Lessons Learned Along the Way – Part 1
At the age of 12, I finally badgered my father into buying me a horse. We opened the Yellow Pages and called the first listing, Fantasy Farm Stables. Ordinarily, that would be a recipe for disaster, but in this case it was the luckiest break I ever got.
A woman named Dawn Atlas was the owner, teacher, and coach. Now, after having worked for and been around people considered to be among the best horsemen in the world, I can say Dawn is up there with all of them. (In fact, I was privileged to be present for her induction into the Indiana Horsemen’s Hall of Fame last year—a long overdue and well deserved honor for her.) Long before any of us heard the term “horse whisperer,” Dawn was one and taught it. To this day, I hear her voice and her words echoing in my head. Dawn’s only fault, if you could call it that, is that she cared far more about the horses than she did about her customers. I learned some of my most important lessons from her.
There are three ways to do everything. The right way, the wrong way, and my way. And, as long as you’re working for me, by God you’re going to do it my way.
Dawn’s way was very specific. For example, she was a stickler for not only how to clean a stall but even down to how to hold a pitchfork. The smallest details mattered to Dawn. So I learned about attention to detail, which has served me well over the years. But I also learned to roll with it as I worked for people who wanted things done differently than I had been taught. Sometimes I thought what they wanted was bonehead stupid, and sometimes I was right. But I never balked at doing it their way and usually learned that their way worked and might even have some advantages. Over the years, as I worked for different people, I began to pick and choose and borrow from each of them, developing “my” way.
The horse is bigger than you are, stronger than you are, and faster than you are.
The only chance we have is to be smarter than the horse. I see supposedly experienced horsemen trying to out-muscle a horse, or grabbing for a horse, or hanging on them for all they’re worth. Dawn taught us to be kind and quiet, to understand the nature of the horse and its mind, and to use that knowledge to get the horse to do what we want. You want the action to be the horse’s idea to do something, not because you make it do so.
It’s never the horse’s fault.
It’s easy to lose your temper at a horse. People frequently do, and it is always wrong. Whether you are stepped on, kicked, bitten, run off with. When you can’t catch them or when they won’t load on a van. When they won’t stand still and when they won’t move forward. No matter what stupid thing they did, Dawn had no patience with anyone who lost their temper at a horse.
The horse comes first.
Before we were allowed to ride, before we were allowed to get a drink, and before we were allowed to rest, the horses had to have feed, hay, and clean water; stalls had to be mucked out; horses had to be groomed; horses had to be cooled out; and tack had to be cleaned. Riding was the reward for all that work.
Horses are dangerous.
They can break you like an eggshell without even trying. Dawn was a stickler for safety and would correct us strongly for standing in front of a horse, for going underneath a horse, for going behind a horse without staying close and speaking to the horse. We would protest that this horse was so good and so quiet that it was safe. “It’s never the dangerous horse that hurts you. It’s the one you don’t ever expect. Safety rules are all the time for every horse!” Over the years I’ve seen people injured again and again, some of them quite seriously, because they were careless and did not follow standard safety rules.