Australian horseman Neil Davies outlines his training philosophies and methods in this new book, which will prove a revelation for those who are uneasy with some of today’s “systems” of horsemanship.
From his lifelong experience with horse, Davies has much wisdom to share and his words will make anyone who works with horses stop and re-think their approach.
He is against some of the current accepted methods of training horses, and all the fancy tools and equipment that goes with it. He avoids the round pen like the plague, and is anti “de-sensitisation”, which he says can be terrifying to horses.
Instead of the ubiquitous round pen advocated by many trainers, Davies prefers to do his initial work with a horse in a small square yard. He says: “I’ve read that running a horse in a round yard forms a magical partnership. I’ve even read if you tie a horse down on the ground, he’ll be obedient ever after. The truth is that no method or special process can erase a horse’s memory. The truth is that chasing a horse in a round yard relies on fear, and tying a horse in the ground is cruel and cannot be justified under and circumstance.”
And forget about using anything other than a plain old halter.
He also disagrees with the idea that the human has to be “the leader” of the herd. “The horse knows you’re not a horse, you’re a human.” He says horses don’t look for a leader, they look to do whatever is easiest.
Davies starts with having the horse happy to have his head rubbed, and learning that this feels good. Lessons build on having the horse bring his head to the handler if he is worried about anything – rather than having the flight mode kick in.
Davies centers his training on having the horse do as he asks, and if this doesn’t happens, he makes it unpleasant, by perhaps circling or feeling something uncomfortable. So the horse learns that it’s easy to do as he is asked, and not so nice when he’s not doing the right thing. Undesirable behaviour is nipped in the bud from the start and not allowed to progress further.
Davies starts by teaching a horse, on a lead, to walk on a perfect circle at the speed he requires. “When he concentrates on these simple tasks, he doesn’t rear, stop, shy, or anything else.”
Keeping lessons clear and simple, and following a progression that is logical to the horse is also important, and it’s vital to keep lessons short and not ask too much. “It’s always quicker to do less each lesson. You end up with a far superior result in a much shorter time.”
Davies says: “A horse can only put up with so much stress in one lesson. He can only learn so much. If you keep going on and on, you always come to a point where a horse stops thinking and starts to look for another way out. It may be to kick up, buck or strike, or perhaps he’ll ‘freeze up’ and not do anything at all.”
His training follows a sequence, but there’s no hard and fast rules on how long each part might take, and when the next step should be tackled. That’s up to the handler and each individual horse.
In his early days, Davies says he soon learned if he pushed a horse too far and ended up in a fight, the horse was always worse the next day. “The more horses I worked with, the less I did each lesson. The less I did, the better each horse responded and the more they learned,” he says.
Davies stresses that a horse will remember everything, good or bad, and we can’t make the horse remember only what we consider to be the “good” parts of the lesson.
As for “desensitisation” or “habituation”, Davies does not advocate this at all, instead, he says, if a horse is confident and relaxed, it will take new experiences in its stride. He uses the advance and retreat approach to introduce a new item to a horse, but notes this is all pointless until a horse is confident and relaxed, and has learned to stand when he’s worried.
A frightening experience will be remembered for life. He says: “Perhaps you’ve been frightened and terrified by a car accident, a house fire, or some other traumatic experience. Did you think, ‘That was good, a couple more car accidents and I’ll be used to them,’ or ‘I can’t wait for my next house fire. It will be much better the second time.’
“I very much doubt it.”
As Davies says, “The last thing you want to do is repeat the experience. You worry in case it happens again. If ever you’re in a similar situation, you’re immediately frightened and terrified because you know what to expect.
“Yet a lot of people think this is the best way to train horses.”
In this book, Davies starts out demonstrating the four basic groundwork lessons that must be established before starting under saddle. Throughout the book the steps in each lesson are fully explained and illustrated. [Images showing these processes are here.]
The first steps in mounting a horse are shown, followed by advice on teaching the horse to move forward with a rider on his back. This is all done before the saddle is introduced. After the horse is moving along, the bit is introduced.
Davies notes that when he first asks a horse to canter, it must go on the correct lead. He says by teaching the horse to canter on the correct lead from the start, they will always get it right in the future.
From day one, he does not allow a horse to do anything that is undesirable. “If I don’t want the horse to do something, I won’t let him do it. Not even once. If it’s not in his memory, it can’t develop into a problem.”
First lessons on tasks such as hosing, tying up, and mounting are also shown. Teaching a horse to “give”, moving forward, backing up, stopping, and other basics are followed by ways of overcoming problems, both under saddle and when leading. Finally, there’s teaching a horse to spin and do a roll back.
In closing, as Davies says, it’s high time everyone “questioned some of the accepted practices used in the name of horse training”.
“Nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes. However, when things go wrong, we must try to improve and prevent making the same mistakes over and over. If we continue to accept chasing, bucking, and fighting, we won’t improve and we won’t make life easier for our horses. It’s about time for everyone to stop and think about what some horses are subjected to. It’s about time horse were trained without chasing, fighting, and bucking.”
The final word: “Be reminded it takes years for a human to learn to understand horses, yet a poor old ‘dumb’ horse can assess his rider or handler very quickly and out-think him in a few minutes.”
Neil grew up working with horses on his family’s dairy farm in New South Wales. As a young teenager he trained horses on the rim of the outback and soon developed a intuitive connection that led him to understand horse behavior.
Working with difficult horses that no one wanted to handle or ride Neil realised that by approaching in a calm manner and rubbing their neck he would gain the trust of the horse much quicker.
For Neil horses that kicked, bit and bucked no longer acted that way because they had nothing to fear from his kind and loving rotating hand on the forehead which made being with Neil an enjoyable experience for the horse.
This simple action has become Neil’s “hand shake” for connecting with horses and putting them in the right frame of mind to work with.
He began training horses full-time in 1977. Over the next fifteen years, he started more than a thousand horses under saddle and trained thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses. From $100 backyard ponies to thoroughbreds worth millions, Neil has seen it all.
Neil was one of the first trainers to document his unique approach on video. The videos sold worldwide and he has conducted clinics and demonstrations in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
Neil’s ‘original knowledge’ comes from working with so many horses, day after day and year after year. Though few people have the opportunity or the inclination to do what he’s done, every horseperson can benefit from his knowledge and experience.
The below video is from a demonstration by Neil Davies at the California State Fair in 1989.