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Life’s Lessons from Horse Training

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

By John Douglas Morrey

My grandfather’s brand now registered to me.

I laid flat on my back with the breath knocked out of me. I marveled seeing stars in broad daylight. Spying my horse at some distance, I wondered how could he have such an innocent look? I now know that horses are like children, they don’t know unless you teach them. My one-and-a-half-year-old colt, Billy Bob, had not been taught.

“What in the world am I doing,” I thought. “You are a 50-year-old man trying to learn how to train horses. Do you really want to do this?” I didn’t move a muscle as I seriously contemplated that question. “You had committed months earlier to this journey, but how committed are you really?” Suddenly, Kim Cutler, my horse-training instructor appeared over the top of me, and asked if I was okay. Was I going to get back into the saddle? Having already answered the question, I got back on the horse and successfully finished the ride. Since that day 15 years ago, I am pleased and surprised at how many times the lessons I learned from training horses have application to life. Fortunately, the cracked ribs and achy body are less frequent and mostly a memory of the past.

Lesson of Courage. Getting back on and successfully riding a horse that just dumped me is a strangely satisfying experience. In fact, the courage to continue is not only satisfying, but essential. Likewise, important accomplishments in life cannot be achieved without courage. My father once told me during a time of uncertainty, “Don’t take council from your fears.” Said differently, “Don’t let fear govern your actions.” I have since come to realize that this is an important principle of life.

Lesson of Agency. A horse has its agency to surrender his will to the trainer, but convincing the horse is in the hands of only the skillful trainer. I am convinced if a horse learns to both respect and to trust the trainer, the journey will lead to a happy, productive partnership. These next examples illustrate this abstract principle. Annette, my sister-in-law, flooded her newborn foal with affection as a mother would her child. The baby horse learned that Annette was the source of unfettered food and affection. With time the horse was forceful if Annette was not forthcoming with its demands. The baby horse may have been cute when showing dependency and personality, but as the horse became older, it became spoiled and dangerous. If Annette or others entered the corral, the horse charged. The willing partnership was destroyed. The family had to get rid of the horse. This horse probably trusted Annette, but it did not respect her.

I have known people whose vision of training a horse is to force it into submission “against its will” by removing its agency. This type of horse stiffens its body, prances relentlessly when ridden, and at worst will try to buck, kick or otherwise protect itself. This horse may respect or fear the trainer, but it does not trust the trainer.

I don’t recall which of my mentors, Kim Cutler or Kurt Longmore, taught me to halter-train a foal by pulling the lead rope with the slightest touch. If I continued pulling so as to not frighten the horse, he would eventually give to the pressure and move towards me. Now here is the important part. At the instant the horse “gives” to the pressure, immediately release the pressure. By skillfully applying this “pressure and release” principle, the horse will not think he is being pressured against his will, but he will think he is exercising his agency by responding or giving to pressure. He will learn to trust and respect. It takes a little more patience, but in the long run, he will grow up to be a willing horse using his own agency to do the right things. People are similar. Release the pressure immediately when a child gives the slightest inclination to follow encouragement. Done skillfully, the child will grow up to be a willing adult using his own agency to do the right things. The importance of agency was taught to me as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The doctrine states that all people are literally spirit children of God the Father. We voluntarily chose to come to this mortal existence to exercise our

agency, “For the power is in them, wherefore they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.” [Doctrine and Covenants 58:28]

Lesson of Confidence. I recently learned an important lesson with Charlie Horse. When I made Charlie Horse nervous while on his back, he was scared of imagined “alligators” in the water or “lions” in the brush. A breakthrough came when I disciplined myself to ride Charlie Horse with calm, careful signals from my body that did not make him nervous. Almost miraculously he became less nervous about scary “alligators” or “lions” in unfamiliar places. Once Charlie Horse and I got to a certain stage of trust, the scary imaginations went away. Children coming from parents that train to inspire confidence in the home will become confident adults less fearful of personal relationships and the world around them. On a spiritual level I challenge you with this scripture speaking of confidence, “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God.” [Doctrine and Covenants 121:45]

Lesson to Avoid Anger. Here is an impactful lesson for life emphasized in my horse-training journey. I try not to lose my temper with horses, even when they are misbehaving. Admittedly this is difficult when I feel extreme frustration. I have learned to stop and perhaps walk away from the situation to collect my thoughts. I have learned by experience that anger is counterproductive and reverses the progress made to that point. People are much the same way. Generally opinions are not changed or progress is not made when one gets angry. Stop and perhaps walk away until you can reevaluate your approach. Try something new, particularly with a teenager that is physically an adult, but is still immature. At all costs avoid contention or arguing.

Back up, and reconsider the approach. I believe this scripture applies to our

relationships, “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me.” [Book of Mormon, 3 Ne. 11:29]

Lesson to Avoid Helicopter Parenting. Micromanaging a horse can create resentment. I made the most mistakes with my first training-horse, Billy Bob. I micromanaged Billy Bob. I tried to correct him with every movement he made. I should have relaxed a little bit to allow him to make mistakes, correct himself and gain confidence with me on his back. Constant and continuous correction while riding a horse makes him nervous to the point of not learning the lessons to be taught. I was a “helicopter parent” to Billy Bob. A woman from Salt Lake who purchased the horse called me two weeks later to explain that the horse had bucked her off. I happily took the horse back and asked Kim Cutler, my first mentor, to sell the horse on consignment. He claimed it went to a knowledgeable horse owner. Let’s hope so.

I have shared what I believe are poignant lessons. I love this journey and hopefully you will appreciate some lessons it teaches me. The basketball coach, John Wooden, often quoted Cervantes the famous Spanish writer, “The road is always better than the Inn.” So it is with horses, personal relationships and life. Note: To add a little visual interest, I have included a couple of clips of horse experiences in this one minute video. Click on this private YouTube site:

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