Walk a mile in your horses horseshoes is what Troy Henry and Tom Dorrance tried to get me to understand!
Showing a horse who is boss was an easy concept for me to grasp as a young man. I loved horses and I loved the notion of being a good enough cowboy to make horses do what I wanted whether it was halter breaking a young horse, riding them for the first time , getting them to stop or turn quickly, rope a cow, or any other ranch duties. I found out quickly that if I stayed focused and worked really hard I could out-fumble most any horse, this is what I now call ” Young Man’s Disease.” You may have heard me use that term a lot lately and my intention is to help other young men realize that they don’t have to go through that process like I did.
It is true, to be really good with young horses one should be as confident as a lion tamer, as good a rider as a rodeo hand, as strategic as a CEO of a corporation, as mentally aware as a psychoanalyst, but one should lead with compassion, skills and TRUE HORSEMANSHIP KNOWLEDGE!
When I talk about “Young Man’s Disease” I am not pointing any fingers because I have been there, done that and bought the tee shirt, besides I don’t have to point any fingers, the whole world is there to see it and see the difference in many cases. Humans know what is right in their hearts when they take the time to feel it.
I grew up using words like ‘break’ and ‘train’. Everyone used them and nobody thought any different, note the word THOUGHT. I knew what I meant so what is in a word anyway? Then enters a real horseman named Troy Henry into my life and he pins me down one day after I had been giving a lesson to one of our students. He had heard me encouraging her get her horse moving more forward in the round corral, I kept on saying “make him do it , come on make him do it”. After the student left he came over to me all red in the face, I knew I was in big trouble but for what I didn’t know.
He really let me have it! He blew like a top! He said “If I ever hear you say that again you’re out of here!” At first I thought I must have used a swear word but that wasn’t it,… so I said please tell me what word I should never say again. He smiled and said “MAKE”, never say MAKE or LET. When I asked him what should I use he replied CAUSE and ALLOW, and while you are at it never say Break or Train again either, use the words START and DEVELOP as in START A RELATIONSHIP and DEVELOP A PARTNERSHIP this was the first big philosophical differentiation that I can remember about horsemanship. As you might well imagine this was a defining moment for me!
Maturity does not happen overnight and slowly but surely my approach started to change. One thing I know for sure, horses are like people in at least one way. They do not care how much you know until they know how much you CARE.
Shortly after Troy Henry passed away Tom Dorrance came into my life, he started to share the idea that colt starting, like horsemanship was truly an ART. Colt starting is not something you do to a young horse it is rather something you do with him and for him.
I had just moved from Clovis Ca. To Clements about 3 hours north. The sign in front of my property read ” Parelli Horse Ranch, the Foundation Station Specializing in The Lost Art of Starting Horses” This was in the early 80′s we were starting over 300 horses a year. These were the days that I got a lot of tutelage from both Tom Dorrance and Ronnie Willis on a regular basis and I would host a Ray Hunt Clinic at least once a year and ride in 2 or 3 on top of that.
This was a great opportunity to learn at an accelerated rate, I could not get enough information and experience to fill my appetite but I sure was trying!
Ronnie Willis helped me with my first colt starting clinic. We started 22 horses in 5 days and had all the owners riding them by the end. This was big fun so I started putting on clinics almost every week and had between 20 and 30 horses most every time. The challenge was not usually the horses but rather the people, mostly because they were not experienced enough with young horses. These were the days I really learned a lot about horsenalities and the different approaches that one might take. After every horse that I started I usually found myself pleased but not satisfied so this is where I learned ” Good Better Best, Never Let it Rest, Get Your Good Better and Your Better BEST!”
So how can one tell if someone is starting a colt or breaking one?
The frame work I use is, if the dam of the horse you are starting was watching the session and approved then maybe your doing OK. If you or the horse are sweating profusely and there is a lot of dust and commotion then maybe one is working harder and not smarter, this might give us some clues as to what we are observing.
Don’t let techniques like round penning fool you, in fact I think one of the most common mistakes most people do is start by sending the horse around the round corral to get respect instead of giving the horse a moment to decide if you are friend or foe. This often creates the horse’s perception that he must defend himself and then he uses up unnecessary energy through self preservation.
Another common mistake is to try and desensitize the horse by sacking him out and over exposing to too many different things to quickly like throwing the lead rope at him over and over again rather than build confidence by exposing the horse to different things or situations at a rate that their confidence and curiosity can handle. Keep this in mind – we all want our horses to be a blend of CALM, SMART, BRAVE and ATHLETIC and the way to get this result is by creating a provocative learning environment where we never loose a Horse’s Confidence, Curiosity and Sensitivity so that he continues to become more and more responsive. In other words starting creates PARTNERSHIPS and BREAKING is the first step to LEARNED HELPLESSNESS.
I had the privilege of sharing my approach to colt starting at ”The Road to the Horse” in Tennessee in February of 2011. I hope this blog will help you understand at an even deeper level what I was trying to share. The teachings of my mentors and the learning of me as a student. I hope came across clearly.
The most rewarding thing that happened for me at the ” Road to the Horse ” was not what happened in the arena or any compliment that any one gave me then or since but what happened the next morning.
As many of you know, after the first session I decided to buy the colt I was starting. In the second session I started calling him “Partner.” In the final session we had a great feeling together but it wasn’t until the next morning when I went to the corral where all the colts were being kept for the weekend, when I made eye contact with him in the corral he nickered and walked through 10 other horses and met me at the gate, wanted a scratch, stuck his head in the halter and followed me with extreme confidence. Then was the moment I knew all my teachers were watching and nodding with approval.
On the way home I discussed changing Partner’s name after a student suggested we should call him Troubadourbecause there was a song playing in the final session by George Strait called “Troubadour.” That’s how we gave him his name. He was bred at the 6666 Ranch in Guthrie TX. His Registered name is “Hey Whiskey” because his Sire’s name is “Paddy’s Irish Whiskey.”
One last note: When I refer to Colt Starting, I am referring to young horses not colts (as in un-castrated young male horses). One time I had a colt starting clinic with only young stallions and on the second day someone asked why I didn’t let students bring Fillies, so I just wanted to be clear.