What is Life in a Horse?

Often over the years, I’ve heard Buck speaking about Life in a horse.

The horse world is so varied in its interpretations of Life.  Everyone seems to have a different concept.  Before I came to the ranch, all of my horses ran off with me.  I wouldn’t have thought that I had a problem with “life”.  I thought I had plenty of life!

Buck said this year that he wants his horse “Relaxed and Ready.”

Tying into this, he said that Life consists of 2 parts:

  1. The promptness of the horse when asked for a movement
  2. The lightness in the aid given to cue the horse

Over the past couple of years at the ranch, I’ve noticed a great deal of people focus on Part A.  The problem with only focusing on Part A is that you can easily make a horse reactive rather than responsive.  This type of horse can be “punchy.”  He’s never quite settled.  He’s always trying to anticipate the next move so that he is one step ahead of the person on his back.  He might seem like “Johnny on the Spot” but his reactions are more inclined to be derived from flight than from feel.  Some people think this is Life.  But the horse isn’t actually with you, he’s ahead of you.

Another type of horse that is created by an exclusive focus on Part A is the complete opposite effect.  When you always focus on getting the promptness of the movement, by whatever means necessary, the horse can also become dull and reactive, or simply dull and resentful.  Over time, the horse learns that there is no promptness of movement unless it is forced or heavy.  Example—if it always takes 2 hard kicks to get a horse to go, it will always take 2 hard kicks to get him to go.  That’s what the horse expects it to take to push the “START” button.

How do you fix these Part A issues?  With equal emphasis on Part B of course!  This is the part that the human is a little less inclined to focus on, because this is the part involves patience, timing, feel, and a good deal of thought.  When the human is in Auto-mode (interpretation—focused on Plan A only) they can go thru the motions on autopilot.

Unfortunately, autopilot in the human creates autopilot in the horse and if you want to experience a horse with the feel that Buck teaches, well…we’ve got to follow Buck’s steps.

You might wonder…. “If my horse takes 2 hard kicks to get started, how would I be able to get more done with a lighter aid?”  If you want Buck’s answer it’s this simple.  Offer less, then less than less, until it takes less to get the job done.  “But…you don’t understand…it takes 2 hard kicks.”  It did…until you offered less and waited on the horse until he took you up on the offer.  And then you continued to offer less until less is all it took.

Now, I know as humans we all like to live in extremes.  This wouldn’t mean that you never ask more of your horse.  Remember, Part A says the “Promptness of the Movement.”

Have you ever seen Buck kick a horse?  I have.  Have I seen it happen often?  No, it’s quite rare.  But it’s pointed—it happens, and then it rarely happens again.

I’ll give you an example from this last summer.  Buck had been riding his colt Manny throughout our ranch clinics.  On one of the last mornings, Buck had been sitting on Manny for quite awhile, talking to the class.  Buck sat up, took his legs off of Manny slightly, cuing him to walk off with a good clip.  Instead, Manny thought he would saunter, or maybe not move at all.  Buck took his legs off of Manny further…still not an acceptable response…Buck’s legs came down firmly on Manny’s sides to let the little bay know that he meant “Walk out, NOW.”  Manny got the message. 

The next time Manny was asked to leave with a light aid he moved off in time.  Then Buck sat back down to talk and Manny went back to relaxing.  He was relaxed, but READY now.  And because Buck made his point fairly and pointedly when Manny was late in movement, he was able to get back to his light aid, with prompt movement immediately.  I did not see him have to kick Manny again for the rest of the clinic.

This brings me back to my statement in the beginning about thinking all of my personal horses had Life.  Don’t forget the part about “Relaxed and Ready.”  Not, “Ready, Go, Ready, Go!”  Sometimes at the ranch, a guest may get a little frustrated with a ranch horse and mention that they don’t have issues with life with their horses at home.  Fair enough.  As long as they can pass the following test—can they walk, trot, canter, get back to the walk, and down to a stop without your reins?  Can you rate the horse up or down without pulling on them?  Do they move off without a squeeze or a spur?

Horses that go slow actually have the same underlying problem as a horse that WON’T go slow.  They aren’t with you.  They are ahead of you, or behind you, but not right in time with you.  Believe it or not, if you can get a dull horse to move out, you can get a fast horse to go slower—all with the presentation of your seat and legs.  All by focusing on equal Parts A and B with your ultimate goal being the magical “Relaxed and Ready.”