By Patty Guarino
It was a cool Massachusetts morning when we gathered at Ten Broeck Farm in Pepperell to participate in the Sport Horse Handling clinic given by Phil Silva. The husband and wife team of Phil and Orintha Silva, our hosts and owners of the farm, warmly welcomed a small group of various horse women with a curious story of how they met and how Phil became a Sport Horse Handler. The story they told was curious because it is hard to believe that anyone with the level of Phil’s handling skills was ever a beginner, but Orintha reflected on the past when Phil wouldn’t pick up a horse’s back feet. After working at a stable with a lot of stallions, Phil attributes his start in the handling world to a compliment from Hilda Gurney after she observed him successfully deflect a loose running stallion’s approach to strike the stallion he was handling.
Phil is one of the top Sport Horse Handlers in the United States. Breeders and horse owners all over the country seek his help to increase their horses’ chances of success at breed shows, inspections, keuring, FEI jogs, and other sport horse events. A Sport Horse Handler presents the horse to the judge in a way that shows how well a horse can move. The horse is scored on his conformation, movement and presence. A skilled handler can get the best results in the show ring, and is in high demand in the horse industry. In fact, Phil mentioned after the clinic that he was off to Kentucky to handle for a client showing their horses.
Our classroom started in the parking lot. There was a young colt in the trailer next to us, and as we did introductions, Phil pointed out how many people’s horses think that as soon as a vehicle’s ignition is turned off, it is the signal for the ramp door to go down and the horse to be let out. The colt kicked the wall once or twice, but stood politely in the trailer as we talked. Phil said that the training starts on the ground and the show starts at the trailer. Unload your horse at a show, and it is show time.
When we moved to the beautiful outdoor arena, Phil went over holding the reins. Holding the reins from the ground is best with one hand, and double the reins so you can drop them to the end if you need to. The finger pressure has to be on the outside, or right rein, ready for a half halt. If you keep a little weight ready in your hand for the half halt that is your parachute, your safety net. To keep the right rein ready, you can prepare by pulling the left rein a little out of your hand and closer to the bit, so it’s a little longer than the right. Although your hand is even on the reins, the left rein has to be loose so the right rein is the contact.
We have all heard trainers say "less is more” but in handling this rings true so often. Keep a little loop, or less weight in your hand so the bit pressure isn’t constant, then you use slight movements to catch the outside rein and control your horse. Smaller movements and smaller corrections maximize control in your right hand. You also don’t hold the horse under the chin, and in fact your hand should not be underneath a horse. If you keep your hand up by the shoulder without contacting the shoulder, you are able to engage that shoulder correctly. If your hand is underneath, the horse will possibly lean against you and won’t learn the half halt. Phil also highly recommends keeping your rein or lead line short. Standing close or next to a horse, he can’t nail you with his hind leg. If you let that rein go long, there is always a chance a leg will come up behind you or the horse will turn his hind end at you. The safest place to be is at their head.
We learned communication with the horse can take place in the form of body language. If the horse won’t stop, instead of pulling on the reins, one young lady was taught to turn her body from facing forward, to facing the rear of the horse and stop walking. This worked like a charm, and all the horses stopped as soon as they understood that once the ground person stopped walking, the horses would match their stride and halt. You can’t communicate stopping with the horse by touching the shoulder. When you touch a horse’s shoulder on the ground, they actually lean in. This was demonstrated often as we handled the various horses and once anyone touched a shoulder the horse would lean in more. Again, body language played key part in this course, where instead of using hands, the handler could use their body either by slowing down their pace, or turning and facing the horse’s hindquarters. Exaggerating a stop by putting your shoulders back was as effective as putting shoulders back while sitting in a saddle to stop. We were all surprised by how much a horse pays attention to body language and stays in stride with it.
Attitude was also important. You can’t get frustrated. If you get frustrated so does your horse. Phil says to "act like you’re on vacation and the horse will be on vacation as well.” Sometimes horses paw the ground, look at noises, they shake their show braids or scratch their faces. All these are acceptable behaviors that you have to allow your horse to do. What is not acceptable is crowding, misbehaving, not standing politely and leaning in with the shoulder. With "less being more,” it didn’t take much to quiet a horse. Change sides you stand on, or take a small step forward or back and the horse would quiet every time.
Phil teaches that you have to make a horse uncomfortable so they can try to get comfortable. For example, using a dressage whip is a normal part of the equipment a sport horse handler needs. To get the horse to back up (and we had some horses that were so new to backing up that it may have been the first or second time they received the instruction), Phil would steadily tap-tap-tap the front of the horse’s chest with a whip until it took even the smallest step backwards. In the same heartbeat he would stop tapping the horse and use the whip to stroke their neck in reward. He repeated this exercise until the young horse began to understand and when the whip touched his chest he would back up.
Another extremely useful tool that Phil teaches is walking a horse to track right. Most horses are walked to turn left toward the ground handler. Turning the horse to the right is a whole new thing to their thinking, and if you have a hard time walking a horse into a stall, into the trailer, or want to get their attention, walk him to the right. Walking to the right also gets a horse "unstuck” from standing still or halting just when you don’t want him to. If you turn him to the right, he will take a step forward. If there is an issue with a horse or if he’s being strong, just walk to the right. A huge safety factor is for a person on the ground to know it is a possibly dangerous situation for a horse to turn his head on his own to the right, and away from the handler. This could be an indicator he is trying to bring a hind leg closer to buck the handler. By turning a horse to the right, the handler moves the horse in such a way that the hind leg is not near the handler and is engaged in making the horse's body turn. You’ve also changed this horse’s perspective. Instead of a kick, he’s just moving off in that direction and you are with him.
Another new experience for your horse could be walking him while you are on the horse’s right side. Again, the horse has no experience with this position of the ground handler, so therefore it has no bad behavior to display. You can work all day on the horse’s left side with bad behavior displayed, and when you change sides, you change perspective; you change the opportunity to be bad. Having a horse become uncomfortable to get comfortable is not a mean approach, but an approach that uses common sense to yield positive results. When the horse is asked to do something it hasn’t previously experienced, it has no bad habits in that training. Just like putting on a saddle or bridle for the first time, the horse has no bad habits because he hasn’t done that before. It’s the same as introducing a different method of ground handling; the horse has no bad habits because it hasn’t been done before.
More tools to help are using the things you have to keep safe. Walking a horse up to a wall or obstacle can help stop him. Keeping a whip in your right hand (yes also while holding the reins) keeps a whip between you and the horse, establishing boundaries with their head and body. Turning to the right on a very small circle, like less than 5 meters, is also a great control point. Think small circle, like how small a circle a horse turns in his own stall. Putting a horse to the right gets a horse safely out of your space, gets him unstuck if he isn’t moving forward, and changes their perspective so they stop the behavior you are trying to correct.
The variety of horses used in the clinic was superb! But it was an epiphany to all of us when the principles taught at the clinic were applicable to each horse no matter the age, breed or gender. There were seasoned show horses, a young filly, a young colt, a young stallion, an older stallion. There were Warmbloods, a Lusitano and an Arabian. Some were forward and easy to get moving, one needed two handlers to become more forward. The techniques taught were consistent and yielded consistent results. With Phil’s instruction it was always the same tools applicable, no matter the horse.
So why study horse handling? Phil says it best: If you don’t teach the horse on the ground, you have no business teaching the horse in the saddle. It starts on the ground. It starts when you unload the horse you just bought from the trailer. It starts when the horse is a baby, or young, or coming to you for the first time. When the horse doesn’t know anything he is the purest he can be. It is up to you to teach this horse, and the most is learned when you are eye to eye, and not up on his back. The horse graduates today and so do you. When you are an efficient handler, you are an efficient rider. The result is you and your horse are safer and more pleasurable to be around. Success in the saddle begins with correct ground handling.
If we are truly honest with ourselves, we know when our horse handling skills could be better. Being honest means checking our egos at the door, allowing our errors to be inspected, and remaining teachable. Every one of the clinic participants were experienced horse people who work with horses, have horses, and have been with horses for most of their lives. But yet, EVERY PARTICIPANT HAD DIFFICULTY! The good news is every participant came away from the clinic with greatly improved handling skills, which were demonstrated and clearly evident as we handled the horses. That was a successful clinic with a tremendously gifted teacher!
Sport Horse Handlers are needed. What better way to experience success in the show ring than by handling from the ground? In the same paradigm shift that is taking place with recognizing grooms as vital members of the horse industry, the Sport Horse Handlers are starting to be recognized as well. Phil’s goal is for Sport Horse Handlers to get The Jacket at Devon. There has to be a prize, there has to be a goal to provide incentive for more Sport Horse Handlers to get involved in obtaining these vital skills.
We don’t know what that prize is going to be, but there will be more handlers coming into the industry because the training is available to anyone who wants to try. For more information, check out the website: www.horseshow.com (to join is free) and view the podcast on Sport Horse Handling: www.horseshow.com/podcast/spotlight-on-sport-horse-handling . You can submit a video of your horse handling skills and receive constructive feedback from Phil. The doors to Ten Broeck Farm are open for anyone who wants a successful career with horses, and everyone is invited. See you there!