Every year, I spend thousands of hours alone with my horses. I prefer it that way, but the truth is that it occurs as much by default as by choice: None of my equestrian friends live nearby, and the only stables in my area zero in on the bling and cha-ching of reining, cutting, and reined cow horses. (No offense, but if I wanted to go around beating up two-year-olds' knees, I'd dispense with the snaffle-bit futurities and buy myself a crowbar.)
Training solo has myriad advantages, including plenty of independence and time to build deep relationships with my horses. The downside is that it's easy to become myopic. My methods are effective, but they're not the only ones out there. Furthermore, I spend so much time with ungentled and green horses that I tend to forget what a finished horse looks like...and it's mighty hard to hit a target you can't see.
So, every February, I look forward to Boise's Horse Affairs. It's the usual equine expo featuring tack and supplement vendors, shiny horse trailers that cost more than my car, vet lectures, a rodeo clown, local stallions, and a few rare breeds. All that's fine (except the clown -- shudder), but it isn't why I attend. I go for the trainers.
This year's lineup included Julie Goodnight, Charles Wilhelm, Richard Shrake, Stacy Westfall, and a mixed bag of other trainers who have yet to achieve household name status. I spent half of Friday and all day Saturday with a liberally highlighted show schedule in one hand and a notebook in the other, plowing through the crowd between round corral and main arena in accordance with my pre-determined agenda.
I made it to at least one seminar by each presenter, with the notable exception of Richard Shrake, who I avoided like the plague. (Sorry, Shrake fans, but that guy has one of the biggest, false-humility shrouded egos I've ever had the misfortune to meet.) As usual, there was a heavy emphasis on natural horsemanship. As usual, I was already familiar with most of the concepts presented. And, as usual, I came away with a few new techniques that made the 2009 Horse Affairs worth $20 and a severe case of bleacher-butt.
Three Horse Affairs ago, when I started my tradition of spending all weekend at the expo as a kickoff for my own training season, I had a farm full of completely unhandled horses. I attended that year's expo with a laserlike focus on gentling techniques and came away with an enhanced understanding of pressure and release as a cornerstone of training.
Two years ago, I gravitated toward information on early groundwork and took home a new appreciation for lateral and vertical flexion that has served me well both on the ground and astride.
Last year, I was all about starting horses under saddle, particularly translating groundwork into mounted work. I came away duly reminded that the slow way is the fast way, and just about everything I want to accomplish in the saddle can and should first be introduced from the ground.
This year, I was drawn to training techniques for basic under saddle skills, particularly shoulder control, leads, and collection. I added a number of exercises to my training toolkit and, more importantly, I found my training theme for this year: Expect perfection.
I'll write more about that later. For now, my point is simply that none of these lessons are rocket science. They aren't even front-page news. But they are easy to forget or lay aside unless we grasp the occasional opportunity regain perspective. Next time you get a chance, take some time to step above the trees. There's a beautiful forest out there.
Speaking of broadening perspectives...
Every year at the Boise Horse Affairs, I observe the sea of cowboy hats, sequins, belt buckles, and lariets and wonder what equine expos are like in other parts of the country.
Our expo features western art, western saddles, and at least 95% Quarter Horse types. I struggle to imagine all those rowel spurs and appaloosas loping around, say, Boston, but what do I know? Do your vendors sell breeches instead of bandanas? Do your presenters talk about cavaletti instead of cows? Can your announcers pronounce the word "dressage?"
I'd be much obliged if'n you folks back east could enlighten me. Thanks, y'all. ;-)
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