in which Michael talks about his life with horses and his new book.
Michael, before you knew of Alexander and Lydia Nevzorov, you were already traveling a different path with horses. In what ways has the NHE experience changed or influenced your work?
After all the various experiences and enlightenment provided by horses that helped change my own beliefs and fixed ideas, it all culminated in a specific experience with one horse. It forever changed my viewpoint.
As a result of that huge catalyst, I had already reduced my classes to a few choice students who easily understood, and were very happy to work with, my accrued principles. However, these classes were mainly with my own horses and I could see that there were days when the horses really did not want to have to partake in any of that. It was interesting to see when particular students showed up; the horses would either come to the fence or run away to the opposite end of the field. A horse may have been willing at the beginning of the class, but also started to show signs of being fed up toward the end of it. Using Dr. Cook’s bitless bridle was fine, but I knew that the horses were still forced at times to maintain a desired path. A less damaging means of control, but an imposed control nonetheless. After, what I consider, horses showing me a side of them that was so personal, I was already trying to find a way out of that standard result of just riding
At a time when I did not want to continue standard training for others, this gave me something new to do with the horses and I was really having fun again. My best strong point was always the relationship. Haute Ecole is not a common standard discipline that we normally hear about in the average horse world. To discover something new that allowed the horse to be expressive and to develop physically and mentally was exactly what I needed at my personal crossroads.
What was it that first made you diverge from the traditional way of keeping horses and working with them, and put you on a different path?
Those are two very distinct questions and the two did not happen at the same time. At the beginning, while living and working in the city, the horses were kept in a boarding stable. For the first time, I started to realize that what was really going on in the world around me was a great contrast to my initial idea of what having a horse meant. The reality that my horse was living was not the beauty and dream of what drew me to horses. I saw this in every subsequent stable in which he was boarded. Look at any large stable, take a snapshot of the alley. It is very similar to a prison cellblock. Yet, how are horses usually depicted? They are free and running. Even stables could have beautiful names and logos of winged horses or comical smiling horses or a horse running free in a field. Not so in the real world, is it? It goes even beyond that with how we deal with horses every day. Yet, I was also trapped in the norm. Despite our feelings that may creep in
from time to time, we are constantly reminded through social pressure. No one, at any of the stables that we were at, thought as I did.
What made me start doing things differently was actually a combination of two different reasons. When I bought my first horse he was still boarded and undergoing basic training at the place that I bought him. One day, I was finishing a lap around the arena while other people were leaving the arena with their horses. I could feel my horse tense up right away. The horse was in a panic. He wanted to follow the other horses. He was neither angry nor aggressive, but he seemed terrified. I was happy with what we had accomplished and dismounted, but the trainer was not pleased. She told me that I was supposed to be the boss. I watched as the trainer struggled from the ground with reins in hand and I could plainly see that the only mounting that was going to happen was her anger. I think what made it worse was that she may have felt slightly embarrassed because this horse challenged her professionalism, or rather, diminished it to onlookers. She began to shout
and yank the reins attached to the Pelham bit. My horse reared up and as he did so, with his eyes wide with fear and pain, he looked at me. It shocked me. It was how he looked at me. It was only for a moment, but I saw a plea for help. A hope that maybe I, really practically a stranger, could do something. Even though I found the entire panic situation unpleasant, even understood that he did not want to be without other horses, it was based only on the physical reactions that I was seeing. I did not really attribute feelings to my horse. That is why that momentary glance surprised me so. I really felt his message. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the first time a horse `talked` to me so clearly. Maybe, it was the first time I noticed.
We did not stay there much longer and found new boarding at a place closer to the city. My horse’s registered name is JR Big Leo. Once we were on our own, he would accept the bitted bridle, but would show great reluctance to let me mount. Regarding the bit, like most of my learning, it happened by accident, and it was Leo who showed me. I noticed that he would be very relaxed when only in a halter, and if I tried to mount, it did not seem to be a problem. That solved it for me on the spot. I would remove the bit. People thought I was crazy.
I went further. By the time we left the ranch, he could be ridden at walk and trot. We had never cantered or galloped. We had some finishing work to do. In a halter with the reins clipped on, the square, metal piece along the cheek would rotate into his face when I did an open rein. That started to bother me, so I went in search of something else. I found Dr. Cook’s cross-under Bitless Bridle. For what it achieved for me and with Leo’s obvious approval of it, I became a representative. Nothing changed regarding people’s opinions about me riding without a bitted bridle. They thought it was pure folly and I even endured lectures from stable mates who, with good intentions, would try to dissuade me from going bitless. It was not their opinion that counted for me. It was Leo’s acceptance. That opened a completely new path for me. I never voiced my dislike of what I saw in training stables, I just decided to do things differently. It is not that I had
a plan or considered myself a better trainer. I did not consider myself a horse trainer at all. People just watching me and Leo, and eventually, our other horses, started to ask me to train theirs. I ended up becoming a horse trainer by circumstance. Nevertheless, there was still a lot of learning that would take place along the way.
As for the change in the traditional way of keeping horses, the change happened gradually. I found most stables restrictive. People would not want to ride at the same time as I because I did not put a bit on the horse. With so many boarders, riding, training or classes, having the arena free to play and run around with the horses was difficult. My wife bought a very young horse to give me the experience of starting from scratch. People were not used to seeing untrained horses. When I would take the young horse out of his box, people literally cleared the alleys because they were afraid. I was also not allowed to play with several horses at the same time. The owner of the stable considered it too dangerous. We were lucky to find an old barn rented out by a farmer. By the time we moved there, we had four horses. We practically had the place to ourselves and I was able to spend a lot more time with the horses. With the relative new-found freedom, I started
to notice a change in the horses for the better. It was then that we decided that we should get our own place.
Little did I realize that I had been conditioned to the stabling lifestyle for horses. Even though we had our own place, I initially reproduced the same environment of a typical stable. Boxes, paddocks, enclosures. Our horses were never shod, but when I learned more of the barefoot movement and started doing my own trimming, that is when things began to really change for the horses. I eventually dismantled the boxes and the stable became a walk-in shelter. Some fences came down and our horses were free to roam on our little piece of paradise.
From what you have seen in your experience how do you see the horse world in the future, say about fifty years?
It would be nice to say that we will all live in peace with other animals; horses would be respected and revered like the fabled unicorn. With my personal experience and reality of the world around me, there is no fantasy world in my own lifetime. However, there will be changes.
There are already changes taking place with average horse owners. I remember when the barefoot movement began to creep into stables. It was met with much reluctance but it began to spread. Opinions clashed often and so some people would band together to establish a place where they could improve the lifestyle of their horses without being faced with negative comments or social pressure from those who wanted to cling to tradition. It has only been ten years since it first popped up here, but now barefoot trimming is a commonly accepted alternative.
When I used to give classes, all the younger generation easily accepted my explanations to them about the importance of keeping a horse barefoot and not using a bit. Changes will not be drastic or sudden but there is a steady progression of awareness and consciousness.
However, the largest impact would have to be on the big industry of competition and racing. In Quebec, the four major racetracks were shut down near the end of 2009. It was due mainly to a financial crunch because there was no more monetary support from the government and not enough people showing up at the track to watch or bet on the races. For the horses, things will probably get worse before they get better. The existing horses lost much of their value because there was much less demand for them. People could no longer maintain highly populated breeding or racing stables anymore. The loss of the financial aspect means that a lot of horses went to slaughter.
Animal welfare groups around the world have grown in size and, therefore, have a stronger voice. As a result, the public becomes more aware of injuries and deaths in competition and racing. If one law is changed somewhere, then activity is moved somewhere else. With precedents being set and awareness growing all the time, the industry will slowly shrink. If there are higher concentrations of racing in one area, there will also be higher injuries and deaths reported from that one localized event. I think it will produce a greater lack of support from the general population.
To stay alive, they need public support because the entertainment is what draws the money from all the people. Maybe this will force governing bodies to allow changes in competition, such as, for example, allowing bitless bridles. The average person will make changes for the benefit of the horse. The industry will make changes to allow the flow of money.
NHE continues to make a great impact on showing the beauty and what is possible with horses and also the hidden horror that takes place in the competitive horse world. Although I would not schedule a show tour with my own horses, the horse show, Cavalia, started with Pignon and Magali continues to make a great impact. When I talk to average people on the street, plumbers, construction workers, waitresses, or families with young children, the lasting impression they have is from the play at liberty. From one of the shows, I heard for the first time, how people noticed a big difference when it was a demonstration of dressage, or mirroring between two horses and riders. The difference is that the people actually noticed how constrained the horses were and frothing at the mouth with the bit.
It will take one small step to prepare the threshold for the next change.
Tell us about the most memorable horses in your life….your greatest (equine) teachers, your closest (equine) friends…
My heart starts to beat stronger and tears come to my eyes when all the different horses and experiences flash through my memory. They have given me so much and they all taught me something. Even though I did things a little differently, I only grasped a little here, understood something else there. I did not wake up one day and decide that I would do things completely different. My strongest point was developing a good relationship with a horse. The horses showed me a side of themselves that gradually changed my thinking more and more. It came to a point that I had to train the people, not the horses. Horses that I worked with at home would be so good with me. They would also be pretty good with the owner if I were present. If an owner showed up when I was not around, I would hear that they could sometimes not even halter the horse and would completely give up and leave in anger and frustration. What I realized after dropping one training tradition
after another, was that my horses, or all the horses I trained, because no force and pain were involved, were not `broken`. It was a trust and a bond that we developed. This trust and bond, comprehension, and willingness were part of our unique relationship. That relationship was not transferable.
There was a big turning point in my life with horses in the summer of 2005. There was an incident that made me realize I had been moving further on up the track, but the track was exactly the same. There were many special moments that different horses presented to me over the years but it never all coalesced as it did on this particular day. In a matter of seconds, I finally broke away from that linear way of thinking.
Different stories about different horses are presented in my book. It is just all too much to go into here.
You just finished your first book ”Beyond the Dream Horse” Let’s talk about it. Can you give us a summary or overview of it, and tell us if it is all about NHE?
The book highlights some of the horses that I have known in my life and what I learned from different experiences. It is my goal to present a different perspective so that others can begin to live with new insight, not only about themselves, but also about their horses. The possibility that has so often been overlooked has always existed. The focus here is not on any particular training technique, types of equipment, or even scientific research. Although such points are touched upon through the course of my own learning experience, this is primarily about the relationship. This is a rediscovery rather than presenting anything new or groundbreaking regarding horses. Everyone holds the potential to see with new eyes and renewed spirit.
After the previously mentioned incident in 2005 that turned my seemingly perfect world with horses upside down, I met Lydia, thanks to Dr. Cook. Of course, Lydia introduced me to what she and Alexander were doing, and that became part of my life. As a progress with horses, that story is mentioned in the book. I explain what NHE is all about, Lydia’s mission and the forum experience and how NHE changed my activities with my own horses.
Who is your intended audience? What is your hope for the book? What would you like it to accomplish? How would you like it to affect your readers?
It is for any horse owner that is seeking a way to better understand and connect with their horse. I wish that the experiences that I went through and learned along the way could have been explained to me a long time ago. It would also be a good book for anyone who is thinking about buying their first horse. I think that even a non-horse person would find many parts of the book interesting including the parts involving horses.
It is not just a compilation of stories, but what I have learned through the described experiences. The expectations between people and horses are quite ingrained in our own psyche. We tend to adhere to the past and what we know or what is learned, or standards with which we grew up or are accustomed. It is often much more simple to do so than to deal with a new realization that is before our very eyes, or in our hearts. Yes, even when we are seeking it. It is denial or selfishness, or maybe even fear. It is not easy to wander off the beaten path when everyone is calling out and pointing the usual way back. We so often ignore our own feelings and do not appreciate the wellspring of our own experiences as a reality that can truly exist.
The challenge is to explain what I mean when I try to describe something learned from horses. Yet, I believe those who have had similar experiences will easily understand it. Secrets and treasures of the heart are not easily described. Pure emotion of the spirit is not readily understood. Yet, there are people scattered throughout the world who will understand exactly what I describe. It is almost a phenomenon that those numbers have been steadily growing in recent years.
I give examples of how I worked with my own horses. I want to help people realize the variations that could be applied according to the character of different horses, the creativity of the person, and how to adjust to different horses in order to develop new forms of communication. All I can do is relate my own experience and hopefully, people will be able to walk away with something from that.
My intention was to write a book that would touch the hearts of all who read it. It did not turn out exactly as I wished. This is not fantasy and so the world creeps in oftentimes with the coldness of reality. Nonetheless, it is this diversity that allows love to shine ever more brightly when it is found.
Where can people find the book?
Beyond the Dream Horse – A Revealing Perspective on Attaining a True Relationship, will be available in October 2010 http://www.beyondthedreamhorse.ca/