The Art Within the Art


Years ago I bought a seventeen-year-old ranch horse by the name of Mouse. Mouse had endured many years of unfortunate handling that caused him to be pretty troubled around humans in general and strangers in particular. He was worried about being caught, he didn’t like to be saddled or tied or groomed or ridden. He didn’t like people touching him, or approaching him or moving around him in almost any way. In fact, the list of things he didn’t like was actually much longer than the list of things he did. Even so, and to his credit, he would always try to do all of these things that were troubling to him when asked because he had learned over the years that they were part of his job. He just didn’t like any of it much.

I got him from a friend who had bought him a year or so before as a horse to practice his roping with. My friend, by his own admission, didn’t try to do much to help him with any of his troubles, but by the same token, he hadn’t made any of them worse, either. I had seen him ride Mouse on a number of occasions and had seen first hand the kind of worry the gelding packed around with him. But still, there was just something about the horse that resonated with me, and when my friend decided to move on to a little more refined roping horse, I bought Mouse from him.

Having just retired my good saddle horse Buck from traveling, Mouse hit the road with me to help out with our clinic schedule. I realized almost from the start that the last thing Mouse needed was more training. You know, the kind of training some folks feel the need to use to help a troubled horse feel better. Mouse had had plenty of training and more than enough handling in his life. What he hadn’t been given much of was time to learn how to be okay when he was around people, and particularly when someone was on his back. Luckily for me, however, time was something I had plenty of.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am in no way suggesting that working with a horse to help them feel better when they are worried or troubled is a bad thing. Doing so (when done properly) can be an extremely effective way of getting a horse to accept things that up until then seemed insurmountable for them to understand and ultimately be okay with. But as I said, in Mouse’s case, more training didn’t really seem like the best course of action.

Instead, I made the decision pretty early on that I would simply work with and ride him the way I wanted him to go. What that meant for the two of us was that I wouldn’t necessarily ignore the things that bothered him or behavior he offered up that I wasn’t looking for, but by the same token, I wouldn’t really put much energy into those things either. In other words, I didn’t make a big deal out of anything that he offered that I didn’t want.

Instead, I mostly just redirected those things I didn’t want and turned them into the things I did. This took on a variety of different looks depending on the situation and the behavior he exhibited, but ultimately, the end goal was always the same. I wanted him to see that I could be depended upon to help and guide him when he was troubled, instead of putting more pressure on him by trying to train the trouble out of him.

This wasn’t really a new concept to me. To be honest, it was an idea I literally grew up with. When I was younger I worked with an old horseman who spent a lot of his time buying “throw-away” horses at various auctions. He would then work with them, getting what he would call “the bugs” out, and then he would ultimately resell them. I suppose today he would possibly be considered a horse rescuer, but I don’t believe he ever looked at it that way. For him, I think it was simply a way for him to make a living (meager as it may have been) with horses.

While I do remember him using specific training techniques with some horses from time to time, most of what he did, and what learned from him, was just work with what the horse presented and try not to make too big a deal out of anything. I look back on how and what he did back then, and the positive results he was able to get from horses that, quite frankly, were sometimes a little scary, and I marvel at the effectiveness of his simplicity.

Today I realize that what he was actually doing was developing trust between him and his horses, the kind of trust that can really only be achieved by taking the time it takes to build a relationship based in understanding – not the kind of manufactured and often tenuous trust that sometimes occurs through sheer repetition of technique. First and foremost, however, I believe it was his way of getting to know his horses (and them him.) And when I say he got to know them, I mean he really got to know them – from the inside out. He understood what made each individual horse tick, what they liked and what they didn’t like, their idiosyncrasies, their mannerisms and most of all, the specific things each individual horse did to try to communicate with him.

By truly getting to know his horses in this way, he was then able to get to the heart of what was really bothering them, and then work with them at that level. After that, getting the horse to want to work with him was easy. Spending time with his horses like this virtually eliminated the need for him to assume, or guess or speculate what was going on with them. He knew what was going on with them.

When I first bought Mouse I didn’t actually plan on working with him in this way. In fact, I really didn’t have any plans on how I would work with him at all. But within a very short period of time, this direction not only seemed the best option, but really the only one. Oddly enough, however, making the decision to work with him in this way was one that I felt rather than thought, or perhaps maybe a better way to describe it would be that it was more or less an instinctual decision. In other words, it just seemed like the best way to go. Either way, for Mouse, it ultimately turned out to be the right decision.

Not only did Mouse’s troubles drop away one by one over time, but he also became an extremely responsive and willing partner, whether we were working cattle, riding through the mountains, roping or coaching riders during a clinic.

In fact, one warm sunny afternoon during a clinic in Florida, an auditor came to me while Mouse and I were waiting for the next rider to come into the arena. I was in the saddle and Mouse had taken the opportunity to take a quick nap in the sun, so I had set the reins down on his neck. The auditor walked up and asked, “Where does he go?”

“Who,” I asked.

“Him,” she pointed at Mouse. “He dead asleep. It’d take you forever to wake him up to get a job done.”

With that, I reached down and with my index finger, lightly touched the rein draped over Mouse’s neck. Mouse quietly opened his eyes and raised his head, ready to go to work. I took my finger from the rein, Mouse hesitated a second, then lowered his head and went back to sleep. “He hasn’t gone anywhere.” I said.

Mouse’s transformation went beyond his work under saddle, though. When he first arrived he had been somewhat of a disruptive force in our herd, always on the move, randomly chasing others off the feed and stampeding the herd anytime anybody went in to the pasture to catch one of the other horses. But again, much of that behavior began to drop away after only a few months, and after about a year he was often the first one to meet us at the gate in the morning.

He could still be wary of strangers from time to time, something he held on to until the day he died, and there were other people he never would warm up to. He had made it very clear from the start that his trust could be earned, but it couldn’t be taken, and people who knew him always seemed to feel a sense of accomplishment when Mouse would let them approach and pet him.

That, like many of his other traits, was simply part of who he was. They were things to be accepted and worked with, not things he needed to change so that we could feel better about him, or change so that we could feel better about ourselves (as trainers). By simply giving him that time that he needed, he had been able to explain to us which of the behaviors we were seeing he could feel better about, which ones we could negotiate on, and which ones were there to stay.

I think sometimes as horse people we have been so inundated with information on how to fix this problem or that problem that we think we have no other recourse but to attack any problem we come across head on using any number of techniques or tools at our disposal. Then, if these things fail, or possibly even make the behavior worse, we simply go through the same protocol all over again, usually with the same unfortunate results.

I suppose it’s part of the human condition: when something doesn’t work, we want to fix it. If our horse is troubled, we want to help them feel better. Of course we are genuinely concerned about that horse and we really do want them to feel better. But in some cases, we want them to feel better because their behavior is a direct reflection on us as a horse person or trainer. If they aren’t acting a certain way, then it somehow shows holes in our horse training/handling education, and we can’t have that.

Looking at it perhaps another way, there is an interesting phenomenon that almost all martial artists go through when they first begin their martial arts training (particularly those who begin their training as an adult.) Usually after a month or two of training, the new student begins to learn the basics of their chosen art. By this time they have learned a few simple techniques like punches, grabs, kicks or whatever, and because of this, some of these students begin to feel a sense of power in their new found, although fledgling abilities.

What happens next is the interesting part. Many of these students, most of them peace loving average people who had never even considered getting into a scuffle with anybody before, suddenly begin to conjure up sometimes pretty elaborate self defense scenarios in their imagination. They may see themselves as the hero in a would-be mugging, or breaking up an attack from a bully out on the street somewhere, or come up with any number of other scenarios in which they are able to use their new found skills.

What is really happening here is that these students are learning a new skill and they want to put it to use in some way…in any way! In fact, many is the new martial arts student who had only been training a short time, and who goes out looking for a fight, only to have their hat handed to them by someone faster, bigger, and with more skills or talent.

I think sometimes that as horse people  we are in the same boat. We go to this clinic or that one, learn a few skills, pick up a few new techniques, buy a flag or a rope or any number of other training tools, and then suddenly feel the need to go out and find a situation in which to use them. Sometimes the situation is the right one and we are able to make some significant progress and headway in helping the horse. Other times the horse may appear to be complying, but isn’t terribly willing, and still other times we have our hats handed to us by a horse that isn’t buying into what we have to offer because what we are offering isn’t what they need.

If we’re lucky, one day we’re learn the difference. If we aren’t we will simply go along day after day, year after year repeatedly making the same mistakes.

Not long ago an aikido master with 40 years of experience was teaching an aikido class I was attending. At one point he mentioned that he had learned almost all of the technique he would ever need during the first ten years of his training. He then said that he had spent the next thirty years trying to figure out how not to use it.

It was a profound statement for me in both my martial arts training, as well as in my work with horses. Just because we might be good in martial arts doesn’t mean that every argument we have with someone has to end with us punching them in the face. And just because we might be good at training horses doesn’t mean that every horse we come across with some kind of issue needs us to train it out of them.

If there is one thing that horses like Mouse, and countless others like him have taught me over the years it’s that the art in any art is in knowing when the skills we’ve worked so hard at refining are needed, and when they aren’t. Of course, in the end, that is arguably the most difficult skill of all to develop, which in turn, also makes it the most valuable.