Why I stopped training

I moved to Australia in 2003, and to do that, I made a drastic life change. People often ask me about that story, and it is a long one. In many ways, it took a long time to get over.

One of the changes was my career. In the US, I was working at a university as an academic advisor to hundreds of art students and teaching. In Australia, I became a horse trainer.

The Australian fellow I came over here to work with was a trainer I had met when I towed my Arab mare from Kansas to Arizona for a horse clinic with my friend Harry Whitney. Ross worked in a similar fashion with horses that considered the horse and the person, and for which I felt was deeply important.

Anyhow, I hit the ground running on that June day, over 11 years ago. For a few months, I cleaned paddocks, rode a few horses and by December, I was starting some clients’ horses.

Half our business, Good Horsemanship, was starting horses under saddle, some ground work, and the rest were troubled horses, many one hoof away from the saleyard with owners frightened or at the end of their choices. We had a reputation for successfully helping horses and their people come out the other send and making it work.

We required clients to come along as often as they could to watch us work with their horses, then we began working with both horse and human until at the end of the process, they took a halter out to the paddocks, came back with their horse and did all the work.

It was empowering for the person, who then owned the knowledge to make a change in their horse. It was attempted to ensure a less troubling transition for their horse when it went home.

Over the years, I must have worked more horses than I can remember. A few hundred, including the horses I rode and worked at clinics here in Australia and in the US, lesson days and demonstrations.

You lose track of the horses, but a few always stand out, and there is one that was the catalyst for me to decide to leave the business after eight years, working nearly every day of the week.

He was a big fellow; a Morgan-Warmblood cross, bred for his athleticism and appearance. I think he was about four years old and stood about 16.1, but he had such a tense frame, he seemed to be well over 17 hands and was rock hard with anxiety nearly all the time. For non-horse people, at five foot five inches tall, the top of my head was about even with his withers.

I think he was bred by a woman who had done a bit of work with him. I can recall her name, but I’ll call her Leslie. I can’t recall the horse’s name, but I’ll call him Charlie. He came to me for starting and Leslie gave me snippets of a vague history.

I suspected from her protective attitude around him, and his lack of focus on her that the relationship was extremely strained and her work had been damaging, to say it kindly. He seemed to be completely oblivious of her and any person around him.

But that wasn’t too much to worry about, and I had worked with some tough horses over the years. I might be able to do something with this gelding despite the owner. To give him a chance. In the end, it is firstly about the horse because they don’t get a choice.

Most readers won’t have had much to do with horses, so to go through the particulars might seem a little inaccessible, but suffice it to say, the old adage, ‘Everybody lies’, fits the horse-training business and it applied to the story behind Charlie.

What usually took me a week, took two, and nothing felt solid. When the time came to begin the saddling process, I learned Charlie was a spectacular bucker and like most large horses, very powerful. There was a mental detachment in Charlie that was alarming, and though he would go through the motions, there was a deep need inside this horse to remain remote. To protect himself. Stuff had happened back home on the farm.

I spoke to the family who came en masse to watch on the weekends that I had grave concerns about who would work with Charlie when he eventually went home. Leslie said her 16-year-old son ‘Bob’ would be the one riding Charlie, and at this I wasn’t too surprised since Leslie was built like a refrigerator, and just about as nimble.

Bob usually watched what was going on in the round pen with half his attention. The other half was on his girlfriend. She would come along to watch, and as she sat in her white plastic chair, Bob would stand behind her and rub his crotch against the back of her head. Embarrassing teen hormones aside, I pitied the kid. On the first day I asked Bob to come into the pen to do some work with Charlie, he reached for the lead rope with a shaking hand.

Those shakes were explained at the family’s next visit. They had left behind a horse blanket (or ‘rug’ down here) the week before, and I discovered Charlie had some deep concerns about that rug. My husband helped me get Charlie more comfortable wearing the rug as the big horse would leap like a grasshopper when I approached him with the thing even folded up in a wad. This was a horse who I was already saddling, so again, my suspicions were triggered.

Anyhow, there they came, a family shaped like nesting dolls, except for lanky Bob, on a Sunday morning. I led Charlie up from the paddock and they all stood staring from the other side of the gate.

“What’s up?” I asked them.

“It’s just that you got him rugged,” Leslie said. “We’re amazed. When he had it on last winter, it took my husband and Bob to get it on, and he knocked Bob out and gave him concussion. We couldn’t get it off. He wore it all winter until he just tore it off.”

Ahh. I wasn’t surprised, This kind of story wasn’t unfamiliar, but I didn’t feel too positive any of this was going to work out. Not with this woman.

Time passed, and I could work Charlie saddled in the pen, though he had a habit of freezing and bolting at the end of the rope. We worked and worked until I felt reasonably confident I could take him out. I worked him outside the pen in the paddock without a saddle until one day…

That was the day I decided I had had enough.

It was morning. I had Charlie saddled and led him around the paddock. He was occasionally distracted by horses and activity about us, but came back to me with little trouble. All the time I was working, I felt a great trepidation about what would happen to this large and lost horse in whose owner I felt no confidence whatsoever.

I stopped and gave Charlie a pat. Then I faced him, raised my hand, lifted the rope to the right as I had a hundred times before to ask Charlie to step his forehand to his left.

In a flash, Charlie leapt straight up in the air. I don’t know how I reacted so quickly, but I ducked to my left. Charlie let out one incredible buck and bolted away. I remember seeing his belly fly over the top of me. He hit the double gates in paddock corner square with his chest, flipped over the fence, got up and bolted down the laneway where he ran straight into an older gelding that had been grazing in the lane.

Then it was over. I walked straight up to Charlie and he was all in a sweat. I led him back to the yard, unsaddled him and put him back in the paddock. I had some things to say to the owners and as far as I was concerned, this horse was far too troubled for any of them to ride. Not with shaky Bob as the designated monkey. Not with anybody to keep anybody safe.

And I could have been killed. That concerned me.

What I will never forget, and I have been lied to too many times by horse owners to count, was Leslie’s guileless reaction to my concerns.

“Oh, yes, he’s done that before,” Leslie told me. “Maybe four times. He just pulls away and bolts off into the paddock when I’m lunging him.”

I didn’t need a full explanation of the damaging work she had done with Charlie; I didn’t need a list of every issue she had. Her ego wouldn’t have admitted any of it if she could help it. But what would life be like for this animal who came to me a lost, tangled mind of a horse that was probably once a foal so desperate for the right answers, but suffered for years in the hands of this useless woman?

People cannot understand how a lack of clarity can deeply affect a horse in such a negative way. It is no different than children. And with horses, coupling that confusion with a certain kind of mind, a certain predilection, is a recipe for disaster.

I could write a book of the sadnesses I encountered in horses that had an ocean of try inside them and their owners who only wanted a quick fix. But it took Charlie to make me decide I could not lay awake another night worrying about the welfare of a horse when it went back home. I have learned too many times, horses are willing to change, but people rarely ever make that leap of faith.

The husband came for Charlie the following weekend after my conversation with Leslie. I asked what their plans were for the horse while I loaded him on their trailer.

“It’ll be another trainer or a bullet,” he said shortly and latched the trailer door.

And that was it.

-This is me riding Sally, a friend’s Standardbred mare during a lesson in the paddock where Charlie bolted. The double gates are in the right-hand corner.





Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

November 4, 2014 at 9:13 am

Thank you for a poignant article today. All too often we forget about the spirit of the animal — we stop caring. I know how hard it is to put so much of yourself into a wounded soul only to realize that the other people that are involved in the process are not going to make an effort. I’ve been there with animals and children. Thank you for reminding us that we have a responsibility for the animals that depend on us, not only for the physical needs but also to care for their psychological needs too.

November 4, 2014 at 9:37 pm
– In reply to: Beth

Hi Beth-I have another post coming about that respect for the spirit of animals, and it centers on an old kangaroo who made his home on our property for a while. I’ll have it up in a day or so, and I do appreciate you visiting my page. Take care.

November 4, 2014 at 10:14 am

Precisely why I also gave up. So very sad. It boggles my mind how many people like this can sleep at night. Wonderfully told story.

November 4, 2014 at 9:36 pm
– In reply to: Robyn

Hi Robyn. Thank you for writing. I know horses like that kept me up. I do appreciate your kind thoughts!

Eileen Callaghanreply
November 4, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Hi Michele, it is a very sad tale and I’m not surprised it was the catalyst for you giving up training. I hope you still get time to get out and play with your own ponies once in a while. Hope you’re well.

November 4, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Poor Charlie. It wasn’t his fault he got the short end of the lead rope with a deluded Wackadoodle for an owner. He probably wasn’t the first, or the last, horse she has ruined. Truly the bullet might well have been a kindness.

November 4, 2014 at 9:31 pm
– In reply to: M.Larsen

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree, I think this woman left a trail of damaged animals in her wake. There is no law against it unfortunately.

November 4, 2014 at 10:21 pm

And yet again thing the human race has something to answer for. Sad that so many peoples disregard for their horse or the people they could potentially hurt stopped you from working with horses. I always wondered how you cope knowing the care, thought and effort that you put into working with a horse and having them give abit of themselves to you to only go home with their owner and end up back where they started if not worse. Sometimes it’s easier to allow a horse to stay shut down knowing their unfortunate plot in life then to show them what could be and then have that taken away. Love the piece of writing thanks for sharing.

November 5, 2014 at 6:25 pm
– In reply to: Irena

Great to hear from you Irena. I hope you and Nikki are going well. Thank you for your kind words and stopping in!

Suzi Derykreply
November 5, 2014 at 12:49 am

It amazes me how more people are not hurt. People should be learning how to keep their horses mind on them in a non – confronting manner. My partner and I work horses for a living and constantly come across people who have had horses all their life but are still having the same old problems. They don’t get it, that it might be them and not the horse, you tell them that the horse is always right and that he only ever does what u ask of him and still they want to find fault in the horse. Our way around this is to teach the owners, we gave them as much knowledge as we could , so they could learn with their horse. Most notice the change in their horses behaviour, some don’t …. It is not our job in the universe to help everyone just those who ask……. And I guess those horses who seem so troubled have a message for the people around them.

November 5, 2014 at 6:22 pm
– In reply to: Suzi Deryk

I agree Suzi-you have to help those who ask. Most of them have a window to their mind. Some ask, but they really don;t want to know the answer. I think that’s the toughest one, because you think you’re making a difference, and then you’re not. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

November 5, 2014 at 6:56 am

Such a sad story – for Charlie, for you, and for all the horses and owners who have lost the opportunity to benefit from your experience and help. Having said that, I have every sympathy with your decision – it must be soul destroying to meet these horses and know that so many of their futures are fairly hopeless due to their owners’ ineptitude or worse. I am a horse owner who tries her hardest (with help from one of HW’s students) – I am learning all the time and love my time with my horse, but I’m acutely aware of my shortcomings.

November 5, 2014 at 6:19 pm
– In reply to: Clare

Being aware is the best thing in my mind, Clare. We should all see where we are failing our horses, and seek the ways we can do better. Thank you for your response.

November 5, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Wow. I am sure you told me this story, but reading it brought tears to my eyes – for this horse in particular, and for all other sentient beings who face similar obstacles and are never able to feel secure in their existence. You were truly a social worker for both the horses and their owners. As always, I am proud of the work you have done, and continue to do!

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November 6, 2014 at 11:53 am

obviously like your web site but you have to take a look at the spelling on quite a few of your posts.
A number of them are rife with spelling issues and I find it very bothersome
to tell the truth nevertheless I’ll certainly come back again.

November 7, 2014 at 11:14 pm
– In reply to: Alcohol treatment centers texas

I am not sure where the spelling errors lie, unless they are typos. Sorry! But as you might understand, you can’t always catch them all. It doesn’t help that I write all day in British/Australian spelling but think in American. Often these lines get a little hazy and I caught myself spelling Aussie as I’ve written these posts. I do appreciate your observation and hope you will keep stopping by all the same!

Mark Cashmanreply
November 7, 2014 at 11:19 am

I can understand how you felt about this, having done some racing against time myself. I love the sad and worried animals and how they start to come alive under consistent treatment and careful training. I wish that I could know that every story comes out happy. But the truth is that the lives of these animals are like the lives of people – they have good times and tough times. They are safe and they are at risk and then maybe they are safe again. They may be able to retire to a kind life and a soft end – or they may not. When they are with me, it may be the best time they’ve ever had – except on those days when I just don’t quite get it right, but even then it is often better for them than anything they had before. I can’t sweep them up and protect them for all of their lives, any more than I can do that for my child when she grows into an adult. I can only do what I can to set either of them up for success, It hurts, but I can’t help them all – even if I had all the money in the world, I don’t have all the time in the world. But I wish you felt that the lesson was “I’ll help the ones I can and understand I can’t help them all.” Because all those horses and riders you helped mean more than the one who got away.

November 7, 2014 at 10:59 pm
– In reply to: Mark Cashman

I hear what you’re saying Mark, but I never thought I could help them all. But I did feel for a number of years I could make a horse’s life better by helping them feel safe in trying something different. Allowing them to have a voice again.
That made sense for a few years, but the fact in my opinion, for what we did, was that you can’t help them if their owner/person cannot make a commitment to change.
I was talking to my husband about this, and we agreed not even 5 per cent of all the people we have worked with over the years, keep striving to change to help their horse. It is a big ask. Most people have little at stake if they fail to change, whereas with a horse-giving up the life, the choices they make, no matter how bad it is, could compromise their safety. It’s all about survival.
The difference between a horse and your daughter is, and excuse this assumption, but from the tenor of your message it would seem that you have dedicated your life to helping her to become confident, strong and resilient. And you’ll be with her every step of the way.
Thank you for your thoughtful post.

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