Decomplexicating Horsemanship – Eliminate Fear

“This horse is a killer!”

I was in the next stall working on the teeth of a big bay Warmblood gelding when I heard these words spill into my quiet concentration. The connection I had made of earned trust and respect with my horse remained even though the hot summer’s thick air shattered. We both turned our attention to the man next door. I turned the gelding loose and went outside the stall to investigate.

This man was my new employee. He had considerable experience in dentistry in horses. Due to my recent injury, I decided to bring on two people to help me while I recuperated from surgery. From the start, I knew he wasn’t a horseman. From what I saw today, he would never be.

How we perform dentistry in horses requires that we have really good horsemanship skills. This skill is something I was taught in 1983 before sedatives and power floating equipment were available. We relied on our ability to open the mouth and insert our hands to feel with our fingers every tooth. To do this, we had to overcome our fear of having our fingers bit clean off. Standing in front of the horse also had the risk of being struck in the head.

The horse has to overcome their fears of humans sticking their hands to the back of their mouth (or anything else you are doing to the horse). Today, my employee’s fear of the horse was reflected by this Quarter Horse as the gelding displayed his fear of the human working on his teeth.

I stepped onto the shed row to find my employee repeating his words. Eyes bugged out, and eyebrows popped up; the look of fear made his 6 foot 2 inches, 240 pounds frame small. His feet shifted, and his arms wildly moved as the saliva spitting from his mouth shined in the light. He emphasized to me, “This horse is a killer!”

I looked into the stall and then back to him and asked, “Who, this horse?”

The horse’s eyes and mine locked. His fear, high moments ago, was immediately released as I walked in and finished floating the teeth without a foot moving. His eyes softened, and his head lowered. There was no more fear. As I left the stall, my employee said, “Well, it’s obvious you’re a better horseman than I am.”

A New Project For Me

At this point, I had worked with thousands of different horses for 32 years. I had accumulated millions of points of references on how to work with horses, but also, at this point, I couldn’t articulate them. I had written my book, “The Ten Irrefutable Laws Of Horsemanship,” which is a boiled-down foundation. But the moment-by-moment connection with horses was not yet in my grasp.

In the book “Mastery” by Stephen Greene, the author describes 3 phases we go through in anything we learn. The first is the apprentice phase, where someone learns a skill or trade. This phase is where we learn from a book, and then we learn from watching others. The second is the adaptive phase, where we adapt what we have learned into something that becomes our own. The final phase is mastery, where we no longer think when working. It comes automatically.

In the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, the author suggests that we need to perform a task over 10,000 times before we become an outlier in our field. I think another word for an outlier is a master. I would add that working with 10,000 different horses is better than working with 1 horse 10,000 times. While 10,000 seems like a long time I can tell you, that it gets better each time.

I am starting a new series to decomplexicate horsemanship. There are so many parts and all need to be working smoothly. None of it will matter if you are afraid of the horse. The horse will always reflect that back to you. Your horse is your mirror.

Eliminate your fear and watch what happens with your horse. It’s magic.

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  1. Thanks Dr. T. I’ll be looking for your continued blogs on horsemanship. I have only been on my TW in the arena since he threw me 2 years ago. I don’t trust him on trails. He is very spooky and hyper vigilant. I do mostly liberty. training with him. It’s safe and gives us the interaction that he loves. Riding him in the ring to work on training is too hard because he is not very easy to keep going. I need the movement to be able to train him. I have on occasion worked at different facilities with him. When he becomes to anxious and I cannot get his mind back, I jump off and spend time on groundwork until he is more relaxed. Needless to say, I spend more time on ground work than on his back. I would love to get him on trails but want safety. I just don’t feel safe on him. He’s very reactive to stimuli. Looking forward to any input you may have to help me. You’re gong to meet him in April for dentistry. He’s never had it done without tranq. He is an old soul and very gentle but not comfortable in his own skin.

    Pam Flynn

    1. Pam – is your horse eating grain, supplements, treats or anything other than grass, hay and water? If so please read my nutrition blogs. Some of the most common signs of grain affecting the behavior of horses is anxiousness, lack of focus and spooking.

      The other issue is your own lack of confidence which is certainly expected after being tossed and has been experienced by so many riders. However it is the ONLY thing you have direct control of. What the horse does is usually a reflection of what you are thinking and feeling. Please read the blog about coaching versus cheerleading.

      At some point in the future I will have more to write about on working with horses but right now I’m too busy working with horses! Be patient. Let me know if changing his diet helps. It has worked for so many others. Be sure to read the comments in every blog where you will hear from others. In the meantime, April is coming quickly. Doc T

  2. Love what and how you are able to work with our horses. My non-profit, Equine Reflections Inc., name also proves just what you stated ” the horse is your mirror and will always reflect back to you what you are feeling” I am blessed to see this with our horses working with clients that are struggling with mental health issues. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and educating all on how to properly treat our magnificent animals.

    1. Thanks Bonny. You have several success stories of horses helping people with mental health issues break through their blockages. The truth is we ALL have some mental health issues which we don’t think we have. When we keep them active by living in the past the horse alerts us with a negative reaction. But people who live in the moment have horses who reflect back a positive reaction.

      My goal is to have horse owners notice their mental blocks and give them tools to get past them to live in the moment. The horse will then respond in a way they have never seen before.

      1. Looking forward to your horsemanship blog. I know I need it. Knowing that Gunner is a mirror of me I desperately need to know what it is about me that reflects so negatively on him. Initially I had no fear but then I became anxious of his outbursts. I don’t think I have fear now, but know to be very cautious in particular situations. Thank you so much for your patience with him! Looking forward to seeing you again!

  3. I had the privilege of working with Dr Joe Haines as my vet…I met him when he was about 65 still going strong…he believed in the cures of Edgar Casey he did acupuncture and used autologous blood injections for EPM before good drugs were available (1980s)H e also took a horse that was refractory to the drugs we secreted into the country for EPM and treated her with arsenic….she responded well. The Amish folks in the area only wanted him as their vet…he had a foot in the modern practice of veterinary medicine but also a foot in time honored treatments of the past. But the most profound thing was that he told me he projected an image to the horse of what he wanted them to do ie:stand still etc. He opene…d my eyes to the sentient nature of the horse….I wish he was still around to learn from.

    1. In “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People,” the first habit is to begin with the end in mind. I always do this with course corrections along the way.

      I started in 1973 and have watch the disappearance of horsemanship. With one toe in the past and one on the present I am trying to bridge the gap. Maybe the actions of these vets you mention will be preserved. And with a lot of patients, maybe we will affect the vets coming out of vet school. I am tired of horse owners saying they can’t stand the vets in their area due to them being so book smart but ineffective with their horses. Wish me luck!

        1. Yes it is. Law 7 and Law 8 in The Ten Irrefutable Laws of Horsemanship are taken right from the Habits book: Seek First to Understand….. …..Then To Be Understood. Thanks Rebecca

    1. Hey Marilyn – sorry for the confusion but the injury was back in 2009 and I ave fully recovered. Because of it, though, I found Melissa. She has been some of the fuel that has inspired me to figure out this horsemanship thing and to get it into words.

  4. Thank you very much for starting this blog.
    When you made your first visit to me and my horse Zeke, I was able to see and experience what was possible. I sought out others who embodied this. It has been over a year and even the apprentice phase has resulted in significant changes not only with my horse but in everyday life.

    1. It will be a slow process because I have difficulty putting into words what we do. And it will give great introspection to all horse owners – which in itself may be painful. Keep your fingers crossed. And thank you so much for trying our brand of horsemanship and seeing then believing and further, looking for other like minded people. We are grateful.