During the winter of 1973/74 I was in Hugo, Oklahoma the understudy of Bob Grubb, who had a background of performing with circus liberty horses for many years. Now he was teaching me while training my pony liberty act. Out of the original ponies purchased the year before, four matched up nicely. Once introduced to this group of palominos, Bob began to observe minute distinctions that existed between them and comment about what he saw. He began to name them, talk as he handled them to find out about their temperament, and began to visualize a logical sequence for them to assume.
He named “Buster” first, who had the most handsome conformation of the whole group. I named “Buttons,” who had the color of a new penny after my beloved first grade teacher. “Tex” had a long back and Bob had a concern about his being juggy, whatever that meant. “Teddy” was a willing animal but seemed frail compared to the rest.
We rigged tie-stalls for the comfort of the ponies along one side of the ring barn and parked my camper and trailer nearby. Anticipating this project, Bob had his ring curb already installed in the central area of the barn. He was eager to begin training. We quickly adopted a routine. After chores and breakfast every morning, training took place.
The universal attitude among the community of animal trainers around the circus is that animals always come first. As I woke each morning, the first thing I did was go into the barn, grab a foot tub, fill it with water and offer each pony a drink. When they had their fill, it was time to feed. Nose bags received a scoop of feed each, a blend of oats and sweet feed. The ponies anxiously nickered and cavorted in anticipation while I slipped the strap of each nose bag over their ears. The animated scene transformed as each pony became content to chew the sustenance that now hung conveniently under their lips.
Now I could retreat and fix myself something to eat. In the interest of efficiency, I developed a way to fix a Hearty Breakfast and only have to wash four items when complete. First, I would boil a potato in the coffeepot. When cooked, I would mash it in a frying pan and move it out to the edges. In the middle I put a few strips of bacon. A pot of coffee would then get prepared in the coffeepot and I would break two eggs on top of the mess in the frying pan. When the food was ready I would eat it right out of the pan. After my meal I only had to wash the coffeepot, one coffee cup, a fork and the frying pan. Then it was time to get the chores done before Bob arrived to begin training.
Bob arrived each morning with an agenda that was clear to him. As I watched, one at a time, Bob would gently coax each young pony into a sequence of actions at the end of a tether rope or lunge line. The pony was first encouraged to walk around the ring out against the curb. Bob constantly talked to them with a gentle demeanor that proved to be very effective. “Walk,” “git up,” “there now,” “whoa,” “come in line,” “good boy,” were all soon part of each ponies understanding and my verbal repertoire.
The whip was used to communicate with each animal as an extension of his arm and was only used gently as an aide to help push or suppress forward motion when needed. Introducing each animal to the whip involved letting them get acquainted with it. He touched them with it and let them sniff it. While in the ring he used a variety of specific body gestures like pseudo semaphore signals that became part of communicating and asking for responses from each pony. Bob was careful to not scare the animal needlessly and was quick with a verbal reward or a lump of sugar when any youngster responded willingly to his cue. As the days went by, each pony began to grasp what Bob was teaching and the lunge line was discarded. Soon, two ponies were working together in the ring. Only three weeks into the process he had the whole group of four in the ring.
Repetition teaches. The sessions were at the same time each day, every day of the week except Sunday. The result of this consistency was a tremendous amount of progress in a short time. The correct response was also fortified with another form of reward. When they did a great job, he would often simply end the session. The understanding each equine accumulated soon proved Bob’s technique as being effective. Those hours of observing the tedious training process would prove valuable when my turn came to do the training.
The most important concept for any liberty horse to grasp is something that is not visible when the audience watches them perform and that is to stay in the ring. This is taught by never allowing them to have the experience of being outside of the ring or, when they do jump over the curb and get out of the ring, make sure they have a negative experience while on the outside to cause them to desperately want to get back into the ring. Bob had a rope barrier elevated around the outside of the curb, at shoulder level to a pony, for them to run into if they did jump out of the ring. I was outside of the ring. My job was to be the bad guy. During one point in the training, one of the ponies got the notion planted in his head that he was going to go somewhere else and jumped out over the ring curb at the same place in the routine every time we rehearsed. I was on the outside of the ring with a whip in my hand. I would yell, chase and swish the whip in an effort to strike terror into the heart of this cute but misbehaving equine. The moment the pony jumped back in the ring, I stopped with my terrible animation and Bob was quick with an assuring word. He appreciated the fact that I was there and he didn’t have to be the bad guy. I was learning how these little guys became predictable and how important it was to interrupt negative behavior as it happened before it became established.
Another important response to establish with each animal is to halt whenever asked. This is especially important if the horse should become rattled, because from a halt, the trainer has a chance to personally connect, calm down and reassure the horse. Sometimes I couldn’t believe it. Here I was in a dusty ring barn with aspirations of glamour and excitement, taking Functional Relations 101 from an old cowboy. Learning these functional strategies would prove helpful in other arenas later in life.
The circus ring is a special, highly regarded, almost holy place. In my role as drummer for the circus, I served in a capacity that complimented the other performer’s efforts. Now, as I assisted the training of my ponies from outside of the ring, I looked forward to the time that a rite of passage would occur placing me in the limelight for the first time. Not only would the duties as the trainer of the ponies be passed to me but also the transition of contributing to the show from the bandstand to graduating as a performer and working in this revered circus ring. I still recall the moment when Bob had me join him in the center of the ring. At first, I stayed behind him, as he demonstrated how to encourage them through their paces, simply allowing the ponies to get used to me. Then the time came for me to hold the whips while Bob instructed me, first from standing behind me in the center of the ring, and later from outside the ring. This was the beginning of what became a long, rigorous and rewarding experience.
As I look back, I realize the ponies were God sent, and an opportunity for this teenager to become functionally relational in the midst of being intensely emotional, perfectionistic and self-sufficient. Ponies don’t understand anger and erratic behavior. Representational communication means nothing to them. Progress was made with kindness. The ponies forced me to become functional, aware and consistent with my behavior. This must be the source of the term having horse sense. The animals learn through intentional repetition and functional consistency. For the sake of becoming a good horseman, I modified my behavior around them. Even though with people I remained reluctant, isolated and often frustrated and angry. Over time, my role as a pony trainer became a segue that facilitated finding connectedness with others.