The Best Tools

There’s an expression currently making its rounds in the horse world. “It’s another tool for my toolbox.”

Having answers to our horse’s questions is a good thing. To be with horses safely and with pleasure, there are things we must know about them. They are prey animals, and running will always be their first instinct; they are faster and more sensory oriented than we’ll ever be; they have lives and priorities that have nothing to do with us.

I would also add that knowing something isn’t the same as understanding something. Knowing is what I used to do before a math test when I was in college; cram in information so I could pass the test. As soon as the test was done, the numbers evaporated out of my head.

Understanding is what happened when I was in my third year of learning German. There was a point that I wasn’t translating from English to German and back again. German had its own way of being expressed that had nothing to do with English.

Understanding is also what has been growing over the last thirty years of working with horses and people. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1990s, when I was thinking about being a horse trainer, I became fascinated with a method that was heavy on round pen work. Looking back at that time in my life, my horse education before seeing this method had been a lot of kicking, pulling, and making horses do things. There were good things I learned too, but being with horses was a contest and I was supposed to win. Although I loved horses, I also was taught the right way to use the many tools it took to train a horse.

So when this cowboy demonstrated his techniques in a round pen that caused changes in horses without using any tools, or even being connected by a longe line, I was instantly intrigued. I also realized that what I knew about horses was not much.

Over the next five years, I went to his clinics, bought all his DVD’s, learned to throw a rope, read books on the method and began working with horses who my friends were having some issue with.

Nine out of ten horses responded the way the DVD’s and books said they would; they learned to read my body and adjust their speed and direction. They would learn to turn and face in and we could calmly learn how to work together without a halter or lead rope.

But there was always that one horse. Every so often, no matter how much I followed the formula, the horse wasn’t improving. He wasn’t feeling better, and in some ways, he was getting worse. To be fair, this may have been caused by my lack of skill as much as my execution of the method. I know for sure that my focus on the method instead of the horse was a more significant issue.

Even though I had more tools in my horse training toolkit, I was missing the horse. I was wandering in a forest and missing the delight of each tree. I had so many new tools and relied on them so much that all I could see was the tools and completely missed who the horse was.

It took me several years of this pattern, and multiple times of admitting to several owners that I didn’t know what to do anymore, that I started the search again. What was I missing?

I found another cowboy clinician. There wasn’t a lot of dust being raised as I watched the first day of the clinic. He worked with one rider and one horse at a time. He was a kind teacher. I didn’t hear, “If you do A and B, you will get C.” I heard him making observations about one horse that didn’t apply to the next horse. I heard him asking each rider what they wanted to do with their horse, instead of going through a pre-planned lesson. I saw every horse leave calmer than when they stepped into the arena, yet in every case, the horse hadn’t moved out of a walk.

When it was my turn to ride, he watched as my Missouri Foxtrotter Jack and I gaited a few laps around the arena. He then mentioned that perhaps we could get my horse to soften a little bit.

Well, here is something I knew! I’d had years of Dressage training, and I could make a horse put their head down and collect with the best of them!

Before I could begin to shorten my reins, brace my shoulders, and leverage the reins with a big bicep popping effort, I heard “We are going to ask your horse to soften. Right now he’s light, but not soft.”

That stopped the chorus of “make your horse collect” voices and stunned them into silence. I thought if I pulled on the reins and released when my horse’s head went down that he was soft. Light and collected.

The rest of that session, and that clinic, I watched and asked questions about what the difference was between lightness and softness. In the world I had come from, the two were synonymous. What this cowboy was saying was that they weren’t.

During that four day clinic, I started seeing how individual Jack was and felt inspired about what I could learn from him. Working with Jack became an exploration instead of a contest. I could see how my handling of the reins caused him to defend himself, both by raising his nose and speeding up his feet. I saw the beauty of a tree that was my horse and how everything I knew was just a little, tiny forest.

We can learn something using techniques and methods, and most of the time, our horses will respond. We can also see horses for who they are. We can understand down to our guts that safety is their number one priority and do our best not to put them in a position to defend themselves.

Understanding horses, and our own horse, gives us an opportunity to experience life from a different species’ point of view. How exciting is that?! It means that we recognize how different horses are from us, and yet also how they are the same. It means not taking anyone’s word for something, but exploring it with our horse. It means-and this is where I get excited all over again-a lifetime of learning.

Tools are handy. But so is understanding. Grabbing a tool for the sake of filling your toolbox isn’t going to go quite as far as understanding (as much as any human can) what it is to be a horse.

We can forget the sticks and special halters, the crops, ropes, and martingales. With practice, mistakes, education and guidance from our horse, we have the best tools already with us: the human mind and body.

32 Comments on “The Best Tools

  1. Thank you. I am an old newbie; apparently ubiquitous is what I’m finding; grew up around horses but never had my own, raised my family and now, at 60 my dream has come true and I have a horse. And now a grandkid pony. 🙂 It seems now almost as if the groundwork is the goal. When I was young, groundwork was just to prepare for the goal; riding or driving. I have had some teachings I don’t care for regarding groundwork. I find your and Mark’s books and writings to be a calm, kind port in a storm of methods and equipment. Thanks for remembering the horse in all the horse training!

  2. Lovely, as always. Thank-you for hearing the horse, and for helping us to listen as well.

  3. Yes, we so agree🌺
    and well said. I love reading your posts, thank you. 🐎🐎🐎off to the barn😘

  4. Brilliant Crissi. Thank you for being so honest in telling us about your journey to softness. Angela Smith

  5. Very enlightening. It is so much more than only working with horses. It can be applied to so many other areas of our lives. Thank you for this. ❤

  6. Crissi your experience mirrors mine. I checked out several cowboy clinicians. All taught some version of the same thing. As you noted, the horse was missing from the equation. Then I heard about that other guy who did things differently. Went to a couple of clinics to audit and was blown away. That was 20 years ago. You married him and I became a lifelong student. We are both very fortunate people.

  7. Fabulous! I just reread all pf them! Simply awesome~ Thank you thank you my Horsey friend!

    We are blessed, Tina xo

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  8. Thank you Crissi – such beautiful words 💕 As a late adopter (with perfectionist tendencies) I followed methods religiously. Once I started listening to my horse he taught me to just be me which in turn is helping me to find who that really is 💕

    • I think methods can be helpful in the beginning. It gives us a roadmap to begin to get to know horses. But, as it sounds like you found out, a method isn’t everything. Thank you, Andrea!

  9. As always, Crissi, you remind us what the real essence of horsemanship is. Thank you so much for learning, writing, and sharing you with us!

  10. As always, a thoughtful and well-written post. I have had similar experiences to yours in terms of early riding/horsemanship. It was phrased differently (be the leader, be the boss) but it was all about having the horse submit. I now have a horse that these approaches do not work. Looking back she came to me quite shut down and defensive. Our journey together has been one of learning, failing, trying again,, 3 steps forward, 2 back, 1 sideways and then back again. It’s been hard but i wouldn’t trade it for anything. She has taught me what she needs and we feel like partners now.

    I have heard another trainer (who taught me tons) say, ‘that’s your side, what’s the horse’s side of this story?’

    It’s easy to fall into a ‘formula’ and fit the horse to the program rather than the program to the horse. Of course this is also reinforced by many trainers out there.

    • Teresa, yes. To all of this. Your mare, and horses like her (I’ve had a few myself) are some of our greatest teachers. Good for you for listening to her side of the story.

  11. Thank you for your wonderful blog and book! You and Mark give me hope on my journey to softness at home as you both provide resources that I can refer to again and again. And as mentioned it has spilled over into my daily life making me a more patient, loving mom along with many other ways..

  12. An incredibly timely post. Tools in the toolbox is the common theme for sure and every fiber of my being screams STOP!!
    Stop trying to cram a bunch of someone elses tools into my head and at my horses. I recently let a couple people work with my horses because I felt I was missing something, I was, I was forgetting to listen to my horses. And watching them struggle under unneeded and unnecessary pressure and how they looked at me and ask why broke my heart? I finally woke up and realized we are on the right track I just need to pay more attention to my horses cues. The shifts need to be small and simple and all mine. I needed to go back to the basics I learned in your (you & Mark) clinic several years ago. The words ring in my ears every time and I’m back to listening to them. My horses are thanking me already.

    • This makes my heart sing (not the part about your horse’s struggling with being handled with too much pressure) that you and your horses are listening to one another. Yes.

  13. Hi Crissi, I couldn’t agree more. One of my recent rescues has demonstrated the need to read the horse, go slow, and put all “methods” aside.
    Thanks again for the wonderful and oh so relevant read of your book “Continuing the Ride”.
    Laurie

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