Kindness and knowledge equals good horsemanship

At Harrogate, we have always had this mission statement…that the kindest treatment of the horse is gained through knowledge.

It is something we so fervently believe and happily for us, the vast majority of students who come through our doors believe it too.

I remember when I was growing up, I really didn’t have a sense for what cruelty to animals was, particularly as it pertained to horses. I read Black Beauty when I was at a young, impressionable age and I guess I defined cruelty by what I learned in Anna Sewell’s book.

It took me a long time to realize that thankfully for the most part horses, at least in the west, are no longer subjected to that kind of punishment.

And yet over the years, it has become increasingly clear to me that horses are still often mistreated but now it is most likely to be by people who love them but just don’t seem to know any better.

We no longer use horses to transport us and our goods, plow our fields, or carry our armaments and soldiers into warzones.

Now, for the most part, we use horses for recreational purposes.

In a way, that makes the mistreatment of our horses almost more morally reprehensible. There is really no excuse.

An educated rider and handler makes the horse’s life better and for the rider, the benefits of understanding the horse can make the sport safer for the rider.

The handling of horses, their care, and how to ride and train them should not be a lost art. If we take on the challenge to ride and care for horses, I think we owe it to the horse to do it as well as possible. By striving for excellence in everything we do, not only do we develop our own character and resilience, I believe we can also make the world a better place for horses in the process. Given all they give to us, I think we owe them that.

(Maggie and Toby a ‘few’ years ago)

Horses for the soul.


I think horses are good for the soul.

I am not sure how that is, or why it feels that way, I just know that, for many of us, it’s true.

Sometimes I wonder if it is because they are ‘in the moment’ all the time, and require us to be present as well.

Perhaps it is simply their persistent honesty in all their interactions with us.

The horse seeks relationships as a herd animal and since we seek that too, finding that connection with something so close to nature seems to have a healing affect as well.

But every now and again over the years we will see something that suggests there is an energy that surrounds horses…an energy that is an almost mythical mix of great power and great gentleness. And this energy can have a remarkable affect.

For example, once we had a little autistic boy come to the farm when we were having an Open House. His mother asked if her son could have a ride and so we set him up with a helmet and proper shoes.

But it was then that the trouble began. Upon seeing the horses, he began to scream, loud, irrational screams. His mother was apologetic but still hoped her son could calm down long enough to sit on a horse.

We removed the more excitable types of horses from the arena and chose Decks for the young boy to ride.

You could see a mild apprehension in Decks as the screaming child drew nearer but there was also a flicker of understanding. It is not something I can really can put my finger on but it was a clear enough signal from Decks that we decided to risk lifting the little boy onto the horse.

Decks stood quietly, saint that he is, as the wailing child sank into the saddle.

And then, all that ear-piercing noise stopped and suddenly there was silence.

With rapt focus, the little boy reached forward and gently touched Deck’s shoulder. Then he began to stroke Decks, gently and silently.

I can’t remember if we led him around or if the act of sitting on the horse was enough for him. All I know is, that for that moment in time, that little boy felt something from Decks that calmed him down, some connection or aura that at least temporarily removed his anguish.

I hope the mother of the boy pursued this therapy for her son because the transformation was miraculous.

It was one of those experiences that even now can make me feel a bit weepy.

Horses can heal. They are good for the soul.

A purpose for everything…

Well October 30 marked a bit of an anniversary and as luck would have it, I got back to Toronto in time to at least acknowledge it.

In 2009, on October 30, Bandit made the decision to live at Harrogate.

          (Bandit, day one.)

I say that Bandit made the decision because I was very clear in my mind that I did not have the time or the need for another dog. My wonderful Kila had passed away in 2000 and since I knew there could never be another dog like her, I just wasn’t interested.

This did not seem to deter Bandit in the least. In that wonderfully stubborn Border Collie way, he had decided he wanted to live on a farm and so he had set out to arrange exactly that.

And exactly as I expected, he was NOTHING like Kila.

While Kila was laid back and effortlessly friendly to everyone, Bandit from the get go was intense, driven, and a little over protective. I could point at horses and Kila would run towards them but on a softly spoken word, she would drop the chase and immediately come back.

You may have noticed that this is not a skill Bandit has acquired.

Although he has, (for the most part) given up sneaking out to the ditch so that he can chase passing cars, his passion for herding up the horses continues even though he is now 12. He has heard the word “NO!” so often that he probably thinks it is a pet name I have for him.

Interestingly, as I was reminded of again this past week, Bandit is the perfect farm dog when I am not at the farm. For whatever reason, in my absence, he doesn’t seem compelled to ‘help’. Turning out the horses and bringing them back in can be a peaceful process when I am not here. Bandit merely lies in the sun, silently supervising.

But when I arrive he goes into overdrive, madly herding up anything that moves. Someone suggested that Bandit feels he has to work for me but the dog also knows I can’t play soccer with him until the horses are attended to. It is entirely possible he might just be trying to speed up the process.

Had we started our journey together a bit earlier, when I had more time to put into our ‘relationship’, things might have gone a little smoother. He is definitely intelligent but I think that is part of what has made him the most challenging dog I have ever known.

I think everything and everyone comes into our lives to teach us something and I am sure that is the case with Bandit. Some days I am not too clear on the lesson but I’m sure there must be one.

One thing I do know is that as he enters his twilight years, struggling a little more with his kidney disease, I am starting to have to consciously fight off feelings of impending sadness. I look at him and I see the intense joy he brings to every opportunity, whether it’s playing with his soccer ball or chasing scents on our walks in the field.

In those moments, I think I know what I am meant to learn.

Does he drive me insane?


But it doesn’t mean I’ll miss him any less when the time comes.




What’s the point?


This may come as shocking news to some, but most of the people who learn to ride at Harrogate (or anywhere else for that matter) are not going to go to the Olympics.

In fact, a startling proportion of riders who learn to ride in their youth will not be riding by the time they reach adult hood. Some won’t even be riding by the time they get to college or even by the time they reach high school.

There will be, of course, those who carry on a lifelong habit of riding horses (at Harrogate we call them Janet) but they are the exception, the top of the pyramid so to speak. At the bottom, the base, the entry level; that is where we find the largest numbers of riders.

So, what is the point one might ask? Why poke around in a discipline that really takes a life time to learn? What purpose can it serve to only try for a few short years?

Well clearly, I have an inherent bias about this but my bias comes from watching results through all these years. And over and over again, I watch as young riders evolve. They start where we all start, struggling to communicate, struggling to keep their balance, struggling to coordinate their requests to the horse. So far, that is pretty much like any sport or activity one might decide to dabble in.

The evolution that I love to watch is that moment when the rider realizes that, after basic skill acquisition, riding a horse can be a remarkable mental game.  I know I can sound like a broken record about this but the horse desires a leader. He is hard wired that way. When students learn to act in a way that causes the horse to want to trust and follow them, they have acquired a skill that will serve them throughout their life.

The horse does not respond well to being bullied by an incoherent, undisciplined rider. Nor does he react well to signals that are conflicting and confusing. The horse sees through any attempts at phony bravado and is quick to lose his nerve when he senses his rider is losing his.

To be a rider then, is to be brave and strong in character. It is to choose to do the work, even though it is hard. It is to strive for excellence all the time because the goal is worth achieving. To be a rider; to be someone that the horse chooses to follow, is to practice self-control, empathy, and kindness in all activities.

It goes without saying that riding horses is not for everyone. But it seems to me that for everyone who ‘gets it’, riding horses becomes a way of life, even when those days spent in the saddle were spent a long, long time ago.

(Pyramid topper)



Have you ever wondered about the person who first thought it was a good idea to try to ride a horse?

I had always thought that the horse was initially driven, but recent archeological finds have suggested that the horse was actually ridden first.

What the heck were they thinking?

I suppose early man noticed that the horse was swift, agile, and athletic.

Even his features, glossy coat, flowing mane and long tail, added up to some unmistakable standard of beauty. So, I suppose that might have had an appeal, albeit one difficult to measure.

But they must have had other reasons since I am not sure how much time early man had for the appreciation of beauty. Perhaps they observed and appreciated the fact that the horse, unlike most hoofed animals, didn’t have horns or antlers. (Thank heavens for small mercies.)

As a grazer, the horse’s jaw bones had grown longer over time, ensuring that he could keep an eye on his surroundings while fulfilling his nutritional requirements in the tall grass of the open plains. The elongation of his jaw bones left a gap in the horse’s mouth behind his incisors and in front of his molars. On a practical level, this provided a perfect place for some kind of instrument of control to rest.

Domestication also required a commitment from both the animal being domesticated as well as the human doing the domestication.  At some point the horse probably came to believe that he had a better chance of being fed by these hairless creatures than being eaten by them.

The horse, being a generalist in terms of his diet, would be easier to domesticate than let’s say, a panda bear. If you tried to domesticate panda bears and you ran out of bamboo shoots, it wouldn’t take too long to run out of panda bears. The horse on the other hand could eat a wide variety of grains, fruits and vegetables and so he could probably survive on the scraps that early man left just outside the glow of the fire pit.

All these things make sense but still someone, somewhere had to lie awake one night and decide that tomorrow, it might be a good idea to try to sit on one of those things…

We can only imagine the reaction he received from his peers. His wife probably rolled her eyes and suggested that for his next trick he should try flapping his arms and flying up to that white disc in the sky.

Actually, on many levels, the courage of that first rider has to rank pretty close to the courage of our moon walking astronauts and the task, under the circumstances, no less daunting.

Whoever that first rider was, kudos to him!



(Pebbles and Jake’s friendship flourished because of the fence.)

It’s funny how some friendships are expressed. I guess it’s the same with people as with horses. I probably just tend to notice it with horses because I’m around them more often.

For example, when I go in the field to get Radley, he will stroll right past Dallas’s paddock without so much as a look. But if he gets to the barn, goes into his stall, and realizes that Dallas is not right next-door in his stall? Well, let’s just say you need earplugs. He’ll start to scream like his life is about to end simply because his Palomino pony is not in the adjoining stall.

I was thinking about that because today we had to keep Pebbles in for the blacksmith. When I go out in the field to get Pebbles and Bella, they’re usually standing at least 20 feet apart. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen them any closer than that. In fact, at the end of the day when it’s time to come in, if I clip the lead to Bella and then walk towards Pebbles to try to clip him up, I have to hold her back, sort of behind me so that Pebbles will let us get close enough for me to clip the lead line on his head collar. He seems to want to have nothing to do with her and she returns the favour by seemingly being quite indifferent to him.

Well, not today.

Today when we put Bella out in the paddock and left Pebbles in, you would have thought the world was going to end. Bella called and called like a mare whose foal had just been taken from her to be weaned. I’m not sure Pebbles could hear her and I’m not convinced he would have cared even if he could. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Pebbles has a quiet arrogance about him. He would be unlikely to register any real surprise that she missed him but rather he would just think that this should be the way the world unfolds

I wish the two of them could be better friends but at least now I think we know who’s holding that process up.

I find it endlessly fascinating to watch these kinds of dynamics. In this instance, I suspect it is because Pebbles has reached an age where he realizes defending himself or even running away would likely not end well for him. So, he makes the decision to keep a safe distance. The same thing happened to Jake years ago. Although a dominate horse in his youth, as he aged he became less and less confident and finally was happiest when we took him out of the large herd and teamed him up with just one or two friends.

If nothing else, these moments should remind us that regardless of how domesticated we think horses are there is still a wildness about them, a connection to nature that is primal. It is a good thing to remember this when we train and ride horses. Not only does it help keep us safe, it also helps us understand the horse’s world view.  When we keep that view in mind, we can make wiser decisions about when and what to ask of him.

(Imagine Pebbles not liking a charming girl like Bella…)

Follow the leader


There are so many reasons that horses are amazing.

Horses are generous, they can read us nearly instantaneously and they are so honest in their appraisal of us that it almost hurts sometimes. As anyone who rides knows, horses never ever tire of telling us when we don’t have things quite right. But the horse also looks, perhaps more than any other animal, for a leader which is one of the things that makes the sport of riding so fascinating.

Imagine, as we always try to do at Harrogate, how the world seems to a horse. Most everything is different and potentially dangerous and he is asked to go into these situations, not at liberty, but while carrying the burden of a rider on his back. This rider may be balanced or not, and they may have quiet hands, or not. But the horse is being asked to navigate around while dealing with all our possible shortcomings as riders. He might feel threatened at any given moment by the noises, sights, smells that he is confronted with. In nature, he would seek out his peers in the herd and determine whether or not the time to run had arrived. But now we ask him to tamp down that desire for flight. We ask him not to take notice of his peers thundering footsteps but to stay with us.

How can this be done?

Well there are a number of ways. One would be to intimidate the horse into believing that the consequences of disobedience outweigh the consequences of facing their fear. Unfortunately, a frightened, intimidated horse lacks confidence and a horse lacking in confidence is unreliable. At some point the fear of retribution will be outweighed by fear of whatever the heck is scaring him at that moment.

Another option would be to use severe coercive equipment on the horse…equipment that through mechanical advantage or pain/pressure could force the horse into compliance. But again, even the most restrictive equipment will eventually be no match for a horse that moves into full blown panic.

So, what’s a better option? Well, first it must be acknowledged that a horse is a horse and by nature unpredictable, quick, and fearful at times. But if the horse can have confidence in his rider, a sense that his rider is his leader, the results can be astonishing.

A leader is someone that the horse follows willingly, that the horse feels safe with. A leader is clear in his expectations for the horse and never asks the horse for things he is unable to do. The leader knows his horse’s limitations and strives to build the horse’s confidence and abilities incrementally.

I think it is always good to remember that the horse did not choose to be ridden. It is we who have decided to interact with him in this way. Any mistakes the horse makes are based on the fact that he is a horse.

It is we, who as riders and horseman, have to learn to understand his language, give him confidence and be the leader that he wants to follow.

There are so many rewards for approaching training this way. We discover that these skills are not only useful with our horses but transferable into all most all other aspects of our lives.