Monday, June 30, 2014

Finding the Magic

Dan Sumerel lives in the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains of Salem, Virginia, USA. He is the author of the world-acclaimed equestrian manual Finding the Magic. He is the founder of Sumerel Training and Sumerel Therapy, equine programs that teach the necessities of riding…
Welcome Dan!

When was your first encounter with a horse?
Unlike many of your readers, I did NOT grow up around horses. But I did use the word HORSE all the time in the context of HORSEPOWER! The first half of my life was all about horsepower, in that my passion was racing motorcycles and cars. With names like Yamaha, Honda, Ferrari, Corvette, Trans Am, etc, I lived what I loved. Then, perhaps as a midlife crisis, I wanted a change, but had no idea 'change to what'!   I was 41 and I got my first horse almost by accident. A wonderful, perfect beginner horse, an 18 year old Arabian gelding, Raj. Little did I know Raj would change my life, launching me in a completely new direction and allow me to help thousands of horses and their owners worldwide. Raj was kind and forgiving of my ignorance about HIS world, and he took care of me as I learned. He made my start in horses magical, and gave me a new passion! I should also add that one advantage I had getting into horses at 41, is that I KNEW I knew nothing about this world of horses, so I was open to being taught. But I was also aware that if something didn't FEEL RIGHT, perhaps is wasn't. I began to question a lot of the NORMAL in horses, but had no facts to back up those feeling. I am thankful to this day that I listened to those feelings!

Do  you have a favorite horse breed?  
In the past 21 years I have had the PRIVILEGE of working with every breed and discipline on the planet. And to be quite honest I have NOT met a breed I do not like. From Clydesdales to Mustangs and Paints to Warmbloods, they are all first and foremost HORSES. Much the same as how all types of humans are still all PEOPLE! But I own and ride Arabians. Since I got into Endurance Riding, the small, strong, agile Arabians were perfect for me. I also love their look as well as their intelligence and personality. When I occasionally hear a person say, 'I cannot stand those 'hard to handle spooky Arabians', I know I met a person with more limitations than the horse!  Those same limitations that later allowed me to buy an 'out of control' Arabian Stallion, could have been a disaster. But once again, the fact I KNEW I needed to learn what I didn't know, kept me on track to turn a dangerous situation into a true miracle! 

Where is your favorite place/arena to ride?
When I got into horses, I lived in Denver. I loved to trail ride motorcycles in the mountains and found the National Forest incredibly attractive. I kinda got bored, just riding around an arena, so those gorgeous mountains just kept calling my name! In later years I got to do Endurance rides all over the western US, and found so many beautiful places to ride, such as a 250 mile 5 day ride across Utah, that was incredible. I first saw Mt. Rushmore from the back of my horse on an Endurance ride in South Dakota. This is such a great country to see from the back of a horse!!!

What training methods do you use?
Answering this question is why I wrote my first book!  Obviously in the beginning I didn't have ANY training methods. Fortunately my first 2 horses were so good and took care of me, I didn't NEED any. With those two, I just needed to not screw them up! Then I bought Sunny, while his owners kept telling me NOT TO BUY HIM! He bit and kicked and struck and bucked and rolled over people, so he was called a rogue. But I had a perfect reason to buy him, he was SO PRETTY! He had been ridden, but not a lot, and oh, he was also hard to catch sometimes. Perfect horse for a beginner!  They did tell me that gelding him would likely help his behavior. So the day I bought him he was gelded. And they were proved wrong!....  For some reason I was able to catch him with no problem. The first day I was to ride him there were 31 people standing around to watch! My dressage saddle offered little to hold on to, so I must confess I WAS a bit concerned. The first ride was a non-event. HE was a dream to ride, fast, agile, sure footed; he was a huge step beyond my first 2 horses, in many ways I had yet to realize.

Sunkist Sir Beau, A.K.A. "Sunny"
After 3 flawless rides in the mountains, the 4th ride was different. About 3 miles out he decided to go home, and we did. At full speed the whole way. It was my first experience on a runaway horse! Like being on a motorcycle with the throttle stuck wide open! All the previous years of racing and skydiving taught me how to manage my emotions in situations where many others would just panic. I really believe that saved my life. You see on the 7th ride he did it again. And over the next 8 months he runaway with me (3-5 miles per event) 43 times! After the third runaway, I went looking for help and in the horse world that means TRAINERS. I hired 5, 4 of which were never able to even get on him. The one who did, never rode him out of the round pen! I was the neophyte and I was riding him 3-5 times a week. What is wrong with this picture? And for this of you 'normal riders' reading this, yes we did change bits! Six times to some of the most severe bits available. What 'TRAINING METHODS'  did these trainers(?) use? Severe bits, tie downs, laps and laps in a round pen, etc. I honestly never saw a 'method' in use, just a struggle, which Sunny always won! So after 8 months and 43 runaways, I put Sunny in a pasture and took off to find someone who could help me 'fix' this horse!
The term Natural had appealed to me, so I went to clinics with all the big name NATURAL trainers. Lyons, Hunt, Roberts, Parelli, Branaman, etc. And I bought their sticks and ropes and halters and on and on. (I don't consider TACK a TRAINING METHOD, but that puts me in a minority).  Nothing worked, although I was told several times, to SELL THAT HORSE....After a lot of money, travel and a LOT of clinics, I went back to Sunny in Colorado. I put him in a round pen and tried to do what I had seen, but realized I was just very confused, since all those trainers were as different as they were alike. So this is where things changed for me. I had learned more watching the horses than the trainers and so now I watched Sunny. I knew I needed to change his MIND and get him to let me DRIVE on our rides!
In the herd the pecking order is the law, and the herd leader makes the decisions. That's what I needed to be to Sunny. After 6 weeks of trial and error (mostly error) Sunny began to change. Simple things like when I walked towards him, he would politely move out of my way. Like how he would always keep one eye or one ear on me when I was around. He also was more relaxed, rather than so reactive. So after 6 weeks in the pen, we went for a ride, but using a halter and no bit. And, there were no runaways! Yes, he tried to take off but when I asked him to slow or stop he did. (Much to my amazement!) And the more we rode the better it got. We were now a team with ME the leader. And without the BIT he was more comfortable and even faster because he could breathe better. (I can explain WHY that is true with the anatomical facts to back it up, if you are interested.)

People who knew Sunny and me were amazed and began the silly comments; "Dan, you've got the gift!" Dan you must be a whisperer!"  "Dan, will you work with my horse, that is giving me fits!" And being so naive I always said, Sure! So began my business re-training problem horses, And after dozens of other horses a pattern became apparent, and my training methods evolved quickly....Which brings us back to the question that caused this narrative, What are your TRAINING METHODS? So this is it: Everything you ever do with any horse involves ONE simply thing: Controlling the movement of his body!  And there are only two possibilities to deal with. You are either trying to GET the body to do something or STOP the body FROM doing something. ANYTHING you ever do with your horse fits in this simple concept.   Picking up his feet, YEP. Trailer loading, YEP. Standing still to get on, YEP. STOPPING A RUNAWAY, YEP! and so on. If you ask the horse for something and he agrees, you win. It is about his attitude and changing that starts by changing YOURS! Forget the tack, forget the fatigue and forget the treats, and for heaven sake, stop talking! the horse....
I can't explain all I teach in a clinic, but here are the 3 simple fundamentals: 1) Get and keep the horse's attention. 2) control the movement of his body LOOSE in a round pen. and 3) calm him down! If he pays attention to you, he is telling you you’re important. The opposite is what most people live with....If he will yield when you ask, you can teach him anything.....And a calm horse is ALWAYS more responsive, less over-reactive and a whole lot more fun!

Finding the Magic is an international seller! Who would enjoy reading your book?
After 10 years of clinics all over the US, Canada and Australia, people kept asking me to write my story in a book, so I did. I had written dozens of technical articles for car and motorcycle magazines, but writing a book was a daunting task at first. Once I decided to tell my story and as I did to continually interject what I did wrong and WHY it mattered, Finding the Magic came together in about 7 weeks. So many people contributed to my very steep learning curve in the horse world, and without bits and pieces from those people, I could not have progressed as I did. I learned a lot from the clinicians I mentioned earlier; even though it was sometimes learning things I would NEVER DO! I spent a short time with Gunther Gebel-Williams at the Ringing Bros Circus, and if you think it is important to be in control of your horse (which most people are not) try going in a pen with 5 Tigers! Your horse can hurt you but he won't eat afterwards!
I am proud to Say Finding the Magic is going into its 5th printing and is in 2 languages. By openly describing all the mistakes I made, you will laugh until it hurts! I hear that all the time. There are parts of the book that will bring tears to your eyes, But the most common comment I have heard is that after reading it, you can never look at a horse the same way again.  The HOW-TO chapter in Finding the Magic will give you a METHOD to change you and YOUR HORSE. And the Chapter on PHYSICAL will describe the other half of my work with horses, allowing us to find and correct physical problems - like nothing else out there. And it is a technology that ANYONE can use for their own horses or as a service business helping horses in their area. I do hope you will order a copy for yourself and any friends who really love horses!
Do you have a favorite horse anecdote?  
One of the most dramatic and funniest situations was when I took Sunny to his first clinic. There were 36 people and horses at the clinic and the well-known clinician was a cowboy of the first rate. Hat, chaps, spurs etc.... 33 of the people attending were also western attired, on mostly Quarter horses. There were 2 girls in English riding attire on Thoroughbreds. And, there was one guy wearing red and black riding tights, and a white helmet on a small gray Arabian. ME. The clinician did his preliminary 'training' with each horse, and Sunny took twice as long and any other horse there. As he gave Sunny back to me he said, "You've got a real challenge there." I knew that before I paid to go to his clinic!

On the last day of the clinic all the riders were in the large outdoor arena with the goal being to go around on the rail at the gait they were told, walk, trot, canter (lope) etc. As we all walked around, Sunny was doing well. No problem, he has a fast walk so we did pass quite a few others. Then the call came to TROT your horses. Now things got a little more exciting as many of the riders had exceeded their comfort zone and horses were going in several different directions. Sunny has a BIG trot so we were passing a lot of the others, and Sunny being very assertive about it, didn't really help those less in control....I knew the words were coming, and I planned to ride out whatever happened. The clinician yelled loudly, 'Lope your horses'. At this time in Sunny's career he had 3 gaits, Walk, trot and 'Oh My God'. He now went directly into Oh My God....Now there were 35 people on horses, in the arena going at different speeds and in numerous different directions. The guy in the red and black tights on the little gray Arabian was going at a flat out gallop around the arena rail. Horses and people were parting like the red sea as Sunny and Dan charged on. In a short time there were 5 groups of people in the arena. A large group huddled around the clinician in the center of the Arena. There were also 4 smaller groups, one in each corner of the arena, again to avoid the charging little Arabian. As I rode on, actually enjoying the spectacle, (considering the gallop is a very easy gait to ride), the clinician began to yell out to me, "DO A ONE REIN STOP!!!" "DO A ONE REIN STOP!!" To which I yelled back, "WHAT"S THAT!" He then informed me to grab low on the inside rein and pull Sunny's head around to stop him. I did as requested and now the guy in red and black tights, on the little gray Arabian was galloping in a very large circle, with only a slight decrease in speed! Sunny is VERY coordinated! After a few laps Sunny and I grew bored, he slowed to a nice walk and the event was over. It was a day I fondly remember. On May 25 Sunny turned 29. If you saw him you would think he is 10. If you rode him you would think he is 3. We did a great little trail ride the other day and he still wanted to drive! He didn't get to, but Sunny will always be Sunny and I love him for that! 
What should people look for when selecting a horse?
You want the legs on the bottom and the ears on top. It’s important! Everyone has their own likes and dislikes that are important to them, so let your personal tastes direct you at first. What breed, what color, big horse (if you weigh 270 don't buy a little horse) and so on. Older horses tend to be more mellow, but can also bring a lot of baggage depending on their unique history. Price is a factor to almost all of us, but don't be fooled into thinking a $50,000 horse is BETTER than a $1500 horse. It may be more trouble. Also what do you intend to DO with the horse. If you want to compete in a particular discipline, get the horse you can afford with the best training in that discipline. But MOST important is the horse's mind/personality.

For me the first thing to DO with a prospective horse is I recommend you play with the horse on the ground at liberty in a 50-60 foot round pen. Specifically try to accomplish the three goals I mentioned earlier. You will almost always learn all you need to know in 30-45 minutes at liberty. And one more IMPORTANT thing to consider. Since I work with horses with physical and behavioral problems, I must tell you that you CANNOT SEPARATE THESE TWO AREAS! They overlap constantly, but for some reason most horse owners fail to see the importance of that!  Our therapy Equipment can scan a whole horse (to locate ALL the physical problems present without guesswork) and then treat all the problems areas, in about an hour. I use this on horses with behavioral problems all the time, because in the same way YOU might get quite irritable with a bad pain or headache, YOUR HORSE will not be the happy camper he could be, if HE is in pain; so before you buy a horse, GET HIM CHECKED THOROUGHLY for physical problems. And if he has problems, that is NOT a reason to pass on the horse, as long as they are found and can be corrected. I have been called in on 54 occasions when horses were about to be put down. In 53 of those I was able to save the horse, and that I am very proud of. Bottom line, find a horse you get along with and then love him forever!
Any advice for novice riders?
NEVER ride a horse that you have not played with on the ground in a round pen first! I see people all the time getting on horses that I would NEVER get on, until I had changed their attitude. And if the horse HAS an attitude, do you want to find that out when you are on the ground next to him or when you are on his back?  Ever wonder why horseback riding is one of the 2 most common reasons for Emergency Room visits? (motorcycles are the other one, but only horses have a mind of their own!). NEVER buy a stallion that bites, and rears and kicks etc. I did that, and don't recommend it, even though it worked out well for me! 
What does horsemanship mean to you?

Horsemanship is about being willing to listen to your horse and adapt what YOU DO to what the horse needs. People apply HUMAN values to horses and that is not valid. Horses try so hard to do what we ask, try asking in a way the horse understands. How you THINK controls what you do and who you are. Be willing to change how you think to help your horse. Build a partnership, with you as the lead partner. And lastly, get past the industry obsession with tack and other equipment. Much of that gets in the way of having a better relationship with your horse. Consider the Native Americans – they would ride all over the roughest terrain in the US, and even fought WARS on horseback. And they did it with no horseshoes, no bits, no saddles, no spurs, etc. etc. And people today cannot get their horse to walk through a puddle!!!!! The horse industry has not progressed much, to the benefit of the horse. Their commercial success is incredible, selling stuff you really don't need. And it is really not good for the horses. If you do something that is not good for your horse, but you don't know that, it does NOT make it any easier on the horse! Horsemanship is about doing what is best for the horse. Period. And what is best for the horse is always best for you too!

Connect with Dan...

Dan was the first clinician in the United States to represent Dr. Robert Cook's Bitless Bridle!
Dan and his wife Jocelyn are both certified Bitless Bridle instructors.
Riding with only a bitless bridle, no bits or shoes, Dan and Jocelyn
can show you how and they are available for Clinics in your area!
A great opportunity for 4-H groups, Equestrian Clubs, and more!


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