When it comes to training horses, what is the biggest trade secret?

The Question:

When it comes to training horses, what is the biggest trade secret?

I’m often asked, “What would be the most important thing I could do to make my horse program better?” Usually the discussion goes to different types of bits, what type of saddle or pads they are using, specific training techniques or drills they could do, what clinicians are good or bad, what breed of horse is better? On and on this conversation goes until typically we get to the question they really want to ask, “What is wrong with my problem horse”.


Many folks are looking for the silver bullet answer that will make their relationship with their horse and their horse program better. In January I pointed out that every time you pick up a lead rope or rein you become the trainer of a living, breathing animal and without that understanding, we create horses with “people” problems more so than horses with "horse” problems. So, what is the biggest trade secret? Often times people believe the answer is a different horse or bit, more training drills or something along this line of thinking without ever considering that the silver bullet answer might be them, not the horse.


With the horse in mind please allow me to share some of my story:

In my youth, I was a very competitive young man and remember ending up in the principal’s office at the church school I attended because I took the rules of baseball too literally. In my book, it just wasn’t fair when the girls always got called safe on base, even when I knew I threw them out. One day I made it well known that the teachers were wrong, and I was right when I tossed my glove to the ground and voiced my opinion. My actions resulted in a visit to the principal’s office and on my way out of the gym, I threw the double doors wide open with so much force that both safety glass windows shattered to the ground. I immediately knew that nothing good was going to come of my actions and I would have to face not only the principal but eventually my mother and father. My spirit of competition and desire to win was not appreciated and because of my actions I received what I deserved and believe me when I say the rod was not spared. There’s more to the end of this story but we’ll save it for another blog.


What I truly wanted at a young age was to compete fairly, the chance to show people that I could be good at something and the only way I was going to be allowed to play competitive sports was to change my behavior. After making a deal with my parents to stay out of trouble and control my anger issues I was allowed to return to public school as a freshman and pursue my desire to play sports and compete at a higher level. Throughout my high school years, I stayed out of trouble as I promised and I followed my dream to play baseball, football and run track.


Uneventfully, my freshman year came to a close and I set my goal to make the Varsity baseball team my Sophomore year. Growing up in northern California making the high school varsity team would be difficult, if not impossible as a Sophomore. Everyone said I was wasting my time, but I was determined to figure out how to get better. I was blessed to have some great coaches that were willing to listen to my questions, over and over I asked those questions… “What glove should I use? What drills should I do? What position should I try out for?” I was looking for that “silver bullet” answer. Their answers came, they were always the same, but it wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

They put it all back on me; more time in the weight room, better diet, work on your fundamentals, more time practicing, run more, work harder, more self-discipline and study other athletes that are successful. In addition to the physical part they would always include working on your attitude and mental part of the game. I never had a coach ever tell me the answer was to get a different baseball, a newer football, or to move the track & field finish line. The answer to getting better always came back to the same basic concept, "you have to work on yourself".


My coaches were right, it came down to working on myself to get better. I started practicing with a college team months before spring tryouts having ground balls hit to me on a gym floor, sometimes over 100 a night. They would have to tell me to quit, "That's it Oliver, no more, go hit the showers". I had great coaches, but I never had a coach push me as hard as I pushed myself. That spring I made the starting lineup at 2nd base and set a single season stolen base record. I lettered each year, was voted to two northern California All-star teams and even drew the attention of some college and pro scouts as a speedy shortstop my senior year.


I possessed some natural athletic ability but unfortunately my desire and my hard work would never turn me into a Babe Ruth. As horse trainers, we have to accept that most horses will never be the Kentucky Derby winner, but they can be better than they are today. If you do things right, if you have the desire to work on what matters most, you and your horse can perform at [their] relative best, if you are willing to put in the time.


Over the past 35 plus years training and working with livestock I have had to learn how to look in the mirror and be honest with myself. If I don't like my reflection, and sometimes I don't, I have to make a change with myself. I know the answer is never making excuses and blaming things on my horse or whatever else I can dream up. I continually ask myself, “Are you a teacher that is patient or critical, understanding or harsh? Do I discipline or punish? Are my students, [the horses] trusting or fearful of me? Is my nature to be compassionate or mean?”


As I have gotten older, I had to start asking myself different questions, “Is my balance, timing, rhythm and feel off because I’m a little out of shape? Am I a healthy weight or do I need to refocus and get myself to the gym?” This is tough business, working on ourselves but we start by looking in the mirror at the reflection, asking tough questions and being honest. Is it time to ask yourself some tough questions? Do you have the right horse for your horse program? Are you afraid of your horse? Are you trying to teach [train] at a level that you are not at? Do you have the time that your horse needs from you? Again, you must be honest with yourself, it’s only you and God having that conversation, no one else.


Have you spent time thinking through your horse program and what type of horse you need? Do you need a better mentor before you are ready to teach and train at a higher level? Not everyone rides at the same level, not everyone will be a Babe Ruth, but you can be better than you ever dreamed, if you are willing to work on yourself, then be willing to pay the price for what you want. I have spent countless hours reading about and studying other successful horseman and trust me when I say they all studied others before them. Everyone including some clinicians that are household names studied those before them and had mentors. Do you search for good mentors that can help you go to a higher level with your horsemanship?


Do you set things up so your horse can get better at their job or do you want everything to happen in Amazon Prime time? Just one click and the answer is at your door in seven minutes. Time is a big one, are you focused when you are working with your horse? You have to focus and be picturing the lesson or the job at hand, you have to organize it in your mind and present it in a way the horse can come through and learn. You can't just keep getting on and riding, doing the same thing you have always done, and be expecting a different result from your horse. Before we blame our horses, we need to ask ourselves, “Were my hands right? Did I miss the release? How am I using my legs and feet? Have I cleared my mind to focus on my horse or is it way off somewhere else, but we think the horse should be attentive?


When things don’t go right in practice or at a competition, are you prone to get mad and toss the mitt to the ground like I did as a child? Or maybe you react too passively, possibly out of fear, calling everything safe, even when it isn’t so? These are only some of the basics of working on ourselves, but they are essential to getting in tune with your horses and keeping things progressing in a positive direction and keeping things safe. As a seasoned horseman, these types of questions never stop running through my mind. My wife often says, “Good decisions are all about knowing the right questions to ask, then asking the right person”. So, what is the biggest trade secret?


The Point to make here:

The biggest trade secret is, "It's all about you and your willingness to work on yourself”. It does not matter what I think or what anyone else thinks. What really matters is this; Are you being honest with yourself when you ask the tough questions? What do your animals think of you and what do you think of you? How do you do things with your horse when no one is watching and only you have to answer to yourself? It’s amazing what happens when we start to work on ourselves, everything just starts to fall into place, with our horses, our family, our job and our spiritual life. You will always be working more on yourself than the horse, now that is real trade craft. "It's all about you" working on yourself, that is the biggest trade secret.


Next Blog: We will talk about Discipline & Punishment, " Where is the line?

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