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Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Peter Campbell Clinic: Texas 2014

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Thanks to very generous sponsors, LOPE was able to have riders in all three classes at Peter Campbell’s Texas clinic in Beeville last month. I rode Santo (LOPE’s lesson horse and saddle horse in training) in Cow Working — so he could gain confidence about moving the cow’s feet as well as learning new things. One of our all-time favorite LOPE graduates, Wooden Phone (now named “Watson’) was ridden in Horsemanship by his adopter Suzanne. And a new adopter (Janet) rode her LOPE horse Luna in the Colt Starting class.

Because of Deb, Trina and an anonymous donor, we were able to offer Suzanne and Janet full scholarships in the clinic (including class tuition, stall fees and shavings cost). This was LOPE’s first ever experiment with 100% scholarships for a top-notch clinic — and with such a skilled teacher as Peter. LOPE is so grateful for the support of our sponsors and donors who made this possible!

For the purpose of this blog post (and to keep the length at least somewhat reasonable), I’m going to focus on my own observations and experiences at the clinic. Suzanne will be doing a separate post on what she and Watson learned at the clinic — so please stay tuned for that post soon. It will be a terrific read — Watson made so much progress during the clinic (he even pushed cows a little)!

For me, this clinic was less about learning specific techniques and more about increasing my overall understanding of horsemanship. Because of that, this post will focus more on general observations about how Peter “fixes things up” — so we as students can ultimately find what we need to learn most.

Trust and Teaching Style

I’ve had exceptionally good clinician experiences. The first clinic I ever rode in (as well as hosted) was with Ray Hunt in 2006. Since then, I’ve only ridden regularly with three clinicians — so I am pretty selective, to say the least. Peter is one of those teachers — and he has helped the LOPE horses and me tremendously.

One of our all-time favorite LOPE graduates, Wooden Phone (now named “Watson’) was ridden in Horsemanship by his adopter Suzanne.

One of our all-time favorite LOPE graduates, Wooden Phone (now named “Watson’) was ridden in Horsemanship by his adopter Suzanne.

From my first clinic with Peter, I came to trust him quickly (which is not my usual reaction — I tend to be a fairly skeptical person when it comes to riding in clinics). Peter from the start demonstrated that he is very careful with safety. He is always quietly watching the horses and riders in the arena — and notices everything. At many of the Colt Starting classes I’ve seen (including this year’s), there have been very scared or troubled young horses. Peter has stepped in quickly to make sure safety was maintained for the entire class — but while also setting up the troubled colts for long-term success. His Colt Starting classes are handled with much attention to the individual needs of the horses and riders — and Peter will often change the format (perhaps splitting riders up into groups or working one-on-one with edgy colts) to accommodate the situation best.

If he has feedback for the riders in any of the classes, Peter is direct with his comments (in a good way) — he will be clear and honest, for the benefit of you and your horse. I like this approach and it helped establish trust for me right away. I knew I could count on Peter to straightforwardly tell me what I needed to change to help my horse.

For Peter, problems aren’t really problems — they are just interesting opportunities to discover new information and to ultimately better help the horses.

As a teacher, Peter is extra generous with his time. For example, it is common for Peter to stop class to focus on a single horse or rider in need. At one Horsemanship class, he worked with a troubled horse on the ground — and then had each student take the lead rope and work the horse (so we could understand better what was happening). The value to that horse was immense — and the students learned so much more than they would have if Peter had stuck to a “business as usual” approach to the class.

I’ve also seen Peter work “off the clock” long after class is over — answering questions, counseling a worried student, etc. After nearly 30 years as a clinician, Peter still seems genuinely curious and interested in the horses and people who come to his clinics. For him, problems aren’t really problems — they are just interesting opportunities to discover new information and to ultimately better help the horses.

Patience with his students is also big part of Peter’s presentation as a teacher. I’ve seen him work with students who seem difficult on the surface (loud, challenging or bored) — but who are actually simply nervous or insecure underneath that façade. Peter will respond to who they really are (rather than their temporarily less appealing external presentation) — and give them the space to rise up and show who they really are to their horses. This is a delicate skill — and one that I have come to appreciate deeply.

I used to teach business classes at a community college — and also taught riding lessons at a commercial stable several years ago. Recently, I’ve begun to teach again — through LOPE’s Horsemanship Education Program. Riding with Peter helps me understand how to be a better teacher (as well as a better rider) — and inspires me to aim for more discipline and patience as a person too.

Trust and Handling Trouble

After riding with Peter several times, I trust his judgment about horses — especially troubled horses or anxious colts. Each clinic that I have ridden in with Peter has had at least one (usually more) very troubled horse. Peter helped each of these horses with skill and compassion — and he was able to translate what was happening with the troubled horses to the rest of us watching from the sidelines. Because he has worked with thousands of young horses, Peter is especially talented at spotting problems or trouble brewing long before obvious signs appear. He can point these situations out to the rider quickly and effectively — thus nipping potential difficulties in the bud.

At this clinic, I observed Peter working with a troubled nine-year-old gelding. His rider was very caring and had personally rescued the horse. However, the horse had carried trouble within him for so long — he couldn’t trust that humans would help him and was super defensive as a result. It was sad to see this handsome horse struggling with so much anxiety. His mind was deeply agitated and full of conflict — and his body reflected that in ways that could easily become dangerous. He was tight, jerky and poised to leave the scene (whether through a leap, buck, bolt or rear) — every muscle in his body said, “beware, something bad is about to happen.”

Peter watched the horse with sympathy and understanding. He offered to ride the horse — and we watched him work with the horse from the saddle. Peter’s microphone was on and we listened to him gently talk to the horse. Although the horse was scared and tense, Peter never took that personally or felt a sense of threat from the horse. Instead, he kept offering the horse a way to arrange his body — so that the life within him had a better, safer place to go.

Although the horse was scared and tense, Peter never took that personally or felt a sense of threat from the horse. Instead, he kept offering the horse a way to arrange his body — so that the life within him had a better, safer place to go.

That sounds kind of mystical — but it really isn’t. I have ridden horses with similar issues (though not nearly as severe as the clinic gelding). In each case, it felt like I was riding a bag full of kinked up water hoses — the life was pushing hard against the blocked spots, but had no place to go. The horses didn’t know how to arrange their feet so that the life could flow more easily — and thus they were scared, defensive and very uncomfortable to ride.

Peter kept letting the horse work at the wrong thing (in this case, trying to bunch his body up in a crooked line and then move). He patiently blocked the sidewise, crooked steps — and kept setting up an open door (with his legs and hands) for the horse to go (in a straight line). Peter didn’t try to shut down the energy with harsh aids to stop or turn hard. He also didn’t go for the “ride him down” approach (almost always a bad idea anyway) — noting that the horse would never relax, no matter how hard or long you tried to ride it out of him.

The horse couldn’t believe Peter was there to help him. He couldn’t stand to take the risk of trusting Peter and being let down again by a human. But Peter kept at it, rewarding the smallest try (like two steps nearly straight) and never once punishing or reprimanding the gelding.

Finally it happened — the gelding took some straight steps and allowed Peter to lead the dance just for a moment or two. Within minutes, the horse’s eyes softened — and his body began to loosen and slowly relax. By the end of the ride (which was a quiet, slow thing to observe — no drama or wild moves), the horse had changed his expression entirely. His head and neck lowered — and he even yawned (possibly for the first time ever while under saddle).

The biggest things are the smallest things when it comes to horses. What I observed with that horse would have never been a viral video or post on Facebook. But it was reality — the genuine, authentic truth — and it meant the world to that horse (even if nothing “flashy” happened). My respect for Peter’s work grew immeasurably that day — because he could have chosen to not ride that horse (who could have been dangerous, in his troubled state) or to try to make the whole thing look “amazing” to impress the audience.

The biggest things are the smallest things when it comes to horses. What I observed with that horse would have never been a viral video or post on Facebook. But it was reality — the genuine, authentic truth — and it meant the world to that horse.

Much of what he did with the horse was subtle — and not easy to replicate or even describe well in writing (though I am trying). But the horse’s face told the whole story — Peter’s ride altered that horse’s perspective and mental outlook fully. And the horse and Peter knew that. For both of them, that was enough.

But most of the riders and audience that day also saw what happened — and it changed them as well. It was very moving to watch — and more than one person had tears in their eyes after Peter dismounted. I give Peter much credit for keeping his microphone on and letting us all hear his talk with the horse — so we could understand a little better what he was offering the horse in such gentle ways.

Watching Peter work with that horse was the highlight of the clinic for me. I will always remember the look on the horse’s face after Peter dismounted.

Cow Working — Why It Was The Right Class For Us

I rode Santo in this class — the same horse who I rode in Peter’s 2013 clinic. Santo is an eleven-year-old appendix gelding. He trained at the track as a youngster — and then had several years of classical dressage training. Santo injured his hoof a couple years ago — and I then acquired him, did his rehab and began riding him regularly. He is an interesting horse, in that his earlier track experiences still color his life today. During his classical dressage years, he rarely was ridden out or away from his home arena. As it turned out, Santo was very unconfident and anxious in new situations — so we have worked on that quite a bit over the last twelve months (hauling to many clinics, riding out in new places and so on).

Working cows is such a great discipline for horses. It gives purpose and direction to the many different movements we ask of them.

Santo is training to be LOPE’s saddle horse (so he can better help me restart the LOPE horses). He also is a teacher in LOPE’s horsemanship education program. Cow working seemed like a good thing for Santo to learn — so he gets lots more practice at moving other creatures’ feet (as a saddle horse would) as well as more overall life experience.

Santo was pretty nervous about the cows at first (even spooking and whirling when the first one darted his way). But over the course of the clinic, he changed quite a bit! With Peter’s coaching, Santo was able to convert his fear into respect for the cows — and with his dressage training, Santo could really move nicely from his hindquarters several times when working a cow.

Working cows is such a great discipline for horses. It gives purpose and direction to the many different movements we ask of them. And the cows help work the horses too. A sloppy stop or an unbalanced turn suddenly can seem much less acceptable when a cow slips away because of it. And cow working is good for the riders as well. We become more observant and crisper with our aids — which gives better support and clarity to our horses.

Cow working seemed like a good thing for Santo to learn – so he gets lots more practice at moving other creatures’ feet as well as more overall life experience.

Cow working seemed like a good thing for Santo to learn – so he gets lots more practice at moving other creatures’ feet as well as more overall life experience.

The class was full of fun colleagues for Santo. My favorite was a fine grey filly with impeccable cutting bloodlines — it was a pleasure to watch her and her rider (Deb) expertly work the cows. And there were several other experienced riders and cow horses in the class — which was a great source of inspiration for Santo and me.

Good Changes

I was proud of Santo’s progress, especially in the small things. In the past, it has been hard for Santo to stand quietly. But at this clinic, he quickly settled into standing and watching the cows placidly each day. At the start of each class, Santo would display some nervous behavior (dancing around, neighing for his stall buddy). But once I mounted him and we began working, he would relax within ten minutes or so.

At some clinics, I dismount and leave the clinic a little early — so that Santo doesn’t become excited by the whirl of horses leaving the arena all at once. But at Peter’s clinic, I decided to try a different approach. The arena is in a tranquil ranch setting — much less noisy and a more natural work environment for Santo. The arena is also extra large, which creates a nice space between the riders, cows and spectators.

At this clinic, I stayed in the saddle until the class was officially over. Peter often ends his clinics with a talk or Q&A session. Santo would be so relaxed at this stage each day that he would sometimes be dozing to the sound of Peter’s voice! This was a big change for Santo — and I was happy to stay with the class for the entire session. By the fourth day of the clinic, it just seemed normal for Santo to stand calmly for most of the class — and I stopped even thinking about it at all. Which was a big change for me too.

Conclusion

This is a really long blog post. Yet I have barely skimmed the surface of what I observed and learned at the clinic. Peter only holds one clinic each year in Texas — the cost is reasonable, the riders are friendly and the opportunity is rare (at least in Texas). I hope some of you will consider riding with him next year — and if you do sign up, please come say hi to me and Santo there. We will be the pair whirling around the cows in a dressage saddle — because we definitely plan to be back at the clinic in 2015!

2 Comments

  1. Kristine says:

    I loved reading this post Lynn. It’s difficult to put the magic that happens into words. Even as a writer myself, I find it indescribable at times to explain how the little changes mean so much. This post hit on the Peter magic in all the right ways. Congratulations on the changes for you and the horses!

  2. Paola says:

    Fun! Sounds like an amazing experience.

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