It has been well said that horsemanship is one of the few things in this world that absolutely cannot be faked. The 6,000 people who bought tickets to this event were almost universally knowledgeable horse people who came to evaluate great horsemanship for themselves. They found a weekend of spectacle, awe, laughter, inspiration, promotion, excellent information, good people, and even better education.
Many people came for a show, and there was a lot of that. The trainers brought glitz, glamour, bright lights, fans, volunteers, horses groomed to a gem-like polish, and truckloads of great stuff to sell.
But most importantly, Road to the Horse has opened many people’s eyes to what is possible between horses and humans.
John is the earliest teacher and promoter of the concept that-despite what many people may say in a frustrated moment-horses are most definitely not stupid, cowardly, stubborn, or resistant. Those words should be banished completely from any connection with horses. Over the six years of this competition, 20 colts have given incontrovertible evidence of this.
Any animal that will, with three hours of training, go from being essentially untouched to being saddled, bridled, and having all four feet picked up; let a human being (a predator, essentially) climb on his vulnerable back; proceed to walk, trot, and canter in both directions, back up, and do two 180-degree turns; be guided through and over challenging obstacles, have a lariat swung over his head, drag a log, and willingly approach flapping, squawking chickens-all in a completely alien environment while encircled by lights, banners, sound systems, and 6,000 loudly cheering people-is pretty much the polar opposite of stupid, cowardly, stubborn, or resistant.
Can those words describe us? Sure. And we have to admit that they often do.
When host Rick Lamb asked John if he was dealing with stubbornness or resistance from his colt, John answered with a simple, “No,” but he later admitted that what was going through his mind was, “Is he talking about the horse or about me?”
The colts-as horses have done for thousands of years-quickly and willingly adapted to bizarre human requests far beyond what most sane people would consider to be possible. People may feel supremely frustrated by their horses, but it isn’t because the horses can’t or won’t learn. Most people just don’t know how to teach.
By doing every minute of their work in a very public venue, with judges, cameras, and 6,000 avidly watching onlookers evaluating every move, the trainers reinforced with absolute clarity that spectacular success can only come through knowledge, intelligence, and patience.
Don’t Try This At Home!
Did all three trainers get the job don? Yes. Did they also make it very clear that they all would have taken much more time if they had not been in this competition? Oh, yes. In a normal situation, any good trainer will spend whatever time it takes to find a way to communicate to a horse what a specific cue means. All three trainers emphasized this truth repeatedly during the competition.
In “the real world,” you’re not timed or judged on what a colt needs to understand something at any given step, which is a very good thing. Some horses catch on to a cue almost immediately. Some take more time and different approaches before they understand.
Does this make one colt “better” or “smarter” than the other? No. They are just different, just like one person may find math easier to learn than French or mechanics easier than music.
At no time, and despite what spectators often considered ample justification, did any of these gentlemen lose his temper, patience, concentration, or sense of humor. They worked on slightly different priorities at slightly different times. They overcame more or less spectacular roadblocks with more or less success at any given time. But they didn’t let themselves get sidetracked by what the other trainers were doing or what the crowd or judges seemed to want or expect.
Each did what he thought was best for his particular colt in his particular situation because he was the leader his colt was looking for. Their ability to gauge exactly how much each colt could handle at any given moment was testament to their extraordinary skills and judgment.
If your horse’s behavior starts to unravel like a hole in the toe of a sock when the stitches aren’t tight, you never blame the horse for not somehow magically understanding what you want him to do. You just haven’t taught him properly yet. He’s the one doing all the adapting and changing to fit your wishes. If you didn’t make yourself clear, go back quietly and either reinforce something that began to get a positive response or try something different.
The tight time factor in Road to the Horse emphasized two other important lessons:
• Setting aside chunks of hours for training your horse can become an impossible mountain for many. “Next week” can too easily become never. But you can teach your horse an amazing amount in just a few minutes if you concentrate and really know your goals and methods ahead of time. A whole lot of “few minutes,” done regularly and well, can result in a beautifully trained horse.
• Maybe your horse needs an extra five minutes, an extra day, or an extra week more than his stablemate needed to really understand a particular exercise. So what? In the end, it doesn’t matter who’s watching: judges, spectators, parents, kids, barn buddies, horse show rivals, a big brass band, or the guy down the road who thinks he knows it all. (That guy is especially irrelevant!)
In the real world, training is not a competition. It’s a wonderful journey you take with your horse. Whether you travel that journey in big chunks or in little bits, take however much time your horse needs and do it right.
Fame, Bling, and the Real Miracle
The trainers got standing ovations that were well and truly earned through hard work, talent, brains, patience, and determination. The trick riders were brave and beautiful. The “Battle of the Bling” that was done to promote and raise money for mustangs was great fun and full of flash and dash.
But the real miracle in Franklin, Tennessee was embodied by three young, scared, shaggy colts standing in a pen off to the side of all the activity. Nothing about this event was normal, even to the professionals who are accustomed to cameras, sound systems, arenas, and crowds. For the colts, it was the equine equivalent of being transported to Mars.
They were the ones who showed the world that horses are incredibly willing to change and adapt to our world with a speed and totality that takes the breath away. They went against all their natural instincts. They gave their hearts and trust. Over the course of three hours, they adapted themselves completely to the will and leadership of a human. Not a person in the crowd or on the arena floor could have done what they did.
Are the colts “fully broke” by the end of the weekend? Not even close, according to these amazing gentlemen. Their performance was a testament to what gifted horsemen can accomplish in a short period of time, but the colts are merely well started on that long, but exceedingly wonderful road.
Did John win? No. And we can say that in the same genial tone John used in his interviews.
Space doesn’t permit a full accounting of the successes and challenges the other trainers had with their colts. Richard Winters won after a masterful job with his little bay. Tommy Garland prevailed over his little grulla’s fears after some major challenges. John’s colt overcame a lot of fear and confusion and ended up doing all the required tasks with confidence that visibly grew by the minute. He was also one of the few colts in the history of Road to the Horse who never bucked, reared, or lashed out in fear.
Will the result be debated for some time to come? Sure. Show results generally are. They’re based on observation and opinion.
Does it really matter? Well, the winner got $10,000, a $15,000 donation to a charity of his choice, a saddle, a lovely painting, a belt buckle, and bragging rights. But none of these trainers “lost.”
People watched, cheered, were inspired, and were moved to tears. They were educated, met truly great people, and had fun. Many browsed through and bought really cool stuff at the trade fair. Hopefully, most went home inspired to do wonderful things with their horses.
The colts will never be as famous as the great horsemen who taught them. After their three and a half hours in the limelight, some went to new homes, others might go to new homes, and most of them went back to Wyoming. They will all finish their training, become partners with their people, and go to work at a demanding job they will do very well. They will be with people who will continue to try to communicate with them in ways they understand.
Will they make mistakes? Sure. Will their people make mistakes? Sure. As the trainers said, everyone makes mistakes.
But horses show us how to forgive mistakes, move on, and try to understand what is really wanted. They show us how to teach without force, anger, or gadgets. That fact alone is worth every bit of the work, sweat, money, travels, and frustrations of all the people who have labored for so many years to get horse training to this point.