HORSE TRAINING OR COMMUNICATING?
By Leslie Hammel-Turk
I have worked for twenty-two years as a professional horse woman, initially as a trainer and riding instructor. I work very differently now and this article explains why I’ve changed my job description.
I began my career by attending the only school that was an accredited riding school in the US at that tie. By graduation we were theoretically ready to begin training horses and give instruction to riders. As time went by, I found horses that questioned the conventional methods that I had been taught, and I also began to question them. At the school we were taught that some horses would not go along with any training program, and that these difficult horses should be abandoned before to much training time was invested I them. This training philosophy was difficult for me because I knew what happened to horses that flunked out of the system. They lead very traumatic lives or are put down as renegades. I work with horses because I care deeply about them, and I realized that the horses rejecting the conventional training methods were consistently exceptional.
It was time for me to reconsider the whole concept of “training”. I asked myself the question, What am I training these horses to do? In the first week of their lives foals have the basis for every movement a rider would ever want. I wasn’t teaching horses to do advanced movements. They were teaching me. I watched them do movements far better without me. I had to learn from them how to be in the right place at the right time to facilitate the desired movement in ways they understood without finding me threatening or perceiving me as so insignificant that they ignored me. I came to realize that my job was to set up channels of communication with the horse so that I could make my idea of a maneuver their idea. When I did that the horse was happy because I was merely asking him to do what came naturally to him. When the movement felt good to me, I could tell that it also felt good to the horse.
By now training began to carry an arrogant connotation that somehow the trainer knew more about being a horse than the horse. I had become a student of the horse, and to become a successful student I had to learn all that I could about how horses communicate with each other. Their primary means of communication is body language. They are keen observers of subtle changes in body position as well as facial expression.
Horses that spend time together or become good buddies develop sophisticated ways of communicating with each other. Early in my training career I was working for a breeding farm. These was a mechanical hot walker, which was used to exercise and to cool down horses. Two brood mares, Kazzy and Brav, who were about a month from foaling, were on the walker to get some exercise. Kazzy and Brav were very close and spent all their time together. It was possible for a horse to stop the walker by bracing all four feet and pulling against the rope, but I had never seen either of these horses do that. As a rode around the arena I noticed that Kazzy had stopped the walker, so I yelled at her to get moving, which she did. On my next pass I saw she had stopped the walker again, and I repeated my admonition. On my third pass I saw she was stopped again, but this time I saw the reason. Brav was lying down on the end of her rope. I hurried to turn off the walker and discovered that Brave was experiencing severe colic.
Kazzy clearly knew that her friend needed help. She also communicated to me that something was wrong, but I was a bit slow getting it. Rave was saved from the colic and went on to foal normally.
Listening and observing are very important for improving the quality of one’s relationship with horses because channels of communication flow in both directions A the quality of the interchange improves, the horse’s performance also improves because the horse understands what is being requested and applies himself happily to the task.
In my years of living and breathing horses, have gone from being a horse trainer to being a horse trained to being a student of the horse. Along the way I have sought out human mentors who could help me interpret and solve problem when I got stuck. Some of that help has been wonderful and some was fare less satisfactory. Ultimately the horses always tell me what works and is good for them and what doesn’t work. My new job description is to serve as an interpreter between people and their horses and to act as a guide for their blossoming relationship.
Note: This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue.
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