Alex Myers is a LOPE intern and a young professional horse trainer. She is working with LOPE as a Horsemanship Scholar. As part of her education at LOPE, Alex attended JD’s clinic. She worked with a handsome LOPE horse (Willywillywilly Fast) at the clinic.
JD is an excellent teacher and his approach to starting colts was inspiring to watch. We asked Alex to write up the top five things she learned from JD at the clinic. Here is her summary:
1. Give a signal and then add energy.
This is NOT the same as a giving a signal with energy. That approach would compromise the feel for your horse. If you always give a signal with energy, then when you give a subtler cue the horses wouldn’t know what to do with it.
This was extremely helpful for me to hear. It probably was the most important thing that I took away from the clinic. Especially in regard to what I’m currently working on with myself (and the quality of feel I then can offer to the horses).
(Note from Lynn: JD was saying you give a signal and then add energy to it. If you give a signal simultaneously with energy, you aren’t giving the horse the chance to respond to the lightest version of the signal first. Of course, the horse might not notice that you offered that at first — he might need you to add energy to perceive what you are asking. But if you keep offering the signal first (without energy), one day the horse will take you up on that lighter, subtler request.)
2. When you need to add energy to a signal to get a horse to respond: Amplify, but don’t change your tone. “Neutral energy” is the key.
In terms of “the good offer” and “the not so good offer,” the tone doesn’t change between the two, only the amount of energy.
For example, if you were trying to get a horse to back up on the end of a lead. You would first offer the horse the good deal (i.e. a subtle cue) with your lead. If your horse didn’t respond, you would have to up your energy — but NOT change the tone of it (with a sense of frustration, urgency, anger, etc.). It’s the difference between being emotionally disciplined and patient versus being emotionally tense, impatient and/or defensive.
To put it in human terms, I’ll use the example of setting a boundary with someone. Let’s say someone is being intrusive with you in a social situation. You would first would simple say no in a quiet, clear way. If they didn’t respect that boundary, you would then become more assertive — but you wouldn’t yell or scream. You would remain calm while raising the degree of assertiveness in setting your boundary.
To get deeper, I think that this comes from your own trust and confidence in your feel and timing. If you know that you are setting a fair boundary, there is no need to get emotional or defensive about it.
3. Two favorite JD quotes. One: “We’re not here to hurt you. We’re not here to force you. We’re here to teach you.” Two: “Don’t try to force them to not be scared.”
The first is the most important thing you can communicate to your horse. Once you have gotten that across, you have the horse in a learning state of mind (where he feels like he has a choice and can be comfortable). As soon as they stop looking for a way out of something (an escape hatch), the horses begin to learn much faster.
I work with a lot of horses that have a history. Some are so relieved that there is person in front of them who seems like a friend, they immediately relax with me. With others, I have to work for it and prove it to them. But once you have made it clear that you have their back (that you are there to support them), you have the best partner there is.
The second part about not forcing them to be scared is an important reminder for me. Especially when I am working with a horse in a situation where time is important. It’s funny how that works with horses. The fastest way to get something done with them is just walk into it being okay if it takes all day to get it done. The second you approach it like you are on a deadline, everything takes twice as long.
At one point in the clinic, Willy was put into the round pen. Willy was the LOPE horse that I was working with in the clinic. When I initially walked into the round pen with him, Willy and I were both a little nervous (I’m not sure I had ever worked on the ground with a horse with so many eyes on me).
J.D.’s first piece of advice he gave to me was to just relax. Then he walked into the round pen — and I immediately saw what he meant. It’s so subtle it’s hard to explain in words — and most people wouldn’t noticed the difference. I was trying too hard. I was very attached to the specific outcome of Willy relaxing fast — and that came off in my body language, which then was translated to the horse.
I’m at the point in my horsemanship where I’m working to fine tune my body language. So getting this feedback — and then being able to see someone walk in and put pressure on, completely unattached and relaxed — was really beneficial.
5. When you have a horse that gets unbalanced, pick up both of your reins and ride them forward. You set the horse up so he is responsible for his own balance.
This was a HUGE insight for me. When I feel a horse become unbalanced (like dropping in with their shoulder or bulging one way), I tend to try to overcorrect it. For instance, if a horse pushed his right shoulder out while going left, I would try and push that right shoulder back underneath him. That’s not true self-carriage for the horse — that’s me holding the horse straight and in place. Per JD’s advice above, you would instead simply send the horse forward, which will make them want to naturally balance themselves on their own.
If a horse is bulging or crooked, the energy isn’t flowing through them correctly (from back to front and back around again). That bulge is prohibiting that. So address the energy first — and then the straightness will come.
In the words of Ray Hunt:
“You go with the horse. Then the horse will go with you. Then you will both go together.”
LOPE would like to thank JD Badertscher and J3 Performance Horses for putting on such a great clinic!. And stay tuned for more adventures in horsemanship learning with Alex, Laine, Kaitlyn, Lynn and the LOPE horses!