I was recently asked for a brief description of what I do with horses in relation to my clinics. This was for our Facebook page. Well, it's just not that easy for me to sum it up with just a couple of words. "Should we say Trail Obstacle Training?", she asked. How about "Trail Preparedness?" she asked. "Not really," I again replied. I further explained that it really goes much deeper than that. So, let me explain as briefly as I think I can.
The whole basis for everything that I try to accomplish with my horses, or other folks horses, is to establish an understanding of just how trustworthy I am with the control of the horses feet and thus the horse's life. Since I am effectively asking the horse to willingly succumb to my control, any reasonable horse needs to know that I can take at least as good of care of that horse as he or she can take care of itself. That horse already knows what it can and may do in order to survive. Of course what the horse really knows is that his instincts will see to it that he can do what is necessary to cope with whatever comes its way during the next moment, hour, day week and lifetime. Now that another force (a human in this case) has entered the picture in a controlling way, all bets are off as far as the horse is concerned. That is, until the human can demonstrate (consistently I might add) good, appropriate, quality leadership. A quality start for a horse under saddle is just such an opportunity for the human and horse, but it must be truly quality work done! More on that, later.
The simple thought of supposedly controlling the horse's feet doesn't really sound so difficult. Unfortunately it is a lifetime study and endeavor. On the surface, and for all too many humans with horses, it is merely deciding to control those feet by telling the horse to move, stop, stand still, turn, when the person wants and all at the speed that they want. To do that, most kick with the legs and pull on the reins, all in some manner or another. Boy oh boy - were it only that simple! The horse would like us to ride with proper balance and a sensitive understanding of pressure and release of pressure. The horse would thoroughly appreciate it if the human would know something about where the horse's feet are and where those feet should go with the horse's balance in mind.
Controlling the horse's feet doesn't mean over-controlling. Part of it has to involve asking the horse to move the feet where we would like the feet to go and then trusting the horse to go there. At the same time, I must be ok if the horse makes a mistake. If there is a mistake the horse sure didn't make it on purpose. Simply, the horse just didn't yet know the right answer to my request. So I'll ask again and the horse will give the correct answer sooner or later depending on that individual horse and how well I'm explaining myself to the horse.
Why must I be trustworthy to the horse in controlling those feet of hers? Because quality control of those four feet is directly tied to that horse's sense of self-preservation! The better the horse's sense of self-preservation feels the better the ride for both of us. That's why it is so important to make it all about your horse rather than yourself. The more comfortable the horse is in any given environment the safer it is for me and the horse will give a better performance for me regardless of what is being asked of the horse. However, this is all conditional on the horse being physically, mentally and emotionally fit and prepared for the task at hand. This, of course, then takes us to working with where the horse is at now, and not where we expect them to be in the future. Do this, and that horse will be where we want them to be when the time comes.
Alright, enough explanation of that for now, so let me explain the elements involved in each type of clinic. The Two Day clinic really covers a lot of work. The first day is all done through in-hand work with a 12 -15' lead and halter. (Preferably you'll have a rope halter tied in to the lead so there's no big metal snap hitting the horse's face. A web halter is fine but you still need to get rid of a snap attachment for the horse's sake.) The second day is under saddle. This clinic is designed to first and foremost allow the human and horse to figure out just how trustworthy each is. The use of lots of different obstacles and forms of stimulus provide sufficient bother for the horses to feel their sense of self-preservation percolating. If the horses senses of self-preservation are escalating, you can bet that some of the people are having a similar feeling. In addition to this bit of concern for the horse is a need to understand whether or not the human that is attempting to control their (the horse's) feet, is at least adequate. Another aspect of this is that when a horse is sufficiently bothered it's likely that the horse may resist going forward or hurry when it does go, and huff & puff about it. The wonderful thing about all of that is as long as the human is doing a proper job of being the quality leader that the horse needs, then the understanding between the two species becomes clearer. Thus, each side of this equine/human equation can begin to trust one another more and more. The horse can come to trust the human's control and the human can come to trust the horse's responses. Now please understand that this one paragraph only touches upon the process involved. It's not that it is all that terribly difficult. In fact, this process is really no different in theory or practice than starting a horse under saddle. The first time you introduce yourself to a new horse and then each following step, whether it's a lead rope and halter, a lariat, a saddle pad, the saddle, and so forth, each and every one of those will provide sufficient bother in a horse to afford you the opportunity to build trust (both ways). However all bets are off if that starting process is not one of real quality! Over the years I've had a significant number of folks whom have been around horses for a good number of years comment at the end of the clinic that they really had never previously looked at their horsemanship from this perspective. Because of some of the information that they were able to put in to practice during the two days, they thought they'd get more from their relationships with horses than in the past. So, though it would seem that this clinic is for people with less horse experience, it may well be something that more experienced folks can gain from as well.
As far as the one day clinics go there are currently three different ones available. The first one, we'll call it the Novice Clinic, deals with the first half of the day in the arena with some obstacle work in hand and under saddle. The second part of the day is out on portions of my obstacle course. This clinic is for the people that have reasonably good skills with their horse while working on the ground with them. As well you must be fairly comfortable at the walk, trot and canter (lope). We don't spend time teaching the basics of in-hand work and so it is really important that you have a good understanding of proper lead/halter work and have the ability to handle your horse from several different positions of control. The two day clinic will teach you how to lead from both sides of the horse's shoulders, drive (or lead) the horse past you from both sides and ask the horse to lead up towards you in front. For this one day clinic you should have a fairly good handle on this type of ground work to get the most out of the day. Furthermore, if you are not fairly comfortable at the three gaits then you really need to get some riding lessons in before you ever even think about obstacle work.
Another choice in the one day clinic schedule is spent out on the obstacle course throughout the clinic. This clinic is not for riders new to the world of horses. This is for riders of an Intermediate level of skill with trail obstacles. While there are some relatively simple obstacles there are also some very difficult ones. All of the obstacles are out on acreage in the open so there's a lot of room for horses to become pretty active unexpectedly. Now this brings up a point I'd like to make. I don't buy in to horses being unpredictable. I know that most of us are told that at least once or twice as we first start learning about horses (regardless of how old we are). What is unpredictable are the environments in to which we take our horses! Riding outside, in an open area just complicates things for a lot of folks and their horses. I don't ride my horses with avoidance. As an example, I don't ride with knowledge that my horse (or maybe it's me that's got the problem?) is afraid of, or significantly bothered by, black plastic. Knowing this I'll avoid the picnic area rather than ride through it because there are several trash cans with black plastic liners which are billowing out of the cans due to the wind blowing. Many folks will just avoid riding near anything like that; they'd just rather avoid the possibilities. Or they may ask somebody to "control" the stimulus (whatever it may be) for them so that their horse will be ok. Unfortunately the thing that bothers my horse or me may exist in many different environments so I'll have to use avoidance techniques in the future. All I'm saying is that if you ride bothered enough to have to learn to avoid things with any consistency at all, then riding outdoors probably isn't the smartest thing unless that bother is arena walls and ceilings! If this is a clinic that you are interested in then please don't be offended if I ask you to canter and go through a couple of transitions with your horse in the outdoor arena before we get started on the course. There's not a sound horse that can't run and every horse on earth might feel the need to accelerate suddenly when the rider least expects it. Obviously, the better the rider the less likely this is to happen. If I feel that a rider may not be able to handle a reasonable change in adrenalin (either theirs or their horse's) then I've got to check that out before we go further in to the day. Depending on the group that is riding that day I may allow folks to ride out on to the course and go wherever they'd like without any particular order to how they ride through the course. Other times I'll likely have ride as a group and through the course together. An awful lot can be learned by watching and listening to others while riders, one at a time, attempt each obstacle. As well, this affords me the opportunity to offer the help, advice and perspective to everybody throughout the course when or if needed. Believe it or not, there is not an obstacle on earth that may not have its own dangers. Too many folks have learned to simply try to conquer the obstacle. In fact in order to complete any obstacle as safely as is possible, the rider/handler must consider the surrounding environment, the approach, dealing with the actual time in the obstacle and the departure. Learning why a bridge isn't just a bridge to your horse is important if you'd like your horse to willingly follow your leadership.
The final one day clinic offering is an Advanced Course for private, select groups only. This is because speed now becomes involved. Folks have asked me in the past if I'd be interested in having some type of extreme obstacle event. I do realize not all extreme courses involve speed. Unfortunately there is a rather fine line between speed/competition riding and idiocy/reckless riding. What you've learned, what you've taught your horse and how you both deal with adrenalin are what draw that line. Given all that, what this particular clinic is about is how to hurry BETWEEN obstacles and then safely, and with care, complete an obstacle so that you can hurry off to the next one. What I don't want and won't allow is a group to come out to rough house on an obstacle course. Bothered feet are a bothered mind in your horse. If we can't learn to help our horses get over their bother to the point that the feet and mind are calming then you had best choose wisely what you're asking of your horse! Please call to arrange these sessions (303) 841-9953.
Finally, let me say that if you do have some deficits in your ability to work with your horse in hand then do yourself AND your horse a favor and sign up for the two day clinic. If you really aren't very handy with leading (I'm talking about in hand work) then by starting with the one day clinic you simply aren't going to get nearly as much out of your horse because you won't be 'speaking' to the animal with the fluency necessary. You'll leave perhaps somewhat frustrated and feeling like you just don't get it. If enough of you are interested, a half day clinic may become available that will be working only on in-hand leading skills. It is important to the horse that we be as good a leader from the ground, as we are from the saddle! That change in the position of control (from the ground to the saddle) is significant. You are, in effect, speaking two different 'dialects'. Some folks may be good at one and not the other but I'd argue that you really can't be good at one without the other.
So there you have it. Not so short of a description but it should give you somewhat a feel for what these clinics are about and for whom they are appropriate.