Amongst horse people, one of the fastest ways to raise hackles or hostilities is to call someone a “surface worker.” It’s just one of those things that you don’t do in polite company. After all, one of the reasons people are drawn to horses is to enjoy a real and deep connection. To call them a “surface worker” is to accuse them of putting on a a circus act. Certainly, the relationship may look real and geniune; but it's not. It's not nothing but an act and fraud.
Given how the word is used and understood, I find it extremely ironic that so few people understand that “surface work” and it’s attendant ideas of conditioned response, sensitization, desensitization and instinct are actually very important to horse training. If you want to have any type of real relationship or meaningful communication, you need to do a lot of very tedious surface work to get there.
Anyone who has been deemed “good with horses” probably gets asked one particular question at some point: “What do you think that I should do to solve this problem that I and my horse are having?” While I know some who get annoyed or even frustrated by it, by far the majority of the experienced horse people seem to look forward to having their knowledge queried. After all, such a query is as an opportunity to share opinions and insights with an individual who actually wants the input. That doesn’t happen very often.
And more often than not, the more experienced hand is able to offer some insight that might have a positive impact on a horse-human partnership. When that happens, it is a tremendously good outcome. Other times, though, no amount of advice or insight will do anything for the human being or for the animal. There are a lot of reasons for this: the owner might be trying to manage a behavior beyond their ability, or the root causes might have an intractable physical or mental origin.
As a result, every experienced horse person (whether they be a trainer, riding instructor or long-time rider) should keep one particular line in their arsenal of tools. It shouldn’t be used often, but there are circumstances where it is not only warranted, but necessary.
It is possible to draw lessons on horsemanship from a tremendously diverse range of sources. For me, one of the most important has it’s roots in an unlikely place, a brief exchange between the Chesire Cat and Alice while she first toured Wonderland:
“Chesire Puss,” she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. “Come, it’s pleased so far” thought Alice, and she went on. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
When considering the important topics of how a horse’s body is balanced, or how to effectively communicate an idea; truer words have never been spoken. Think about it this way: for something to be labeled a journey, it must have a point or a a destination. To merely go about doing things isn’t any kind of travel, but only so much wandering (to put it kindly) or a sure indication that the traveler is lost (to put it accurately).
At some point in your travels, you need to have a destination and realize that it matters. If you want to travel to London, you are unlikely to do so via route of Buenos Aires. And if you want to turn a horse in a circle, you are unlikely to accomplish that goal by merely pulling on the head. Eventually, you must move the feet.
Various individuals wiser than myself have said it like this:
If you get control of the feet and the legs, the rest comes easy … Set it up so that he gets relief from moving his feet. horses can figure out so many things if you arrange it and have a little patience.
To restate this nugget of wisdom in the language of cause and effect, the ultimate effect (or destination) is how a horse moves its feet. Thus, to get a horse to accomplish a particular goal or to communicate an idea, it’s very important to make sure that you are effectively pushing your ideas to the end destination.
Let’s say that we are teaching a horse to lead, or asking for the hindquarters to move in response to a sideways tug on the rope. The desired outcome, whether it be lateral disengagement or forward motion, culminates in a single important end-point: movement in the desired direction. But there are a huge number of things which need to happen prior. First, the horse will likely relax and soften, looking in the desired direction. Next, the muscles along the horse’s back and rump will contract, causing it to rise. Then, the horse will begin to shift into the direction of travel. Finally, the desired foot moves and the horse is propelled through space. Each of the intermediary stages involve a different amount of energy and commitment. To reposition the head, or to shift the body, requires substantially less energy than to move the feet. But only the movement of the feet actually facilitate the end goal rather than serving as a intermediary point.
To really get an effective response from the horse, you need start with the end in mind. Thus, when asking for disengagement, you are asking for the feet to move, not for the head or the back. And while a good rider appreciates that there are many intermediate points to any behavior, and that providing a well timed release at any of them (often called rewarding the slightest try), will condition the horse to actively seek out the next step in the chain, you are still asking for the feet to move and not for the head to bend. Becoming obsessed about some intermediate step in the middle can lead to confusion and frustration.
All too often, I hear people complain that their horse is “stuck,” or “stiff,” or “being resistant.” Though the language describing the problem might be different, the behavior looks shockingly similar. First, the horse is physically stiff and may be actively pulling or pushing against the aid. Next, rather than having fluid and graceful motions, they are short and heavy – as though the horse were moving through molasses. Last, the there may be behavior typically associated with resistance –perhaps there is a kink in the tail, or the head is elevated, or the mouth locked.
All too often, the cause of these “problems” is the same: the rider isn’t communicating the message to the feet. Consider, what would happen, for a minute, if you attempted to disengage the horse’s hindquarters simply by dragging on the lead rope. Through sheer physical leverage, it is rather easy to forcibly position the horse’s head to the inside; but nearly everything else would be out of balance.
The majority of the body weight would be shifted outward, a position that makes it tremendously difficult for her to follow the feel of the rope. So when the horse does eventually move, rather than being a soft and willing response, it is far more likely that the horse will brace and pull away. Should this happen, the “resistance” has nothing to do with the horse’s frame of mind or intentions, and everything to do with position and motion.
Now, think about how the same goal (disengagement of the hind end) might be accomplished in the round pen with the horse at liberty. First, you teach the horse about motion: how to move forward when pressure is placed behind; how to slow, or change direction when pressure is placed in front; and how to hook on when the handler changes stance from assertive to inviting. Without the physical connection of the lead-rope you are forced to focus on the desired end-product, where the horse is moving; and to accomplish anything, you must effectively pushing the feet. When the motion does come, the head is automatically in the correct position. When you invite the horse to hook-on, the head follows the direction of motion. It just happens. With no resistance. And nothing should change when the leap rope is snapped back on. In many ways, the lead rope only exists to refine the already clear communication.
When the process happens in reverse, failure to think about destinations can make for some spectacular messes. We’ve all seen horses who are heavy on the forehand or behind the bit because head position (“collection”) was desired at the exclusion of movement. We’ve also seen horses that step behind while doing a turnabout for the same reason. In each case, it’s not about what the horse’s head is doing, but what the horse’s body is doing. As noted above, physical manipulation of the head does not result in mastery of motion. In fact, some of the worst disasters I’ve ever seen (as a riding instructor, clinician, or emergency response technician) occurred when an unfortunate rider made just this assumption.
So, rather than aim for having the head “in the right position,” instead focus on effectively rounding the horse’s back and getting the hind-end to engage. In this case, the use of seat and legs will have a far more potent influence on the position of the head than hands alone could ever hope to achieve. It’s the head that balances the feet, not the other way round.
Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I am self-centered, arrogant and more than slightly conceited. In addition, I have exquisitely “discerning” tastes, pretenses to education, and sophistication. Put simply: I am a snob.
Unfortunately, being a snob is substantially easier when you have the income and social standing to support it. In what I consider to be one of the tragedies of existence, I have neither. In a genuflection to reality, therefore, I take the approach of owning a very small number of high quality things. Quality, not quantity.
While I try to apply this rule to most things, there is one area of my life where I make absolutely no compromises: horsemanship. My tack needs to look, feel and hang a certain way. Some of these preferences stem from the “need” to look a certain way, but many are practical. I hold strong opinions about how things should be done and get more than a bit fussy when life doesn't follow my lead.
Consider, for example, a specialized riding hackamore that I often use (seen modeled by my somewhat evil mare, Peekaboo). I like for it to be made from yacht cord, with a 25 foot lead rope and rawhide touches and tassels. (Style is just as important as substance in most everything.) While I might be willing to concede that my hackamore is a glorified halter, the various evolutions I’ve added are extremely important to me. I’ve ridden quite a few colts, and I’ve found that spending the first 30 to 60 days in a halter helps develop a foundation that will last for the rest of the horse’s life. The tugs, weighting and motions of the halter are first instilled on the ground and then transfer to work under saddle. You can use a halter with 8 foot rein and 25 foot lead right from the very beginning without having to change tools and this can make a big difference in the horse’s overall development.
There’s just one problem: I’ve never been able to find a 35 foot lead made of yacht cord and I’m simply not willing to go with nylon. (The yacht cord is important because I like its feel, weight, and durability.) Additionally, no one makes a halter with rawhide and tasseled accents. (What can I say, I’m a sucker for horse hair tassels.) Because no one sales the tack I want, I am left with only one alternative: I make it myself.
Hand made (by me) halters, headstalls, riata, and a large variety of other things made from rawhide (in addition to those made of string, leather and miscellaneous baling twine) all hang in my tack locker. Each one was (more or less) lovingly crafted with an eye to detail and quality. But even taking the route of the obsessive connoisseur doesn’t solve every problem.
Like … how can the materials for custom, hand-made tack cost more than the store-bought finished product?Don’t believe me? Consider my quest for the perfect lariat (a handbraided piece of rawhide wonder known as a riata) some 60 feet in length. I’ve been saving for rawhide so that I can braid it for a while now. Naturally, it will be my third riata since I just can’t seem to keep my hands on the others. The first one that I created was both spectacularly beautiful and according to a good braider friend of mine, utterly unusable. Thus, it hangs in my office as decoration. On the second round, I created a usable piece of kit (which quite unfortunately parted my company during a weekend roping clinic).
Thus, we are now on round three. From the first two attempts, I have given up trying to find usable rawhide in my local area. The local leather supplier largely pedals crap, and overcharges to boot. My first experiment in buying hide from California was an utter disaster. It was only after a great deal of searching and writing to every commercial braider in the Western US that I was finally pointed to a nice little website that sales quality stuff. The catch? It’s horrifically expensive and the supplier is often out of stock. Apparently, there is a reason why most serious raw-hide braiders both treat and cut their own string. Pity that I don’t really have the time, space, or overall desire to do so. Gives new perspective to, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” More depressing, you can find a perfectly passable riata on e-bay for between $150 and $200 dollars (a little less than it would cost me to braid my own).
This situation doesn’t only apply to raw-hide or leather. Oh no, getting hold of the rope of preference (double braided yacht-cord) is just as difficult. There are only three stores in my area which will sale it by the foot, and each one overprices it horribly (often 2.00 per foot or more). It’s even difficult to find it online for much less (about $1.60 per foot from u-braid it). Given my taste for longer leads, it is essentially impossible to get rope cut for less than fifty dollars. And yet, fifty dollars can buy a huge amount of crappy rope. Even worse, you can buy a Parelli hackamore for about $75. What. The. Hell?
It’s just not fair. Since when are raw materials more expensive than finished products?
I suppose that I could use inferior materials, but that would lead to an inferior product. And inferior products are simply intolerable. Truly, it is a curse to be gifted with superior taste.
There is a reason why the tuxedo hasn’t changed in more than a century. Put simply, there is no need for it to. Unlike other things, it doesn’t need to evolve or mold itself to the fashions of the current age. It’s just fine the way it is. It’s traditional.
And barn architecture should be traditional. They are practical buildings, and as a result should be made of relatively impractical things. That means natural materials. Most of the structure should be made of wood (preferably oak) or stone with big timbered logs being an even better choice. Steel and concrete can be acceptable, but edge out on the tacky side.
Thus, there is only one word to describe the structure being proposed by MVRDV and Mole Architects near Suffolk in the United Kingdom: travesty. (Though monstrosity comes remarkably close as well.) First, they are proposing an “open” architecture with beautiful bay windows and gobs of free-space. While barns can certainly be open, they should not include bay windows. Have you ever seen the type of slime a dedicated horse can produce? Second, it’s made out of modern materials: specially treated steel and composites … and it’s cantilevered. Words do not even begin to describe how wrong it is to cantilever a barn. (Even if it is really a vacation home that some hack decided to call a barn. I would never house animals, much less people in such a disgusting and clearly unsafe building.)
Traditional barns are so much better. Traditional barns have character.
Note: Earlier this afternoon, I came across a note on a horsemanship list that inspired a bit of writing. A very nice person was quoting a part of True Unity by Tom Dorrance. This gave me the opportunity to reminisce a little bit and think a few relatively deep thoughts. After I finished writing my response, I was quite taken with it (something doesn’t happen often) and I have, thus, decided to post most of it here.
Dear Margaret (name changed to protect the innocent),
While you may not know it, you just made my day. In the years since Tom and Bill Dorrance passed away, I haven't heard or seen much about either one of them. They have dropped from the casual conversation of most horse people that I associate with, their books don't come up with much frequency and I don't often hear their names. With their passing, Ray Hunt solidly stepped into the role of horsemanship’s grandfather and became the appeal of ultimate authority. About the same time, Tom's little blue book seemed to disappear. When trying to find a copy for a friend, I was alarmed to see that Amazon had it listed as out of print and "new" copies started from a heart stopping $115.
It seems that every introduction to horses or horsemanship must begin with some mystically beautiful scene: wild mustangs charging across the open plains, jaw-dropping feats of disciplined horsemanship, or breathtaking leaps during a majestic steeplechase. It is unfortunate that such beginnings often reek of propaganda and those who use them double as slick salesmen. Instead of the reality, such individuals choose to promote a beautiful mythology – which like any good mythology has elements of truth, but which have been distorted and manipulated.
Yes, it is true that horses are deeply beautiful creatures: majestic, graceful, intelligent, and wonderful; even spiritual. Nevertheless, they aren't mysterious or magical. Most who start out with horses often abandon the pursuit within a year, and even fewer remain after five years; and while I somewhat doubt some specific numbers I once heard cited (which claimed that the disenchanted were as high as 80%), I believe the trend. I also believe that an important reason why so many leave in frustration is that they never found the promised vision of sublime mystical perfection. The first time you mount a horse, the perfect moment immediately cracks and you are left with the grittiest parts of reality: horses are big, they have their own ideas, and those notions often don't match ours. Further, when you sit on their backs, you are utterly at their mercy. This, of course, is to say nothing of the mud, dust, shit and miscellaneous smells. That can be a lot of reality to absorb in a single session.
Nevertheless, even among those who passionately pursue horsemanship, there is often a tremendous degree of stagnation. In my late teens and early twenties, I spent some time as a traveling horse trainer. In three-day spurts, I would work with five or ten people at a time. We would talk about concerns or problems and together we would struggle for a solution. From this experience, several things became clear: many people struggle with a few simple issues, and nearly all of those issues arise from a relatively small number of fundamental behaviors. The particulars were always different – which was what made the job interesting – but those behaviors arose from gaps in foundational knowledge. What is regrettable is that the holes were so unnecessary. At some point, I decided to try and do something about this (which is how this screed began life). Since good beginnings predict successful conclusions, I thought I might share a few observations that I wish others had levered at me. These include a few rules, a few guidelines, and more than a few relatively good suggestions.
It’s a beautiful day outside. We've been very lucky to have five or six such beautiful days in a row. They are the type of beautiful day that generally encourages irresponsibility and miscellaneous recklessness. The practical and otherwise successful have argued that being able to put off temptation, in this case enjoying such an amazing day, show the type of tenacity required for achievement. They’re probably right, and while I might make claims on practicality; I harbor no delusions of success. As a result, yesterday I decided to lay aside work and do things other things.
For the past several months, I have intended to write a series of small posts about basic and not so basic horsemanship. Part of this desire stems from an utter dearth of information on important things: rawhide braiding and the making of a saddle horse, amongst others. While I have the posts more or less drafted, I’ve felt that they lack a certain degree of clarity. Horsemanship is a visual and physical activity and cannot be learned from reading, no matter how clear the words. My little articles require pictures and illustrations. A beautiful day gave me the perfect opportunity to go and take those pictures. There was only one problem, I lost the telephoto lens to my camera several months ago.
We all have our Ray Hunt memories and stories. Mine all go something like this, “I once rode with Ray Hunt, and it changed my life.”
Yours might be similar. In fact, many Ray Hunt stories start in much the same way and conclude in similar manner. They typically involve a “problem,” an old man who watches and listens, a bit of conversation, and a “solution.” They might happen one-on-one or amongst a crowd of hundreds. But despite their similarities, every recollection is important and tremendously personal.
Why? What makes a seriously gruff and short-spoken cowboy so special? After all, he didn’t carry formal education or degrees. He didn’t possess a pristine competition record and on a bad day, his criticism could feel downright abusive. Yet nearly every trainer, rider, con man and huckster I’ve ever met will go out of their way to talk about their “Ray Hunt moment.”
The man himself was bold, brilliant, controversial and occasionally brutal in his honesty or criticism; as he liked to say, “I’m here for the horse.” Everything else was secondary. Sure, helping improve communication and understanding paid a rich dividend, but Ray wanted no misunderstanding: he was the horse’s representative and advocate. And for an individual who sought description or honor like oil seeks water, it was one of the few titles he ever claimed.
What made Ray important were his ideas and vision. A vision composed of thousands of tools, notions or thoughts; and each one was a detail that could significantly impact a horse and human relationship. Thus, every Ray Hunt story includes wisdom, cryptic mutterings, and smashed bits of where Zen simplicity met Western practicality at high speed:
“Fix it up and let [the horse] learn it.”
“Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy.”
“When a horse is right on his feet, he’s right in his head.”
“Control the life in the body, so then the mind gets it. When the mind understands, then the feet [will] understand.”
Ray spoke a language that was utterly his own, and it could be irritatingly difficult to parse. After all, what does life mean (beyond the obvious)? If the head gets it, then of course the feet are going to get it. The head controls the feet. The language was philosophical, poetic and far too practical. That is, until deciphered, after which it was simply perfect.
Going to see Ray wasn’t purely an educational experience, but also a social and sometimes spiritual one. Everywhere he went, he attracted the curious, the devout and the desperate in the hope that he could help them solve their “problems.” For those who came in the right frame of mind, the results could be utterly transformational. As the man sat on his horse to speak, mutter and criticize; a new world might open for those present. A point of view where the horse is treasured teacher, mentor and friend. And while it might have been a profoundly personal, it was also something to both see and share.
Today, as we mark Ray’s passing, I find that I already miss the future pilgrimages which will never be. But even though Ray Hunt has left the stage; he is hardly gone. Forty years of travel, teaching and muttering have ensured that the his ideas and legend will never die. The advocate did his job and shared the horse’s message. So while the new “Ray Hunt” moments might not involve old men and fences, that’s okay. There will still be new Ray Hunt moments.
I love the winter and I love the spring. What I do not love, however, is the period between the two. It is more than somewhat ironic that we are having a spate of warmer than normal temperatures out here in Rocky Mountain Country and the east is locked in a bitter cold spell. When it's cold, I can do things I enjoy. I like skiing and cold means good snow. I like horseback riding and there are few things more exhilarating than riding through a field of light dusty powder. When you get periods of warm mixed with cold (like our weather of late), however, you get two things I loathe and despise: mud and ice.
Ice ruins everything; it's slippery and dangerous and even worse, it melts! Do you know what melting ice and the questionable mixture of dirt, straw, sawdust and other "stuff" found at most barns forms? If the simple answer, mud, springs to mind; please re-think it. Mud doesn't come close to the reality. Mud brings to mind mud-pies and the days of childhood. Oh no, ice + barn dirt forms a vile sludge. Comparing normal mud to barn sludge is like comparing play-doh to the Blob.
Barn sludge is mud with the character still on. If life crawled out of a big steaming pot of goo, it's that type of mud. It has sawdust, masticated and gastriculated grass, and whatever else comes out of the business end of the horse. Barn sludge is the raw building environment of cellular natural selection. When dry, this mud can be used for buildings and braining people you don't care for. Then, there's the color. Given some of its unmentionable contents, it's a just off green and sometimes steams.
Oh ... and did I mention that because it gets cold that it also freezes? A truly perfect combination: ice frozen shit in the morning and mud in the afternoon. Its neither safe nor pleasant to ride in. So, while a warm spell is sometimes pleasant; give me cold weather in January anytime.