Everything I've learned about communicating with horses I've learned from horses. Sometimes it took awhile for the lessons they were teaching me to sink in. But the wisdom they shared with me gradually accumulated and became the system we now teach at Meredith Manor. Particular horses stand out in my memory.
One was an old style, liver chestnut Quarter mare with those bulgy muscles and little feet who was already doing a lot of things before we bought her to show. She had high withers, the kind that are good for holding a saddle when you're roping or cutting. She had a rather plain, coarse head that might have been ugly except that she had a real soft eye that made you forgive the rest. Her registered name was WMD Aloha and the guy we bought her from called her Mother. That got shortened to Mama and Mama she was for the rest of her life.
Mama never got overly excited. I remember one time when I was pulling a homemade trailer behind a six-cylinder Chevy truck. In those days, most of the trailers were homemade and nobody had thought of putting springs under them. They were pretty much wooden boxes bolted to axles and the ride must have been pretty rough. The trailer came unhitched when the truck bottomed out going over the crest of a hill and it started to pass me. I managed to block it with the truck and get it stopped so I could rehitch. There wasn't a sound from the trailer. Mama was as calm as anything though the sweat was pouring off her. When Mama got worried, she'd sweat. But that was all.
The incident was even more remarkable when I learned from her previous owner that she's been in a trailer once that had been hit by a truck. Mama spent an hour in the overturned trailer til they got her out. I always marveled that she'd get back in a trailer at all after all that but Mama was always compliant.
Mama was a great arena horse. Whatever the game was, she knew the drill and she'd just go along. It didn't matter if the rider was flopping around. That was OK. It didn't matter if you gave her the wrong cues. She'd ignore them and do her job. I came to really admire Mama because, pretty or not, she was so honest about understanding what her job was and going ahead and doing it. We rented her out for classes because all anybody had to do was sit in the saddle and hold the reins. They'd be fine and might even get a ribbon.
My point about Mama is that sometimes a horse can be so honest and uncomplicated and unperturbed by whatever you throw at them that you begin to think you're pretty good. Horses like Mama make you think you're someplace even when you haven't done anything yet.
Then along comes the next horse and you find you haven't really got the vocabulary to talk to them and explain what you want them to do. People who buy a really trained horse with the notion that the horse is going to teach them what they need to know are missing the point. The horse can teach them what the right thing feels like, but the horse can't teach them how to communicate that same feel to another horse. That's a different skill.
Horse shows are just games people play to have fun with their horses. And as soon as somebody gets really good at the game and starts winning all the ribbons, somebody else decides to change the game so other people have a chance to win.
A true horseman understands how to create a corridor of pressures that create a shape the horse can feel. Those corridors are the same no matter what game the horse is being trained to play or whether he's a baby or an old campaigner or whether he's an Arab or a Quarter horse.
You can be a true horseman without necessarily being a winner in the show game. But the people who win all the performance games are not necessarily horsemen. They may just be riding Mama.