"Russell is truly an inspirational and wise horseman. People and horses are fortunate to learn from his experience and skill. We hired Russell to start our young stallion and filly and within three weeks he had the horses loading quietly and confident under saddle. In my forty years of experience as a trainer, breeder and presently the owner of a Fresian facility I found Russell to be not only a most accomplished horseman, but also a man of the highest integrity".
Owner of Fresian Facility
I received a phone call one morning inquiring as to whether I could meet to discuss the possibility of putting two Fresian horses under saddle; a 4 year old stallion named Lammert and a 4 year old filly named Janneke). We made a time to discuss the proposition. I'd worked with Fresian horses before and was excited at the possibility of another opportunity to meet and work with more of these majestic, sensitive and special horses.
The day came for our appointment and as I drove up the driveway of the ranch I found myself getting excited. Even though I have worked with and trained many horses during my time as a trainer I somehow, and for some reason, still feel like a young boy when I'm about to come face to face with more of these honorable creatures.
This turned out to be a very special day in my life as a trainer I have to say. The ranch is a classy ranch - I could feel the special ambiance as I drove up the driveway on that first day. There was a feeling of quiet and calm and order about the place that floated above the ranch like a soft silver cloud. For the first hour the owners and I sat by a pond on deck chairs, in the shade, while discussing horses in general.I figure they wanted to see if I would be the right person to work with their horses and I certainly appreciated that. It gave me a clear picture that they cared for their animals and that they were not just going to allow anyone to interact with them.
After we leisurely discussed horses as well as other things for about an hour the owner asked if I would like to see the horses - and - of course, I said yes. I won't forget what happened next and the impression I had when I walked into the spotless barn. Soft classical music was playing in the background and otherwise the barn was unusually quiet. It is quite normal that when one walks into a barn housing 9 horses that there are lots of sounds - horse related sounds. But here all was extremely quiet. As I looked around I noticed 9 gorgeous, unblinking, Fresian horse heads looking out of their stalls; all eyes were on me yet there was not a sound. It was as though I was being watched by 9 magical Unicorns in all their wisdom and grace; no pawing, no snorting, no movement at all - just 18 beautiful eyes looking deep into me. Even when I approached a horse he/she simply stood still and continued to study me. I knew then that there was something very special about this ranch and these horses; my excitement grew.
I hit it off immediately with the ranch owner and we set about making a schedule for beginning training.
Training began on the following day. During the next five weeks I would park my truck next to the round pen - sharply at 11:00. The owner and friends that were invited to watch pulled-up chairs beside the round pen. I would train and work with one horse for the first hour and then, punctually at 12:00 I would begin the next hour with the other horse. Some days Lammert, the stallion, would be first up and on other days I would bring Janneke, the filly, in first. Five days a week the horses went to school for one hour per day and it didn't take long for them to be anxiously awaiting the training time. I always find that interesting. Most horses, once the training starts, anxiously await my truck in the morning to begin the training session.
The horses were kind and well-mannered as a result of their breeding - and - due to the care, attention and affection they received from everyone at the ranch. In all honesty I'd have to say that I've hardly met horses that wanted to please and get along more than these horses. Yet still they were not started under saddle as yet and the task of desensitization through familiarization - sacking out - would, as usual, be the first order of business. We did the usual: walking over tarps, flagging, ropes and objects around the legs, moving hind-quarters, loading, noises, umbrellas and even a vacuum cleaner and hair dryer plus more. Through the skillful use of these objects close to and around the horses they learn not only to trust that particular object and sound but somehow their trust and relaxation in relation to human beings grows.
Each time the horse says "o.k., I'm fine with that" he's also saying "I trust you a little more". I should once again say that these objects, noises etc. are introduced to the horse in what I call a soft and artful manner. My job is to set-up a safe learning circumstance/environment and then to assist the horse to be successful, in a soft way, to accept the various objects etc. The lower I can keep the horses energy the faster he will learn so it behooves me to be very alert and sensitive to the emotional nature of the horse at all times. If the horse begins to get excited I simply drop my energy and back off. Then I once again approach the horse, talk to him a bit to calm him/her down and then I proceed in an even softer way. Again, my job is to help the horse come to terms with these various objects not to scare him or force him to "get over it". This is the heart connection that I believe every "good trainer" knows intuitively. Otherwise it is a game of exploitation, ego and control which I personally have no use for - and - it just doesn't work if we're attempting and desiring to establish a working relationship based on trust and partnership with our equine partner. And so I proceeded with the sacking out or the familiarization process!
Saddle pads and saddles pretty much went on during the first two days. I think the filly jumped out from under the saddle once (the second time I put it on her) but both horses accepted the saddle with little issue. I prepared them by placing blankets and other objects lightly on their back in preparation for the saddle - plus - if ones timing and energy and technique are all working properly one can sit the saddle on the horse in a way that the horse hardly even notices it being placed there. On the other hand, if one attempts to place the saddle without having ones timing, technique and energy in order - the horse can become overly concerned and nervous and will become fearful.
I should state here something that could sound a bit strange at first to some while others would understand immediately. For me training a horse is a dance. And there is a tempo and even a silent music to this dance. There is a cadence and a timing and movement and a rightness of action that is always present - or not. The job of the trainer, my job in this case, is to become a master at the music and the dance which the horse and I establish in the round pen - both the horse and I participating in the conversation. My job is to guide the horse into greater levels of acceptance and willingness. If the trainer can accomplish this, putting a horse under saddle can be a magical and even mystical dance to witness. The music of these two horses was playing so loud and clear that I was simply overwhelmed and happily accepted the opportunity to join in the dance.
And So The Saddles Went On
So Did The Chains, Bags, blankets and Bells!
Let us not forget what we said earlier. When we introduce foreign items and sounds and circumstances into the world of the horse we have a great responsibility "to help the horse" move past his/her fear. If we really and truly care about the horse our dance will be calculated and precise both of which stem from a heart connection with the animal. Without the heart connection we are lousy dancers indeed. To be a good or master dancer is to care, deeply.
There is a quote from John Wayne which goes something like this " Even though I am scared to death, I saddle-up anyway". Well, no matter how well the training goes and no matter how confident we feel in our dance i.e. technique, timing, feel and heart connection with the horse when it is time to throw our leg over the horse - we just never REALLY know what will happen even though everything feels right. It takes courage and guts and possibly a little insanity. Don't let anyone kid you - starting colts is an extreme sport!
Teaching to Load
The owner also wanted the horses to learn to load so we placed a horse trailer beside the round pen and each day would begin and end with loading and unloading. When this is put into the training program as a regular procedure I've never met a horse that didn't load without difficulty - especially if done with low energy and consideration for the animal. Again, the trainer is there to help the horse be successful. The trainer is there to help the horse overcome his/her fear - not to add to the horse's fear and dis-trust. These horses were not terribly excited to enter the confinement of the trailer but through patience, kindness and technique they both loaded and never once had a problem.
The gentle and artful use of a butt-rope can be a great help!
And sometimes the buggers don't want to come out!!!!
Now Back to The Riding - And So We Mounted
The stallion, to a great extent, was a perfect gentleman and didn't want any trouble but still I was very careful not to ask to much of him at a given time. Of course, that's a general rule - not getting on the bad side of a horse you're soon going to ride - a no-brainer! The filly, on the other hand, as is often the case in my experience with the females, was not quite so ready to accept whatever I asked of her. Don't get me wrong, she was kind and very much a lady but she was just not quite as ready to trust as was Lammert the stallion. So, we slowly and methodically worked around her occasional skepticism and hesitation in order to help her to trust the process.
I worked with these two horses for five weeks. When I finished my work I left the ranch with reluctance and with a heavy heart. I have to honestly say that I have grown deeply attached to each and every horse I've trained or worked with and these horses at were absolutely no exception. I'll miss those horses more than I can put into words. And I'll certainly miss those beautiful days at the round pen with the ranch owners and friends all observing the beautiful sight of these majestic horses and their journey. Life is somehow bitter-sweet I guess.
One of the ranch hands with my wife Christine on the last day of training.
Thanks for tuning in and remember there is a portal/access into your horses mind and heart. This portal opens as a result of softness, timing, feel, heart and an absence of noise!!
Russell B. Hunston
See you down the road!!