An Interview with Craig Hamilton
Craig Hamilton, changed by one very special horse, is now enjoying helping people and horses build healthy relationships.
*How did you get started in horse and people training?
I started teaching roping clinics 23 years ago. I had achieved
pro status in rodeo at the age of 16 and had roped my first
steer from a horse at the age of 5. I knew at a very early
age that one day I would be good enough that people would want
me to show them how I had achieved that level and I would need
to know how to teach as well as rope. So I first got my start
at teaching by teaching myself how to teach by using the cowboys
that worked for my father as guinea pigs.
I taught a lot of cowboys how to rope during my early teens and found that I sincerely enjoyed helping people help themselves.
After two National Finals qualifications in team roping I gave up my pro status to find something that brought me more joy than chasing glory. In the meantime I still needed to make a living so I hung out my shingle as a horse trainer, I mean heck, anyone who had made two horses and used them to qualify for the NFR should surely qualify as a horse trainer, shouldn't he?
Wrong. I fell flat on my face. I no longer had the luxury of months and even years to create a competitive roping horse, I had the amount of time that whoever had hired me could afford. My wife says that there is nothing that motivates me more than a mental or physical challenge, and I was facing one for sure. And it grabbed me by the throat.
I first had to "unlearn" everything that I thought I knew, and that is when I first started to realize that in order to achieve anything with a horse, I first had to shut up and listen to the horse. My training is still built around the principal of listening.
That time period also helped me learn how to train people. I had to learn how to convince folks that there were no miracle cures, that real and lasting results were built only over time, and the thirty days that they had in mind just was not realistic and the reasons why. Then I had to show them how to ride and treat their horse so that he would continue to want to work for them.
So I continued to train roping horses, and became quite successful at it, with clients from as far as three states away, and even Canada that would bring me their horses. I still give rope horse training seminars from Alaska and Canada to Hawaii and Texas.
However I was always striving to understand a horse's thinking better, because I knew that there really are very few true "problem" horses; what instead there are is a great deal of troubled horses - horses that have suffered tremendous abuse, often even at the hands of well-intentioned people. I also have another little saying, "Accidental abuse is still abuse".
So these years of troubled horses and uninformed owners, and my own desire to make a difference, furthered my growth even more, and also taught me so many things about how to reach a truly troubled and lost mind, and how to help them find confidence in their thinking and therefore in themselves. It also taught me to stand my ground and not to compromise myself or a horse for someone's goals.
*What do you see as underlying themes in "horses with problems"?
I am assuming that by "themes" you are referring to causes. Well that is a plateful to say the least. There are many causes that contribute to a horse with problems, and while I will say that 99% of them are human induced, there is still a very small percentage of truly problem horses. The more man has bred the horse for qualities and traits centered around human goals instead of around nature's plan the more that these undesirable traits have materialized. I have seen horses that could have been labeled under no other name than mentally unstable, not many, but to say that ALL problems are caused by human interaction is not true. Although I guess that in the big picture I would say in the final analysis that humans were involved if by no other means than by tampering with a greater plan.
To be more specific about your question, what I see are horses that are defensive, confused, withdrawn, hostile, sullen… heck it would be easier to say what they were not instead. They are not confident, happy, relaxed, self-thinking nor willing to listen.
What causes this? Well, we do - by not being clear, fair, consistent, understanding, or effective. We cause it by setting a goal in our sights instead of a direction. Horses do not understand goals; goals are man made. Goals have a time frame and horses don't wear a wristwatch. Horses do understand a direction however, and if the direction is clear and consistent enough they will very often see that direction and try to find a path through the confusion to follow it, even sometimes in spite of our mistakes.
Yet if I had to put my finger on the one trait that almost all of the troubled horses I have seen possessed, it would be a lack of self-confidence, without which nothing else is truly possible to be done with any beauty.
There is another area of trouble with a horse, and that would be in a lack of respect for humans. The real life, real world picture is this to me. Horses are not our equals, and when we allow them to confuse this point we run into trouble later on when we begin to ask them to do things that they would rather not do.
Respect and fear are not far apart, yet it is the intent inside the person that makes the distinction. Too many times I see where fear has been put in place in a mistaken attempt at instilling respect.
Respect simply must be a part of any healthy relationship; there must be boundaries, there must be discipline. Granted the best discipline is self-discipline, however no matter how anyone tries to color the picture differently, the plain truth is that if we are to have any kind of relationship with any animal that outweighs us ten to one we must have certain boundaries and requirements in place if we want to continue to stay alive. The first rule of horsemanship in my book is "live to learn another day."
*At your clinics, if a horse and handler have an obviously troubled relationship, what things might you have them do or would you do to improve it?
The first thing that must be in place for any relationship to be of value is mutual listening. Without mutual listening there is no conversation and without a conversation a relationship is just two ships without any relation.
I would first try to help the person to learn to put away
their goals, their expectations, their egos. I would then ask
them to define what kind of relationship that they would like
to have with this animal, what will they give, what would they
So many people have never done this; they get a horse, and they have some half-baked goal that is not clear even to themselves and with no plan of how/ which direction to head in to reach it.
Without clarity on our part, there is no listening on their part.
Then I will work with the horse alone, without the person in the pen with me. We have to have a beginning point and if the person has not achieved it by now, then obviously some outside assistance is required. I will first do nothing. Many, many horses nowadays are the victims of the tapes that are sold without understanding on the person's part. They have been round-penned and disengaged and jacked-with and jacked-with until they finally realize that there is no sense in this conversation so they quit trying to hear.
I walk in and do nothing; this gives me two things - one is time to listen on my own, and two is by doing nothing I am doing something. I am doing what the other person wasn't. This in itself is often enough to trigger a horse's interest; if not, that tells me something also, so then I begin by interacting with the horse. I will walk towards him and then when he steps I will turn and walk away; I may walk around the perimeter of the pen until he steps towards the center.
I may do many different things depending upon the sensitivity of the horse. If he is scared and confused I will proceed very slowly; if he is a more arrogant-acting animal that has our places on the food chain confused, I may use a flag to move his feet.
Regardless, what I am working on from the very instant I enter
the pen is to engage their active mind, their listening, thinking
mind, so no matter what I do I must do it with a direction
in mind and consistently utilizing the three parts to any conversation
- which are: What I do, What he does in response, and What
I do in return, or: I ask , He responds, I stop.
If this pattern is followed consistently enough the light will go on in his mind, “this guy is trying to talk to me”. When that thought goes through the mind of a horse that has until now been living in a world of static noise, believe me it stimulates their listening.
One way I describe it is like this - imagine that tonight you are kidnapped, and that in the morning you wake up in some third world country where you cannot find any way out nor anyone that you can converse with. You are there stumbling around surviving by your wits for several months until one day some tribesman with a distinct Texas accent walks up and says, “Hey! Isn't that a Houston Oilers jacket yer wearin?” How hard do you think that you would grab onto his arm?
These horses have been listening to static for so long that they have forgotten that any real sense and conversation can exist; I am there to remind them that it does, and they not only want that, they crave that. Even the hard ones do. Bottom line is that they do not want to be that way; they are that way because they know no better way. Just as with a child, if there is not sense nor boundaries, they feel lost and WILL create a way to be, in order to deal with the confusion and uncertainties.
I open the pathway to listening, I motivate them to search it out, and all the while I am showing them that I am listening even harder.
Then I bring the person into the mix, and I walk them through the steps that are needed to be clear, consistent, and effective. I help them to build a language together, a language of interaction but a language just the same. Then once they are both clear on what listening is and what place in the world each fits into, then and only then can they begin to try to head in a definite direction with their conversation.
How do I do these things? How many horses have I worked; each is as individual as we are. The basics of a good relationship is universal, the application is personal.
*Can you explain why horses have some days when they do what they want instead of what the person wants?
Well yeah, I can, in a few words if a person wants the short version - it's because you don't start one with a key.
They are infinitely complex, thinking creatures; they have almost every single emotion that we possess, other than perhaps guilt or remorse, lucky them. However we cannot allow ourselves to be victims of a horse's emotions and whims, and they can learn to exercise some self-control over their thoughts and be willing to surrender their thoughts for our thoughts.
However that also comes with great responsibility: we cannot ride them like a non-thinking, non-feeling machine. We must be aware of their well-being and their feelings, and their attitudes. We must be considerate, we must be reasonable, we must be fair, we must be consistent, and we must be effective, as I have mentioned many times.
I will tell you a little story that may illustrate better.
I was once working with a horse that belonged to a lady, a
large lady. She was much taller than I and wider, and she had
a horse that simply would not give her the time of day. I worked
with this horse for about an hour and he soon became almost
an extension of my mind; I could ask and he would go, I would
suggest and he would stop, I wiggled my finger and looked him
in the eye and he would walk over and put his head down into
I then said that I was going to get a drink and she should work with him for a bit. I watched her from the kitchen window for a few minutes and in literally seconds their relationship was such as if I had never been there.
I gave her a bit to struggle with things, and then slipped in and walked up behind the lady; the horse was simply not listening, so I reached around and placed my hand over hers on the flag and the change was instant. That horse was as soft and willing as if I had never left. She turned to me and said, “Now what in the heck is the difference?? I was doing exactly what you were doing!”
I said, “It's really pretty simple, he believes ME.”
So while some of these problems can and are caused by physical things such as a sore back, sore muscles, tired from too much the day before, etc., these are things that we are responsible to be aware and cognizant of always. The other primary reason that I see is that the horse doesn't believe the rider.
*What makes it possible for a person to get willing and consistent cooperation from the horse?
The short version again? A good relationship. The six million dollar question of course is what kind of relationship is that? Depends, what kind of personality does the horse have? What kind does the person have? Are they compatible? Is the person responsible enough to know what they don't know and need to know? Are they willing to surrender their pride and ego and seek help? Are they self-disciplined enough to diligently work towards bettering their horsemanship by exercising these ideas? If not, then just as there are as many divorces as marriages, it ain't going to happen.
What makes any relationship work? I learned a long time ago that there are no 50/50 relationships that are good and lasting; it takes at least 90/90 to make it work.
I said once that the real measure of a horse is not what we get when we ask, it's what we get for free. If a horse develops confidence in you, if he has faith in you, if he believes in you and your ability to be clear and consistent, that is just the beginning. He also must have trust in your consideration, your conversation, your - for lack of a better word - humanity.
I often say that horses are our mirrors, and it is not possible to create a better horse than you are as a person.
We can fool some of the horses some of the time, but when you enter into a "relationship" with one, and he sees you when you're up, and when you're down, and when you're angry, and when you're happy, when he sees you to the point where he realizes that you and he are somehow intertwined in this life, he knows you. He knows you like your husband or wife knows you. He sees your dirty socks, he knows you leave dishes until morning, he knows what you look like inside. If he doesn't like what he sees he is not going to give you much for free.
I know that the day that I finally could walk up to a mirror and look into my own eyes and honestly say, "I like you", my horsemanship went over the top. It had a major effect in another area as well - I also knew that instant that I finally was ready to be a father.
It had nothing to do with what I did, it had everything to do with who I was.
If we truly want willing, if we truly want their heart, we first have to give our own.
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