I had the good fortune to audit a clinic put on by Sinead and her husband Tik this past weekend. They taught at separate arenas in the same facility. I managed to catch several sessions with each and I'll write them up separately.
|this is a video still from a video i took, so i'm stealing it|
She is great.
Oh you wanted more?
Ok here's what I love about Sinead: she has an amazing ability to read a horse and rider in about 3.5 seconds and then give them very specific feedback on how to improve. She's kind, encouraging, and dead on. I saw nary a tear or a frown and lots of people had ground breaking experiences even in long-term partnerships with established squabbles. I never saw a horse look overfaced or a rider look afraid and I saw lots of good riders get better. If I had a horse that jumped, 10/10 I would ride with her no questions asked.
Things I did not love about Sinead: um.... really reaching here, but I generally avoided standing next to her because she's freaking gorgeous and I'm just a dumpy old adult ammy who didn't need any contrast there. She was mega nice though and even took a selfie with us after the end of a long day teaching.
|apologies to Alyssa's face|
Going in to this clinic, I heard Tik was doing some sort of groundwork thing (?) and I'd watched his winning freestyle
from last year's Thoroughbred makeover competition. It was cool, but presented me the same basic problem that I see in most things like that: it has no utility. I don't want to ride around with no bridle. I'm not competing in the "follow the leader" olympics, and frankly, I don't have a horse that would excel in the makeover context so like... good for you?
|i both staged and took this photo, so i stole it from lindsey|
But. Give the man a chance, right?
I attended his lecture Friday evening before the riding started. When I arrived, he was talking about Pat Parelli and Clinton Anderson and Tom Dorrance and Jonathan Fields and again, good for them and they are certainly capable of affecting good change with horses, but all of those people live(d) in the western world, and so ultimately what they're getting horses to do is not something I'm super interested in. Besides, while I've never so much as dabbled in the natural horsemanship/western world, I have come up around a bevy of excellent horsemen in the english world. So?
But here's the thing: when I attended the Mustang Makeover this summer, I realized that all these 100-days-off-the-range horses were doing something my horse simply was not capable of. He couldn't stay with me for a simple dressage test at a show with minimal distractions and here these semi-broke feral horses with no history in front of crowds performed well. I wanted something from that, but again, I have no interest in riding my horse into the back of a truck or shooting guns off his back or riding over a teeter totter (all actually things that happened). Like... nice idea, but not super useful to me.
|did want this horse. Alyssa said no. Bank account sided with her.|
And then Tik moved on from talking about the showmen of the natural horsemanship world and said something that gave him my 100% full attention. It was along the lines of "If I had to quit riding tomorrow, but could still work with horses from the ground, that would ok because I'm less interested in technique and more interested in the philosophy of how a horse learns."
BAM. Hello. Now we're speaking a language I want to learn.
He went on to explain a simple progression: As horse lovers, we start by learning riding technique from our trainers. Then we try to incorporate theory. As we improve and ride on our own, we develop instinct to deal with situations. Many people stall out there, which is fine but the next step is the philosophy of training. Asking no longer "how", but now "why" and understanding how to motivate horses.
After all, as he pointed out, "People tend to confuse motivation with intelligence. Your horse isn't stupid. He's just not interested in trying for you." And also, "The better communicator you are, the less motivating you have to do."
|tell me more|
The next morning was all that and more.
As he worked with different people and their horses, he continued the conversation. He talked about always starting from a point of success for the horse--catch them doing something right, if you will. He explained using your body language to communicate with horses. This wasn't super new information to me until he added the part about where you place your line of direction.
|excellent paint graphic by me|
It made so much sense--he was having handlers do #6 to get their horses to back away from them with progressively less stimuli, but then when he asked them to walk up and pet their horses, the animals shied away. Why? Because horses aren't afraid of predators. They're afraid of predatory behavior. When the handlers learned to use #5 to approach their horse and arc their line of direction so it was not through the horse, they stood solid. (Also changing body language obv).
But this wasn't a how-to of simple natural horsemanship techniques. He summed it up very well when he used the term "thinking laterally". Humans tend to think in linear terms. This, then that. Horses don't usually. So if you try this, but don't get to that, you need to be mentally flexible and think laterally. What are other approaches? How can you break this down in steps that your horse will understand?
There was another exercise--asking a horse to trot in a small circle around it's handler, keeping it's shoulder about 4' away. The lead line was short enough to encourage that, then the handler held a stick at hip height to keep the horse from encroaching on the space. This was a moment of truth for a lot of pairs. The exercise itself wasn't really the point--there is no prize for trotting tiny circles. The exercise was 1) to highlight problem areas in handling and 2) to teach the horse how to learn.
Problem areas were simply--many handlers gave ground to the horse and back up, allowing the horse to push them around the space. Horses frequently overreacted to the sight/feel of the stick. Most of the horses had one side that was ok and then had meltdowns about the other side.
|we tried it later at home|
There was so much going on here--the handler needed to be very, very clear with their body language what they wanted the horse to do. It was critical that they kept stepping towards the horse. This made the circle bigger so it wasn't hard on the horses, but it also established who was pushing who out of whose space. They had to really figure out their line of direction--obviously if you push straight into the horse, it blows sideways (if it's even listening to you), so you needed to establish your space and step in the direction you wanted to go.
As the horses learned, Tik emphasized that at the beginning, there needed to be no right or wrong answer. First they just needed to be rewarded (with a release of pressure/break/treat/whatever) for trying, then gradually you could introduce a harder answer and an easier answer. Basically, don't punish the try especially as the horse begins to learn. You want them to work with you, not fear you.
|basically the bible for this horse omg|
This exercise also introduced the idea of the same stimuli meaning multiple things. He'd alternate holding the stick at steady hip height to keep the horse away and setting it on the horse's back/neck/withers and asking the horse to ignore it. Again, a question of communication and trust.
As Tik explained it, he's not doing groundwork for groundwork's sake. What he wants is to work with a horse until he gets what he calls "the look"--not just licking and chewing, but the horse giving him an intelligent look saying "we're here together. What are we doing next?"
If you never do groundwork again after that moment, that's fine. You always need to feel like you can get that expression if you need to though--that's what tells us the horse is mentally with us. That trust is what everything else is built on. It's not about the follow-the-leader olympics--it's about becoming the leader that your horse looks to so that you can progress together.
What I loved most about learning from Tik Maynard as a clinician was his emphasis on learning how a horse learns and then using lateral thinking to teach the horse in a way he can understand. As an under saddle clinician, he was fine, but his abilities to understand the way a horse thinks and encourage his students to be mentally flexible was where he really shone.
I didn't sign up for this clinic because I thought it was all jumping, but now that I've watched, let me assure you, Courage will be first in line for a session with Tik next time we get a chance.
PS He also highly recommended books by Mark Rashid, who is basically my horse training idol, so that was awesome.
PPS I apologize if this is drivel--my mind is still pretty blown and I'm severely sleep deprived while writing it.