Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.
In this post, we’re reminded that good trainers often learn as much they teach.
Amy Skinner writes:
Over the past few years, I have had the good fortune to run across some pretty upset horses. They’ve displayed behavior that ranged from rank to shut down, scared to just sometimes flat-out confusing:
- A 10 year old mustang who kicked violently at everything and bucked until he fell down, rested, and bucked some more.
- A mare who panicked when saddled and would flip over if she had to hold still.
- A little Morgan gelding who bolted and bucked for miles.
The list goes on. These horses stick in my mind as ones who defied my training methods and made me scratch my head. I used steps I know and saw them not improve. What I learned is that sometimes methods provide a nice guideline. Other times, you need throw out the guidelines and experiment in the best interest of the horse.
The 10 year old mustang bolted constantly when I handled him on the ground. If you stared at him sideways or picked your nose, he was gone. You couldn’t force him in any way because he’d either bolt or go through a fence, and he had been pretty beat up from busting out of our round pen. Not jumping, just going straight through like the Kool Aid Man.
I couldn’t outmuscle him and really didn’t think that’d teach him anything except to try harder and use more of his muscle. So when he bolted, I caught him and started over like nothing had happened. Two things came of that – he stopped bolting after some weeks and he became wonderful to catch. The horse who was impossible to handle and catch is now my easiest.
As a young horse, that panicked mare had been snubbed up short to be saddled and reacted by flipping over. Now, when she saw a pad or saddle, her eyes rolled back and she raised her head in absolute fear. Keeping her still and repeatedly throwing a pad over did not produce better results. She became a stock still horse with tension from head to tail. If I mounted at this point, she would have certainly flipped over. I wasted a lot of time trying to put a saddle on her until she relaxed, and since she never offered to move, I didn’t think much of it. One day I decided to just longe her in a small circle while throwing a pad over her. She started out tight and scooted once the pad hit her, like she had no idea how to manage that sensation while also moving. I kept at it. Ten minutes later, she lowered her neck and relaxed her back. After 20 minutes, she was licking and chewing. Saddling a moving horse was difficult for me, but it made a world of difference for her. The mare needed to learn how to relax her body through movement in order to be relaxed about saddling. Now I saddle her ground tied with no problems (But I still do not tie her while saddling or she will remember those panick-worthy snubbing experiences. Old, bad memories die hard.)
The little Morgan could be bent around in a one-rein stop and still buck all the way home. His neck had become extra flexible, and his nose was disconnected from the rest of his body. He was extremely heavy on the front end. If he were bent around, he washed out his hindend and either bolted or bucked. Loading the front end in this way gave him the power to unseat his rider.
At the time, I did not have an arena, but I did have access to miles of hills and fields. Needless to say, I’d step up and he’d explode for miles. I’d get a good seat and a loose rein and off he’d go. Anytime a buck came up, I’d urge him forward and he’d turn that urge into a dead bolt.
Up and down hills we’d go, around turns, dodging trees and muck. It wasn’t ideal but it was better than bucking.
After some time, he’d try to stop. Not gradually, but a slamming of the brakes. This is where I’d urge him forward again and gallop some more. I wanted him to find some rhythm. He only knew bolting and bucking and I was hoping to help him sort that into a three-beat canter.
Going around a turn, he’d offer a flying lead change. Some pretty nice canters and changes came out of those gallops. This little 14.2 hand spitfire is now a horse I’d let a child ride, but it took time and experimentation.
Others had given up on these horses. They were upside down and I was okay with training a little unconventionally. I was their last stop. Grasping for ways to help them, I felt the free to experiment. I offered novel answers without force. When a trainer says to me “I always” or “I never,” it just means they haven’t had worked enough with upside down horses.