By Jeff Wilson
One of the most profound training discoveries of my year was the revelation of the importance of keeping my two, young Border Collies following down the trail with me. Their youthful exuberance gave them rocket fuel everyday to navigate every trail ride at lightning speed. Round and around and around me they would go living their best life. It didn’t take long for them to launch themselves over and away to the next hill and dale into Never Never Land either.
“…And goodbye to Jeff,” was all they wrote. And, “Don’t write back,” as they departed with a smile. “We really can’t imagine what all your shouting’s about either.” Gone.
Oak, Jeff’s male Border Collie pup
I have had many good Border Collies over the years, lots of litters of little ones too. I know how they think; they think very similarly to a horse—somebody’s in charge. This particular trail riding dilemma, Operation Tinker Pan and Peter Bell, appeared as an interesting predicament for me to solve. Incidentally, I was only walking on the trail with them, there were no horses involved. How could I trust my beloveds to accompany me with a training horse (most likely a slightly uptight, reactive, adolescent) because my attention has to be on the brain of the horse I’m riding, I can’t worry about dogs running off? And double trouble because I have two pups. What the one can’t think of the other one will—to convince me they are the ones who know best.
The advantage came one day after I discovered along one particular trail, with a steep bank on one side and a steeper ridge on the other, that I had quite a bit of control if I kept them both behind me. Oak, the male, tried to launch by my leg several times but I was able to block him with a tree branch. Moss, the female, smarter than her counterpart, only observed. Neither dog could figure out how to run away from me if they couldn’t run passed me.
By the time I had them trained to “come back” behind me on cue, and trail along, I had mastered their adolescent wickedness. Amazing how fixing one small ingredient can affect the entire pie. The entire pie being these two crazy trail hyenas.
Double trouble, Moss (female) on the left and Oak (male) on the right. Jeff’s Border Collie youngsters.
Fast forward to now, I look back behind me at these two tongue waggers as I ride. Both sets of eyes are on me. We have enlightened everyone’s thoughts, and now move through the woods “together.” A new sheriff in town ridin’ with his two best brave new deputies. In truth, the showdown between species is ever-so-large when you’re walkin’ out the 20 paces. But the showdown teaches us the most, and its resolve—sit down and enjoy that proverbial piece of ever-so-sweet apple pie together.
A show down with the horse is won every moment you’re together. Dynamic trail riding plays its part, and obviously all the shapes of dressage do too, but everything boils down to relationship with the animal. And that boils down to time spent. I’ve learned and apply horsemanship principles to make the best use of time. “Use this here now, and it will begin to affect everything else later,” I teach. This could be an exercise teaching the horse how to bend on curved lines, navigating scary trail obstacles, or a leading lesson. The secret is knowing how to communicate with the horse but also how to be a good horse listener and decipher what the horse is telling you back. A lot of horses are runaways because their owners can’t speak horsey to them. Those horses may not be physical runaways, but they are runaways in their mind.
“We’re doomed,” their tense bodies seem to scream. They put up with more than we can know. Given the chance, a lot of them would run away.
The dark side of this saga are all the riders who haven’t discovered how to be leaders yet—they just wear the gum-ball sheriff’s badge. A horse (and a dog) needs someone it can believe in and trust, Marshal.
Jeff Wilson and one of his Morgans, Patrick
It isn’t the horse’s fault if its spook clears the moon, it never is. Were you having a conversation with him at the time of the spook, sir, or were the reins swinging in the breeze?
The horse team leader can be the horse whose fastest action of the day is that quick tail swish just moments after thinking you were going to tell it what to do. Glad that’s over—there can’t be any confusion regarding whose job it is to run the radio and whose job it is to drive. When you, the rider, aren’t controlling the speed, you, the rider, aren’t the leader.
That’s horse wickedness, but you can’t blame them.They’re just being horses.
Horses take charge and lead, sometimes very poorly, if their person isn’t tuned in—something that takes years to retrain for both species. If your horse dictates the speed while riding, you have become just another citizen in this riding town but thanks for showing up.
To all those many horses still lovin’, leadin’, leanin’ and stretchin’ (living and loving their leadership life, leaning on those reins and stretching out those fingers); cheers! And cheers to you who just let your horse stop on the trail to poop.
I’m over yonder at the edge of nothing, laying in the dirt with the social media stampede. Please take some time and “like” www.facebook.com/Jeff Wilson | The Complete Horse Method so I can stand back up, dust myself off, and smile like that goat in yer rose garden. I have been training horses for over 35 years and value the western horse lifestyle in my approach to training. Giving clinics and seminars on how to reach your full potential with your horse through the training foundation of dressage keeps me young.