One of our regular contributors and a dressage rider, Karen Havis, recently attended a Clinton Anderson clinic, and we asked her to discuss what she enjoyed about the clinic. Karen frequently attends clinics and is constantly expanding her knowledge and understanding of riding. We thought you’d enjoy a glimpse into what it might be like to attend.
I attended the Clinton Anderson tour stop in Williamston, NC. This was one of his few East Coast stops, and fans had come from far away to attend.
I ride English. I study dressage, and I trail ride – but bottom line, I am a horse person. I interact with horses, and I want to be safe. I want my horses to respect me, and to be obedient. I use natural horsemanship techniques to help accomplish this.
I watch Clinton’s TV show on RFD TV regularly. I have used his methods on my horses. Like other natural horsemanship trainers, Clinton advocates moving a horse’s feet to gain his respect. If you think about it, this is the way it works in a herd of horses. The boss mare or gelding (or stallion) make the other horses move, thereby establishing their dominance.
The goal is to work with the horse unmounted, and move the horse’s feet – forward, backward, and sideway – or north, south, east and west. This can be done in a round pen, or it can be done on a long lead line or longe line. Another key movement is to get the horse to disengage its back feet – or step one hind leg in front of the other when moving the rear end away from the handler. These exercises establish the human as the leader, and also set the foundation for similar movements under saddle. And, if a horse disengages its back feet, it is somewhat off balance, and is less likely to be able to buck or bolt.
Horses instinctively look to a leader for safety and direction. If they don’t find it in their rider, they tend to take control themselves, usually with an unhappy outcome.
Natural horsemanship also advocates progressive sensitization and desensitization to accustom a horse to handling stimuli without panic and to respond quickly to human requests. Both are important, and a horse must be worked with both to accomplish a balance. Too much desensitization can make a horse overly dull; too much sensitization can make a horse too reactive. A new lesson for me was that there is no magic recipe. The mix or ratio depends on the horse’s nature. A spooky, rective horse may need slightly more desensitization; a lazy, lethargic horse may need slightly more sensitization.
Clinton’s claim to fame is that he has developed a systematic program with small, easy to follow installments. I bought Clinton’s Fundamentals DVD set, and went through it with my recalcitrant Irish Sporthorse mare. I was really impressed with this series. The exercises were shown with a dull and a sensitive horse, to show the difference in the level of stimuli required. The dvd’s also showed common mistakes of the horse and the handler, and how to correct them. The exercises were easy to follow, and I saw results.
Clinton told the story of how he came to develop the Method. Clinton worked with horsemen in Australia who knew how to do the techniques, but not how to teach them or explain them. Clinton spent a lot of time watching and experimenting, and refining, until he developed his Method. He was able to commercialize the information, and make it accessible to everyone.
One point that Clinton stressed is that people often purchase horses that are not a good match (see John Strassburger’s recent blog on “Matchmaking”). The two horses Clinton worked with over the weekend were prime examples of this. One horse was a 7 year old Thoroughbred. The horse was brought in because it spooked on trail. But as Clinton worked with the horse, it was apparent that the real problem was the horse had no respect for humans. The horse was pushy, and clueless. Clinton used basic ground work techniques to begin to establish a relationship with the horse. The transformation was very quick, and it was clear that the horse was not really spooky, or mean – he was confused and uneducated. The owner did not have the knowledge or the tools to be a leader for this horse.
Seeing Clinton in person is an experience.The atmosphere is a cross between a frantic, high energy game show, and a church revival. There is a lot of shouting and enthusiasm. There are product giveaways. There are contests. There is a huge store with all of the Clinton Anderson products.
Sometimes the demo horses seem to have to do more work than they need to in order to fill time while Clinton pontificates, or “to prove a point.” Some Clinton’s words may be considered by some to be inappropriate for the audience, which included many kids.
However, I learned several new things that will benefit me, and my horses. For example, Clinton stressed that of the four directions to move your horse’s feet, the best way to gain your horse’s respect is to back him up when you are unmounted. This is not a natural movement for a horse, and you truly establish leadership by doing this. The schoolmaster that I recently purchased backs beautifully under saddle, but he challenged me when I asked him to back up from the ground. In his mind, he was the leader, not me. It has taken time, and some persuasion with a dressage whip, but he now acknowledges my leadership and will back on command. And it has made a huge difference in our relationship.
It was interesting to see Clinton and his apprentices work in person. There are nuances in movement and approach that don’t come through in an edited video, or on the TV program. And I learned new things. But I think that in the future I will watch Clinton from the comfort of my living room, and leave the tour stops to others.