to help a horse, and then often treat the owner like a red headed stepchild. To me, that way of going is at the heart of the incongruence that I’m trying to avoid

A number of trainers and clinicians out there often tell their students that they (the trainer) are there for the horse, not the rider. That kind of statement alone gives me enough pause not want to spend too much time following that trainer. As I see it, the horse and rider should be a unit. Splitting them by the way they are treated or taught, by its very nature, creates a disconnect that can be difficult for a rider to overcome, and creating a disconnect is not the kind of thing I want to pass along to folks I work with.

Obviously, there are as many teaching and learning styles out there as there are teachers and students. However, in general most teachers, regardless of the subject, not only teach what they know, but also teach how they’ve been taught. In other words, if their teacher imparted information with a general lack of regard for the student, then the student will often teach in the same manner. If they’ve been taught with respect and dignity, they will often offer the same to their students. I was taught with the latter, and having experienced it at such a young age, it was one thing that ended up leaving an indelible mark on me that even after all these years will not run or fade. To that end, I not only understand what it is that I’m looking for in a teacher, but I also know and understand what I’m not looking for.

I did eventually find the teachers I was searching for, men and women who didn’t just teach what they knew, but lived what they taught. These were individuals who whose main goal wasn’t to prove how superior their own skills were, but rather to help their students’ progress in the skills that they were working so hard at improving, and whose kindness and empathy for others transcended the classroom.

But it wasn’t in the horse world that I found these teachers. Rather, I found them in the world of martial arts. And, I would come to understand that all of these particular teachers had two main things in common. They all chose their teachers wisely, and none had allowed outside influences to distract them from moving in the direction they felt was right for them.

One of these teachers in particular, a man who is arguably one of the finest masters in the art of Aikido and one of the kindest men I have ever met, ultimately made such an impression on me that I would not only study and train with him every chance I had, but I found myself talking about him quite often in both our horsemanship clinics as well as in our Aikido for Horsemen workshops. In fact, I was in England recently and had an opportunity to talk with a friend and fellow student of Aikido who had been able to take a weekend seminar from this Sensei on one of Sensei’s trips to the UK.

When I asked my friend about his experience, he expressed how impressed he was with Sensei not just as an instructor, but also how kind and generous in all aspects he was to everybody, everyday, regardless of rank or experience level. He then said something that really summed up what not only kept me searching for teachers like Sensei, but also what drew me to my old friend from my childhood all those years ago.

He said the difference for him was that when you were with Sensei, when you were in the dojo with him or listening to him as he explained a technique, or most certainly if you touched him, you could immediately feel his…humanity.

And there it was. After all these years, the thing I’ve been looking for in both in my teachers and in my own work with horses finally had a name – humanity.

I guess the reason it has been so difficult for me to define what I’ve been searching for all this time is because this thing I’ve been looking for, this humanity, can’t be forced, or faked or mechanically replicated. It has to be felt, and experienced and practiced and worked at over and over, day in and day out, until finally it just becomes part of who we are and is in everything we do – not just in what we do with horses.

One day I hope it will be a part of me as much as it is in the teachers and people I admire. But until then, I will keep searching out those who embody it, who live it, and who walk that walk. I will always endeavor to learn from all those I come in contact with, but will choose only to study with those who not only teach what they know, but who live what they teach.