The most important part about my background, I think, is that I have come to my current
method of training from a variety of other methods and techniques. Exposure to many
different methods, and understanding how they work has given me the benefit of
comparison and contrast. There are so many different ways to train a horse! I filter all the
different methods through my own ethical and moral perspectives, and keep those
methods that are a good fit for me and the results that I am trying to achieve. I also
observe the horses I work with to see how they are responding, plus I keep track of how
consistent the results are.
Over the years, my perspective and my desired results have been evolving, and continue
to evolve. As a teenager, I just wanted to be successful at shows. As a young adult, I
wanted to learn as much as I could about dressage and get my little horse as far up the
levels as I could go.
Now, my goals are centered more around the horse's well-being, both mental and
physical. If the horse is not mentally and physically "whole", the training process is
compromised, as is the relationship between horse and rider. This "wholeness" is also
very important for the rider. Sometimes to achieve a greater claim on wholeness, horses
and riders can be helped by some of the many alternative and complementary therapies
that are available now.
INFLUENCES AND PERSPECTIVES
My first profound influence was Mary Wanless. I had been frustrated with the lack of
clarity from my dressage instructor with respect to "how" to use my body to get my horse
light in the rein, engaged in the hindquarters, and round in the back. After I read "Ride
With Your Mind," things started to make much more sense, and I was able to go out and
make the necessary changes in my muscle tone and body control to see an immediate
difference in my horse.
Mary also began teaching annual instructor workshops, and they became the highlight of
each year for me. At these workshops, between twenty and fifty instructors discuss and
experiment with better teaching techniques and every year the pool of knowledge
becomes broader and more sophisticated. After about three of these workshops, I finally
began to feel confident and competent as an instructor, and teaching became much more
fun. This was mostly because I acquired many new "tools" to help get across the
concepts that I needed my students to learn. I also have a much better eye so I can see
the root cause of riding problems. I have attended nine workshops so far, and plan on
continuing as long as they last.
Natural horsemanship methods have been slowly gaining popularity and acceptance over
the last several years. My first exposure to this was at a couple of John Lyons clinics
about 20 years ago. Some of the techniques I found to be very useful and so I have
continued to broaden my knowledge in this area.
I am hesitant to use the term "natural" horsemanship, because humans riding horses is
not really a "natural" situation. However, I do think that the word natural does try to
capture the goal of communicating with the horse more on the horse's terms, rather than
the unrealistic expectation that the horse always understand our language and riding
Some of the more recent horsemen and horsewomen whose knowledge has improved my
training and prompted much introspection about interacting with horses are: Dr. Deb
Bennett, Buck Brannaman, Harry Whitney, Mark Rashid, Bill Dorrance, and Leslie
Desmond. There are other so-called trainers that I have also learned from, in the sense
that they showed me how NOT to go about training horses.
Over the last twenty years I have also attended many dressage clinics, either as a
spectator or rider, and I've read many dressage books and articles. I have to say that
I've learned more about getting horses balanced, responsive and supple from eight years
of exposure to the non-dressage trainers mentioned above than I have from twenty
years of watching and reading the dressage "experts." I still keep my eyes open for good
dressage trainers and useful dressage literature, but most of the time I am left either
unimpressed or downright appalled at what I see and read. I agonize over whether I
even want to call myself a dressage trainer, because what I do is so much more than
dressage, and so different from what the mainstream is doing.
I will say that dressage trainer Michael Etherly, who trains at Harris Farms in Wilton,
California, has been such a good advocate of correct, thoughtful riding in the clinics he's
been teaching here in the Reno area. Not only is he a highly skilled rider and trainer, but
he is an excellent teacher and communicator.
When I attend non-dressage clinics with trainers like Buck Brannaman and Harry Whitney,
I am curious about why there are no dressage or H/J trainers there. Is it because these
trainers believe that guys like Buck and Harry have nothing relevant to those disciplines
to offer? Probably, but it's so sad that they believe that. I also think that many trainers
are simply not interested in learning anything that might profoundly challenge the way
they have always gone about riding, training and teaching in their chosen discipline.
My perspective is this - there are always things you can learn to make your job as a
trainer and instructor easier. There are always better methods to use, or at least ways to
refine the techniques you currently use. The classical goals of good horsemanship have
not changed, just the means by which trainers communicate those concepts to horse and
rider have become so much more clear and effective. Our understanding of how horses
and riders learn and how their bodies move is also vastly improved now.
I find that as I learn better methods and improve my understanding of the learning
process, I can be successful with a greater variety of training and teaching problems.
Consequently, I'm finding that I can make progress with those "problem" horses and
students instead of getting frustrated with them like I used to when I would run out of
"tools" sooner. Now it is rare for me to have anything close to a fight with a horse, and if
a particular session gets a little heated and I find myself getting upset or pushing too
hard, I'll take some time to reflect on what happened, and what I can do the next time to
make things go smoother for both of us. The horse didn't ask to be brought into my
world, so it's my job to help the horse understand the training process and develop
confidence in both me and himself.