Wednesday Book Review: ‘Right from the Start: Create a sane, soft, well-balanced horse’

This week Horse Nation book critic Erin McCabe reviews an insightful training manual by Michael Shaffer.

From Erin:

Don’t Call My Horse Stubborn

I have some pet peeves (OK, maybe more than a few.  Whatever).  One of them is when people call horses stubborn.  I don’t mind (too much) when people call me stubborn, because sometimes it’s totally true (although I much prefer being called tenacious).  It’s just that it usually seems when someone calls a horse stubborn, it’s really that the person is frustrated and maybe even a teensy bit mad.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t deny that horses are sometimes frustrating.  And I confess I’m guilty of getting mad at my horses sometimes (I’m not proud).  And while I know horses are sometimes “difficult to manage,” I’m not convinced that they “unreasonably adhere to [their] purpose, opinion, etc; [or refuse to] yield to argument, persuasion, or entreaty.” (Yeah, I looked up stubborn in the dictionary.  Have I mentioned I love dictionaries?)

I wish I could say that I was smart or insightful enough to come to these conclusions all by myself.  But no.  I blame Michael Shaffer and his training philosophy.

But blame is really the wrong word because, despite gaining a new pet peeve, I am actually quite grateful for Shaffer’s book Right from the Start: Create a Sane, Soft, Well-Balanced Horse.  It has become one of my favorite training books because Shaffer’s approach is sane, soft, and balanced.  In a word, it’s kind.  And although I can be stubborn and tenacious, I would much rather be kind.  Shaffer makes kindness easy (and effective).

Shaffer asserts on page 4 that horses aren’t resistant or evasive (a.k.a. stubborn), they’re confused and frustrated (like me in math class).  And darn if that doesn’t pretty much change everything.  It’s hard to blame a horse for being confused or frustrated. Shaffer says that our job as riders is to explain to our horses how—how to be ridden, how to be balanced, how to make a nice transition.  That’s so much nicer than telling or arguing.

I will admit, at first, I wanted Shaffer to just get on with things and tell me how to train my horse.  That’s because he spends the first half of the book explaining his definitions of common terms used in horse training, and his philosophy and rules (1. No one gets hurt  2. Reward in Proportion  3. Every Step Counts 4. Correction, Not Punishment  5. Take Your Time).  I like rule number 5 a lot.  It makes me feel so much better about how green my project pony still is.  And really, so much of this book just makes me feel better—about going slow, about approaching “problems” as “opportunities” to learn new ways of doing things. There are all kinds of horse training gems hidden in the “explainy” part of the book.

Now, maybe all this sounds new-agey.  I guess you could argue that (if you really want to be stubborn about it).  Certainly much of what he writes is philosophical and introspective.  Certainly he does a lot of groundwork that could be considering Natural Horsemanship-y.  Only he calls things like ground tying “Increasing Your Sphere of Influence” which sounds so much cooler.  I mean, who doesn’t want to be able to say, “I  have a large sphere of influence”?  But rest assured, I am totally cheesed out by all things hippy-dippy, and Shaffer’s book didn’t cheese me out at all.  Then too, much of Shaffer’s book is grounded in Classical Horsemanship, and some of his techniques are extremely practical. Take The Natural Circle, which is an idea worth way more than the book’s cover price.  Basically Shaffer explains how there is a size circle (and surprise!  it probably isn’t 20 meters!) that your horse is most comfortable and balanced on.  If he’s falling out, he needs a bigger circle.  If he’s falling in, he needs a smaller circle.  Put him on the size circle he needs, and voila!  suddenly your horse is keeping his balance much better.  From there you can show him how good it feels to be balanced, and eventually, how to ride the tyrannical 20 meter circle and still be balanced.

It’s a cool idea, right? The book is full of other cool ideas that will make it so much easier—so much less frustrating—so much more rewarding— to train your next project pony (or the one you already have).  I’m not saying I’ve adopted or used every single idea Shaffer presents.  But this is one of those books that should be on every horse person’s shelf.  Just be forewarned, you will forever be irritated when you hear a horse being described as stubborn.

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