Riding in Louisiana: An Interview with Daniel Dauphin
Archived from the July 2020 Issue of Florida Equine Athlete
No duplication without permission.
by Gina McKnight
From Louisiana, USA, Daniel Dauphin is an all-around horseman. He is the proprietor of Dauphin Horsemanship, “specializing in giving colts the very best start, fixing problem horses, giving horsemanship lessons, clinics, and demonstrations on various topics, and training horses in cutting and ranch horse specialties.”
A seasoned horseman, Daniel has lots to say about horsemanship and being an equestrian. As a full-time horseman getting up at the crack of dawn, he begins his day at the horse barn. His website and YouTube channel feature his training methods, his horses, and has access to his membership where you can ask horse-related questions and become a part of his clientele.
His mission is “To teach practical, no BS, horsemanship through clinics and private lessons, and continue to start colts and help them along their paths to the highest levels of competition, safety, and enjoyment.”
GM: When was your first encounter with a horse?
DD: The first encounter that I can remember was when I was 4 or 5. My parents had rented a party pony for my sister’s birthday. I took as many turns as I could get. The pony got loose afterwards, and we spent a while chasing it around the yard. I remember that part about as fondly as the actual riding. When I was 9, I began riding occasionally with a friend who had horses. By 14 we road just about everyday, and when I was 16, I bought my own first horse without my parents even knowing what I’d done. Go ahead. Encourage me to work hard and save up my money. I dare you.
GM: Wow! That is an inspiring story of horse-love; unstoppable! Now, years later, you have a lot of time with horses. Describe a day in your life with horses...
DD: I get to the barn around 6:30 am each morning and begin feeding, catching, moving them around etc. During the warmer months, I usually do lessons first thing, in the coolish part of the morning. Mostly, I’m on foot during those lessons, but depending on the customer and situation, I may ride along with them.
For about the last 7-8 years I’ve been doing my own farrier work, so I usually have some feet to see to after lessons. I’ve no desire to get under 10 horses a day so I keep 24 head spread out evenly over a 5-6 week cycle. Curly is my personal demo horse and he is usually my first ride of the day. I’m currently training him to do something pretty special and complicated, so his riding is a priority for now. Until this new challenge he was in semi-retirement. Usually this gets me to lunch time, and I start working with any of my others after lunch. I stopped riding horses for the general public a little over a year ago as my schedule doesn’t allow for too much regular riding at home beyond the commitments I’ve already made. I do still sometimes take in an interesting problem horse or one that is really at the end of his rope. I also occasionally do riding favors for friends. I write regular columns for several horse publications, and have to shoot and edit videos, so an hour or two, and sometimes far more, is spent behind my computer. Unfortunately, it’s not all about saddle time for me anymore.
We generally have about 22 horses on the ranch, and Asston Martin, a high-performance donkey. I own most of those, but a few belong to friends. Most of the herd are cutting/cow horse bred quarter horses. Dusty will be the star of an upcoming video series and he’s a quarter horse x spotted gaited horse mix. He belonged to a friend and customer who was killed in a tragic accident a few years ago. He was given to us by her husband and mother after her death. Drusilla is an 1800 lb. Belgium/TB cross and herd Alpha mare. I haven’t ridden her in a few years, but I do use her as a broodmare. I’m not a real small guy and people have frequently commented on my size relative to Curly’s. A dressage lady who was also doing a demo at an expo a few years ago actually asked me if he was a yearling. He was 12ish at the time… So, Drusilla’s babies are my new up and coming demo horses and we’ve been featuring their training on our website for the subscribers. Willow is a sorrel mare of 5 and Xander is a black 4-year-old gelding. They are both out of a cutting bred quarter horse stallion. I also have a Lusitano gelding named Hooch. Between Willow, Xander, Hooch, and a few others, my horse working day is filled. I do try my best to get my wife to film me working horses at some point during the day, but that only works out some of the time.
|Curly and Hands. Photo by wife, April.|
My wife grew up showing and raising Brahman cattle and our boys follow her lead. We generally have to go to the cattle barn around 4 or 5 in the afternoon to feed and work with the show cattle. My oldest son has been very involved with them and has had a fair bit of success. My youngest son will be old enough to show soon.
When we get back to the barn in the evenings, I’ll commonly unwind while the boys ride their horses and I try to keep my mouth shut about things they could be doing better. It’s definitely hardest to coach your own kids. I’m going to break down and hire someone else to give them lessons, some day…
|Dauphin, bitless and bridleless. Photo by wife, April.|
GM: That’s a very full day! Who has been your mentor through the years?
DD: I’ve been influenced by many horsemen from afar. I think that a lot of great information and philosophy can be found in John Lyons’ book along with Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance’s books, although Ray and Tom’s are quite abstract. I think that Bill Dorrance’s book, with Leslie Desmond [True Horsemanship Through Feel], is a true masterpiece as well. I’ve also read a lot about behavior manipulation from a purely scientific perspective, such as B.F. Skinner and his masterful insights into Operant Conditioning.
Without question, however, my most influential human mentor has been Mark Coie. I went to work for him during college and worked for him for about 4 years total. He put me on 75-100 colts per year and the basis behind my philosophy of horsemanship began and remains rooted in those years of hard work. Mark is/was a fairly mechanical horseman, meaning he is about feeling and controlling the horse’s feet and training them to do pretty specific things. I definitely find that way of approaching training to get the best and least frustrating results for all involved.
After working for Mark, I went to work for Steve McCain. Steve was more of a cowboy than a horseman and our styles differed greatly. He was all about letting the horse decide how he wanted to do things. He’s also now running a duck hunting guide service in Mexico, so there’s that. I learned a bunch about using the cow to train my horse from him though. I still count Mark and Steve as friends and could absolutely give either of them a call to bounce and idea off of or ask them a question. There’s way more to the horse business than just training horses and that took me about 20 years to figure out. It’s possible that the most important lessons those guys have to teach me are still to come and have nothing to do with reins and spurs…
GM: There are a lot of horse trainers out there; Natural Horsemanship, Unnatural Horsemanship, Horse Whispers, etc. Do you embrace any of these methods? What training methods do you use?
DD: So, the term Horse Whisperer has ambiguous origins, I think originally appearing in the UK. In the US, it is generally accepted that Tom Dorrance was the guy that the (popularized) description was attributed to. As I understand it, Tom did not like that terminology and neither do I. I’ve always felt that the relationship we build with a horse should be fairly similar to a parent/child relationship. We are either the providers of discipline and boundaries, or we are failing to be the providers of discipline and boundaries. Incidentally, natural horsemanship is defined as using the horses’ natural herd behaviors and instincts as tools for training them in a way they naturally understand. The herd’s alpha, in a natural environment, is the provider of discipline and boundaries. I sure want to help the world to understand that you shouldn’t be ashamed or fearful of taking that position. It is one of the best gifts that you could ever give to your horse and one of the most important steps in making him a joy to be around instead of a pain in the (insert anatomical part of your choice here). I’ll also say that I do talk a lot about dominance and pecking order and I sometimes feel that it’s all I talk about. That’s because dominance issues between rider and horse are extremely common and also very basic. Let me say that it’s important to resolve any dominance issues with your horse. That doesn’t mean that you must DOMINATE them, however. There’s an important distinction.
I’m a very analytical and logical thinker, and that contributes to my dislike of these terms. My purpose is to de-mystify what is going on between us and the horse. I’m trying to explain training and behaviors to you logically so that there is a foundation and meaning based in things we can understand.
It would seem that most of those using the self descriptive terms of “natural horsemanship” or “horse whisperer” are mostly interested in marking up halters 400% and selling you dreams and tales of unicorns. I’ve no wish to be mistaken for those folks. If you want to tantalize and amaze your audience, you very carefully craft your presentation to appeal to their emotions, rather than their logical and thinking side. They are seduced and starry eyed and it’s really easy to sell them merchandise and carrot sticks. It’s more important to me that you leave with an understanding of some realities that will help you progress over the course of years. I want you thinking, which apparently means I don’t get to buy a new truck and trailer every 2 years.
If I had to pick a catchy term for my brand, or name my niche, I’m kinda the Dogma killer, or, maybe the Mounted Mythbuster? Anyway, I really have a thing for the truth and cannot stomach incorrect or misleading information. It drives me up the barn wall. There are tons of things that exist as common knowledge that don’t hold up to scrutiny or are verifiably wrong when studied rationally. The only reason that those fallacies remain is because we keep repeating them and believing them without thinking critically about them. I want you to think about things. If we disagree, but you have a rational backing to your opinion, then we’re still going to get along just fine.
As you may have noticed from my writing style, I also try to keep things a bit lighter than most. I’m pretty sarcastic. Hard to believe, I know, and I definitely plan comedic relief into things when I’ve been too sciencey for too long or if things have gotten too heavy. I’m actually sponsored by the American Society for Sarcasm Existing Sensibly (ASSES). Many people that I work with are frustrated and have come to me with their problems. Humor is one of the most important tools you can use to break tension and build rapport with strangers. It’s pretty darn important to get a horse to relate to us in a thinking state of mind, rather than a reactive one. Sometimes, people are thinking too much, and they need to get out of their head and get back to a place where it’s fun again. An hour with me is a roller coaster. You laugh. You cry. It’s better than Hamilton!
GM: Your philosophy about horsemanship is "It is not all about you, or your thoughts, feelings, or emotions." As a woman (a universe of emotions all day, every day), I don't know about that. I love my horse. It is emotional; my horse and I share emotions, among other things. I do, however, agree with you that "people make horsemanship too much about them." Can we still have emotions and a well-mannered horse?
DD: First off, I’m quite amused that you and my wife seem to have the same take on my philosophy, yet I wouldn’t, in a million years, describe my perspective that way. You don’t dedicate yourself to something for the hours and years that I have without a pretty strong emotional connection to it. Anyhow, I’ll contemplate that for the next few months along with those dreams about my mom…
Of course, you can be an emotional woman and still have a well-mannered horse. You just have to pay some stoic guy like me to keep them well-mannered. Just kidding! Mostly…
My philosophy is actually more about self (emotional) control and keeping yourself grounded in reality. That doesn’t mean that fun and a deep connection are off the table, however. You just should be disciplined and stick to certain “laws”. We are doing something fairly dangerous. Pilots, skydivers, and rock climbers are also doing something fairly dangerous. Undisciplined pilots/rock climbers/skydivers that allow their feelings and emotions to override the “laws” at play quickly become grease spots on the earth. So do equestrians…
A big part of the draw to horses is romance. Just remember that romance is fantasy, but the ER bill and a fused C4/C5 is real. One insight that teaching people about horsemanship has taught me is how good-natured most horses really are. When you get to a level where you can read the horse well enough, and simultaneously see the people’s mistakes snowballing, you see the wrecks coming. Most of those wrecks never do materialize though. Way more people really should be having way more problems. They don’t because of the good nature of their horses. That, too, is real and pretty damned romantic to my mind. If we were trying to train cats instead of these good-natured beasts, we’d be their pets by now.
So, enjoy your horse and enjoy the emotional experience. Just don’t let your emotions or your horse run away with you.
GM: Wise words, Daniel! Of course, we all want a well-mannered horse to love. Do you have a favorite anecdote to share about a non-trainable horse that you have trained?
DD: I’d rather give you a comedy than a tragedy, and I have written a bunch of short stories about some of my experiences over the years. It takes a few pages to do most of them justice. Most of them are posted on my website, and this full story is titled, “Green and green make black and blue.” Briefly, while working for another trainer, years ago, that trainer was trying to sell a little dappled grey mare that could be a might cold-backed. He was honest and upfront about that fact, which you’d expect to weed out all but a select potential buyer. A regular customer who was very… we’ll say frugal, when it came to purchasing horses learned of her and wanted to try her. Not a good rider at all, the customer really needed one that would also work out as a kids’ horse. This guy was plagued with problem horses all the years that I knew him because he wouldn’t pony up the cash for something decent and solid.
Anyway, he came to try out the mare and it’s pretty hard to tell a grown man, who’s also a customer, that he can’t try this horse, without shaming him and losing the business forever. So, I warmed the mare up, and even loped her more than normal while the trainer and he talked. She’d be tired and, hopefully, wouldn’t kill him. He walked out to Arena Center to get on her. I handed him the reins. Walking to the gate, I looked up, and saw the trainer’s face. Reflexively, I turned to see what caused his shock.
The customer had the 8-foot bridle reins by the very ends, leaving 7 ½ or so feet of each rein to the mare’s discretion. He’d also somehow managed to plop himself right behind the cantle of the saddle, square on top of her rump. That’s hard to do. I’ve had to get a few broke to riding double and you really have to try to get back there. Anyway, by the time I’d turned around, amazingly, the mare had coiled up but hadn’t reacted beyond that. Unsurprisingly, the dude in question did react when he fully realized his position. He clenched up with his legs driving his spurs into her taunt flanks. The coiled spring sprung. He didn’t get bucked off so much as launched. A pigeon flew from her nest in the rafters as he rose to her level in slow-mo before succumbing to gravity, and its acceleration.
Miraculously, he was uninjured (physically) though I’m sure he was sore for a good long while. His first words as he was getting his air back and after spitting up sand and other arena footing particles were, “I think she’s too much mare for me.” Try to witness that without laughing. We failed. Being a cowboy comes with scars. I’ll bet that customer’s version of this event is even more colorful than mine. He may not have bought a new horse, but he sure left with something of value.
GM: What a story! I guess every true rider has been thrown more than once, even on the best of horses (me included). On the subject of mares, I have a friend who is a great rider. She told me once that cowboys only ride geldings - because they are dependable and trustworthy. Mares are saved for breeding. What is your opinion about riding mares vs. geldings?
DD: It always comes down to the individual for me. Some mares are unpredictable and untrustworthy, and some are absolutely no fun to be around if they are cycling. Some geldings are unpredictable and untrustworthy, and they have no excuse. The rule about geldings generally holds up, but it doesn’t matter what most are like if the one you’re stuck with is an exception. Personally, if I’m going to breed a mare, I want to know what her character and abilities are, so I’m going to rider her, and use her, and make sure that I wouldn’t mind riding another one just like her. That gelding vs. mare rule is definitely old school thinking and I’m apparently now the Mounted Mythbuster, so at least I’m consistent.
GM: Rodeo events, as well as other equine disciplines, require a lot of stamina for both horse and rider. What makes a great rodeo horse and what are the best methods to keep a rodeo horse in their best condition?
DD: I’m a little torn answering this one. That’s partly because what now constitutes a “rodeo horse” is at least $30k and up into the six figures. The days of picking the pretty one from your Grandpa’s pasture and riding it after school are long gone. Not just anyone can buy that kind of horse and those who can are generally not sparing the nickels when it comes to caring for that animal. That being said, I’ll assume that regular vet visits, chiros, dentists, etc. are a given. That being said, just because you do something for a living doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re any good at it. For instance, my urologist has incredibly cold hands. So, there are hierarchies of vets and chiropractors. Most of these types of horses are seeing world class professionals. I’ve personally seen some vets and chiros of this level do some amazing things. So, what other things can we do to help road warriors?
Traveling is hard. It has its own brand of stress and wear and tear. Ulcers are pretty common in horses that live on the road and so I’d be particularly careful about what I fed and about trying to keep up feeding routines as much as possible. In the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of feeding beet pulp. I over-soak mine and really like the hydration aspects of it, particularly in winter when they don’t drink as much, and in the heat of summer. I like knowing that the horse in the trailer took in at least 4 gallons of water with breakfast.
Another big factor that I’d be cautious about with rodeo horses is that they’ll never go in the same ground twice. Some arenas really have great dirt and the grounds people know how to set that dirt up correctly with the right amount of moisture and not too loose or too packed. Some arenas have mud holes in the alleyway and rocks mixed in with the sand and a 16-year-old daydreaming about his Friday night while dragging the arena. I’m pretty fanatical as I travel about walking the arena on foot before I do ride in it. I spent an hour in one particular arena cleaning up broken glass beer bottles before my ride later that day. Some places, I’m just going to keep it real low key, because keeping my horse sound for the war is way more important than winning this one battle.
Lastly, it’s all about the pressure. One of the main things that you get when your horse’s pedigree is stacked with high profile horses, is a genetic makeup of ancestors that could take pressure and thrive. The hauling, the constantly changing ground, often without a decent place to warm up, and being regularly pushed to the extreme end of your athletic potential take their toll.
I would advise anyone and strive myself, to always remember that your partner is just a horse. You need to let them be a horse as much as possible. They need to move about freely, eat grass, and socially interact as regularly as possible. Sometimes keeping those things as priorities has a cost in our own convenience, but you owe it to your partner to keep their needs above your own petty wants, like sleeping and eating.
GM: What advice do you have for novice riders and those looking to purchase their first horse? Do you help riders in their horse purchase?
DD: I do help and offer consulting to people looking for a good horse. The first thing that I’d say to a novice is to forget about buying something pretty. That should be your absolute last criteria. Also, for the love of everything that’s good in this world, do NOT buy a green horse. Your first horse should probably be a few years away from death and only a little bit sound. You’ll graduate and move on, but you’ll get your mistakes out of the way and not die for having made those mistakes. I’d also really encourage you to get some help. It doesn’t have to be a professional, but it should be someone who is very experienced and who has only your best interests at heart. I’ve had people come to me with 20 ads of horses that they are interested in and all but 2 of them I can dismiss with a glance for reasons that are very obvious. Experience isn’t the best teacher, it’s the most expensive. Rent someone else’s. Just make sure that they really do have your best interests at heart. The term “horse trader” has the connotation it does for a good reason.
GM: Besides horses, what do you like to do for fun?
DD: I have quite a few hobbies. My family and I really enjoy time in the outdoors. My sons have both been camping regularly with me since they were each about 2. We actually go horseback camping a fair bit. I read a lot, make knives, hunt, and go fishing. I’ve recently begun bee keeping. I am a nerd at heart, so I’m always researching some interest and trying to learn all I can. I’ve actually had my outside interests help me in my horsemanship too. For instance, I learned a pretty important thing about bit metallurgy that doesn’t seem to be known commonly, including by most bit manufacturers, because of my interest in making knives. That tidbit and many more are in our 5+ hour DVD on everything bit related, “More Than a Bit… o’ Information.”
GM: What does horsemanship mean to you?
Photo courtesy Tara Marie Photography
DD: It is critical that we truly understand the horse, how they approach things, and why. Horsemanship is the application of that knowledge to get along with them with as little frustration as possible for either of us. I believe deeply in having a logical plan that sets us all up for success. I also think it is incredibly important honestly read the animal and recognize when your plan is not going as planned. It is important to be able to set your own ego aside, remain flexible, and not take failures personally. That’s where those pesky emotions can really give you a rough time.
It’s fine to not have all of the answers. A great horseman or horsewoman has the same fundamental traits that we might generally describe as wisdom. In our case, that wisdom is simply focused on life relating to another species rather than life dealing with other people.
That comes out a bit more Zen and I mean for it to, but horsemanship really seems to me to be about a journey and finding the right path. When you’re on that path, things go fairly smoothly. When you aren’t, they don’t. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.
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