Monday, July 31, 2006

Getting Clinical, Western Style

Far be it from me to pass up the opportunity to attend a free clinic of any sort. When the opportunity presented itself this past Saturday, I made sure I had a front-row seat for Curt Pate's Horsemanship presentation. Pate's presence at the AQHA Region 5 Experience was an unexpected delight. Not that the entire show wasn't worth the visit, but who wouldn't love the chance to watch one of the two trainer-consultants who made The Horse Whisperer come to life on the big screen without some of the more questionable guff that appeared in the print version?

The focus of the clinic was the saddling of a heretofore un-saddle-broke young mare. I don't recall that Pate mentioned the filly's age, but I would guess her to have been around three.

There was a recurrent theme to Pate's presentation, both verbal and non-verbal, and that was "in your own time". His quiet manner and calm approach were striking from the moment he entered the round pen. The filly responded accordingly. It was obvious that she'd had considerable handling, so there were moments of "do as I say, not as I do" while the man demonstrated the use of the soft lead rope and the calf rope to sack out the horse. But in that context there were also moments when the mare found herself facing something brand new, and she was able to get through the experience pretty much stress-free thanks to the traner's patient and calm approach. Each experience took however long it took. No timelines here, thanks.

I won't belabor the details of the saddle-breaking. The whole thing went off without a hitch, though the mare didn't like the saddle and she was annoyed by the feel of the pad on her back. A little kicking and some ear-language made her displeasure clear, but Pate gave her time to think about the situation, and in the end all was well.

There were some truly distinctive take-homes that I do want to share.
  • There is nothing natural about natural horsemanship. That was an eye-opener, for sure, but he made perfect sense. Nothing we do with horses has anything to do with what horses would do if we just left them alone.
  • Horse shows are a source of great stress, both in the training leading up to them and the performance. Pate singled out reining as a major offender in this area, but it was easy to see how the other disciplines share the blame.
  • Stress is a big component in our horses' lack of overall good health. He is working with Farnum to help improve horse management and to study how stress reduces the efficacy of drugs and vaccines. Food for thought, there!
  • If we insist on tormenting (his word) our horses, we need to give them equal time to be horses. "Tormenting" includes forcing a horse onto the bit, too much use of leg, too much being taught at one time, bending a horse so much that it can't move naturally, and so on.
  • A horse can only think about one thing at a time. This one is huge! If we're "asking for bend" with leg, hand, seat and balance, the horse is only attending to one of those cues. He's probably upset and confused most of the time, even though we, in our arrogance, choose to believe he's a happy camper as long as he's not bucking us off.
  • Amateurs should not break colts. Period. More damage is done psychologically and physically by amateurs who think they know how to accomplish this task than by any other cause.
  • Round-penning doesn't work; it just causes unnecessary stress. Whoa! I need to chew on that one a while.

There was much, much more. At one point Pate pointed out that he would probably not be invited to attend any other AQHA Regional Experiences thanks to his candor about showing and training. I hope that's not the case. I would hope that a breed association of which I've been a member for about twenty years would be more attuned to the good of the horse than to the bottom line of the breeder.

In sum, I can't stress enough how important it is to keep an open mind and never stop learning the art of horsemanship. Curt Pate began his lecture by announcing that he's completely changed his approach in the past two years. That's where the Down With Round-Penning part came in. He has his reasons, and they're well based in experience . . . far more experience than you or I will ever have.

Live and learn.

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