Saturday, June 28, 2008

Report from Dan Sumerel clinic

OK, Lasell, and anyone else interested. Here is my best shot at my experience and what I've learned, from attending one and auditing two clinics. Oh, first of all, if anyone is interested, his website is

To begin with Dan discusses horse thinking, herd dynamics, and helps us to learn to interpret their language, and to speak to them in their language as best we can. He tells stories of his experience getting into horses as a 40-something year old with no prior horse experience at all. Although he does admit to being somewhat of an adrenaline junkie, skydiving, racing motorcycles, that sort of thing. So he was drawn to endurance racing. He tells the story of Sunny, the Arab stallion he bought, "because he was pretty". Apparently, the seller told him that he should not buy the horse, but he did anyway. To shorten the story dramatically, Sunny ran away with Dan 42 times in the mountains of Colorado. He was told to geld the horse, which he did. He was told to get bigger bits, which he did. He was told to take the horse to "Fancy Horse Trainer of the Season", which he did (many of them). He did everything you are supposed to do, and nothing worked.

So Dan decided he had to figure it out on his own. Most of us would have sold that horse years ago, but apparently he's a little bull-headed ;-) So he said he went into a roundpen with Sunny. He asked him to move. He asked him to change direction. He did this, he did that, and before long, Sunny was beginning to realize that Dan did have a clue, and knew what he was talking about, and he could trust him, and believe in him. Sunny hasnt' run away with him since. Dan does readily admit, however, that Sunny is a horse that needs work constantly, or he starts with the little signs of the domination game, trying to take over again.

We learn what those signs are. The horse gets into your space uninvited and demands attention, runs you over, bulges their shoulder or ribcage into you brushing you as they walk past, ear pinning, cow-kicking, bolting their feet to the ground when you ask them to move. Soon you have a horse that doesn't lead well, then a horse who gives you a hard time under saddle, bolting, running away, bucking, rearing, or just plain old being difficult.

Next, Dan discusses many of the things a horse needs to be happy and comfortable, based on their evolution. He discusses shoes vs. barefoot. He discusses all the reasons that shoes are not good, what problems they cause. He discusses the pumping action of the hoof, the traction, the concussion, contraction. He talks about the fact that horses will run 50 mile endurance rides barefoot over rocky, mountainous terrain, but a dressage horse in a groomed arena that is ridden for an hour needs 4 shoes on to be sound. What is up with that? Aside from the excuse of "Well, that's what he needs", or "Oh, he has bad feet, my farrier said so", or "Of course he needs shoes because he's ridden". Well, stalls are what's up with that. Keeping a horse stalled inhibits the circulation, which causes poor hoof quality. Keeping a horse stalled is bad for his joints as well, as he doesn't get enough movement. It is bad for his back, because it keeps him living with his head up, eating with his head up, and trying to get some mental stimulation while in confinement, holding his head up to look out of his stall. It is worse for his mental health, because he is denied companionship, in an animal that has evolved over millions of years to rely on herd interaction to warn him of danger coming, for companionship, play. Would you lock your child in a closet when you are not playing with him, and toss him some macaroni and cheese twice a day?

Dan also discusses bits. He quotes Dr. Cook's papers written while a doctor at Tufts University. Those studies are available on his website. From my memory, those studies show the effects of a horse carrying a bit in its mouth, with no rider, and no reins, just carrying it, on a treadmill, and it had something like a 20% decrease in airflow (that may be wrong, please see the website for accurate details). Holding the horse "in frame" decreases the airflow another percentage. In all, the airflow is decreased something like 60%, which is what causes all the foamy sweating ... its shear panic, and trying to work while having your airflow decreased by 60%. This is not even considering a shanked bit, twisted wire, ported, etc., bits. All the salivation also, tells the body that it is eating, which ramps up the metabolism for digestion. That digestion doesn't happen, there is no food coming in so what happens? Ulcers. Which are painful, plus the decreased airflow. Is it any wonder these poor horses start to act up? That doesn't even take into account poor saddle fit or poor shoeing jobs!

Dan also discusses saddle fit, but admits to not being an expert. He does a pretty decent job, IMO, of teaching us things to look for in saddle fit, i.e., bridging, rocking, checking pomel/cantle levelness, checking the shoulders for being pinched by the tree.

Then you get to go in the roundpen, with your own horse. The goals are to get and keep your horses attention, and that the horse should be calmer at the end of the session than the start, and I've forgotten the third goal. Oops, sorry. Dan uses a plastic bag on the end of a whip as an attention getter. The owner steps to the center of the pen, and shakes the bag to get the horses attention. The amount of bag movement is directly dependent on the horse. I've seen horses that all you had to do is touch the whip so the bag just barely moved, and the horse is outta there. I've seen others (at the same clinic, incidentally), a woman needed TWO bags, and was leaping up and down waving her arms and the bags around, and her horse barely even glanced over his shoulder at her, than proceeded to lazily walk away, dragging his hooves in the arena surface, gazing out the door.

So once you have your horse moving, you need to ask the horse to change direction. The goal is for the horse to change direction calmly and respectfully at your request. Some get emotional and worried, and for these all you may need to do is take one step to the left or right. Others try to barge right through your request, and for those you need to get very animated, only going as far as you need to go to get them to pay attention, and no more. Depending on the horse, you ask it to change direction a few times. Some that pay you no attention at all, you need to work pretty hard at getting them to pay attention to you. Others require a lot of retreating from you, away from their bubble, to take the pressure off.

After you get a few good changes of direction, the pressure comes off. You stand still and get quiet, and do NOTHING. Wait for the horses reaction. Some may continue running around (the emotional ones), others will stop and look out into space, others will stop, and look at you. The looking at you is what you want. For the emotional horses, typically you need to retreat, take a step back, one at a time, until you cause them to turn toward you. Some may turn toward you, then back away again. That's OK, its a try. We reward the try by leaving them alone. I think 99% of them come back when they are ready. The ones that look out into space, ignoring you, we typically do something to get their attention back. Usually just shaking or wiggling or popping the bag. As long as you have an ear or an eye on you, that is enough, leave them alone. Sometimes we need to block their forward motion to get them to stop moving, if they are ignoring you and looking for another horse, buddy, etc.

Once you get the horse to come to you, you do nothing. Just leave them be, and let them get quiet, and comfortable with you. Some may leave, and for the most part, they come back, depending on the horsenality. Others wander off because they don't think you are really very important. Our job is to make them think we are important enough to pay attention to.

So once you have the horse really connected to you, we do some off-lead exercises, of inside turns, outside turns, stop, back up. Then we put a halter/lead on, and do some lead-line exercises. The horse is expected to walk quietly and calmly on a loose lead, not barging ahead of you, running off with you, stepping on your heels, etc. Dan has you flip the lead rope up in the air if a horse is running you over, getting pushy, or barging on ahead. When that is good, he ups the pressure, and opens the gate to the roundpen. That gets almost every horse ready to head out the gate ... its just habit. The gate is open, lets go! So then you work on some leadline work, and keeping the horse focused on YOU, not the gate.

The second day he has all the participants bring their horses into an area, and do some leadline exercises all together. This again increases the pressure, and it gets even harder to keep your horses attention, but it is a great exercises.

So, that is my own personal interpretation of these clinics. If there is anything that makes no sense, it is all my own ineptness. It is far from a complete write up, that just isn't possible, each horse is different, and you make decisions as you go along depending on what the horse brings to the table (or roundpen) that day.


Funder said...

Good write up!

Sounds like a good clinician. Really solid. I don't entirely agree with the bitless approach, at least not for me. I tried a properly fitted Dr. Cook's on two of my horses (Champ and Silky), and they both hated it. Neither wanted to steer at all, and Champ hated the pressure so much that if I pulled back at all to ask him to stop he'd rear. I threw it in the back corner of my tack room and didn't think about it again til I moved out. Anyway, I'm much more of the "bits are an extension of your hands" philosophy. I won't use twisted bits, but I feel like solid curb or broken snaffle bits just give me more clarity.

Lately I've been riding Champ in a halter with reins. He listens fine, but I feel like the nuances of what I'm asking are missing. His ears are healed up from the bug bites so we can go back to his usual bridle next week, yay!

I've done some round pen work, much like what you describe Sumerel teaches. It was a really useful tool, but more for me than for my horses. No doubt the horses learn something from the technique, but I think the owners, if they're paying attention, learn just as much as the horses!

LJB said...

Thank you! Your report is very helpful, lets me get a sense of what Dan's thinking and approach is. Sounds very sensible and similar to much of what I've learned from other sources. I love it when various clinicians offer such similar direction. Not all do! *g*

Like you, I'm spending more time just doing it with my horses, getting the time and consistency part of the equation in place. Amazing how much progress can happen!

I know for me, my first 'trail rides' (thinking of your entry about Lakota) can be 30' outside the arena and back again, building bit by bit on what we know (riding in the arena) to what we don't know (riding outside the arena). When my horse tells me things are OK outside at 30' distance, by offering soft responses to my requests for this or that, then I will go further.

From all I've heard, horses don't generalize easily, so I don't want to get in over our heads again by expecting the horse to be OK over there because we were OK over here.

Again, thanks!

Jocelyn or Dan said...

Dearest Michelle,
I was just surfing the web looking for different things and I came across your write up from the last clinic you attended with Dan. Thank you so very much for your support, as always. Of course, you cannot go into the intensity of a three day clinic, 8 or 9 hours per day, but you are sharing very accurate information with your readers and we thank you for that!If anyone is interested in all that goes into our Horse Course or our Therapy Equipment for horses, please visit us at Sumerel We will be so happy to help answer any of your questions. In my humble opinion, and I have studied with some of the biggest names out there, Dan has an understanding with the horses that FAR exceeds so many others. We are NOT about selling you more Tack, you already have enough of that. Please visit our website, and fill out our contact form. That way,if we are in your area, we will let you know well in advance, if you would like to join in a very fun clinic!

Oh, I forgot to mention: If you purchase anything from our very small store, please mention you heard of us through Michelle. She is an incredbile, loving, warm human who works with a Curly Horse Rescue. If you purchase anything from us, we will donate a portion of that sale towards Michelle's Curly Rescue!
Remember, there are always three things you want to accomplish with your horse when first beginning to work with him. #1) You want to get and keep his attention
#2) You want to control the movement of his body
#3) You want to do all of this while keeping him calm.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? We do all of this at LIBERTY in the round pen, and then graduate to the arena. We NEVER use any FORCE or unneccessary equipment. It is so much fun! NOT always easy, but once accomplished, what a relationship you are beginning to build with your horse!

I cannot figure out why Funder said that her horses hated the Bitless Bridle, for every horse we have taken out of a bit, and put into the BB, they are so much happier. Perhaps I could help her with fit, if she decides to try them again. Personally, I ride in nothing else, or in a padded halter. That's it! And, ALL of our horses are very happy!

Again, thank you so much for sharing us with your readers. We are so thankful that after all these clinics, you still enjoy coming. You KNOW we love having you!

Blessings to all of you and your horses, Jocelyn and Dan, Sumerel Training and Therapy.

Funder said...

Jocelyn -

I've been thinking about it for a couple of days, and I really think the BB made my gelding feel *more* confined, or claustrophobic, or something. He is really "outspoken" and absolutely demands that I ride him on a completely loose rein. He listens fine no matter what; he just won't abide contact-for-the-sake-of-contact. It could have been a fitting issue. But exploring the BB further seemed like trying to fix a problem that wasn't a problem, so I dropped it.

And the mare, Silky - she's retired now. She had a hard life with a lot of abuse before I got her. She trusts me completely on the ground, and was juuuust starting to really trust me under saddle when I found out she's got congestive heart failure. I feel like she deserves to retire, and I know she hates to be ridden, so I just quit riding her. She's a pasture pet. Again, the BB might have worked in time with her, but under the circumstances I quit using it with both of them.