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10 Things I Learned at the Peter Campbell Clinic

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By Guest Blogger Suzanne Minter

Suzanne adopted Wooden Phone — now renamed Watson — from LOPE. This year she audited all four days of Peter Campbell’s 2015 clinic in Giddings, Texas. This is her blog post about what she learned from the sidelines.

I had the privilege of auditing Peter Campbell’s clinic this year. The experience left me feeling excited and inspired to work to improve myself as a rider and a horseman. At the end of each day, I felt I was overflowing with information to process. These are some of the highlights of what I learned during the intense four day experience.

1) Get to the feet.

If you’ve ever attended a clinic with Peter, you have heard this many times. In fact, I’d say it is the most common phrase he uses throughout the clinic. It applies to so many situations and issues. If your horse tosses his head; get to the feet. The idea is that it isn’t the head that has a problem, it’s the feet. I think this is such an important thing to understand. As riders, we tend to focus on the surface of the problem instead of the core. In the example of a horse that tosses his head, a rider might respond by trying to pull or hold the head down, see-sawing on the reins, or even resorting to harsher bits or gadgets. However, the rider would only be addressing the symptom. It is important that we be able to move each foot individually, where we want it and how fast. When we focus on getting the feet right, everything else will fall into place.

2) Never ride to correct a horse.

This is something I believe we are all guilty of. Our horses make mistakes, and — with the best intentions — we ride to fix it. Peter discussed the importance of directing a horse rather than correcting. Give him something to do; and remember to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult, but not impossible. Correcting and directing may sound very similar, but they are very different to the horse. Be proactive, not reactive.

3) Ride from where the horse is at.

Last year, I had the privilege of riding in Peter’s clinic. This point was the biggest revelation I took home from that clinic, and it was really great to be reminded of it again this year. This means you get on your horse and ride him from where he is at, right now. Not yesterday, not a week ago, not a month ago. As riders, we have trouble letting go of problems we’ve encountered or progress we’ve made; but the horse is living in the now. He may have spooked at that chair outside the arena last week, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to today. You may have had your flying changes down today, but he may struggle with them tomorrow. Where is he at today? What does he need to work on right now? What is he doing well with? These are questions we need to ask, and ride accordingly. This radically changed the way I approached my rides, and I needed to be reminded of it. Old habits die hard, and I think this habit in particular is one of the hardest to let go of as a rider. We need to constantly remind ourselves to ride from where the horse is at.

4) Never punish.

This is a tough one. “Punish” sounds harsh, but it’s not strictly abuse that qualifies as punishment. To a horse, punishment is any negative reaction after they have already done something. For example: your horse bites you, so you turn and smack him. You think this will teach him not to bite. However, your horse then becomes resentful and learns to be sneaky about it. The next time around, the scenario goes like this: your horse reaches like he is about to bite you, you turn and swing, he jumps out of the way, then quickly bites you after you miss him. I bet most of us have known at least one horse who had this routine figured out (I know I have). The key is to redirect before or during the action, never after. Once it happens, you might as well move along. If you could have blocked that action or redirected him before he actually had the chance to bite, he could learn it’s not a good idea. As humans, our emotions get in our way with this. If your horse bites you, it hurts! Maybe you get angry or upset. You don’t want to hurt him, but you do want to react to let him know that’s unacceptable. It’s hard to let go of that idea, but being reactive is not going to give us the result we want.

5) Horses aren’t people (or dogs, for that matter).

Seems obvious, right? Of course, horses aren’t people. You really don’t need to attend a clinic to learn that. And yet, most of us are guilty of anthropomorphizing our horses (at least a little bit). Usually, it’s with the best intentions. We love them, and we want to make them happy. However, the nicest person with good intentions can turn the best horse into a dangerous and unhappy creature. As an example: a horse pins his ears and threatens to bite or kick when the owner attempts to mount. The owner might try to be respectful of the horse’s feelings (he must not feel like going for a ride today), by putting the horse away. Over time, a horse who is consistently spoiled and appeased will become more and more disrespectful. Horses naturally need (and want) a leader to give them direction. The spoiled horse has been thrust into a leadership role. As such, he becomes unhappy, dominant, and eventually unsafe. Peter spent some time at this clinic talking about the dangers of spoiling a horse. In particular, he brought up treat training and hand feeding treats. This is really treating horses as if they are dogs, and is equally detrimental. In their natural environment, the dominant horse asserts his status by moving another horse and taking his food. When a horse is hand-fed a treat, he is learning he can take the owner’s food; therefore, he is dominant over the owner. This can lead to aggressive behavior, which can ultimately put both horse and owner in danger. The best way to be a kind owner is to remember your horse is a horse.

6) Plan ahead for your ride, but remain flexible.

Have you ever found your rides were getting extremely generic? You jump on your horse, go through the motions like you always do, then quit. Maybe you get on, do your usual warmup, and then find you don’t know what to do next. During the clinic, Peter told us he always has a plan when he rides. He’s working on something. I believe it’s very important to have a game plan before getting on. What do you want to work on? What exercises might help? In what order should you do those exercises? This is the best way to make your rides meaningful and efficient. However, Peter also stressed the importance of being flexible. Your horse may need a slower or different approach. This goes back to riding from where your horse is at. It’s important to plan ahead, but to change your approach if your horse needs it.

7) Quality and accuracy (or “Don’t rush the horse through the turn”).

Growing up in small town Texas, the majority of cow horses I saw working were the small, catty Quarter Horses that threw themselves down on the forehand and rushed around. I actually assumed this was the correct way of doing it. Now, I have seen the light. Since Peter didn’t have his horses with him, he borrowed horses to ride in the clinic. He rode a really nice roan gelding in the Cow Working class. The gelding was still young and green, so Peter was able to demonstrate how to teach the horse to rock back on his hind end and step his front end around when turning to follow a cow. It’s a much more efficient and correct way to work a cow, and much more graceful to watch. Peter repeatedly expressed the importance of not rushing the horse through the turn, even if the cow got away. He emphasized the importance of keeping the horse correct and allowing him to take all the time he needs. The speed will come later, but the accuracy of the movement must not be sacrificed. This seems very specific, but in reality it applies to all movements and all disciplines. The quality and accuracy of the movements should always be the priority.

8) Get the little things and the big things will come.

This is one of the most important fundamentals of good horsemanship. Too often, we focus solely on jumping higher, turning tighter, running faster, or collecting further to reach the higher levels of our sport. If your horse isn’t solid in the basics, you are bound to hit a wall. If we focus on the foundation, the big things won’t be so difficult anymore. Horses with educational gaps cannot progress, and typically have trouble coping emotionally. They can become frustrated and stressed. However, if we slowly work on the fundamentals until they are solid, the horse can progress without backsliding. What we perceive to be the little things are actually the big things.

9) Pay attention to the horse’s expression — and change it.

One thing in particular I really appreciate about Peter is his dedication to the horse’s mental state. He tells riders to pay particular attention to the position of the ears. If the horse’s ears are not forward while you’re riding, you should work to change it. There were two ways Peter changed the expression of the horse he was riding during the clinic. If the horse pinned his ears at another horse or a cow, Peter would give him a bump on the rein to interrupt that display of mild aggression. If the horse moved around with his ears back on a continual basis, Peter would reach forward and firmly rub the horse on both sides of the neck until the ears went forward. He explained each horse may have a different spot, and asked the riders to stop and get their horses’ ears forward. It was very interesting to see the riders find the right place and pressure, and watch it work like a magic button. Peter had the riders repeat this each time the horses’ ears went back. Over time, the horses began to keep the happy, interested expression more consistently. Improving the horse’s outlook on work greatly improves his work ethic and helps him become a willing partner.

10) Don’t fall asleep.

There were many times the horses and riders were still. Sometimes, they were circled around Peter, asking questions and listening to instruction or the occasional story. Other times, they were circled around the cows, waiting for their turn to work one. It’s very common to take a situation like this as a complete break (I know I was guilty of this last year). However, Peter pointed out multiple times that you should never stop riding. When he is stopped, he is constantly asking for something small — a soft feel, leg yield, move the hindquarter a step, move the front a step, back up a step or two. Without much movement, he is still working to keep the horse engaged. I heard him repeatedly say, “Don’t fall asleep!” It’s a challenge, but we should all work to become more aware and active riders.

Watching Peter’s clinic this year was so inspirational. I took home ideas to improve the ways I work with the physical and mental aspects of the horse. Peter is not only a great horseman, but also a fantastic teacher. The group of riders and auditors always consists of fun, supportive, and talented horseman; and it was such a pleasure to learn among them again this year. No matter your discipline, Peter will help you and your horse make a change for the better. If you have the opportunity to attend his clinic next year, I highly recommend it. I know I will be there!

2 Comments

  1. matilda says:

    Yes, yes and yes. Thank you!

  2. Robbie says:

    Great observation and great writing! Thank you Suzanne. Thank you Peter.

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