"My grandfather was a part-time horse trader in Kentucky and he bought me my first horse, a little stud pony named Coco. I was just two years old. There is a tape recording of me saying I love to ride Coco. It was one of the first things I learned to say.
I got my first paying job at a sale barn when I was five years old. I'd get $1.00 for riding ponies into the ring. Riding them into the sales ring helped the seller get a higher price for a pony.
My grandfather, and others, did lots of things that were wrong in the ways in which they interacted with horses. Stallions were sometimes gelded with a pocket knife on the auction house floor. I've seen my grandfather bite or twist a horse's ear as a kind of twitch until someone could get on and ride the buck out of them.
Because of some of the things that have been done to horses, using drugs to dope a horse in order to sell them, I have never made selling horses a part of my business. I will recommend a horse or give someone my opinion, but I won't take money for selling a horse.
My dad had horses when he was in Norway. The Germans occupied his town when he was a young boy, and when they left, my dad bought one of the horses the Germans left behind. It was deaf, because the Nazis punctured their eardrums so they couldn't hear the cannon fire.
My mother, though, had no interest in horses, but they gave me a sense of freedom and adventure. I liked being on their backs and moving fast. It was exhilarating.
In the seventh grade we had to write a report that told where we pictured ourselves in ten years. I wrote that I wanted to move to Colorado and breed Appaloosa horses. Even then I had an idea about what I wanted to do with my life.
I trained a full-blooded two year old zebra stallion. The zebra was not completely wild because the owner had had it since it was a baby. But you couldn't pick up its feet or lead it. The owner asked if I could train it and I said, "I honestly don't know." So I got on the internet and did some research and most of what I read said it couldn't be done. But there were some trainers who had done some things, so I gave it a try.
Zebras are not like horses, because there is a lot more fight than flight to them. It was hard to get it to move away from you. It would turn toward you and be aggressive and want to fight you. I used the same principles I use with a horse, but it just took a lot longer. I tried to make everything simpler.
Because it was small, my son, Houston, would ride it on trails. We even broke it to drive a cart.
The characteristics of a horse's breed make them suited for different disciplines. I got into trouble when I made a speech at the University of Kentucky. A woman asked me how to slow down her off-the-track-thoroughbred. I said you have to be realistic about your breed, yes it can be done, but they are bred to be athletic, to run fast. Transitions will help a lot, up and down, smaller circles, but you have to be realistic about your breed. If you wanted a slower loping horse, you might consider a quarter horse. Three hands went up right away. They were defensive about their OTTBs, saying that they were great.
I ride a Tennessee Walking Horse and I have taught her to turn on her hind quarters and spin around a bit, but she is not going to do it as well as a quarter horse, she's just not built that way.
With a hotter breed like an Arab you have to be a little more active rider, because things are happening faster. You have to slow yourself down and act deliberately because the smallest action from you causes a big reaction from them. You should be conscious of your body actions on the ground and in the saddle so that your are not over-stimulating the horse. On the other hand, a quarter horse will need more stimulation.
Owners not spending enough time reviewing what's been taught previously can be a bit of a problem, but I am realistic and recognize that people's lives today leave limited time for them to spend with their horses: it's not that they are not trying. Because of that I try to keep things simple and give them the key components and make it uncomplicated. If you make things too complex, too stretched out, too involved, people never get to the next step. You have to make it so that people feel like they are accomplishing something.
I first became aware of Richard Winters the year he won Road To The Horse at Murfreesboro, Tennessee (now held in Lexington, Kentucky). I liked him because everything is really straightforward, there is no voodoo involved. He makes it easy for the audience to understand.
He invited me to California, to the Thatcher School. I didn't take a horse so I rode some training horses. He'd give me jobs, and put me to work, another area of philosophy we agree on. You need to give a horse a job. A horse doesn't have to have a job catching a cow or running on a race track, you can come up with things, you just have to be a little creative. Opening a gate for example.
(I asked Helge for his thoughts on some of the more prominent natural horseman. He stuck to the positives when discussing each one of the trainers.)
Richard Winters: great teacher, breaks things down and makes it easy for the horse and rider to understand. Awesome rider.
Clinton Anderson: I like that he says what he thinks and what he means. You know where he is, he's straightforward. Three days in a row is the best for training.
Chris Cox: He cares about and respects the horse. He doesn't talk to horses and doesn't feel it accomplishes much. The only time I talk is when someone is watching in order to illustrate what I am saying to the horse with my body language, otherwise I don't talk to the horse. That doesn't mean that a horse can't get something from the soothing tone of your voice, it's just not something I've felt a need to do. Horses can learn verbal cues from the inflection in your voice. I use, "Whoa," that's about it.
To me natural horsemanship is about learning to communicate with the horse in a manner that makes sense to the horse. If you can find what makes the horse tick, what is important in their world and their language and apply it to training methods - I think that's what natural horsemanship is.
I am very skeptical about most horse rescues. There are a few good ones. A lot of times they get beginners or people who don't know anything and put them with horses that don't know anything. By working out of this particular rescue (where we met) I've gained a lot of clients, but at the same time I've seen people just getting into horses who shouldn't have green unbroke horses, people who should get broke horses that they can take out on a trail and ride. Wyatt (my first horse) was pretty much like a mustang, a pretty much untouched PMU baby from Canada and it was not a good situation for you to be put in.
I put Helge on the spot and told him that I thought that he had never particularly liked my horse Stormy. He assured me that was not the case and analyzed both of my horses.
Stormy: I think she has some quirks that make her a little difficult. Stormy is willful, but fairly smart. She was able to out think and out-maneuver you in the beginning. You've gotten a lot better about that.
Callie: She has naturally good confirmation and build with the ability to perform riding gaits and maneuvers very easily. She has more of the physical attributes to be a good riding horse, I think, than Stormy.
I believe in pushing your zone. Zones are like a bullseye and in the center is a ring where everyone is comfortable with what they are doing. You may be comfortable riding in a round pen, but trotting in a pasture makes you uncomfortable. Galloping your horse along a river bank and up a mountain may be in your panic zone. That's the outer ring of the bullseye. Most learning takes place in that uncomfortable zone. You can't learn where you are completely comfortable, but there is no growth if you are afraid.
I haven't seen too much fear on your (meaning me) part, frustration in that the horse is not listening, but not fear. Many people are so afraid that they are going to get hurt that they stop thinking and panic sets in. You were an athlete, a baseball player, so riding a horse probably came pretty naturally to you.
If you ask a horse to stop and you make a fist with your hands and the horse keeps walking, they can run into your hands and your hands become an iron post. I don't worry about how hard the bit is touching the horse's mouth because they are pulling against themselves. I am not worried about the horse's mouth because my hands are still. But the moment they come off of it there is a release there and it is in the release that the horse learns. You can hold as hard as you need to, but hold, don't pull.
I think that people who do natural horsemanship, that's the one thing they get hung up on. They are trying to be so light and so gentle that they give when the horse pulls on them. If the horse pulls again, they give again. They are not doing the horse any justice trying to be light. As a result they are becoming mediocre because they are holding on to the horse all of the time."