It seems that I am never very far from horse bones. My students learn about "how horses work" at every seminar and riding clinic.
Here I am with my no-spot Appy gelding at the old Stable of Joy arena in about 1977. That place was on 31st St. in Lawrence (it's a bank parking lot now). This was my first "personal" horse. He was an odd shade of light liver, like weak beer, so his name was "Three-Two". He's beautifully on the bit here, but note the noisy tail; I still had a lot to learn.
Sadie and me doing a costume performance on the lawn of the U.S. National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. in 1992. Sadie was beautiful, brave, and sensible and she taught me a great deal. She died in 2005 at the grand old age of 38. I got her when she was 14 and rode her until she was past 30, a long and happy friendship.
Painty and me posting to the trot at a Ray Hunt clinic in Gustine, California, in about 1994. I got Painty for less than $1 per pound because he had the dangerous habit of bolting unexpectedly. He had lost how to shut off his tremendous "drive" and couldn't accept rest when it was offered. Both Tom and Ray helped me with him. By this point, about 3 years after I got him, he was 19 years old and beginning to improve. I likewise had learned to round a horse up so that he would "throw the reins back to me", thus achieving collection on draping reins. No more banjo wires! No more pulling! No more bracing up! We had found the softness and focus which are the very first requirements.
Big changes were in place with both Painty and me just a few years later. Here my old hoss is completely comfortable and 100% OK with himself, me, and life in general. Painty had bar-none the best canter I ever rode on any horse; he could canter at 4 mph and could easily depart from a halt onto either lead I specified. He could gracefully cut pirouettes or rollbacks with ease. That elastic, stretchy quality to the canter that this photo shows is a special talent that a lot of horses that have a pretty good percentage of American Saddlebred in their pedigree also have. Painty was about 50-50 Quarter Horse and Saddlebred, a real nice cross.
Painty Horse and me in about 2003, round and soft on draping reins, with deep engagement of the hindquarters at an easy trot. Ray and Tom helped me become a much better rider and an effective horse educator. Painty changed into the best ride ever without losing one iota of his tremendous athletic ability. Painty died in 2005 at the age of 29.
Oliver and me in 2011. Yes, I know the photo is somewhat blurry, but I post it here because I am extremely proud of what it shows. Just before the camera clicked, we had been practicing Spanish Walk from the ground (I stand in front of the horse and walk backwards, pointing to each front foot as it is to be lifted). Oliver was very intelligent and he loved learning all kinds of different things. He especially loved Spanish Walk, and just prior to this moment I had praised him for doing a good job. Then I turned my back and said, "OK, now let's roll the ball with your nose." But Ollie wasn't done! His whole expression here says, "Wait! Can we please not be done with Spanish Walk yet? I was enjoying that!" To me, this is the whole point as well as the whole secret to horse "training": to bring the horse to the point where he wants to do what you want him to do. What a pleasure our seventeen years together was! Oliver died in 2019 at the age of 26.
ABOUT DR. DEB BENNETT, Ph.D.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN, YOU NEED TO BE SURE
THAT YOUR INSTRUCTOR IS QUALIFIED
SETTLE IN FOR A FEW MINUTES OF READING; I WANT YOU TO REALLY GET TO KNOW ME.
Throughout my career, I have worked to develop a rather rare skill: finding ways to convey scientific and technical information in terms that anybody can understand. I enjoy coaching and take pride in inventing ways to get horsemanship students to acquire and practice the right skills and "feels". My Ph.D. (1984) is in Vertebrate Paleontology from the Department of Systematics and Ecology/Biology of the University of Kansas, Lawrence. I earned a B.S. in Geology in 1974 from The University of Michigan and a Master's degree in Geology in 1977 from K.U. From 1978 through 1984, I worked as the Scientific Illustrator for the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History, and from 1974 through 1984 I was also an Instructor in the KUMNH Public Education Department, responsible for teaching classes on natural history subjects to all age groups from Kindergarten through Adult.
In 1982 my thesis research won the prestigious Romer Prize for Best Student Paper from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. After graduating cum laude from K.U. in 1984, I worked at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. Thanks to broad-based training as researcher, writer, editor, illustrator, and teacher, I worked for the Exhibits Department and later for the Education Department at "the nation's attic".
Subsequently, I worked for the U.S. Department of Education in the capacity of Grant Reviewer, and then in 1986 signed on as researcher and feature columnist for EQUUS Magazine, a well-edited and internationally-circulated topical read by over 250,000 horse owners worldwide. I had begun writing for magazines much earlier -- in 1977 -- by producing a series called "How Horses Work" for the now-defunct Arabian Horse Express. These articles proved to be extremely popular because they clearly explained and illustrated the relationship of the horse's skeleton to its external form. I have occasionally also written for several other regionally and nationally-circulated magazines (Conquistador, The Eclectic Horseman, The American Farriers Journal, and others). My unique, biologically-based articles on horse evolution, zoogeography, anatomy and biomechanics, conformation, management, training, and equestrian history have won numerous industry accolades and, I am grateful to say, a loyal readership.
In 1977, I began giving public education talks and seminars for horse clubs and soon began appearing at all the major "horse expos" and many state fairs. My first really significant public appearance of this kind was in the early 1980's for the Russian Arabian Breeeders' Symposium, and after that I did many events for Arabian breeders and owners -- but the invitations did not stop there. In a 40-year career, I have been invited to speak to the national convention of nearly every major American horse breed as well as dressage, jumpers, distance-riding clubs, farriers, racing, and veterinary organizations. In 2015 and 2017, I was privileged to be invited to teach at rider-education programs sponsored by the U.S. Equestrian Federation which organizes and sponsors our Olympic equestrian team.
Early on, the topic of my presentations was always "conformation" or "form to function". This is a subject of perpetual interest to horse owners and breeders, and it's important because a correct understanding of the horse's anatomy, external form, and biomechanical functioning is crucial to our ability to select good breeding stock from which future generations of horses will come. My qualifications for teaching this material derive directly from my training as a vertebrate paleontologist, with its heavy emphasis on comparative anatomy. The process of analyzing ("taking apart") a living horse to appreciate the relationship between the animal's external form and its internal skeleton is simply the reverse of what paleontologists normally do, that is, re-create ("put together") the living appearance of a fossil dinosaur or extinct horse from its skeletal bones.
Because I began riding and owning horses rather late -- beginning at age 22 -- I did not at first presume to teach riding, and I had no real interest in (or understanding of) horsemanship. However, I did have an enormous drive to get on horses of all kinds and try out what it would feel like to ride them. I began under the tutelage of Mr. Gayle Mott of Lawrence, Kansas, an old cowboy and a master horseman (although, alas, I was still too inexperienced at that time to be able to recognize mastery). As I gained skill, I branched out to ride with other horsemen and women in the Kansas City area who had American Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses. I rode Quarter Horses and part-Thoroughbred school horses while taking lessons at the old Deerfield Park stable (later called Rock Chalk Ranch -- land which now lies beneath the parking lot of a Hy-Vee grocery megastore). From there I went on to take hunter-jumper and cross-country lessons. At about that time, I discovered the Kansas City Renaissance Festival and for a number of years had a great deal of fun in a Black Knight costume, running the quintain and rings and playing Chase Charlie in their arena -- on whatever horse I could beg or borrow. At the same time, I got involved in the Sunflower Benefit Horse Show, a week-long all-breed extravaganza held in Lawrence. Through people I met there, I had the opportunity to try out still more breeds and styles of riding: Western Pleasure horses, Morgans, Arabians, Paso Finos, Harness and Hackney Ponies, color breeds, and various crossbreds, grades, and mules.
In 1982, after seven or eight years of this eclectic experience, I bought my first horse. Prior to that, in the late 1970's a local family loaned me a spare horse -- a no-spot Appaloosa. That was good preparation not only in terms of hours in the saddle but also taught me what it would really take in terms of time commitment and money to own a horse. Accordingly I began saving, and the 15-hand palomino Quarab mare Sadie became mine after I met her at a local stable. She and I spent hundreds of hours exploring the winding, scenic, and largely untrafficked gravel roads that even to this day surround Lawrence. It was not at all unusual for me to take her out for an 18-mile trot-and-gallop two or three days per week. Soon both of us were so fit that we were able to enter a couple of NATRC "enduro" rides, adding still more lessons (many of them now coming from Sadie) to my experience. She saved my sorry hide more than once -- we had lots of adventures together.
Then there came the dressage phase. A local gal had an Arabian colt she needed broken in, and believing me to be brave, she hired me for the job. The one stipulation was that I had to work under the supervision of her dressage instructor. This arrangement worked out pretty well -- I only got bucked off once, and that taught me how to not get bucked off a second time. Though blind in one eye, the colt developed into a good horse that I enjoyed riding for a number of years thereafter. The instructor likewise introduced me to her "dressagey" friends in Kansas City, and this led to my first opportunities to ride Warmbloods and Lipizzans. When I graduated from K.U. and moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I of course took Sadie with me and continued taking dressage lessons on her.
Out East there exists an abundance of dressage instructors, most of whom are "certified" but not all of whom, I found out, are very qualified. By the time I had finished ten years of dressage lessons, I was no closer to achieving my dreams or goals with horses -- and had been told that Sadie had no talent even though she tried hard. When it got to the point that the instructors were whipping and spurring her, and telling me that I had to do the same, I found that I could not bring myself to do it. God had something to do with this: I still remember the last time I ever whipped a horse. Sadie and I had had a lesson the previous day and it had gone pretty well. I got on and began going around at a trot and -- dammit ! -- she began stiffening and speeding up, the very thing we had been working to fix the day before. I raised my arm, whip in hand all ready to give her a good hiding for being "stupid, stubborn, and resistant", when a voice came in the back of my mind. The voice said, "Deb, the only reason Sadie is speeding up is that she has lost her balance."
And that was it; my arm softened and the whip never fell. I knew what to do to help a horse regain balance: turn. So I bent her into a turn, she relaxed and slowed down, and I was able to lighten my death-grip on the reins. And that moment was the end of my interest in competitive dressage, with all its "levels" and "tests" which are of no use whatsoever in getting to the essence of a horse's needs. Where had I learned that bending a horse would help it regain balance? From a few private lessons with one of the world's great horsemasters, Franz Rochowansky, known as the "Piaffe Master of Vienna". I had only a few hours with "Rock" as he was called, for he was past 90 at the time and the next year at his home in England, he fell and fractured a hip and died not long after. But enough of Mr. Rochowansky's wisdom penetrated to put me on an entirely new path. Watching and listening to him at last taught me what Mastery -- not mere competitiveness -- looked and felt like, and I was eager to find more.
That came in the form of Ray Hunt. I rode under Ray's eye for the first time in 1989, loved it, and never looked back. Here indeed, at long last, was a place where rider and horse were treated as equals by the instructor. There was no more of the dressage snob-culture and pseudo-Germanism with its unrelenting aggressiveness and criticism, and where some people are always "more equal" than others. Ray didn't care if your last name was Rockefeller, if you were screwing up you heard about it pronto from him. And everybody was equally welcome to eat BBQ with Ray at the end of the day.
Because at that time I existed on a shoestring budget, Ray greatly helped me on a couple of occasions by allowing me to ride his own mare, April. This taught me as nothing else could possibly have done, what a horse that moved straight, soft, and in correct collection was supposed to feel like. It taught me what it means to have a horse "rise to the leg", that is, properly respond to leg aids. And it began to teach me how to coordinate aids of the leg with a feeling-yet-forgiving hand. There were other occasions when other people also loaned me spare horses to ride under Ray's supervision and I remain grateful to this day for those experiences.
After a few years of riding with Ray two or three times per year, he suggested to me that I ought to go find his own friend and teacher, the great Tom Dorrance. I suspect that Ray had mentioned me to Tom at an earlier point, because soon thereafter I received a telephone call from Jan Leitschuh. Jan, who lived in North Carolina, had trucked her black horse all the way across the country to ride with Tom for part of one summer. At the time she telephoned me, she was living with the Dorrances, and she called to invite me to come over. "I need your help, Deb," she joked. "This old man is wearing me out!"
As it happened, I already knew Tom. Jan's call came in 1992, but I had met Tom for the first time in 1988 when I went to interview him for EQUUS Magazine. That plan never saw fulfillment; I did not then, nor did I at any time thereafter ever make an article out of that interview -- as a reporter from the Quarter Horse Journal quipped, "it would be like trying to interview God". That first day, I got to spend the entire day with him, and it proved to be another pivotal point in my life. Tom allowed me to vent my frustrations with the dressage scene, with unqualified instructors, and with the American "show" scene in general, and he suggested some ways that I might work to bring about change. Not that this was to be any type of campaign; the changes were all to be within myself. After lunch, we went out to a local ranch where there were half a dozen young cowboys working at getting colts started. This was my first experience seeing someone work in a roundpen and though I was fascinated, I did not understand very much of what I was seeing. Nonetheless the colts mysteriously seemed to get all right with being saddled -- there was no bucking -- and in a very short period of time the young men were aboard with nothing at all on the horse's head and yet able to guide the colts and get along with them confidently through their first rides.
That first interview, I had flown in from the East Coast so of course didn't have a horse to ride for Tom, but by 1992 I lived in California and so after Jan invited me (Tom put her up to it, of course) then I was able to. Painty Horse and I were welcomed to Tom's many times, and I was privileged to receive his instruction over a period of several years before he became too ill to teach and retired to his brother Bill's place at the top of the hill in Salinas. I saw Tom for the last time not long before the Tom Dorrance Benefit in Fort Worth, which was put on by Ray and his wife in order to assist Tom with medical bills. I will most assuredly die happy because I was one of the sixty people invited to ride in Tom's honor at that event.
Ray and Tom completely turned my life with horses around. I lost all need to prove anything to anybody. I no longer felt a need to get on other peoples' horses to either "discipline" the horse or to show the owner -- or a judge of some type -- that I could handle the horse no matter how bad he acted. The whole thing stopped being about what the world thought of me, and started to be about what my horse thought of me. These master horsemen helped me to realize that most horses intend to help the rider and they try hard to do just that. I learned from them that horses desire peace and inner equanimity above all else. Having peace does not mean being lazy or unresponsive; horses enjoy their own physicality, their strength and their movements and they will happily put their great powers at our disposal when we learn how to teach them what we want them to do in a way that neither coerces nor frightens them.
The greatest lesson and gift that Tom Dorrance ever gave me was to make it clear to me that there is no such thing (coming from the horse) as "resistance". He asked me to just remove that term from my horsemanship vocabulary and thinking. Tom's request to do that forced me to realize that whenever I had talked about my horse being "resistant", I was doing what psychologists call "projecting" -- wrongly assigning what were really my own fears, lack of skill, or lack of knowledge onto the horse.
This made me realize that though I would have liked to deny it, I really had not been taking full responsibility for ALL outcomes with my animals. And, I realized, the responsibility cannot possibly lie anywhere BUT with me. I could no longer believe that the fault could lie with the one with the brain the size of a tennis ball; it must instead lie with the one with the brain the size of a soccer ball. I have never had a horse lie to me, nor could I any longer believe that my horse REALLY stayed up all night plotting how he was going to "get" me the next day. Of the two of us, I asked myself -- the horse vs. me -- which is in the role of teacher? Which is more capable of change?
This revelation in my thinking fed a new desire to learn HOW TO TEACH animals. I realized that I had blindly and naively followed the example set by my childhood TV heroes, whose horses were, of course, trained off-screen and behind the scenes. This was not obvious to a little kid watching those half-hour shows though! Didn't Trigger "just come" when Roy Rogers whistled? Didn't Silver, the wild stallion, "just come" to the Lone Ranger -- apparently responding to some mysterious hero-power possessed by the masked man? These early impressions caused me to expect that horses were going to do it FOR me -- and that I had a right to expect this. Tom and Ray both helped me see that this will never work, and they gave me the tools for educating horses one step at a time which are outlined in this website under the section called "Task Analysis". I found that I very much enjoyed working with horses this way; that it was extremely effective; that it made the whole process -- everything from starting a colt to trailriding in the wide open spaces -- much safer. Very importantly, it allowed me to complete the qualifications which ought to matter to YOU, visitors to this website who are reading this and who are considering working with me for instruction in horsemanship.
These qualifications are what I presume you've read this whole biography in order to hear. True enough, there is in my case a broad biological foundation which is undeniably helpful and relevant, and which very few other horse-instructors can offer. However, that by itself would not be sufficient. What primarily qualifies me to teach you is not knowledge of biology, not knowledge of equestrian history, nor how to select and breed livestock, and not even the list of great teachers to whose "lineage" I belong. The real important qualifications are quite simple:
( 1 ) The teacher must have successfully started at least one young horse. By "successfully" I mean that the colt/filly understands that it is to refer its every difficulty and trouble to the human -- and the human commits to being the one, to the limit of his/her powers, who is alert to the trouble and responsible for relieving it. When that bargain is accepted and lived out by both parties, it becomes absolutely no problem to saddle or bridle the horse, to teach him to guide, and to take him on his first rides in the roundpen, the arena, around the farm, and on the trail.
( 2 ) The teacher must also have successfully finished a horse. By success in this department I mean that the horse can be relied upon to assist the rider in doing some practical job, whether that be working with cattle, going over jumps, having problem-free trailrides with no speeding up on the way back to the trailer or the barn, completing a dressage test, or any other real job you'd like to name.
What about certification? This, in my experience, either means nothing -- it's a twentysomething girl with a lot of aggressiveness but who can't give either a correct or a cogent answer to any question beginning with the word "why" -- or else it means that the instructor has accepted societal norms, including training methodologies which I think are generally destructive, and also maintains an attitude and beliefs about horses with which I certainly no longer agree. Usually, certification is also muddled up with some form of competition, so that lessons are not about understanding how horses work but instead are strategy sessions designed to teach the student how to win while covering over whatever misunderstandings or shortcomings may exist in the horse. For these reasons in my book, the qualified instructor is not the certified instructor, but the old man or woman -- like Mr. Mott whom I knew long ago -- who lives down at the end of the dirt road in your neighborhood, who has many years of experience, who has started colts and finished horses, who teaches you something new and fun every time you visit, and who can mount you during your own learning period on something that moves well yet is a safe and reliable ride.
When you choose to come to me for instruction, you acknowledge that you accept my credentials as one who has both started colts and finished horses. Some of these were my own horses; many others have been animals belonging to other people living in the U.S. and around the world. Of course the number has continually increased over the years. After about 1994 I began to receive many invitations to teach horsemanship -- working with live horse and rider both in-hand and under saddle. I have taught, always by invitation, in the U.S., Canada, Iceland, England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand.
If you want to begin, now is a good time to ask your first question. Do that by clicking on the "Forum" button below. You can also click on "Horsemanship Clinics" to see how my events are structured (somewhat different from most other lessons or clinics), and how you can bring me to your area. I look forward to meeting and working with you and your horses, to help you achieve your highest ideals and your dreams.