Like most horse trainers, when it comes to my barn, I run a tight ship and I like things very orderly and very systematic. Even though my barn is totally private—no outside horses for training, no boarders, no clients—for my horses and my staff, I have high expectations.
Rules for Horses:
Having happy, well-behaved horses is a high priority for me. The health and care of our horses is the absolute highest priority in my barn and, honestly, they have it pretty good. They have a clean, comfortable place to sleep every night and all the high quality food and supplements they can manage. They get to frolic in the fields all day with their friends and are only subject to forced exercise, with their own personal trainer, five days a week. In exchange for this country club treatment, there are certain things I expect in return.
Good manners from my horses are of utmost importance. Waiting politely and patiently for their room service to be delivered is a minimum expectation of mine. It’s okay if they are happy to see their food delivered and enthusiastic about its arrival, but crowding, demanding, stomping and aggression are not tolerated. If you deliver the food when a horse is acting poorly, you reinforce that behavior. Instead, our horses know that they will only receive their food when they are acting politely. Please and thank you gets you more. At our place, the feeders are under strict orders not to feed any horse that is displaying aggressive or unwanted behavior. When the feeders are approaching the pens or stalls with feed, the horses are expected to back up and wait patiently and politely for their food. If we have a horse that is displaying aggressive behavior, we will use a stick or rope to wave at the horse and back him away from the food. Once the horse has backed-off and is showing respectful behavior, we will drop the feed in and walk away. This ensures that the horse does not think he is taking away the food from you and keeps him in a subordinate frame of mind.
When I approach my horses, whether in the stall or in the field, I expect to be greeted by a happy horse, eager to see me and eager to be haltered and led away. Of course, I cannot force this kind of emotion from the horse, but I can create the conditions that make them feel that way. My horses know what follows being haltered and led away is our undivided attention, a pleasant and thorough grooming and a training session during which there will be lots of praise and acknowledgement of their efforts, followed by another nice rubdown. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Since our horses are happy to be with us and comfortable with our leadership, they walk quietly beside and behind us, matching us step-for-step. They ground-tie whenever and wherever asked and they do not act like they are caught or restrained and trying to escape—they want to hang out with us. This kind of willingness does not come for free—you have to earn it by being a confident leader, setting boundaries and trusting your horse.
I expect my horses to stand quietly and patiently when tied, no matter how long it might be. Our horses spend lots of time at the hitching rail and it is actually a very comfortable and content place for them. We keep them in the shade when it is hot and in the sun when it is cold and we make sure there are no flies to bother them. Just like little kids have to learn to sit quietly at their desks when they go to kindergarten, horses have to learn to stand tied by being tied often and for long durations. We start our yearlings learning to stand tied by getting them out with the mature working horses and letting them find their place at the hitching rail. Horses will learn by watching other horses—be it good or bad. So make sure there are always good role models present.
Finally, I expect my horses to try hard and put forth their best effort when I ask them to. I am not overly demanding, but I do ask for their best effort at times. I nurture the try in my horses by having high expectations and most importantly, by acknowledging their effort. If you can notice when your horse is trying, and reward it by letting him rest, leaving him alone, and offering your praise, he will work hard to please you. Who amongst us doesn’t want to be acknowledged for our efforts? If you miss the try in your horse and keep pounding away at him, even when he has put out his greatest effort, he will soon quit trying. On the other hand, I am ever vigilant for when my horse is cheating or trying to get away with something—and that gets my acknowledgement too. Praise is important, but so is admonishment when it is deserved. Your horse will rise to your level of expectation—be it high or low.
Rules for People and the Place:
Just as I have high expectations for my horses, I also have high expectations for my staff and anyone who enters my barn and has reason to handle my horses. I am so very fortunate to have awesome people working with me—they take as good care of my horses as I do. Knowing that I can leave town (as I do 130 nights a year) and never have any concern about the horses is quite a luxury!
Everyone in my barn knows that the horses are the number one priority—their health, their well-being and their comfort. I expect my staff to be highly observant of the horses—their mood, their appetite, their level of alertness. I expect each horse gets a stem-to-stern inspection every morning, looking over every square inch of his body for any scrapes, bumps or swelling. Observations are made on how much the horse did or didn’t eat, and whether or not his stall looks like he had a normal night. Each horse behaves differently in his stall at night and you should know what his stall normally looks like in the morning and it will tell you if there was a problem during the night.
Communication is a key component of a well-run barn, especially when more than one person manages the horses. We have a big white board front and center in the barn and all details get written down. Everyone knows to check the white board first and foremost when they arrive, to get updates on what went on and/or what needs to be done. Any boo-boos are noted, any changes in feed, or medicine given or any tasks that need doing. Good communication between all of the people involved is paramount—not only do you have to look for any notes, you have to acknowledge that you saw it and also be forthcoming with any information you might need to share.
Having a clean and orderly barn is extremely important to me. Not just cleaning the stalls every morning, but also picking up manure in the arenas, turnout pens and hitching rails. Our manure gets spread every day to help keep the flies at bay and to recycle the manure back into the fields.
I expect the barnyard to be raked and the aisle-way to be blown off. I’ll admit that my need for a neat and clean barnyard borders on obsessive-compulsion, but it makes me happy to walk into a beautiful barn. I gave up the tedious task of raking the barnyard in a herring-bone pattern a long time ago when I finally realized I had better things to do with my time and that no one else really cared. But a raked barnyard still pleases me.
I also expect an un-cluttered barn and for things to be put away in their rightful place. It’s amazing how junk accumulates in a barn if you let it. I travel a lot to different barns around the country and the junk and clutter, or lack thereof, is always something I notice. To me, it is important that the aisle-ways are free of obstacles and that we all know exactly where things are. I have learned to let go of silly things like making sure all of the halters and lead ropes are hung on each hook exactly the same way, but I do expect that the blankets are all folded and removed in a specific way, so that the next person doesn’t have to refold it before putting it on. Not all obsession are silly.
I expect the tack to be cleaned, the bits to be rinsed and the bridles be wiped down, each time they are used. While some might think this borders on OCD, I have a huge investment in my equipment and taking good care of it is important to me. But not just the tack—the horses too. Nothing erks me more than to see a horse put away with sweat marks on him; if we’ve made him sweaty, the least we can do is get him cleaned up and comfortable before putting him away.
Certainly not all horse trainers are highly particular and bordering on anal, but I have noticed that it is a common trait of our breed. Horses are not simple animals and riding is not a simple or easy sport. The people that are drawn to these animals and to this sport tend to be ones that embrace a challenge and have high personal standards as well as high expectations of others. When these qualities are absent, things fall apart rapidly with horses.
Horses thrive when there is a strong sense of order and sameness—it makes them feel safe and content. This is a luxury for a prey animal, who never knows what danger lurks around the corner. A sense of order is important to me too, so I guess that’s why I get along well with horses and why horses bring out the best in me.
Enjoy the ride,