Thursday, January 31, 2013

Not Quite A Book Review


" Grady "

During my down time from riding I’ve been reading some horse related books.  Recently, I finished a book that I thought might help with Donnie’s problems.  It’s called  “Empowered Horses” by Imke Spilker.  The description of the book states, “Learning Their Way through Independence, Self-Confidence, and Creative Play.”

The basic idea behind this book is to discover your horse’s independence in a “human's world” by becoming more passive, receptive, and accepting, giving your horse the physical and emotional space to take an unbelievably active role in your interaction in both work and play. To support the horse with exercises and develop games that will collect and balance his body as if by magic.  How with these interactions the horse will enthusiastically work with you inviting you along for the ride of your life. (This is basically copied from the back cover of the book)

I found there were some good insights to be found in this book.  One being that horses never get to choose what they want to do but are constantly told what they must to do. They are never given the free choice to refuse. Also, if we want willing partners, we have to empower them by giving them the choice to work with us.  There is some little bit of agreement on my part with this basic statement.  However, as I read more and more I couldn’t see myself going along with all the games played with the horses in the book.  One segment has the girl and a horse running up and down hills playing together with a collar attached around his neck and a lead.  Other games included running around the arena with the horse being free.  That’s just not in the cards for me, although it seemed to work for them. The book makes it clear that you can devise your own games of play to make it fun for the horse.  It’s all about thinking of ways to be receptive to your horse.

Some other things also struck me as not-so-doable.  Sure, I'd love to empower Dusty with all kinds of free choice, but she's already an opinionated mare, and I'm well aware of how she feels about most things.  If I followed this book's advice, walked into the field to put Dusty’s halter on and she turned away then she’s telling me no she doesn’t want to come and work or play with me.  If I subscribed to this theory, she’d never have to do anything she didn’t want to.  The principle behind all the playing and games is to empower the horse and make the horse want to be with you and interact with you all the time.  If you ask for something and they say no, then it’s their choice and you should respect it.  

I may have interpreted the book wrong, but as I read it I was picturing all of our horses and their distinct personalities, most of the time thinking what would work for some and not for others.  I came to the conclusion that Dusty would more than likely take advantage of the situation and tell me to take my halter and take a hike if given the choice--but maybe I'm not giving her enough credit?  The boys might be more receptive to some of the concepts and games, but not all.  A lot of times when they come up to me in the field or follow after me in the arena it's because they think I have treats in my pockets.  I believe the horses they worked with in the book were much younger than my herd and probably more open to suggestions.  My herd has mostly been there, done that and know when they can take advantage of a situation.

There were movements on teaching the horse to balance and be aware of their bodies.  It would take too long to go into it all here and the pictures do better justice to the techniques than I could write down.  A picture is worth a thousand words. Most were done from the ground but it also covered how they would introduce them to a saddle and rider.  Some of the time the riders in the book would jump on bareback with no bridle and walk and trot around the ring.  Again, that’s not in the cards for me right now--or probably ever. 

So in conclusion my thoughts on being with and training horses would basically come down to the theory that there is a balance to be had between not domineering, manhandling and downright abusing a horse and still getting respect from them and attaining training goals.  If everything is left up to the whim of the horse, it can be a recipe for disaster or just a plain waste of time.  The book’s basic principle is good if not taken to extremes.   And if taken the wrong way her ideas could be dangerous.  In my inexpert opinion, it’s not a complete training philosophy, but a good idea to keep in the back of your mind when dealing with your horses: they're involuntary partners who didn't sign up for this, so try to be patient, give them as much choice as possible within reason (i.e., listen to them when there is resistance to see if there is a LEGITIMATE cause) and make it fun.  But it shouldn't be a free-for-all either, so don't mistake this for a true training philosophy or a way of life.   Be mindful if this is all you do all day your horse will be out of control and you might get yourself killed.  Not to mention you will basically have a big pet on your hands.  It’s nice if we all have warm fuzzy feelings about our horses, but if that's what we want, maybe we should have house cats and not 1000lb+ animals.

Partnerships with horses demand MUTUAL trust, but also respect. Training, by nature, requires one party to do the asking and the other to do the answering.  To be clear, it's the human who is training the horse, not vice versa.   Asking correctly is what being a good horseman is about.   The horse shouldn’t be allowed to give you the finger and walk away any time he chooses.  That to me isn't empowering horses, that's disempowering humans.  For the short time he's asked to do his job, in exchange for his room and board, it's not too much to expect that they meet us half way.  Many horses may have been demeaned by humans in the past and will continue to be demeaned by humans in the future, but it doesn't mean we have to demean ourselves to be better horsemen.  We can still be good horsemen without making ourselves ridiculous in the process.  Prancing around fields Julie Andrews-style (cue the “Sound of Music”) with our horses and calling it "training" isn't empowering to either species--it's embarrassing.

While this isn’t a book review if you are at all interested in something covering these principles of training and interacting with your horse you might be interested in checking it out.  The book has wonderful pictures showing how it helped the horses they worked with and their methods.  The author and assistants worked long and hard on this book for years.  I’m sure I’m over-simplifying what the book actually wants the readers to grasp to better understand their horses.  When I started this post I felt like I was back in high school writing a book report.  You know when you really have to condense a whole book into a few thoughts.  What are you’re thoughts on this sort of training for horses?

Until next time

Quote for Today

Closeness, friendship, affection: keeping your own horse means all these things.
    - Bertrand Leclair


  1. Haven't read the book, but your analysis seems accurate. There are definitely a lot of people who want to be best friends with their horses who would be susceptible to taking it too far, but I think it makes sense to realize when you're not giving your horse a choice. The best thing in my mind is to let him choose, but make the "right" choice much easier than the wrong one. Some might say that's not really a choice, but I really don't think horses over analyze themselves that much :)

  2. I'm a big reader but I wouldn't have been able to finish that book. It sounds ridiculous and gimmicky. It reminds me of when Parelli burst on the scene and I bought his book and it was all about these "numbers." It was silly.

    I agree with you that letting us ride them once in a while is the least they can do for their room and board. I'm not about to disempower myself to give a thousand pound animal who doesn't have a worry in the world more power. My horses get their teeth done and new shoes before I get mine. They couldn't have a better life. But if I want to ride them, they have no choice. It's their job. Just like I have to go to work and my husband has to go to work. HE hates his job but he has to do it. That's why it's called a job. Now I make my horses' jobs as pleasant as possible. I would never ride them if they were hurt. I'd never use a saddle that didn't fit or put a bit in their mouths that was severe. I'm very kind and gentle. But what I say goes. I've had to give a smack or two in our time together, but that's it. They know I'm the boss and they trust that I am not going to make them do anything that will hurt them. I'm consistent in my kindness and I'm consistent in my demands and I think that makes them respect me for it. None of my horses have behavioral problems. My horse Harley would jump off a cliff for me if I asked him to. But there's no way I am running around the field with him unless I'm on his back! lol

  3. Well, as far as the book report, I will give you an A.
    I have to admit, I was giggling quite a bit through it all, picturing a "conversation" between you and Dusty, you saying "So, how 'bout you stand still here while I hop on up there", Dusty saying "Um, no, not today, but thank you for asking" while she walks away...
    I have actually experimented with this type of interaction with Fred, of which hopefully I can get the outcome into my blog. However, Fred's a little dog, we can have that conversation and have fun with it, he's not going to overpower me.
    I think there needs to be very clear lines when you are dealing with a large animal like a horse. They need to know the boundaries, where that line is. It really is a safety thing.
    The Sound of Music reference put me over the top, again picturing Dusty...
    Great post! Doubt if I will be reading that book.

  4. I've recommended this book in the past on my blog and keep it near my bed so I can revisit it periodically. I agree that it's probably not a book for a beginning rider, or for someone who doesn't know the horse they're planning to work with extremely well. But I love this book because it illustrates, not only in the writing, but in the photographs, some wonderful ways to work with horses that allow for a more equal partnership than traditional training methods do.

    Maybe I just got lucky with my herd, but I've tried many of the techniques Imke describes with all of them and have gotten amazing results. Out of the four horses I live with, three are extremely opinionated and expressive, and every one of them has responded positively to being given a choice in playing with me. I've written many times about how I ask Keil Bay if he wants to ride or not, and I'd say eight times out of ten, he says yes.

    All that said, it probably also depends to some degree on the horsekeeping methods being used. If a horse is stalled many hours a day, asking him to play when he's desperate to graze may not work. Or if the horses in question are used to a very strict routine, asking if they want to break that may also not work, without a preliminary loosening of the routine so they gradually get used to having some choice.

    I spend a lot of time with my horses every day, in close quarters, without them being on the end of a lead line. Short of actually tacking them up to ride, I rarely tie them or even have a halter on them. So we have worked out the basics of being close in physical space with both horse and human being safe.

    My thought is that this kind of comfort level is a precursor to trying out some of Imke's ideas. Though I think anyone can experiment with asking the horse and allowing the horse to respond, and honoring the response. I suspect many horse folks would be surprised that they would not in fact be taken advantage of, and that once the horse knows there is truly a choice, he/she will say yes. Although again, this depends on the horse's routine, whether he gets adequate turn-out and time with other horses, and whether the relationship is such that being with the person is actually a nice experience.

    Ultimately, trying it not just one time, but a number of times, is the way to find out what might happen! And choosing in advance not to take the answer personally until the horse has some time to test out this new way of being with humans. Most horses will never have been asked. It makes sense that they won't know what to do the first few times.

    Some of the most memorable times of my life have been with my herd in the field. One particular time they cantered in a circle around me, like merry-go-round horses, completely attuned to my body and the space we were in. I didn't set out to make that happen, but certainly by being at liberty with them many times before, and being open to their feelings about being with me or not, contributed to them in that instance actually inviting ME to play, and to experience something that was truly magical.

  5. well said. there is certainly a valid point to be made here about not imposing our will on horses during the training process, listening to them, making their jobs fun, and giving them the opportunity to make their own choices, and we certainly let our herd live the closest thing possible to a free-choice lifestyle we can...

    but there are some pretty flakey philosophies out there as well, and a lot of 'trainers' out there with schemes designed just to gain followers and make $$$. not having read the book, i can't say this is one, but i am pretty sure the answer to punishing, forceful riding is not to simply turn our barns into horsie daycare centers so we can all feel good about ourselves. there is a happy medium where horse and man can coexist in peace and harmony where we can still get our riding done and the horses are none the worse for wear. there's nothing wrong with having horses for pets, but for those of us who still want to ride and work, this sounds farcical.

    i'm also getting a little tired of exploitative books trying to guilt me into feeling like a horrible human being because i still want to ride my horses rather than keep them as pets or enormous, expensive spirit guides on some journey of self-actualization. that's not why i got into this and not what i want to get out of it. i work hard, they cost me a lot and i bust my ass to maintain my farm and keep them. i pride myself on my enlightened training methods and the results i get with them, and on my happy, healthy, well-adjusted herd. i can still appreciate their many wonders, the unique relationship of trust, and the bond only horse and rider share, etc.. and i think i can still train them humanely even though i don't have the time or inclination for daily sun salutations, poetry readings and sunset skipping through the fields with flowers in my hair. excuse me if i don't think that makes me a bad horseman.

  6. " Prancing around fields Julie Andrews-style (cue the “Sound of Music”) with our horses and calling it "training" isn't empowering to either species--it's embarrassing."


    I think - not everyone, not every horse, not every time might apply to this kind of "training" theory.

    My experience with Val has been much like what billie described. We interact without halter, lead etc. 95% of the time. The other day after a ride he followed me out of his paddock lead rope over his shoulder, through the property and into his grazing paddock. Never wavered. Wouldn't work every day, but it did that day.

    We should be able to have the best of both worlds. A calm, respectful, fun-loving partner who works with us when (s)he's asked, because of mutual respect, fairness, discipline and affection.

    (Did Dusty get you this book?!)

  7. That was an entertaining report, for sure!

    I completely understand that humans should listen to their horses. I believe that there are a great number of horses who live very oppressed lives and any attempt they may make to assert a problem, discomfort, or frustration (especially with crappy riding) is seen as a punishable act. Sadly, these horses usually shut down and stop trying to express themselves or act out so aggressively that they are labeled as dangerous and have truly become such.

    However, I do not agree that horses find confidence in a lack of boundaries. Too many choices turns into that and I think that creates anxious, ensure animals. Horses gain comfort from consistency, leadership, and fairness. I think these types of philosophies ignore this very real aspect of horse psychology.

    I agree with your daughter, and I resent training schools that make me feel like a bad person, because I use a nylon halter and ride my horse with a bit and a treed saddle. I am definitely not the most traditional horse person out there. I free lunge my horse on occasion and let him jump stuff and I listen to him when he asks "Can we canter?". The clear difference is that he asks and I get to say, "Yea or Neigh". ;)

    Harley always loves to ride, but I think that I am just lucky there!

  8. I can see their point, however...horses by nature, feel more comfortable with a defined leader. I don't need to be a bossy, hard-nosed leader, but I will get respect when I'm deserving of it. They're kind of big animals to be playmates. Think I'll stick with our roles of me being the boss, otherwise my horse will likely apply for the job.
    Soooo agree with your quote of the day though! :)

  9. Applause here! I have read half a ton of books about training dogs ("positive reinforcement") that basically says the same kind of thing and you know and I know a one-size-fits-all training methodology doesn't work for horses, dogs or human children, for that matter. What does work is clarity, kindness and consistency with a dollop of forgiveness on the top.
    Great post. Love your writing!

  10. I'll start by saying my knee jerk reaction to your description of some of the games was danger, danger. I know there was a video floating around where a girl was out playing with her horse and right at the end the horse went flying by and hoofed her pretty good. Sometimes I fear a horse's sense of play is maybe a bit different from our own.

    I did blog about letting Dee have her way during a ride. I just dropped the reins and said, "fine, do whatever you want!" And she chose 20 meter circles at a good trot, even eventually reversing to go the other way, in spite of a wide open arena door! It was a fun interesting little thing but I'm not sure what it meant.

    I do ask myself quite often, "what does she think of all this stuff we do?" Hard to guess. But I don't have any reason to believe that I bully her, intimidate her, or force her to do anything. She is a 1000lb animal with a sometimes very dominant personality and yet I often ride bareback with a halter.

    I still think her favorite part is when I put her back in her paddock with her flakes of hay.

    The thing is...she is my passion, my inspiration, my confidence. I do respect her as an independent living creature. But she is also my partner in sport and in that context I will almost always be the one doing the asking. But I guess really in the end she still has to say, "sure, we can do that" before it will happen.

    I haven't read the book but to me it sounds extreme. I think with horses there is always some give and take.

  11. This was certainly a GOOD* Grade A review. You were fair and honest *as Julie Andrews. Drawing us into the heart of the book and also allowing us to see it from a professionals point of view. (Yea, you are a true pro Horsewoman) "~'
    I am sending this onto my sissy who shares your views, and all of what your daughter said!

    That being true, she also knows i made breakthrough points in trust,respect and understanding with my mare through such games and learning modes.

    I certainly drew the line with most of the dangerous aspects, and I couldn't/didn't forget my reasonable methods of fairness to the horse, in the traditional ways.
    I have seen FAR TOO MANY "Natural horseman" practices that overlap for the worst outcomes in the horse. ONE being lunging in a rope halter!
    Sorry for those that have been doing it forever and think it's okay..but from a rope halter perspective...why are the knots in the places they are? And why would we use a "contact" method of training, with a device made for the horse to try to NOT come into contact with it?
    But then, I don't lunge for getting the bucks, piss and vinigar out of a horse.
    I am actually asking for specific actions, in a rhythmic, balanced pace. I ask the horse to seek contact with me as it finds balance.
    If my horse is not listening or has bucks with piss and does NOT have to worry about the Biting Rope halter, when it hits it...but the patient handler, who asks for calm- while the circle gets smaller the and work harder.. until they realize...they get what they ask for. When calm is established...they have all the line they can use for movement.

    My mare DOES NOT like free lunge...she literally freaks out! She likes to think and have a choice but, once a trainer asked us to do our lesson without contact...I thought I may die that day! A total waste of $45 and a mare WANTS the Rules me. She likes to please and know what is expected!

    For those like Billie, that have this awesome chance to do all the cool things with their horses, in their own time and on their own property because they have that "bent" towards such methods. YEA! I love that!

    But it certainly is not all horse lover's will to do such.
    To each their own, I pray it is fair and honest and loving to the horse...which is the common denominator in any of it!

  12. I forgot to mention in my over the top wordy comment...i was giggling and hooting all the way through your post!

  13. I'm with you. I think YOU should write your book!
    - The Equestrian Vagabond

  14. "Training, by nature, requires one party to do the asking and the other to do the answering.....For the short time he's asked to do his job, in exchange for his room and board, it's not too much to expect that they meet us half way." So true! I remind myself of this regularly. :-)

    I love your no-nonsense, logical approach, flavoured with a good dollop of humour!

  15. That is a very interesting post. I have that book and have found much of it quite inspirational and much of it head-scratching. For me it is about authenticity - being clear and aware and present. There have been times when Ben has given me a very clear no - for example once when he was on guard with three mares sleeping on the ground in a circle. He turned his back on me when I came to catch him - not aggressively but unmistakably. I listened to that and when the mares woke up I went to him again and he came with me. On the other hand, today, he knocked me over, because basically he didn't see me and I was distracted and not present at the time.

    I love her photos, I love her words, but some of the games would absolutely not be for me. It would be interesting to see her in person because, bottom line, our presence is what they react and respond to and Imke Spillker quite possibly has a real clarity of body language and groundedness that her horses respond to.

  16. I have attended one of Imke's clinic when she was here in Aus a couple of years ago. The end result of her training methods would result in the horse choosing to have the headstall on and be with you. The horses we worked with we're haltered and brought to the training area; at this early stage, no, they did not have a choice. It was mostly about empowering them to feel good in their bodies, so that they then associate that good feeling with being with their human. Imke


It's so nice of you to take the time to visit. I appreciate your stopping by and commenting on what I've written. Even though I sometimes don't have the time to reply to each comment, I do enjoy reading them.