Talking Horses

Lessons from a Beloved TV Show


I imagine many readers of this paper are also fans of the quality programing on the various PBS stations across our state. If you enjoy a good story with interesting characters, and also happen to love animals, then I suspect the reboot of the classic All Creatures Great and Small is near the top of your list. Personally, I didn’t think they would be able to match the original, but with great casting, wonderful animals and gorgeous photography the producers have maintained the series with great warmth and the compelling storylines around vet James Heriot.

For the horse lovers among us, one of the early episodes in season 3, aired in late January, was focused primarily on the fate of a troubled young race horse and the conflicting human views of what should be done with him. It’s a story relevant to the horse’s history throughout time.

Whenever I see horses interacting with actors on film, I’m always interested in who managed to make this movie magic with an animal that can be pretty unpredictable. I have some personal experience with this when I appeared on a weekly TV training show back in 2002 with my first horse. I can tell you things did not always go as planned and it took lots of footage and some good editing to produce what the show’s star wanted to demonstrate for the public.

On their website PBS offered an interview with the trainer who prepared the horse and guided the main character, knowing that viewers might like to know a bit more about how this episode was shot. Stunt doubles were used for just two scenes. The rest was all about a beautifully trained horse and an actor, Samuel West, inexperienced with horses, putting in the practice time off camera as he became fascinated with the horse-human relationship.

The trainer of this horse is a man named Ben Atkinson. The horse is named Mojo, a native English breed known as a Welsh Section D, thought to be about ten years old. Atkinson is based in England and specializes in training horses for movies, TV, commercials and horse shows. He and Mojo have worked all over England and throughout most of Europe.

When I read this interview about what went in to the making of this episode and the training of a horse like Mojo, what struck me was the common thread that runs through all good horsemanship. It doesn’t matter where you live, what riding disciplines you pursue, what kind of horses you own or work with. The good ones all believe in the same basic principles. I thought some of Atkinson’s comments would be of interest to anyone interested in horses, or as gentle reminders to horse owners about the importance of teaching our horses in ways that make sense to them.

“There are two types of leaders in a herd. One is a stallion, who comes in and says, “I’m the boss. Anybody who tries to get over me, I’m going to stomp on you.” That can work to being a leader, but no one really likes a boss like that, and the problem is if a scarier stallion comes along, that one will run away and he gives the job up. Now in our world, it doesn’t have to be another stallion that runs the leader off—and this is not the way we train—but say if we try to train like that and then we take the horse on set and there’s the lighting rigs and the SFX, the horse is going to say, “Well this is scarier than you are, so I’m out.” That’s the type of training that we stay away from.

“Horses are actually a matriarchal society, and they will choose their lead mare because she makes the best decisions. When it rains, she takes them to shelter. When it’s dry, she knows where the watering hole is. She’s elected for her longstanding good decisions that she’s made to be the leader of them. And that’s how we try and get the horses to see us. It’s not about dominance or being in charge—it’s about proving to this horse, when things get difficult, I will make a choice that makes you feel safe and happy. In all of our training we try to be the leader like the lead mare.”

To any current or would be horse owner, ask yourself what kind of leader are you or will you be? One that leads based on the horse’s definition of a good leader, or one that wants to dominate, intimidate, or be the boss?

“I have a basis for training of the four Cs, which are Clarity, Consistency, Confidence, and Calm. So, with clarity, you must be clear in your goal and how you ask for it. Consistency is asking for the same movement or behavior in the same way every time. And then if you clearly ask in the same way every time, then the horse grows more confident in offering you that movement or behavior, and can remain calm throughout the entire process.”

This was the foundation of my early training and has been at the center of all of my teaching ever since. If you can’t project and execute the four C’s you will always come up short in the eyes of your horse.

“I wouldn’t say the relationship with a horse is more complex than that with a dog, but you’ve got predator and prey. So, my chihuahua will do nothing if there’s no food because she thinks, why would I hunt if there’s no food? What horses are looking for is that they just want everything to be simple and to know what’s going on. If they know what’s going on and they feel safe and understood, that’s all they want. Because as a prey animal, you just want to have the most peaceful life possible and not get eaten.”

How often do horse owners forget the basic nature of the horse, and that bribery or coercion that may work for a dog will not work in the long run with a prey animal.

“One thing we try and do for all of our horses is keep their life as varied as possible, because we know as humans, we like to keep life varied, and so we keep fresh and alert.  It also helps their bodies last for longer. So, Mojo is a fantastic horse for riding. He’s a good jumping horse. He also does the liberty work, like we saw in All Creatures, with working loose, and he works in a carriage and other stuff as well.”

I’m always thrilled when I hear top trainers talk about the value of variety, fun and cross training for horses. Far too many horses are asked to do one thing only and it never occurs to their owners that they might be bored and uncomfortable because the owners are having fun, and the horse is just a tool for that fun.

“Liberty work is liberty—it’s to work in freedom, so the idea of a horse that works at liberty is a horse that works without any form of restraint at all. That’s no halter, no ropes, no saddle, no bridle—as naked as the day they were born, in their birthday suit. And so, liberty training is something that is based around communication through body language and through the horse looking to be given directions from the trainer while the trainer is equally looking at the horse to read their emotions and the situation.”

I was taught early on that the true test of the depth of your relationship with your horse, and the level of mutual respect and trust, is what you can do with your horse at liberty and from distance. Not in a small round pen but in a large arena or open space, and without treats, clickers or other techniques. If the horse stays with you, follows your lead and handles pressure, then that is a relationship of true partnership. For the good of the horse, every rider should work towards that.

Hats off to Ben Atkinson and this timeless series for showing a better way to be with horses.