Carolyn Resnick's Method: Training Horses at Liberty

This week's post is from guest blogger Kai Mattern.

From riding waves to riding horses

Sports like white water kayaking, surfing and windsurfing took up the bulk of my life, sports that teach you to work together with nature rather than against it and the occasional encounters I had with horses and their riders didn't match the pictures I had in my mind.

My background with horses

One day I went for a ride on a dude string which is another funny story I might tell in another occasion, either way it led to me taking riding lessons and some months later to my decision to get my own horse. I bought Oli when he was around 9, he was an extreme horse, a thoroughbred off the track with plenty of go but no whoa. Researching horse training on the internet, I found lots of information on natural horsemanship and for sure this was the path I wanted to be on. One method I tried, was round pen training and Oli was brilliant or at least what I back then thought was brilliant, he could do any amount of laps in a canter, unfortunately him coming to a halt would take a couple of laps too.

In the next weeks, I spent lots of undemanding time with him, sitting or lying in his paddock reading books about horse training by different trainers. I took him on walks on a lead rope which was a bit like flying a kite in a storm. He would shy at anything, his own shadow would scare him. A very successful western trainer said to me that he was good for nothing. I still thought he was perfect, a high spirited horse, a swift dancer that hardly made contact with the soil he was moving on.

As a novice rider I didn't want to use a bit on him so I ordered a bitless bridle and used that instead. He never stopped anyway when you pulled back on the bit, so no point using it I thought. I rode him out in a walk and he was actually doing pretty good, I knew better than to try and canter him.

A matter of trust

I wanted to get to his mind, that would be the key to him, to form a team and enjoy each other I thought and to eventually canter bridleless into the sunset with him. I wanted him to trust me and therefore I needed to trust him I felt, to accept him and love him for what he was and what he could be one day.

At a visit to one of Germany's biggest horse shows, I had the opportunity to watch a demo of Pat Parelli natural horsemanship and I spent the next 8 years studying Pat Parelli's horse training method and applying it to my training with Oli. I was able to develop an extra-ordinary relationship with Oli and got to where I could ride him bridleless and even jump over 3 feet bareback.

Even though I was not unhappy with everything I had achieved so far, I still thought that there had to be an even better approach to horse training, a way to get to their mind in depth. I wanted to bring the connection and the performance with my horse forward to the next level.

This is when I discovered Carolyn's method and I soon had an opportunity to attend a clinic given by one of her certified instructors. I was amazed by the knowledge about horses, Carolyn had to share and how she developed a method based on herd behaviour and passive leadership.

I decided to meet Carolyn in person and study with her, I had found my mentor

As my first project learning with Carolyn at her "Dances with Horses" Ranch, she gave me a 6 year old Arabian stallion to train how to lead with tack using her approach. When I first met Maestro, it was obvious that he was a very extreme horse, really sensitive and an extreme quick mover. A young horse with very little handling and not much social contact with other horses either as it seemed, but still interested in human beings. He was very aware of his environment and moving any of the other horses away from where he could see them was disturbing to him. He needed to control this herd, keep it together.  Whenever I would step up to his paddock he would come up and say hello but at the same time he was a horse that was not used to looking to a human for directions, he didn't have me in consideration when making any decisions. So often you can see this in horse-human relationships, there is no connection. They are physically together but are in different worlds and therefore all communication is difficult and there is no lightness and harmony.

Carolyn had started putting the Waterhole Rituals on Maestro and the sessions I had an opportunity to watch were mostly 1 pile of hay, Companion walking, the disconnect and go trot and work on the whoa. Everything was done without pressure and he was getting better and better. He was enjoying his training, it always fascinates me how quick horses respond to it.

So one day Carolyn decided it was the perfect day to put tack on Maestro and lead him out of his paddock and take him to meet some of the other horses at the paddock at the end of the narrow path. I was very excited to have the opportunity to lead him and get a lesson from Carolyn about handling a Stallion in a situation which required full concentration and making sure the stud would stay connected with me, willing to follow my directions.

I stepped into his paddock and asked him to come up to me. He responded nicely. I put a stall-halter with a rather short lead-rope attached to it on him and walked him to the gate and opened it. Excitement was building up in him and therefore I had Maestro wait at the opened gate until he would calm down and look at me and ask for permission to step forward. It was amazing to me how this small act brought the horse and I together. I would only signal him to come out when the horse and I were truly connected and we would start our educational walk from his paddock to the hill side arena, a really narrow path with paddocks on either side and some inhibited by fellows that couldn't wait to talk out who is who in the zoo. Since the path is so narrow it is even more important to make sure the horse is aware of your personal space and that he stays connected even when the instincts are about to take over.

The lesson was quite simple but nevertheless extremely effective. He had to stay at my side and walk in a decisive pace, whenever he tried to rush forward I was instructed to turn around 180º and walk him back to his paddock and we would not start all over again before he was completely focused on me and relaxed. Any rushing or disconnection would take him away from his goals and his naughty ideas and he would have to start back at the bottom. Wanting to rush forward would make him get there later rather than sooner, a simple exercise. He was never supposed to feel the end of the line either, a quick pull on the lead rope whenever he was about to pull the rope himself and immediate release to put the slack back into the rope. What is important to Carolyn, is that when a horse pulls, you release the contact before you direct him with the rope.

Whenever Maestro started talking "dirty" to the other horses or wanted to pick a fight with them I would ask him to reconnect first using a short decided "No" and if that wasn't enough, I turned around 180º and walked him back to his paddock and had him enter it. I let him think about what just had happened for a while before we started again and went for this walk down the path using the same approach with no reprimand or any jerking on his head. It was beautiful to see how with every walk he just got better. It is so important to let the horse make the mistake, in this case to talk dirty or get all excited and want to ignore his leader. You let the horse make the mistake and you then correct it, you stay alert and are in the moment but you don't anticipate anything and keep your energy nice and calm. You are there for him and to help him find the appropriate behavior that would socialize him in order to be able to be around other horses and not pick up on their excitement and bad intentions.

In a very short time he could walk down that alley with me and even though the other horses where coming to the fences to start an argument, he would not react much, he wasn't too bothered at all anymore. None of his character was taken out of him and he was not turned into a dull horse, instead he was very attentive to me, his leader and there was a true connection and communication building the inter-species bond.

Back in Europe

I have now started to work with Marco, a warmblood dressage horse back here in Barcelona, Spain who is so much less motivated, especially compared to a horse like Oli. After a few weeks of sharing territory and only 5 sessions of putting the Waterhole Rituals on him, Marco is already turning into a completely different horse. He is starting to companion trot and now starts to come up in a trot and sometimes even in a canter when I call him. His go-button is getting better and better and I can't wait to experience the difference in riding. He is so much fun now, he is not the same horse he used to be. Amazing what the liberty training Carolyn taught me is capable of achieving, a bond that takes years to form with other methods of natural horsemanship and that many people never get to experience with their horse at all.

The Waterhole Rituals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain

Carolyn and I are very excited to work together, since I am fluent in English, German, Spanish and French I want to help spread her method in Europe, introduce more people to this wonderful, authentic and empowering approach to horse training no matter if your goal is to form a pleasure, western or dressage horse or if you are "just" looking for the perfect harmonious relationship.

Thank you Carolyn for all you have taught me so far and all to come. If you are looking to begin your own journey with the Waterhole Rituals with direct coaching from Carolyn be sure to sign up for the Insider Circle online program starting April 15th, 2012. If you've already begun your journey and would like to take it to the next level be sure to join Carolyn in March at her ranch for Beyond the Waterhole Rituals 8 day Advanced Clinic.

Thank you for sharing your knowledge Carolyn,

Kai