Jim Wofford: If Only …

Some of our learning inevitably takes place at our horses’ expense, but we can minimize the cost.
In 1853, Robert Smith Surtees wrote in his book, Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour, “There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse.” For centuries, mankind has maintained a mystical connection with horses. These bonds seem even stronger today because so many people live in urban environments. Our ability to maintain a relationship with horses satisfies our need to remain part of the natural world. But along with this beneficial connection comes our responsibility to humanely and correctly train and care for these marvelous creatures. | © Dusty Perin

Earlier this fall, someone complimented me at a clinic about my knowledge of horses. It came as a surprise and I just stammered my thanks and went on with my day. Driving back to the airport later, I laughed because my experience had reminded me of Abraham Lincoln’s response to a compliment: “Not being used to it, it came to me all the sweeter.”

For a moment, I savored the nice comment the young lady had made, which was about my depth of knowledge of horses, but then my thoughts turned to the reasons for her remarks. Having time on my hands during the long, dark, cold drive, I thought back to the particular incident that had elicited her praise. It suddenly occurred to me that the reason I had an answer for the problem she had been dealing with was because I had once been in the same situation and had made the same mistake. It was a revelation to me when my instructor had me push my inside leg into my outside hand to make my horse enlarge the circle. After my coach talked me through the problem, I was able to perform the exercise correctly.

Riding on a circle and then using my inside leg to cause my horse to leg-yield away from the center of the circle and into my outside rein is second nature to me now, but it felt like black magic at the time. I remember being relieved and impressed that someone could make a difference in my riding so quickly. I have taught thousands of riders that exercise since then with a pretty good success rate. No doubt some of those other students also thought I must know a great deal about horses—but now it struck me that I had learned by first doing it wrong. Even worse, I realized that while I was learning, my horse was patiently suffering through my mistakes.

Learning by Doing: Not Always Best

This was not such a comfortable thought because I have always dedicated myself to the correct care and training of horses. The thought that I had been causing my horses discomfort made me feel sad and guilty. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt. (Remember, it was dark and cold outside.) I could think of little I had ever learned that I had not learned by doing it wrong before I did it right—not just in the saddle but in my overall horsemanship as well. From overfeeding, to saddles that did not fit, to lameness due to incorrect shoeing, there were few mistakes I had not made. I made all the errors with the best of intentions, and I tried to learn from them and not to repeat them … but my horses paid the price for my ignorance. This is a painful insight for someone who loves horses as I do.

There is no getting around the fact that we learn how to care for our horses and how to ride them by a heuristic (trial-and-error) process. Some of our errors are slight and harmless while others are severely detrimental—yet all are made with good intentions. However, good intentions are not enough when it comes to dealing with a living creature who has been placed into our custody.

These recent thoughts have emphasized to me once again the importance of learning. It is much better for your horse if you can learn from others’ mistakes. The more we learn ahead of time, the more likely we are to have the correct answer when a new situation arises instead of needing to discover it the hard way. One of the many things I have learned from associating with great horsemen is how open-minded they are to new techniques and information. They never seem to learn enough about horses, and they are always interested in new writings and videos or new scientific research that will contribute to their horses’ well being.

This is the time of year for Christmas wishes and New Year’s resolutions, so I have made a list of some of the things that I learned the hard way, and that I could have done better and sooner.

A Horseman’s Wish List

If only someone had told me that my horse did not wake up every morning thinking about how to make me look incompetent in a lesson.There are several reasons that horses behave in a way that you and I might call “resistant,” but sheer bloody-mindedness is seldom one of them. I have learned to make sure my horse understands what I am asking him to do. If I have not prepared him mentally, his physical response will not be correct. If I have not prepared my horse physically, he will not be able to execute the task I have in mind. Just because I want to do something with my horse, that does not mean he is ready for the job. By this, I mean that if I have not done the necessary conditioning, my horse cannot hold himself in self-carriage, jump a succession of obstacles without a knockdown or complete a long cross-country course without time faults. He has to be conditioned and educated in order to perform well. This is a long-term and meticulous process, but I have come to enjoy it as much as or more than the actual competition. Watching my horses happily perform, obviously free from the paralyzing effect of resistance, is a sight to gladden the heart of any horseman.

• Speaking of the paralyzing effect of resistance, if only I had known at the outset that another reason that horses may be reluctant to perform correctly for us is that they are in pain and protecting themselves by holding their body in a fixed and rigid position. At first I trained as if my horses were resistant on purpose, meeting resistance with confrontation. I have now learned to make sure my horse is completely comfortable before I attempt to improve his level of training. It is important to note that a horse can trot out level, yet be in pain somewhere. It is up to us to get a diagnosis, and develop a rehabilitation therapy that will return him to complete health.)

If only I had known that I would always get in trouble by trying to short-circuit the process or skip parts. I have always been fascinated by the educational process involved with teaching a horse to be a clever, confident, competitive animal. But by now I have learned the hard way that it takes as long as it takes for my horse to understand the exercise I am practicing with him. Legendary California trainer Jimmy Williams, the legendary trainer from California, once remarked to me, “Jim, it’s funny. People always have time to do it over.” By this, he meant that it takes more time and expense to do something wrong with your horse and then spend the time to retrain him correctly. It is faster, easier and cheaper to do it right the first time.

In addition, I first make sure my horse understands the ABCs of whatever I am trying to teach him before attempting complete sentences, for instance more complicated jumping exercises or dressage movements. Especially in the winter, I never forget to return to the basics with my horses. Just because they know the XYZs of something doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from a return to their ABCs. They gain confidence and enjoy practicing things they already know how to do correctly, and this low-level practice means that when we start to ask more complicated questions, they will already have the right answers.

This column may seem a bit dark, dwelling as it does on past errors. However, there are bright elements we should emphasize as we go forward to a new competitive season. The modern world offers a multiplicity of ways to learn about horses. When we read a book, watch a video or audit a clinic, we are availing ourselves of other riders’ mistakes. They may have gotten it wrong at one time, but then they corrected themselves. They can now do it right and have put it on display for you to learn. Knowledge such as this is priceless because it leads to comfort and improvement for our horses without the struggle of “doing it over.”

It is inevitable that you will make mistakes as you go through the difficult process of learning to ride and train horses. Make those mistakes honestly with a keen awareness there might be a better way and with a willingness to admit error and to learn new and better ways of interacting with your horses. The noblest creatures of all God’s creation, horses are also the most generous and forgiving of creatures. If you approach them with love and consideration, they will repay you a thousand-fold and enrich your life beyond measure.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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