Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Colt Starting Clinic with Peter Campbell: Why Nice Is Not Enough

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A generous sponsor donated a spot for LOPE in Peter Campbell’s clinic earlier this month. I signed up for the Colt Starting class and brought a horse that had been returned to LOPE by his adopters (due to unexpected changes in their situation). By their account, the horse had been in professional training earlier and had been doing well.

My goal was to “restart” him at the clinic since he hadn’t been ridden in a few months. I hadn’t seen the horse since his adoption in late 2013 and Colt Starting class seemed like the perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with him.

Suddenly it was clear that the friendly, outgoing gelding I knew from 2013 had morphed into a spoiled, poorly socialized horse with a deep contempt for people.

The clinic was an epic experience for many reasons. The horse had become troubled during his time away from LOPE. I didn’t know this until the first day of the clinic. There the horse displayed an impressive impersonation of an angry pterodactyl swooping above me. Suddenly it was clear that the friendly, outgoing gelding I knew from 2013 had morphed into a spoiled, poorly socialized horse with a deep contempt for people.

His antics were visually compelling to say the least. He became the star attraction of the colt starting clinic (no mean feat with several stud colts in the class competing for the “most athletic moves” award). The clinic was a massive learning opportunity for me and for the horse. Both of us had a great outcome (especially the horse), thanks to Peter’s skill as a teacher and horseman.

In trying to summarize this experience, I started to write out my usual biblical length clinic blog post. There was so much information to share. But then I stopped. The post didn’t have to be that long. In spite of all the melodrama, the clinic lessons can be boiled down to a few key principles which I have learned over time:

  1. Don’t hand-feed treats. If your goal is to have a happy, safe horse who rides well and is a pleasure to handle, then don’t regularly hand feed treats as a primary bonding tool or training method. The best way to be close with your horse is to meet his needs as a horse, rather than hope he sees treats as a sign of affection or praise.
  2. Don’t blame the horse. Your horse is a mirror — he reflects back with great accuracy how he has been handled and ridden. If he reflects something you don’t like, you need to look at yourself as the cause rather than the horse.
  3. Be honest with yourself. Sometimes a green horse isn’t the right choice for your capabilities, time constraints and overall goals. And if you are afraid of your horse, face that fact and make the right choices for the horse.
  4. Focus on educating yourself instead of training your horse. Go to clinics, learn from good teachers and put the emphasis on your skills first. Your horse will progress rapidly when your horsemanship improves.
  5. If you think OTTBs or ex-racers are crazy, please don’t get one. They don’t need owners who are already predisposed to bias and the lack of clarity it brings to assessing training outcomes.

To sum up, nice is not enough. A horse needs competence, leadership, structure and a sense of peace from his handler/rider. All the good intentions in the world will not prevent the horse from turning sour if you skip over his needs to ply him with cookies, confusing signals and uncertain handling. If you love your horse, you will give him what he really needs — not what you wish he needs.

Each horse is an individual and will require different things from you. The better educated that you become, the more likely it is that you can help your horse become happy and peaceful with his work, with you and with himself. That is the biggest reward ever for both you and the horse.

Further, you are responsible for your own knowledge. To quote Peter Campbell, “there are a million ways to work with a horse — but only one right way.” And that is to work from where the horse is at. It’s up to you to find the approach that your horse needs. At first you sometimes only can do that by eliminating the wrong ways. But keep looking and you will find that right way for your horse (hint: attend clinics with excellent horsemen as a start and read this post).

Each horse is an individual and will require different things from you. The better educated that you become, the more likely it is that you can help your horse become happy and peaceful with his work, with you and with himself. That is the biggest reward ever for both you and the horse.

I’ve learned all of the above the hard way and have made pretty much every mistake possible. If I can help readers avoid some of the mishaps I encountered, that makes my own misadventures seem less embarrassing. I hope all of you are faster learners than me. ☺

Note: For those readers who love the in-depth clinic posts, here is my detailed account of the clinic. And read this post on what might have happened to create such trouble in the horse before he came to the clinic.

1 Comment

  1. Candace Costis says:

    Hi, Lynn. Great blog post. A spoiled horse is the worst thing. However, you would expect me to object to the no hand fed treats rule. I ascribe to the practices of the greatest trainers in the world who train their horses using immediate hand fed rewards. Hand fed or not is up to the owner/rider/trainer but I consider it a mark of a well trained horse that they take a reward politely and do not beg. Horses will work very hard for a bit of fresh alfalfa or carrot stretches after their work or performance. But, I agree, never, never, never give a horse a treat for no reason. This has to be followed. I have seen a hardbitten race trainer who refused to give hand treats as a reward give the horses a carrot – for nothing!!! Clicker training seems great . But the trainer must follow the rules or expect disaster.

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