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Don't expect 'nice' from Ken Dromgool

April 20, 2008

Some may say that the methods of Far North instructors Ken Dromgool and Jane Kennedy are unconventional - but they get results. JOANNE MARSHALL took a clinic with the pair to learn about their special brand of horsemanship.

Ken Dromgool and Jane Kennedy

Before you can get the best out of your horse you have to understand and develop a feel for it - be it an unbroken two-year-old or a seasoned performer.

Without feel and without a strong foundation you have nothing, according to Far North instructors Ken Dromgool and Jane Kennedy. The Northland pair has some unconventional ideas about how to work with, and get the best from horses, whether they be dressage horses, racehorses, jumpers or western horses. During the past couple of years the couple has been touring New Zealand demonstrating and teaching their breaking-in method and brand of horsemanship - all of which makes good sense, and some of which seems quite obvious once demonstrated. Much of their instruction centres on developing a "feel" for the horse, both on the ground and on-board. Kennedy said that a "good feel for the horse" was essential. "Whether you want to do top level dressage, western pleasure or just learn to sidepass your horse to open a gate, having a good feel for the horse helps."

Developing that feel does not happen overnight - you need to observe, remember and compare. And, you must have patience, Dromgool said. "You must be alert or you're wasting your time."

Breaking in

And alert you have to be while on the clinic, especially if you're taking part in the breaking-in segment. Stop thinking for a moment and you're liable to end up sitting on your backside. Dromgool tells you what to watch for (in your horse), what to do and when to do it and usually after about two hours you'll be riding your previously unbroken horse around the arena. But you won't be alone - you'll be in that arena with four or five other freshly broken horses and their apprehensive riders - and you won't have a bridle, only a saddle, halter and leadrope (held on one side).

So how does he do it?

He encourages the riders to get to know their horses, to make them go where the rider wants, to turn on the forehand and hindquarters, to follow the feel of the halter and lead - whether that be for a forward or lateral motion. And most of all he teaches the riders to develop a feel and an understanding of why the horse is doing what it's doing. The early work is done on the ground, and while Dromgool doesn't make anyone do anything they're not comfortable with, he does encourage the riders to put in 200% effort.

The saddle is introduced after about an hour or so and the horses are then let loose in the arena (with no halters and no riders).


Jane Kennedy (on the ground) flies the flag - this is used to encourage the horse to go forward, to stop, to turn, and so on.

It's now that Dromgool teaches them to move forward, turn, walk, trot and canter both ways in the arena carrying their saddles. He does this with the help of a flag, which he uses to encourage them to go forward, to stop, to turn, and so on.

Some of the horses do certainly look uncomfortable but (at the clinic I was on) there was no wild bucking, crashing around or other incidents. Once all the horses are soft, willing, and going nicely the riders are then brought into the equation. They halter their horses and get them ready for mounting. There's a lot of stirrup-banging and saddle-smacking but within about 10 minutes all the riders are on, and ready… for whatever comes next.

It's about now that the onlookers usually expect some excitement - after all there are five horses in the arena who now have riders on their backs for the first time. But nothing bad happened, no horses bucked and everyone survived. The horses all went softly and within about 20 minutes were walking, trotting and cantering both ways around the arena. They were also doing turns on the forehand and hindquarters with only a halter and leadrope. Not bad for three-hour's work.

Horsemanship clinic

The majority of people who attend a Ken Dromgool clinic do so for the horseman-ship. They want to develop a feel for the horse or to be at one with the horse and have a successful partnership. During the four-day clinics, onlookers are able to see quite a transformation, particularly during the horsemanship phases. Mature ridden horses, which arrived with their noses out and their backs hollow, were soon showing their real potential. Within a short time they became rounded, elevated and softened.

What some riders could take a lifetime to achieve, Dromgool was able to demonstrate in only half an hour. "If we can achieve that in four days what can we achieve in four months if we can keep working with the horse in the same manner?"

So what does Dromgool aim for?

He says that ideally a horse should have forward movement, lateral flexion and softness. He points out that "ironically horses do have all these qualities before they are 'trained' by man." He also believes that there are no shortcuts to good horsemanship and that everyone must start at the beginning - on the ground.

"Whoever said a good foundation was important was wrong. A good foundation is everything. All an advanced rider is, is someone who has a good, or better, foundation."

At the horsemanship part of the clinic riders start off on the ground and are encouraged to get control of their horse's movement and to make sure that the horse is doing what is asked of it. The horse must be able to do turns on the fore and hind while still maintaining forward motion. Dromgool said that too many horses start to back away from turns on the hindquarters. Once the groundwork is established riders mount up and Dromgool studies how horse and rider are going. In some cases he told the riders that a dramatic change in position was necessary before they would be able to get the best from their horse. For others it was a matter of getting the horses to listen and to bend.

Much of the clinic was about feel, feeling the horse's motion, where the horse is putting his feet and being alert to what is going on under you. Making sure everything goes right and that the horse is in a position to do what is asked of it was a strong focus of the clinic. A good example of this was on day one when the five unbroken horses were mounted for the first time. The riders didn't rush in and climb on. They were told to set up their horses to succeed: "If your horse won't stand still for you to get on … why would you want to? And, if it won't wait for you to get on then it's not going to wait for you to do anything else either. Often people don't set their horse up before they get on. They don't look to see what the horse's feet are doing and whether the animal is in a position to support the weight of the rider. Instead, they wonder why the horse moves or tries to walk off."

He told riders to get one of the horse's feet under the stirrup so that the horse was ready to take the rider's weight. Then stand on the side (in one stirrup). Get up and down a few times but wait until the horse is standing still. When you can stand on the side without the horse moving, then and only then can you climb on.

Horse and rider

While some instructors focus on training the rider, Dromgool and Kennedy study what both the horse and rider are doing. "We watch the expression of the horse a lot more than some instructors. Quite often I'll be riding and Jane will be watching the horse's expression and we can get a lot more done. Two minds are a lot better than one."

This is especially so when it comes to teaching people in a clinic situation. Two instructors, with one and sometimes both demonstrating, does have its benefits.

So what do you get from a horsemanship clinic? As Kennedy said you learn how to read your horse and you begin to develop a "feel" for the horse. "You have to watch the horse's body movement and expres-sion. Once you start to see that you can start to see a whole lot of other things as well," Kennedy said. And interestingly, Dromgool said that you don't need the experience that a lot of people think you do. "You just have to think, see and develop that feel for the horse. But feel can take a bit more time."

Dromgool said he doesn't ever want to be a trainer. As far as he's concerned training is verging on being a dirty word. "To me a trainer is someone who is not looking at the horse and reading it. Trainers become very mechanical and teach their horses cues rather than aids. There are certainly things you can cue a horse to do but you have to look at how you are operating your horse. We're not here to teach cues. We are here to teach aids and to how to get a horse into a position to do a transition."

Dromgool feels that in the majority of cases when riders have problems with their horses it is because the horse has become "sticky" or has "froze up." "They freeze up or they react - instead they should be going softly and responding. It is so simple." By getting their horses going softly, with the use of aids "riders can do a whole lot less and get their horses doing a whole lot more."

When it comes to learning more, Dromgool said you have to take the best from the best. "We go to some of the best dressage instructors in New Zealand and we have been to some of the best horsemen in the world as far as starting horses. Most of what anyone of us (instructors) does has been done before. Whether it be Pat Parelli, Monty Roberts, or whoever, most of what we know has come from somebody else. If we want to trace it back it, much of it probably goes back to Tom Dorrance (who recently died at age 93). Kennedy recalled an apt quote from Dorrance. She said he was once asked: "When does this horsemanship deal get easier?" His reply: "The first 80 years were the hardest."

So while Dromgool and Kennedy are out there teaching they're still learning. They learn something from every horse they work with and try to learn more. "We are all trying to find a method or way of teaching that can benefit everybody but I don't think anybody has the whole answer. Our goal posts keep moving. Some of the people who have been coming to us for six or seven years have commented that we keep asking for more and keep moving the goalposts." In terms of teaching people and horses… "my style of teaching is the most effective, fastest way I know. If I knew a better way I'd do it."

Problem horses

Working with problem horses
Esther Hamilton (left) and Sylvia Anderson try to "break up two buddies." Dromgool says the best way to do this is to let the horse go over to its friend but then have the rider of that other horse chase or scare the other away.

It's one thing if you've started your horse using Dromgool's method but what about if you've bought a horse with a few problems? Can you ever get them going as good as if they'd been started his way? "You can never get them back as pure as they were, once adulterated," Kennedy said.

But rather than trying to find someone or some incident to blame, you need to understand what the horse is thinking. "You can't change what's happened to your horse yesterday so you have to look at what you can do today to have a better horse tomorrow," Dromgool said.

Quite often the people who attend a Dromgool clinic do so because they "want a quick-fix or to get something in a hurry" but Kennedy believes until the rider lets go of the contest they do not see the horse as it really is. "I think that can really interfere with what you can do with a horse. The horse isn't interested in whether he wins a competition."

Above all the rider must be interested in his horse, must like it and want to spend time learning about it. "Why would you stay with somebody if they were not taking an interest in you? It's the same with your horse. If you don't take the time to see how it operates and to understand it then it's not going to want to stay with you."

The whiteboard

A whiteboard session. At the end of each session, participants and onlookers are asked to give their impressions of the clinic. Feedback - and constructive criticism - is invited.
If you're wanting to hear what a wonderful rider you are or how nice your horse is then it's probably not wise to attend a Dromgool clinic. As Ken Dromgool says: "I'm not here to be nice. Sometimes I do get growly." But he is honest, he is fair and he is interested in helping the riders and horses on his clinics.

On day one Kennedy brings out a whiteboard that is used to set the ground rules for the clinic. Over the course of the four days quite a few messages are delivered to the riders, and there is much talk of above and below the line.

For example, qualities, which are above the line include: ownership, accountable, responsible. These words create leaders, Dromgool believes. Whereas the words below the line - blame, excuses and denial - create victims.

He agrees that: "It's difficult sometimes to behave above the line." But he believes you need to try to stay above the line, in life and especially when working with horses. Do that and your horse will have more respect for you and be more willing." In addition to that you have to be consistent, positive and assertive. At the end of each session the riders and on-lookers are called into a horseshoe. Here each person is given the opportunity to express their opinion of the clinic, others on the clinic, Dromgool's teaching or even what they had for breakfast that day. No-one is allowed to interrupt or challenge the person speaking. Then there's the second round, where anyone can reply to anything.

Dromgool wants his clinics to be open and he's not scared of constructive criticism. In fact he invites brickbats.

"If people tell me what they don't like I can do something about it." With Dromgool, nice just doesn't cut it. "I'm not here to be nice."



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