The latest gossip on the internet is all about Pat Parelli’s recent demonstration with a stallion named Catwalk. If you haven’t heard, I’ll catch you up briefly.
Catwalk is a show jumping horse who is extremely difficult to bridle. Over the course of the weekend Pat Parelli worked with Catwalk until he could be bridled. However, from eyewitness accounts, the demonstration got a bit too rodeo at times, with ropes used as lip twitches, legs tied up, Catwalk rearing and struggling to get away and spectators walking out in disgust.
I wasn’t there.
I didn’t see the horse or the demonstration. I don’t know how “extreme” the horse’s problems were or if simpler methods were tried first. I don’t know if the results will last or if other problems were created.
However, the incident with Pat Parelli and Catwalk does bring up many questions about how “extreme” behavior issues should be handled when training horses. Here are 5 important lessons that we should be reminded of after the fiasco with Parelli and Catwalk.
1) There are no problem horses
There are no problem horses or extreme horses. Just horses that have problems with people and a few who have extreme problems with people. Most horses are perfectly happy in the pasture. It’s when people get involved that the problems start.
When a horse acts up or misbehaves he is acting with his safety and comfort in mind. His actions don’t seem extreme to him.
Horsemanship is about seeking partnership. We have to try to find ways to work with the horse, rather than fighting against him. We need to find training methods that help the horse to look to us for guidance, rather than seeing us as part of the problem.
2) Choose Conditions that are Ideal for Learning
Setting, location, distractions, structure of the lesson, these can all make or break a training session.
Now imagine putting a horse in a new location, without other horses around, with bright lights, strange loud noises and a cheering crowd. This would put most horses on edge and not in a learning frame of mind.
When we train, we need to consider the best conditions and environment that will help the horse learn and progress. If conditions aren’t ideal, sometimes we might need to help the horse be comfortable in those conditions, before we start training something new.
Also, we must consider session length and structure. Many times progress will be much quicker if we work in short sessions or intersperse training something new with working on behaviors that have already been established.
3) Is horse or human safety at risk?
Will the horse or human will be in danger if the problem is not fixed right now? Sometimes it is appropriate to use “extreme” or “harsh” methods in order to get something done, such as providing medical treatment to an injured but uncooperative horse.
There is no reason to use excessive force to “get it done now” for issues such as bridling. The time frame to conquer Catwalk’s issues in a weekend was arbitrarily set by Pat Parelli.
Most of the time, there are thousands of ways to address a problem. We need to be open to a variety of solutions and techniques and start with the ones that will be the safest and the most easy for the horse to understand.
If we are constantly fighting with the horse or not making progress, it’s time to try something new. Or, it might be time to take a break, let horse and human cool off and then start again from a more calm and relaxed state. If we act like we have all the time in the world, training actually often progresses faster.
4) Any Piece of Equipment can be Abusive
Any piece of equipment in the wrong hands can become a torture device. Much of the buzz about the incident with Catwalk is about the specific techniques and pieces of equipment that Parelli used. Lip chains, hobbles, tying up a horse’s leg, laying down a horse, gag bits, spade bits, whips…many pieces of horse tack resemble medieval torturing devices.
We are quick to blame the piece of equipment and fault the trainer for using such a device or tactic.
However, in unskilled hands, even a snaffle bit or a halter can become a torture device. So, rather than debating whether certain techniques or pieces of equipment should ever be used, I think it is more important to see how that equipment is being used and the skill or technique of the person using it.
A highly trained bridle horse is probably much more comfortable wearing a spade bit than a lesson pony in a snaffle who is being popped in the mouth over every jump by a beginner rider.
Was Pat Parelli wrong to use the equipment or techniques he used? I wasn’t there, I don’t know. However, the incident with Catwalk is a good reminder that we should strive to find the most humane techniques and equipment available. Then, we must become skilled in our mechanics and timing so we can be gentle and humane in applying the techniques and methods we choose.
5) Are we Focused on Results or the Training Process?
The demonstration with Catwalk was all about getting the bridle on the horse. This was the final goal. And, from the clips I saw, it was achieved.
But at what cost?
Will Catwalk regress back to old behavior patterns in the future?
Does Catwalk trust Pat Parelli and view him as a friend?
Were principles and the horse’s welfare sacrificed during the training?
Often, when we focus on single problems or goals, we miss the bigger holes. We can make it all about the bridle, like Parelli did with Catwalk. Often, though, we might need to go pretty far back in a horse’s foundation to find the real problem.
From the clips I saw, the horse wanted nothing to do with having his ears or face touched. How about working through that first until the horse enjoys having his face touched? It might take more than a weekend.
It’s harder to teach a horse to like something when you have an “I’m going to MAKE you do it attitude.” The problem is, we often get our horses to tolerate things, but don’t go far enough to teaching them to like it.
Rather than focusing on the bridle, start with ground work and the basics. Instead of starting with the scary and uncomfortable, start by establishing communication and understanding with the horse. Get the horse calm and relaxed and thinking of you as a friend.
Only return to the bridle when you are working with the horse, rather than against him.
Readers, I would be interested to hear your comments and input on this incident and thoughts in general on trainers working with extreme behavioral issues.