Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Colt Starting Class with Peter Campbell: Daily Overview

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The “Colt”

Witt’s Midway was adopted from LOPE in the fall of 2013. We had ridden him a few times before he was adopted. Witt impressed us with his confident, friendly personality. He was uncomplicated to ride and a pleasure to have at our ranch. To no one’s surprise here, an experienced and caring horse family quickly snapped Witt up and adopted him.

But in late 2014, Witt’s adopters contacted us and asked if they could return him. Their situation had changed and they no longer were able to give the time that a green horse needed. During his time with them, Witt had been in professional training and had been ridden at their boarding stable.

Although we were full at the time, we arranged for Witt to go to an excellent foster stable in Houston until a spot opened up. The adopters sent Witt back with a kind donation (which was much appreciated and helped greatly with his care costs).

The Clinic

A generous horse lover donated a spot in Peter Campbell’s clinic (held in Giddings, TX in early March). We decided to have the foster barn deliver Witt directly to the clinic. Our idea was that I would restart Witt in the Colt Starting class there — as a way to gauge where Witt was and to see if there were any gaps in his knowledge that needed to be addressed.

Secretly, I thought I was getting away with an easy ride. After all, most of the horses in colt starting hadn’t been saddled (let alone ridden, raced and exposed to at least some post-track training like Witt). But if Witt sailed through the colt starting class with flying colors the first day or so, I told myself we would ride in the horsemanship class instead. I harbored a quiet fantasy that maybe Witt would be noticed at the clinic — and possibly attract some interest from a potential adopter.

Well, I was right. Witt did get noticed at the clinic. In fact, he was pretty much the star attraction by the last day. Several auditors told me that they couldn’t wait to see what happened during the final colt class that Sunday (me either). However, the reason for the eager interest in Witt was a bit different than I had hoped.

Day One of Colt Starting

The first day of the colt class focused on ground work and prepping the colts to eventually accept a saddle. From the moment I walked into the arena with Witt, I sensed something was amiss. Although Witt appeared calm, my instincts told me to be extra aware. Sure enough — the instant that I asked Witt to move his feet around me (in the “go by” maneuver), he tensed up, pinned his ears and shook his head at me. And didn’t move his feet much.

No problem, right? I’ve handled horses before who want to make sure I’m really the one who moves their feet (as opposed to the option that they move my feet instead). Inwardly rolling my eyes at Witt’s teenage boy behavior, I smiled and adjusted my approach. I straightened my posture, pointed my leading hand (with lead rope in it) more clearly and shook my training flag to indicate that yes, indeed, Witt did need to move his feet.

For the rest of that first day, Witt performed spectacular moves fraught with melodrama. He jumped vertically, reared, kicked out, bucked, struck out with his front legs – plus tried to bite and run over me.

Within seconds, Witt had kicked the training flag out of my hand and began hopping with his shoulder aimed at me (this is not good, in case any readers are wondering). I shut down the leaping shoulder kung fu move and picked up my flag. And began again, with a tighter grip on the flag and extra attentiveness to exactly where it was in relation to Witt’s hind feet.

For the rest of that first day, Witt performed spectacular moves fraught with melodrama. He jumped vertically, reared, kicked out, bucked, struck out with his front legs — plus tried to bite and run over me. Sometimes he managed to do all of these movements pretty much simultaneously. Impressed with his athleticism, I found myself performing some pretty rapid yoga moves myself — to stay out of range while continuing to ask him to move his feet forward.

Emotional response in the person is very important in these situations. Being scared or angry will not help the horse (or the handler). I felt calm (though extremely alert) throughout the session — but I had a hunch this would not be enough for Witt to make a change. Some horses that display similar behavior are trying to see if the human will overreact and lose focus. They want to be sure you are truly steady in the leadership role — and their “bad boy” antics aren’t truly serious or deep-rooted.

This was not the case with Witt. He was deeply invested in his approach — and mere placidness on my part wasn’t going to convince him to change. I found myself starting to inwardly bristle a little at his attempts to bite or kick out at me. Peter often instructed me with just one word, “Easy!” — which I soon realized meant to not pick a fight with Witt, to keep the feel of the lead rope as soft as safety would permit. And to let him try to make the right decision, even if it looked like he was about to choose unwisely.

Day Two of Colt Starting

On the second day, Witt began his gangster flailing about on the lead rope before I even asked him to move forward. Peter then decided to work with Witt from the back of his saddle horse. Working from the back of another horse gives the handler many more options for safely helping a troubled horse like Witt through some key learning moments. For example, Witt was positive that he couldn’t possibly yield his hindquarters over — until Peter showed him clearly how that was possible (and definitely happening when Peter directed his feet) from the back of Blue the gelding. Witt couldn’t easily kick or run past Blue, with Peter directing Witt’s head and blocking any hostile actions.

Witt settled for trying to bite Peter and Blue — a decision which only resulted in Peter quickly redirecting those thoughts before they settled anywhere near Witt’s teeth. The look on Witt’s face was priceless as I watched him start to think about maybe biting, only to immediately change his mind. Peter would deftly interrupt that budding idea with a quick block of Witt’s mouth just as his teeth barely started to twitch in his direction.

At the end of the second day, Witt was quieter for longer periods of time. It was becoming apparent that he was craving clear, confident direction while also needing to feel full peacefulness in himself (and from his handler) when he made the right decisions.

Witt started to make some changes after that session with Peter. But there were still signs of trouble within him. Later in the class that day, Peter had us put all of the horses in the round pen together. We then left them there for Peter to direct as a group. He asked them to move out together and carefully began cueing them to see if they would eventually respond to him with softness while also remaining attentive. This type of exercise is an important part of a colt starting class. It helps the colts learn to move as a group (which will be helpful when the riders are all actually on the colts later) and it demonstrates clearly where each colt is at mentally in regards to being directed by the human handler (also helpful information to have before they are ridden).

Witt soon earned the nicknamed “red-headed step-child” for his inability to go with the herd. He went the opposite direction of the colt group, often running directly into the pressure represented by Peter, his horse and his training flag. The other horses pinned their ears at Witt, sensing that he was getting them all in trouble with his antics.

But I was more troubled to observe Witt’s tight body throughout the session. His movements reminded me of a kinked hose starting to break at the seams. A spurt of energy would spasm his body — and he’d lurch off in a crooked line at high speed for several steps. Only to stop suddenly and ricochet off in another direction.

At the end of the second day, Witt was quieter for longer periods of time. It was becoming apparent that he was craving clear, confident direction while also needing to feel full peacefulness in himself (and from his handler) when he made the right decisions.

Day Three of Colt Starting

On the third day, Witt showed some improvement in the ground work. But he was prone to resistance and the situation felt delicate. The potential for trouble still seemed quite real. I found myself unsure of how to proceed. It was important to offer Witt a good deal, a soft feel on the lead rope. But I didn’t want to make the mistake of appearing tentative to Witt. Eager to avoid any bristling (and to reduce the number of times Peter said “Easy!” to me), I erred on the opposite side of the coin.

I was hesitant to mount partially, interpreting Witt’s swishing tail as a sign of tightness. Peter brushed aside my concerns, pointing out that Witt was irritated but not tight. I was the one who was tight at this point, often second-guessing myself. I seesawed between too tight and too loose throughout the session. At one point, I turned my back to Witt and allowed his head to move away from me — a mistake that would have resulted in a kick on the first day and still was pretty risky on the third day.

I was hesitant to mount partially, interpreting Witt’s swishing tail as a sign of tightness. Peter brushed aside my concerns, pointing out that Witt was irritated but not tight. I was the one who was tight at this point, often second-guessing myself.

As Peter moved the group of colts in the big arena, Witt again had trouble moving with the group — he was still the red-headed step-child of the herd. As I watched him spastically dart about the arena, I wondered if I could ride him like that. Riding with speed is not a problem for me. But riding a rapid-fire, undulating, out-of-sync horse seemed out of my reach. It looked like Witt would move better for several steps — but he couldn’t hold it for long (as if he mistrusted what “good” felt like). For a rider, it would be difficult to build on those good moments of movement — because Witt was resisting them with almost every other step.

His independence from the other colts was worrisome too. If he were spastic but moved in the group, a rider could at least count on Witt staying with the rhythm of the herd. This would help a rider go with the herd’s flow and help Witt gain confidence in it as well. But since Witt was avoiding that flow (or any other, for that matter), a rider would be challenged to keep Witt building on the positive. And it was clear that a rider would have to avoid pulling on Witt’s head at all. It was key that Witt be permitted to move freely and not be shut down. So that added another dimension of complexity as well.

However by the end of that session, Witt had made some subtle changes in how he responded to Peter’s direction within the herd. I couldn’t see all of them clearly (some of this was new to me) — but I could tell that Witt was stopping differently and would look to Peter more often. He also occasionally took a small step toward Peter after he halted and seemed more comfortable staying with the herd once they were stopped.

Day Four of Colt Starting

Several auditors had told me that they were staying for Colt Starting session that day to see Witt under saddle. Everyone had been impressed with his dragon-style antics and over-the-top melodrama during the first days of the clinic.

On the fourth (and last) day, the colts were moved again as a group in the big arena. When I removed Witt’s halter and walked away from him, he followed me to the fence as I climbed up it. He moved with the herd well and even was curious about the group of cows in the arena (the cow working class had left them there for the colts to look at). For the first time, Witt looked like a normal horse — he made a horse buddy, loped easily with the other colts and stopped happily when directed.

It was obvious Witt had changed dramatically by that final class. His expression was inquisitive and friendly again. I could see the Witt I used to know (from 2013).

After that group bonding experience, I then rode Witt in the round pen. Peter carefully coached us both and the ride went well. It was obvious Witt had changed dramatically by that final class. His expression was inquisitive and friendly again. I could see the Witt I used to know (from 2013). During most of the colt class, I felt like I was handling a horse I had never met before. So it was great to see the “real” Witt emerge once more.

After the class, I asked Peter what the next steps should be for Witt. “Ride him where he is at,” replied Peter. He made it clear that Witt should be fine now, as long as we rode him from where he was and did our best to follow good principles of horsemanship.

As I left the clinic, I pondered the many deep changes that had happened in Witt and me. I am grateful to the generous sponsor who allowed Witt and I to attend the clinic. But most of all, I am grateful to Peter for his skill, his knowledge, his patience as a teacher and his compassion as a horseman. Both Witt and I are better in so many ways because of what Peter gave us (and all his students) at the clinic this year.

What Happened At The Clinic?

Peter Helped Witt

So how did this big change come about? The answer is that Peter has seen thousands of horses like Witt (as well as ones much more troubled than Witt). When he directs a horse with a lead rope, a flag, his body or his saddle horse, you can see those thousands of other horses in his feel and in what he offers with the smallest gesture to the horse. This kind of deep work with horses isn’t at all new age or “woo-woo” — but neither is it a formula or a mathematical equation that can be followed by rote alone.

This kind of deep work with horses isn’t at all new age or “woo-woo” – but neither is it a formula or a mathematical equation that can be followed by rote alone.

I am an amateur rider. At LOPE and at home, I have worked with or ridden maybe about 200 horses. I haven’t “finished” horses at all — just put some rides on green ones, assessed LOPE horses for new jobs, aimed to develop my personal horses and so on. I rarely have handled deeply troubled horses (green ex-racers don’t really fit that category in my opinion). Although I’m an athletic and sporty rider, my skill levels are downright pre-school level when compared to a horseman such as Peter Campbell. That’s not being derogatory or negative about myself — it is simply factual.

Witt made those changes because Peter was able to essentially “exorcise” a demon of trouble out of him. He did this by working with the horse’s mind to get to his feet. And sometimes he had to work with the horse’s feet first to get to his mind. There are equine physics involved (the horse’s feet must move and be moved by the human in a precise manner for a specific result). There is horse psychology involved (the horse must be allowed to change his mind to make the right decision, rather than forced to comply).

Witt made those changes because Peter was able to essentially “exorcise” a demon of trouble out of him. He did this by working with the horse’s mind to get to his feet.

There is human emotional discipline involved (the handler must be calm and patient, while also ready to redirect as effectively and quickly as possible). There is athleticism, feel and timing involved (you really need to know what to do about what happened right before what happened, happened). But mostly there is longstanding skill and experience involved — and this is something that can only come from someone with Peter’s degree of expertise as a horseman and as a teacher.

Although Witt was cavorting about like a dragon, Peter could see immediately (and with emotional detachment) what was causing this and why. He saw a troubled horse who had been essentially trained and encouraged to do the wrong thing, a horse who was deeply unhappy (no horse wants to be troubled) and a horse who deserved to be offered a good deal from the start (even if it took four days for him to accept that deal).

The line between firm and hard can be delicate. As can the line between soft and passive. A horseman understands those lines and lives within them 24/7. The rest of us are maybe just now starting to discover that there are a couple of lines at all.

Peter Helped Me

Another thing that happened at the clinic was that Peter worked with me. He could have produced even more rapid changes in Witt if he had worked with him directly during the entire clinic. Instead Peter allowed me to learn how to work with Witt. He let me handle Witt and grow in the process. This isn’t the kind of lesson you learn at a desk or in theory from a book. The only way to understand how to help the Witts is to work with them directly, make mistakes (hopefully non-risky ones), and improve yourself. I was honored that Peter had the confidence that I could learn from Witt without making things worse for the horse or me. It wasn’t a comfortable experience, but it was a good experience. And it wouldn’t have been possible without Peter.

I also appreciate the extra care Peter put into coaching and supervising me. It is a huge responsibility to run a colt starting class — the clinician takes on a great weight to make sure that all the colts and riders stay out of trouble. And while the people must always take the most responsibility for their own safety (by listening to the clinician and staying aware of their own colt), it is still the horseman who is setting us all up for success in subtle ways that we often don’t see.

Horses have characters and make choices – and Witt’s inherent nature is friendly, willing and sporty.

I’m experienced with green horses and devote much time to improving myself through clinics and lessons. Even so, working with Witt at the clinic took much of the horsemanship knowledge, body awareness and emotional control that I have slowly built up over the years. I was so excited to see Witt fully emerge from the clinic whole again — as the friendly, cheerful horse I had worked with in 2013.

The credit for that transformation must go to Peter (for I couldn’t have accomplished it on my own) — and also to Witt for not going completely to the dark side. Horses have characters and make choices — and Witt’s inherent nature is friendly, willing and sporty. He was willing to take what Peter was offering — and I am grateful to Peter for what he offered to Witt (and me).

In conclusion, a huge thank you to Peter for helping Witt and me find a happy outcome together at the clinic!

2 Comments

  1. kate says:

    I’m so glad to read about this experience. My filly and I are discovering lines together. I’ve never raised a baby and while we have a village to help, we plan to go see Peter next year. Thanks for helping us know more of what to expect.

  2. Robin says:

    Thank you so much for these wonderful and detailed write-ups of your experience with Witt and Peter Campbell. I’ve seen Peter on video, but never in person. I hope to attend one of his clinics some day. I couldn’t agree more with so many things you’ve said here. I feel I am constantly trying to find those lines between soft and meek, firm and hard. It’s always so helpful and informative to read about the journey of other people searching for the same thing.

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