You And Your Horse
By Dan Sumerel

How you present yourself to horses will determine how they respond to you.

There is something we overlook the importance of far too often when dealing with the behavior of our horses. Something that affects the very core of our training and relationship with each horse we handle. Something that we have a great deal of control over and yet often tend to ignore completely. What am I referring to? You. The person reading this article. You are THE most important aspect of your horse’s lives in so many ways, and yet we overlook how to use that to its best potential! In recent weeks I have received many comments and questions from horse people and in most cases they relate to solving problems with HORSES. Yet it is very common for the best solution NOT to be ‘going to buy a new piece of equipment from the tack store’, or finding the ‘right trainer’ to send the horse to, or even learning the newest ‘technique’ to correct a certain unwanted behavior. Most often the best and most natural solution to the inquiry is to help the person better understand how THEY are affecting the situation. My work in the horse world is mostly about teaching understanding. In this case that understanding is applied not to the horse, but to you. Let me explain.

Every time you handle your horse, that horse is evaluating you by his value system to decide your importance and position in his world based on pecking order. So understanding his value system is of great importance to ensure effectiveness in your training work. When I began to develop my Horse Course™ I soon realized that my first task would be to get people to let go of what was important to them and learn to focus on what was naturally important to the horse. Everything you do around your horse matters, but most of us fail to understand the importance of that. What we DO buy into are a number of all too common myths that tend to exaggerate many of the very problems we struggle with over and over. Here are a few examples.

Myth #1: “Get that horse trained and everything will be ok.” What is it that determines the responses that the trainer gets from your horse? The way he or she acts around the horse. A good trainer understands the horse and does the right things to get the needed actions or responses from the horse. Repeat the process and the horse begins to deliver a predictable, correct response when given an assigned cue or signal. Right? Of course. Then why do you have to keep sending the horse back to a trainer? If it was trained once, shouldn’t that be enough? Not really. You see there is a process I call un-training. I see it a lot. The horse comes back from the trainer with a good set of cues and responses in place. The horse had consistent cues and developed consistent responses. Horse is TRAINED. Then the owner begins with the horse. He is less consistent, less exact with cues, and allows the horse to begin doing other, very little things that start dropping the owner down the scale on the horse’s pecking order. When the horse gets a cue that isn’t just right he becomes more likely to test or challenge the owner as well. Horses do not like inconsistency. It makes you unpredictable and puts the horse on guard around you. The horse’s responses begin to vary and become unreliable or inconsistent. Owner blames the horse and/ or maybe the trainer, and sends the horse either back to the first trainer or worse yet, maybe off to another different trainer. Now the horse may get a different set of rules to learn and has to deal with more inconsistency. Kind of like a child going from foster home to foster home. Taking it a step further, if the horse becomes a bit of a problem the owner may sell the horse rather than deal with him, in other words blame the horse. Do you see that the horse was NOT the problem?

Myth #2: “That horse is a so-in-so blood line.” Or as is all too commonly said, “You know how those Arabians/ Thoroughbreds/ or whatever breed is not accepted there are.” I own Arabians but I work with all breeds, and I treat them all the same. I’m NOT saying that all breeds are EXACTLY alike! The point here is that if YOU say something like the above comments, you are prejudicing your behavior about the horse before you begin. And if you believe that ‘Arabians are…..’ then you will most likely end up with an Arabian that is '…..' Just as you predicted! And that is totally unfair to the horse. Deal with each horse as an individual and leave out the prejudice.

Myth #3: “If I bought the right horse, I could win!” Wrong! Not that some horses aren’t prettier than others or some more athletic, etc. But I have seen too many people BUY a winner and sell it a year later as a basket case, having won nothing. Winners are made, not bought. Most of the truly great horses could have been just another horse without the influence of some good people. And think about this - how many truly great horses have lived and died, undiscovered diamonds, because they never got good people to polish them into their natural brilliance?

I could go on and on with myths we horse people subscribe to without thinking, but there is a point to all this that transcends the danger of each individual myth. That is the underlying problem that most of these myths display about us. We are too quick to blame the horse! We have so many built-in excuses about horses for things not going the way we want. “He’s a stallion!” “You know how mares are!” “That’s the way those Arabians are!” “He’s too high strung!” And the worst of them all, “That horse is dangerous!” I hear that one a lot with the horses I work with. My new PR video shows me working with two horses carrying that label. One an Arabian stallion, one a 17.1 hand warmblood. Both had hurt people and one was considered ‘untrainable’ by a $1500 a month expert trainer. Yet in minutes they both became attentive and soft and nice and polite. Why? Because I ignored the labels and the myths. I treated each as an individual, with no prejudice about their breed or gender or history. And I used the most powerful tool available to each of us, understanding. I used that understanding to control how I presented myself to each horse. Which determined how they responded to me. Most important of all, by ignoring the myths I made no excuses. I took responsibility and didn’t blame the horse. When you can do that, it will force you to look closer at what YOU are doing and discover the best training aid you own is you!

© Dan Sumerel 2002

About the author:
Dan Sumerel is a trainer, author, and lecturer, best known for his work helping people with problems involving horses. His first book, "Finding the Magic", is sold all over the world and has been called, "The owner's manual for the modern horse." For more information visit the Sumerel Training website at sumereltraining.com.

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