Of Cowboys and Frenchmen

‘Any horseman who cares to risk

Becoming unpopular among his best friends

Can learn some surprising things about horsemen and horsemanship

Simply by asking,

Every time he hears a dubious bit of stable lore,


Or even worse,

How do you know?

To about nine out of ten

There is no more baffling,

More exasperating a question.

For it forces them to stop parroting ideas

They have never really paused to ponder,

(regardless of whether the ideas are right or wrong)

And challenges them to give sensible reasons

For what they say.

The Schooling of the Western Horse

By John Richard Young

Since my introduction to the intelligent schooling of the horse was John Richard Young’s ‘Schooling for Western Horses’, first published in 1954, I have taken the influence of the French horse masters on western riding rather cavalierly. JRY was a scholar as well as a pragmatist, and I often find myself feeling as though I am in a three-way conversation when I read the old masters, with JRY’s commentaries running through my head. So, my first response to realizing that Baucher in all likelihood started the fad of the 90-day wonder in Western horse training was to cringe inwardly.

Then I found myself getting intrigued by the many not-so-coincidental similarities between what is now called ‘natural’ horsemanship and the training methods of the 19th century French cavalrymen.  I am not sure when Beudant visited the USA, but he writes that his ideal of being able to ride a horse that moved through they were at liberty was formed by watching horses running free in North America as well as North Africa. Then, in 1931 an American cavalry officer, Lt Col. John A. Barry, translated Beudant’s book ‘Horse Training Outdoor and High School’ into English.  Since the US Cavalry was not disbanded until after WWII, cavalry recruits in the first half of the 20th century were at least exposed to these ideas and brought them home when released from duty, even if they were not aware of their sources.

It is long past the time

When Western Horsemanship

Should have outgrown the provincialism

that has handicapped it in the past.

Some of its best points have been

Obscured and distorted

By ignorance;

Many of its crudities have been perpetuated

By a misguided love of tradition or pseudo-tradition.

In many ways it has remained for too long out of touch

 with the principles of skilled horsemanship

as generally practiced

by civilized horseman

the world over.

The Schooling of the Western Horse

By John Richard Young

All the same, I doubt that either the organizers or the participants are aware that one of the most widely publicized contemporary versions of Baucher’s three month training program for remounts and recruits is the modern 100 day Mustang Makeover. Feral horses that have had little to no human handling are handed over to various individuals for 100 days, and then the horses are brought together to demonstrate what they have learned, just as Baucher recommended teaching recruits both human and horse:

I am sure that if my method is adopted and well understood in the army,

where the daily exercise of the horse is a necessary duty,

we will see equestrian capacities spring up among the officers and sub-officers by thousands.

There is not one among them who,

with an hour a day of study would not soon be able to give any horse

in less than three months the following qualities and education:

  1. General suppling.
  2. Perfect lightness.
  3. Graceful position.
  4. A steady walk.
  5. Trot steady, measured, extended.
  6. Backing as easily and freely as going forward.
  7. Gallop easy with either foot, and change of foot by the touch.
  8. Easy and regular movement of the haunches,

comprising ordinary and reversed pirouettes.

  1. Leaping the ditch and the bar.
  2. Piaffer.
  3. Halt from the gallop, by the aid of

 first, the pressure of the legs, and then a light support of the hand.

I ask all conscientious men:

have they seen many horsemen of renown

obtain similar results in so short a time?

Showmanship and circus tricks aside, the fundamental difference I see between the Mustang Makeover and the cavalry remount program of old is that remount horses brought in off the range for training had to have a full mouth of adult teeth, proving that they were at least five years old.  While many of the mustangs in the program may be mature horses, as far as I know, age is not a criterion.

While Western riders readily embrace feral horses, there is great prejudice against highly bred,high-headed, high-withered, high-stepping horses. Despite the fact that Thoroughbreds are the founding sires of the AQHA, and may still be registered as appendix Quarter Horses, breeders still disparage high-headed high-withered racehorses. Even more adamantly rejected are Saddlebreds, Arabs, and /or Morgans. Saddle seat breeds are rarely seen as working cow horses to this day and the roots of this prejudice began to make sense when I found that over 150 years ago, Baucher wrote:

  • A certain kind of horses, very much à la mode, called steppers, are constructed after an entirely different fashion; they strike out with their fore legs, and drag their hind-parts after them. Horses with a low croup, or withers very high in proportion to their croup, were preferred by horsemen of the old school, and are still in favor now-a-days (1840’s) among amateur horsemen. The German horsemen have an equally marked predilection for this sort of formation, although it is contrary to strength of the croup, to the equilibrium of the horse, and to the regular play of his feet and legs. This fault of construction (for it is one) has been scarcely noticed till now; nevertheless, it is a great one, and really retards the horse’s education.

I also began to understand the source of the sometimes extreme insistence on a low head carriage and the ubiquitous use of the aptly named ‘tie-down’ or standing martingale among western trainers while reading Baucher. He concludes his thoughts on training the horse that is high in front and low behind with this statement:

  • In fact, we are obliged, in order to render his movements uniform, to lower his neck, so that the kind of lever it represents, may serve to lighten his hind-parts of the weight with which they are overburdened.

I only wish that the trainers in question were willing to study the context of Baucher’s instructions as he insists that:

  • I need not add that, as I deny the utility of severe bits, I reject all means not coming directly from the rider, such as martingales, piliers, etc.

And realized that it does not appear that Baucher was recommending that horses be either high or low behind be selected for in a breeding program as he describes the conformation he prefers this way:

  • I think, that for the horse to be stylish and regular in his movements, the croup should be on a level with the withers; such was the construction of the old English horses.

Unfortunately, if there is a single salient fault among western horses, whether they be quarter horses, paints, or appaloosas, it is that they have been selected to be high behind. They are all too often short-necked, mutton-withered, and straight shouldered as well.  It came as no surprise then to find that Baucher wrote that if he had to choose between faults, he preferred a horse that was high behind to one that was high in front and low and light in the rear end. However, in training a horse that is high behind, Baucher cautions that:

  • In this position, the horse’s chin comes back near the breast and rests in contact with the lower part of the neck; too high a croup, joined to a permanent contraction of the muscles that lower the neck, is generally the cause of it. These muscles must then be suppled in order to destroy their intensity, and thereby give to the muscles that raise the neck, their antagonists, the predominance which will make the neck rest in a graceful and useful position.

Like many tricks of the trade found among horse trainers espousing ‘natural’ horsemanship, and regardless of whether or not the Parelli’s know or acknowledge their source, they continue to teach Baucher’s exercises for suppling the neck:

  • Lateral flexions of the neck, the man on horseback.— 1. To execute the flexion to the right, the rider will take one snaffle-rein in each hand, the left scarcely feeling the bit; the right, on the contrary, giving a moderate impression at first, but which will increase in proportion to the resistance of the horse, and in a way always to govern him. The animal, soon tired of a struggle which, being prolonged, only makes the pain proceeding from the bit more acute, will understand that the only way to avoid it is to incline the head in the direction the pressure is felt.

And, whether or not Buck Brannaman knows that Baucher developed the lessons on mobility of the haunches so that the rider can successfully ask the horse to step from one hind leg to the other on demand, he demonstrates the move in his movie ‘Buck’ and includes it in his clinics:


  • Mobility of the haunches, the horse resting on his fore legs, while his hind legs balance themselves alternately the one over the other; when the hind leg which is raised from left to right is moved, and is placed on the ground to become pivot in its turn, the other to be instantly raised and to execute the same movement. The simple mobility of the haunches is one of the exercises that I have pointed out for the elementary education of the horse. We can complicate this performance by multiplying the alternate contact of the legs, until we succeed in easily carrying the horse’s croup, one leg over the other, in such a way that the movement from left to right and from right to left cannot exceed one step. This exercise is good to give great nicety of touch to the rider, and to prepare the horse to respond to the lightest effects.

Despite the recurrent scandals among the showmen of ‘natural’ horsemanship, take heart if you wish to ride in harmony with your horse, and strive for lightness when working cattle and riding out across country in your western saddle. You join a long standing and good company as it was an 18th century French horseman, Rousselt, who advised riders to:

Study rather the laws of nature,

Habitually correct in her work,

Meditate upon them,

And with nature as our guide

We will arrive more surely at our goal.





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