Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony. ~ Thomas Merton

Friday, March 18, 2011

Not for the Faint of Heart

I swore up and down, after all the issues I've experienced with Cricket, that I would never start another horse.  It is not an undertaking for the faint of heart.  Yet here I am with LillyToo.  I maintain that what I'm doing with Lilly has more to do with establishing a foundation for "real" under saddle training than actually "starting" her.  Others disagree.

When I started Cricket, I didn't know enough to know what I didn't know.  I also failed to realize that what I didn't know was fairly critical.  I made mistakes, honest mistakes, that have taken years to undo.

I can be pretty hard on myself over Cricket's start but the truth is, years later, she's a pretty amazing horse.  Not because of anything I did but rather because I managed not to screw too much up.  And I know, despite what I did wrong, that the start I gave her was probably better than 95% of the professional predators colt starters.

For anyone, particularly my friend Tina for whom this post is intended, here are some of the lessons I've learned:
  • Know your limitations.  If you're a timid rider, don't put the first rides on a colt.  If you cannot afford a real professional, find a competent rider and work with them for the initial rides.
  • Understand the type of horsenality with which you're most compatible.  Many of the issues I had with Cricket were simple the result of a less-than-ideal horse/human match.  Let's face it, when you buy a horse because she's pretty and has a dent in her butt that looks just like the dent in the butt of the horse you just lost, it's not always going to be a match made in heaven.  Cricket is a strong willed, independent left-brain mare.  In the face of my uncertainty and limited knowledge, she often took over the leadership.  I would argue that a mild RBI would be the best candidate for a colt start.  Nothing too extreme but a horse that is looking for leadership is going to be much more compliant than a horse with an agenda of her own (i.e. Cricket).
  • Advance your savvy as much as possible before starting a horse.  It goes without saying that the more you know the better time you'll have.  Duh!  When I started Cricket I had just passed my L1 (old VHS system).  I had no idea how the progression of skills felt - what it took to turn sideways on the fence into sideways off the fence into leg yields and isolations.  The more you know the end product, the better you teach it in the beginning.
  • Every moment is a teaching moment so be aware of what you're teaching.  This is true for any horse but particularly important for an unstarted horse.  If your horse is high energy and you start every session by blowing off steam, the horse quickly learns to act a little crazy out of the gate.  If you never encourage a reserved horse to get out of her shell, she'll suck back further and you'll loose the impulsion.
  • Saddling and mounting are just a version of the extreme friendly game.  Before you ever put a leg over a horse, they should know that it's all just a big friendly game.  There is an excellent Savvy Club DVD where Linda works with Elizabeth.  Elizabeth has fear issues and the DVD focuses mainly on her thresholds.  The cool thing is that the techniques employed are the same as you would use for building confidence in the horse.
  • In the first rides, the most important things a horse can learn is that it's okay to go and it's okay to stop.  This is the most critical lesson.  Steering and controlling the energy come later.
  • Know when your out of your depth and get help.  After working with Cricket for just over a year, I sent her to a good friend and fellow PNH student for two months.  I finally realized that I was in way over my head and I searched out the best help I could afford.
So there's some of the most important things I learned from doing my own colt start.  It's a huge responsibility.  You don't realize how huge it is until you try it, screw it up a little, get help and swear you'll never do it again.


inchwormwv said...

I guess I am following in your footsteps a bit with Augie. I appreciate your open assessment, and will do my best to learn from your experiences.

Lisa said...

The thing I try to remember is that no matter how badly I mess up there are two things that matter most:

1. Nothing is written in stone. Horses live in the moment so you are always teaching them something. The key is to recognize patterns and nip bad habits in the bud and reinforce positive patterns. As a student of natural horsemanship, I doubt there is anything you will do with Augie that will cause an irreversible behavior.

2. The start I gave Cricket, despite all my failings, is better than what most professional trainers would have given her. It's taken years to get over some of the issues I created but at least I know the issues and can work through them. Had Cricket been "broken" by a normal trainer, she might have looked good to start but eventually all the crap would come to the surface.

Isabelle Greenfield said...

Great blog, full of good points that we all need to be reminded of at time. I hope your friend Tina enjoyed it too!
Parelli Regional Correspondent-Australia