When I was launching my career as a hot shot trainer, I kind of watched what other trainers were doing and tried to put my own spin on the deal. I wasn’t big into listening to anybody else but, as time went along, I learned to listen to the horses. Eventually, they showed me that there was a much better, much more horse-logical way to communicate to them what I wanted.
In the beginning, however, my understanding of how to work with a horse was that the first thing you had to convince a horse was that you were the biggest, baddest one in the barn. Then if you yelled loud or startled them with the right timing, they’d do whatever you wanted. Throwing a scare into a horse wasn’t a very sophisticated communication system but it seemed to work and a lot of people told me what a really super trainer I was because I could get horses to do the stuff I wanted. And I believed them.
If memory serves, the horse that started me thinking there might be a better way to train horses was a pretty bay Arab mare named Rafsu that I’ve written about before. She was foaled May 24, 1955, and I still can remember her registration number. I traded a guitar for her when she was 18 months old.
At this point in my horse career, I was really good at using startle and bullying horses into leading and standing and whatever. Everybody told me that you don’t ride a baby horse until they’re two. So for the first few months I had her, I worked her in a round pen and used a lot of startle and really got on her case. Everybody said that Arabs needed a lot of that because of the way they were and I believed them. Pretty soon I had her doing anything I wanted her to do when I told her to do it by being quick and loud and varying what I did so the she didn’t get too used to any one thing. I had her really paying attention.
The day she turned two, I put a saddle on and rode her all day and she didn’t seem to mind so I figured I pretty well had her completely trained in one day. So I must have been a really super horse trainer back then. A few months later Christmas rolled around and I got the present I’d really wanted more than anything else, a nifty two-wheeled racing sulky and a new harness. I was really excited and I couldn’t wait to try them out. I took everything up to the barn, got Sue out of her stall and started fastening straps all over her.
Now Sue had been hanging out in the barn not doing very much of anything since the end of November but I didn’t think that mattered. She knew all about saddles and girths and bridles and riding. So why not just add cruppers and blinkers and shafts and a few other things? I reasoned she was fully trained so she ought to just accept whatever I was putting on her because I was telling her to do it. Every time she started jiggling around, I just jerked her into paying attention and standing still again and reminded her I was the boss.
The barn was sited in such a way that when I finished harnessing, Sue was aimed straight at the house. All she had to was walk along the driveway which went downhill from the barn then curled around in front of the house. So I got her to stand while I climbed into the sulky and when I asked her to start off, she was pointed in the right direction and there weren’t any turns or anything tricky we had to do as we were leaving the barn.
Sue walked gingerly down the driveway and I was happy as a lark because when you’re 20 years old it’s easy to be happy. We went down around the front of the house and everybody came outside and told me how pretty she looked and how good we were doing and I was waving to everybody. After a bit, I figured that the show was over and it was time to go back to the barn. I asked Sue to turn to the right in a little parking area so we could go back up hill to the barn. That’s when it all fell apart.
The mare went sideways in the shafts. When her hip hit the left shaft, she kicked at it and the shaft broke. Then the right shaft folded and I tipped out of the cart. I jerked on the reins to startle her and get her attention but she kept on kicking and flipped the cart over her back. I managed to hang onto reins and jolt her into standing still so I could take all the straps off. I was muttering to myself the whole time about how stupid horses can be. I called her names a lot and put her back into her stall.
You figure out the moral of these stories after you go back inside and sit and think for awhile. Sometimes you have to think a long, long while. What I eventually figured out was that, as a way to control a horse, startle works only as long as you have the biggest startle going. You can use fear to teach a horse something but that’s only going to work until something the horse is more afraid of than you comes along. Since horses are always afraid of things that are unusual and things that are unusual are always coming along, I realized I needed to find a way of communicating with horses that wouldn’t get cancelled out the minute something scary entered their territory.
I stopped thinking of activity, especially frantic, startle activity with the trainer putting on a big show, as an indicator of learning. Instead, I started to understand that in order for a horse to learn, she first has to be relaxed. And the horses showed me that the best way to get them to relax and pay attention to me was to always work with a quiet sense of rhythm no matter was I was doing around them. So even though I thought I was teaching her, Rafsu taught me that all good training starts with rhythm and relaxation. And it’s really boring to watch.
That Christmas day was the end of my cart but it wasn’t the end of Sue’s driving career. Eventually I took the time to go back and do her driving training the right way and she competed successfully in fine harness classes pulling a shiny chrome-axle Gerald. Sue was a super horse who let bygones be bygones and survived in spite of having a really competent trainer.