By Guest Writer: Roley Schoonover
My Professor the Horse
In the summer of 1991, three years after graduating from college, my wife and I started out on an adventure that would change our lives forever. Janice took one lady out for a horseback ride on the family ranch and a new way of life began. It was the beginning of the Western Pleasure Guest Ranch. It wasn’t long after this new adventure began when I met my new professor the horse. Janice and I decided that to sustain a string of willing horses we wanted to raise and train our own. Even though I would start out trying to teach these new young horses what they needed to know about their job, many times they ended up teaching me about what I needed to know about me. It was life-changing because to be successful I had to take principles I learned and apply them. I think they call this wisdom and here’s where it began.
Communication. Ever travel to a foreign land? It’s kind of handy to know the lingo. When I opened the gate to go in the pen with my horse, I crossed a boarder metaphorically as much as physically. Horses speak using their own dialect of sign language. So, as soon as I enter the pen, I’ve communicated something to the horse. More than likely the Professor of the pen has said something back if I am not visibly deaf. My horses have taught me volumes about how my body language communicates and what they are saying in response. As I have learned to pay attention to their language the training process has gotten better. While I won’t profess to have graduated “Summa com laud”, I have seen positive results as we continued our “class time”.
When our family traveled, I was accused of taking everything but the kitchen sink. I also have a tendency to do that when I start training. Again, my professor, the horse, would tell me, if I’m listening, that I need to slow down and work in the moment. I had to remember what I went in to do and leave the tax preparations for the ranch, the family that is checking in with the dietary needs, and the kindling that needs to be cut, at the gate. I could pick them back up when I left the pen and likely I didn’t have to worry about anybody stealing them; they would be there when I returned. I had to focus on one thing, my prof would remind me. Like my old football coach would tell me, “Do one thing well, instead of a bunch of things poorly.”
Finally, the professor is seldom ever wrong. He is who he is. I have learned they really are pretty simple creatures who operate on their need to survive. My professors would learn from the release of pressure. Once I understood this point, next was to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. With consistency, creativity, and these two principles, we began to achieve some neat results. Horses will do anything to squirm away from pressure. So I applied a reasonable amount of pressure, watched for the desired reaction, and rewarded them for a reasonable response. I did this consistently over and over and I was training horses.
These have been some valuable lessons from Equine Communications 101. With the help of some great advisors along the way, we have had some really satisfying results. Mostly it has helped make something we love to do into a living with people we treasure. Happy Trails and never take your professor for granted.