From 8/19/03, an open letter to Buck Brannaman (and indeed, all other horsemen who consider themselves "natural"). Names changed to protect the guilty.
I'm reading your book, The Faraway Horses, and I read the story about the Arab Stallion you worked with, and were met with "when can we use the whips again." I know what you mean, about teaching a horse that things can be good, and then having the poor animal have to return to that world.
In 1993, I was in my first year of college. I'd been riding quite a bit in high school, and had been part of a Thoroughbred Rescue program. Before that I rode under a lady who rode under George Morris. I don't know which trainer it was that taught me to listen to a horse, or maybe it was just the influence of Walter Farley's The Horse Tamer. Either way, I always gave a horse credit for his own brand of intelligence - equal to ours in its own way.
Well, going to college I wanted to keep riding, but it's an expensive hobby. No matter, I thought, I ran a stable during the summer before, so I could go work at a barn. Boy, did I choose poorly. I went to a place where I got to teach a few lessons, but spent most of my time leading trail rides, working on the weekends. Come summer, I decided to start on at the barn full time.
Its amazing how much you should pay attention to how a person treats other people, to show how they'll treat their horses. I should have known, from the terms of my employment, that something was wrong. But I was 19 and full of myself, and determined to make a difference. When one of the cowboys warned me "We're energizer batteries - the owners use us up and throw us out" I didn't listen. It really is that way many places here on the East Coast. Is it anything like that on your side of the country?
They had several horses at this outfit, and certain ones got "preferential treatment." The owner's show horses were fed oats and corn, four scoops per day, then kept cooped up in a stall all day with maybe an hour left out in the 15M round pen. The string horses got a scoop of feed per day (and only that much because one of the cowboys and I overfed), spent most of the day on trail, then were turned out with a flake of hay each (again, we sometimes overfed) for the night in a pasture with very little grass, most of which was eaten by the deer. Still, it wasn't too bad for most of the horses there.
There was one mare, Silver, who was a real bright lady. She'd learned that if she acted lame after 2 hours work, she could get off. Since she was a breeder, the owner was careful with her, and it worked. Like I said, a smart lady. She was faking it, but after seeing what the others were subjected to, I didn't betray her secret. I'm still amused that nobody else figured it out though - she shifted the leg she was lame depending on when she remembered! She never went "lame" under me, either.
There was another colt there however, who's the heartbreak story. His name was Bender, and he was one of three half-thoroughbred horses there. His father was crazy (according to them - he apparently "killed himself"), and his mother was... well, she didn't take no guff from anyone, but she didn't act out either. I didn't meet Bender until he was 4, so all I've got to go on are stories, but nobody could really handle him except this one cowboy who did the breaking, and to say he was harsh doesn't begin to tell the story. The man took a hammer to the horse when I was on his back - but I'm getting ahead of myself.
This colt wasn't ridden by many people, and only in controlled situations. However, one day this cowboy left the stable, so nobody was riding Bender. By this time the barn folks had figured out that the city slicker college kid (me) was going to stick it out, so I managed to arrange things so I wound up on Bender's back one day. By this point, he and I had made friends with one another on the ground, so all went well. When I got back I got to hear the stories about how his favorite trick was to rear up and fall on top of people - I'd gotten out in such a rush I didn't get the (literal) chain they used to tie his head down.
It's amazing how much more a horse will give you when he knows you're listening. If he knows you're paying attention to his signals that "there's something out there" he's so much less likely to turn it into a battle, only because he sees the snake you don't.
By the time the summer was over, I'd hop up on that horse in the pasture, neither one of us wearing anything appropriate (he didn't even have a halter on), and just play.
Well I won't go into details, but the mistreatment at that stable got so bad finally that I just left. I couldn't take it any more. I don't know what else I could have done, but at the time... I dunno. I went back to visit later, and Bender was out in the pasture. I guess he must have smelled me, because as I was going to leave he came charging out of the forest, running back and forth along the barbed wire fence screaming for me. I had to listen to him scream until I couldn't hear him any more due to distance.
I understood later that they decided that since I could ride the horse he was safe for the string. They sent him out with a renter on. He deposited the renter head-first on a rock and ran back. I know they'd been thinking they might have to put him down; to this day I don't know what happened to him. I'm afraid to find out for sure. Either he was broken, or he's dead.
So I too have the same question you had at the end of that story. Did I do right, showing Bender that a person can be a friend, or did I scar him with that knowledge?
I guess we'll never know.
I've got one other story I wanted to share. I'm a firm believer that if you've got a good relationship with a horse, then a little acting out on the horse's part can be a good thing sometimes. I believe that horses try to tell you when something's wrong - first "Hey boss, something's up" when the ears and eyes focus together on something on the path. "Boss, there's a problem" when the nostrils start flaring. "Gotta do something here Boss" comes when the horse starts snorting. Then if you're still not paying attention, you have "Well Boss, you're not paying attention so I'm going to save us" when the horse shies away from the snake on the ground. Personally, I try to listen for the first or second warning, and if it gets to the fourth and I find out what's going on, I never punish. This doesn't always sit well with my trainers.
Flame (one of the TB rescues) and I rode every day, jumping courses or doing Dressage when working, just running or hanging out in the pasture when playing. One day my trainer was at the barn, and she wanted us to jump one particular fence. Flame refused. I knew that horse, and we knew that fence. I knew he didn't refuse, so I told my trainer there was something wrong with the fence. She didn't listen, told me to whip that horse or get out of her barn. So I did what she told me to do. Flame went to the fence, stuck his feet right through the roll-top and went down on his knees. I thank every god that's listening that I had boots on that horse, or he could have torn himself up pretty badly. However - the kitten that had been sleeping in the sun in the landing zone woke up and ran off. Flame risked his own legs to save that kitten's life.
Why don't most people listen?
Thanks for your message. There's some of us out here who are listening.