Old School Training vs. Wanting a Different Direction



For those of us who learned how to ride horses at a riding school as a child, you probably remember the routine.  We were taught where to put our hands, where to put our feet, to keep our backs straight, eyes forward, heels down and all those other wonderful basics taught to beginning students.  However, some teachers are obviously better than others and I happened to have one that was an old school cowboy as my first teacher and, as with most, he had his good points and his bad points.

I lived in a very rural area of Southern Maryland where it took 30 minutes just to get to the grocery store.  This was during a time when neighbors raised a variety of crops and shared these with one another.  We canned our own fruits, built are own greenhouses and barns, and never locked our doors.  We would just holler as loud as we could and wave when we saw a neighbor in the distance.

The neighbors were a part of my extended family and we always helped each other out, even if it was just to walk over and borrow a cup of sugar.  We built our own well for water and when it snowed we would be snowed in until another neighbor could dig us out with their snowplow.  This was horse country too, where you could even ride your horse to school.

Horses, Horses, Horses:

I took my first riding lesson when I was 6 years old and I just couldn’t wait.  I was so excited!  Like most little girls, I had horses on the brain.  Being a small town, I think we only had one riding school.  I still remember jumping out of the family station wagon eager to run to the horses.  This is when I got my first whiff of that wonderful horse scent, which I still look forward to today.  I saw a big red barn and then the horses in the pasture beyond.  But before I could run down the hill towards them, this really tall older man with a scruffy face, big cowboy hat, western boots with spurs and dusty jeans came out to greet us with a cigarette in his mouth and a dog at his side.  This was Buzz, the man who would become my new best friend and teacher. But this was only because he had all these wonderful horses.

Even a few lessons down the road I was still a small, bright eyed, innocent, young girl excited beyond compare and I couldn’t get enough time with the horses.  I loved every second that I could be with the horses and absorbed every single word Buzz offered me.  One day I went to my riding class excited and curious about what my new lesson would be. Buzz told me that we were going to learn how to fall off a horse.  However, I couldn’t understand why I needed to learn how to fall off.  It’s funny how children think sometimes…I never intended on falling off nor could I imagine ever falling off.  It was a long way down from the top of my horse and I just wanted to learn how to ride, not how to fall off.   So, I refused to fall off, or jump off, when Buzz asked me to.  I was a spirited little girl!

Buzz on the other hand was not going to let a 6-year-old little girl disobey him.  So the first thing he did was put me and my Welsh pony, Farnley, in front of a 6 foot solid wall of cinder blocks. He then walked behind us and whipped the pony as hard as he could.  This sent Farnley, and me, up and over this cinder block jump from a stand still.  We “popped” it, as they say.  We both made it up and over safely and landed still together, albeit both shocked.

Ok, maybe it was a 4-foot wall, but it seemed like a 6-foot wall to me. It was tall enough that neither Farnley nor I could see over the top of it.  In any case, Buzz came around the other side and to his surprise said, “Oh, you’re still on?”  That told me that it was now a game (remember I was just a 6 year old little girl). I needed to be more alert and stay on Farnley’s back because Buzz was trying to get me to fall off.  It became me and Farnley against Buzz. Game on!

The Big Beautiful Black Stallion:

Lesson after lesson, Buzz kept trying to get me to fall off, but Farnley and I kept winning this game.  I think Farnley actually understood it was us against him and we were a team.

Then one day Buzz upped the odds in our little game. He asked me if I wanted to ride his beautiful black stallion that he kept in the barn.  Now, I loved all the horses and thought they were just sweet, lovable creatures that loved me as much as I loved them. So, of course I jumped for joy and said “yes, yes, yes!”  I had no idea what “stallion” meant.  I did wonder why it took Buzz so long to put on the saddle and bridle and why the horse was so hyper and seemed mad at him when he brought him out to me. Hmmm?

Well, I jumped on this big beautiful black stallion, so excited, and before I even got my feet in the stirrups the horse was off and running.  Wheeeee! We were in the field at a full gallop and racing into the woods at top speed.  Wow, was this great!  …Says the horse crazed little girl.

Soon I realized that this horse didn’t really want me on his back.  I never thought that he was a bad horse or that he was a problem, just that he didn’t want to go riding with me.  He was trying to knock me off with low lying branches, rub me off on the trees, kick, buck, shake, rear and everything else he could possibly think of to get rid of me.  Luckily I wasn’t afraid and actually enjoyed the challenge.

Being a small child did have its advantages in this case.  I just curled up into the saddle, pulled my legs up behind me and gave him the reigns.  I tucked my head as close to him as possible so he couldn’t knock me off without getting himself first. I figured he wouldn’t want to hurt himself and I would be safe as long as I was smaller than him.  Luckily I was right.  I was still having a lot of fun holding on though and flying through the fields!

We went about this for quite some time.  But, sooner or later, he got tired and I was still on.  I had no idea where we were as we had left the farm a long time ago and were now somewhere in the country.  Oh yea, we had jumped quite a few fences too.  Even though I was only six, I figured my horse knew where home was and that he would go home in order to get fed.  So I let him go wherever he wanted and enjoyed the scenery and the ride. Of course, he eventually wanted to go home to the barn and we ended up back home with no other issues.  We had a great time together too.  I think he respected me for staying on and I just loved every minute of it. We walked, trotted, cantered, jumped some more fences and just had a ball together.  It was so much fun!

You should have seen Buzz’s face when I rode the stallion back to the barn, got off, took off his tack and started washing him down.  He never asked if I was ok, but did ask if I had fallen off and I said no with a big innocent smile on my face.  I’m not sure whether Buzz was happy or sad.  I think he was happy because he said I could “break” his other stallion tomorrow and I was thrilled!  Yippee, another fun ride.

A Mother’s Love:

I was so happy about the ride that when my mother came to pick me up I told her the whole story all the way home, over and over.  She didn’t seem quite as thrilled about it as I was though.  I rarely saw my mother angry, but boy did she let Buzz have a piece of her mind the next day. Oops.

I never did get to ride the other stallion.  Looking back, I realize that the black stallion could have killed me, but in my innocence it was just fun and exciting.  However, Buzz gave up trying to get me to fall off, I think, and we continued with our training.  My mother stayed close by for the remainder of my lessons.  Buzz started telling me that I had a “seat of glue”, so he entered me in all the jumping competitions. I had a blast!

And yes, I had my first fall many, many years later; and it was one of those that happens in slow motion – where you lose your balance, hold onto the horse’s neck and slowly slide off while you’re trying to figure out how you could possibly pull yourself back up.  I couldn’t stop laughing and I thought that falling off wasn’t as bad as I had believed it would be and had fought so hard not to do when I was six. Obviously, looking back I realize that Buzz’s training methods were not always the wisest and safest, although I appreciated everything he taught me (intentionally or not).

Growing up my whole life with horses, I was sure that there was a better way to train horses other than “breaking” them.  Buzz had taught us that we had to “take charge” and “force the horse” to do what we wanted. I never really liked that way and was always looking for a way to have a partnership and a friendship with my horses. Many years later, now older and presumably wiser, I was lucky enough to find a few trainers that shared my view.  They didn’t “break” horses, they “gentled” them or “talked” to them.  Plus I enjoyed reading everything I could find on horses to help me learn.

So many years later I have come to a much better understanding of herd behavior, body language (mine and my horses), and a better way to communicate with my horse. We have an amazing partnership and friendship now. I think we both enjoy having a two-way conversation with each other now, instead of me telling him what he has to do.

I realize now that the reason I was able to connect with the black stallion when I was 6, and why we had so much fun together, was because I had given him the freedom of choice and I just had fun with him.  I gave him a voice and I listened to him.  I didn’t try to stop him, fight with him, hurt him or yell at him.  I didn’t treat him as a mean, bad, or problem horse. He was just who he was and that was it.

The horse learned to trust me because I gave him his freedom to do and go wherever he wanted while I was on his back and we shared in the joy of our surroundings and each other.  It was a beautiful moment in time that I cherish.

My energy was high and I was extremely happy.  The stallion had to feel my joy and excitement and he joined in with his enthusiasm.  After a while he trusted me and it all happened very naturally and easily. We just understood each other.

That “naturalness” is what I love about being with horses now.  I’ve observed and learned these natural ways with horses as a child and into my adult life and have been able to turn these natural ways of communication into a program that I teach others.

I am grateful for all of my teachers who have helped me experience different aspects with horses and all the scientists that have done research in equine ethology for me to read up on. I’ve always had a wonderful relationship all my horses.  I honestly sometimes I didn’t think the connection with my horses could get any better.  However, to my delight and joy it has become even more magical year after year.  I’m still a little kid inside that just can’t get enough of horses.

Please Share

  • I have an 18 year old untrained donkey that I have owned for 1-1/2 years. I am starting to work with him. He will lead now. do the same principles apply to donkeys?

  • Margaret Libbra says:

    I love the part of he felt my joy & excitement and your communication with him happen naturally because of the connection. I’m starting to get that with my mares. Usually, I’m in a hurry & have so much to do when I go out to the barn to do anything with them, my mind is on “I have to get this done” now after starting this program, my mind set is to slow down, relax & really enjoy this time with my horses. And I can tell a difference with them because they feel it also!

    • I’m so glad to hear that Margaret and so proud of you both for taking the time to really get to know each other. Congrats.

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