Warwick Schiller - Eating a Banana
“Anything I do training horses,” states Australian born, US based trainer Warwick Schiller, “is like eating a banana.” When asked to explain his bizarre analogy, Schiller launches into one of his trademark, straight to the point, why didn’t I think of that, explanations.
“Most people think that the main benefit of eating a banana is the potassium you get out of it. But it would be just as easy to go to a health food store and buy a potassium supplement in a tablet form. But when you do that, all you get is the potassium. Eating a banana, you take care of numerous actions with one thing. Firstly; OK, you get your potassium, but you also get that pleasant taste in your mouth, you satisfy your hunger cravings, there’s a lot of electrolytes in bananas, so you get that as well, and there’s also something called mucilage in bananas, which helps protect the lining of your stomach. So by eating one banana, you get a number of benefits.”
THE HOOKING ON PROCESS
Schiller starts a number of performance horse prospects, as well as training and retraining everything from bucking Quarter Horses, bolting Warmbloods and rearing Irish Sporthorses at his facility in California. No matter the intended discipline, or the horse’s behavioural issue, the first place he starts is in the round pen doing the Hooking On Process.
“Many people think the hooking on is about having a horse follow you around,” explains Schiller, “ but that’s like taking a potassium pill. There is so much more to be gained from the experience if done properly.” When asked to explain exactly what benefits there are to be gained from the process, Schiller flashes his cheeky grin. “How long have you got?” he asks. “You know, the first thing that happens is they learn how to learn. They learn that their actions are directly responsible for any pressure applied to them. They learn how to accept pressure, they learn how to handle pressure, and they learn how to respond, versus react, to pressure.”
He goes on to explain that things they learn in the hooking on process, both mentally and physically, they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Mentally, they learn to focus, and according to Schiller, the ability to focus is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. “Your horse’s respect can be measured by the length, and the quality, of his focus,” he states. “I didn’t write that, I wish I did, because it’s one of the most important statements about horse training I’ve ever heard. I heard another Australian horseman say it, and I’ve always attributed the saying to him, but recently I spoke to him about it and he says he didn’t come up with it, he heard it somewhere else as well.” He goes on to cover the list of benefits of doing the hooking on well, and the effects are far ranging. Because the first thing that’s required in the process is energetic forward motion, laziness is rarely an issue. “I get a lot of people at clinics who have horses that are lazy. The very first part of the process takes care of that, before anything else. It doesn’t matter what you are trying to achieve with a horse, they need to be forward.” Not only does the horse learn to go forward, but two very important parts have long lasting effects down the line. “They need to go forward off a suggestion,” he explains, “and they need to be able to maintain that forward. If you are chasing them around to get them to go, you are starting down the path of teaching that horse to be dull and dependent on you to support them.” Going forward off a suggestion also goes hand in hand with the second part. “They need to be engaged, which means they need to be doing more than you. It doesn’t matter what speed they are going, if you are pushing them along, they are what dressage people would call “behind the leg”, and any horse doing that is not driving from behind, but pulling itself along with its front legs. So in just doing the first part well, we have started to work on a lot of common issues. We’ve worked on the lazy horse, we’ve worked on the dependent horse, we’ve worked on the resistant horse. We’ve worked on the beginnings of self carriage, which is engagement.”
This horse came to a clinic with laziness, as well as inattention issues. After a session of hooking on in the round pen, the horse is more energetic, has a longer stride with more self carriage and is driving from behind. He is also attentive as evident by the arc of his body and his left ear tipped toward Warwick. If a horse has too much forward, which is often the case with anxious, reactive, unfocused horses, the next step starts to work on that. “After they are going forward well, either because I have established that, or because their issue is too much forward, I start to work on changing directions.” Many horses will want to turn to the outside, which is when Schiller puts quite a bit of pressure on them to get them to turn back the other way. As soon as they go back the other way, all pressure is released. “This is the place they really start to learn. They kinda go “I went that way and all hell broke loose, and as I turned this way everything was peaceful again”. They really get to understanding what causes pressure, and how best to avoid it. They start to go from being reactive, to responsive. The difference being, a reactive horse is just working off instinct, whereas the responsive horse is making calculated judgement calls based on prior experiences. You’d really be amazed at the change in these horses that comes from gaining confidence in knowing that they are masters of their own destiny.” He advises that your timing in application, and release of pressure, needs to be spot on. “Many people who have trouble with this are emotional about the outcome, causing them to not apply enough pressure in fear of having their horse think badly of them, or being angry about a horse not doing something previously and continuing to apply pressure after the horse has made a change.” After the horse can go forward on a suggestion, and change directions softly in both directions well, he will offer them a place to rest. “This one is a biggy,” he explains. “This is where they learn that standing still is a great thing, and this is another place where they learn to stay present, focused, and in the moment. I offer them that place to stop and rest. If they take it, great. If they don’t want it, cool, we’ll go back and do some more going forward and changing directions.” Balancing the horse’s tolerance for having the handler in both eyes is a big factor here. “If they draw in and stop, but want to stand crooked to me, to keep looking at me out of one eye more than the other, I’ll initially let them rest like that, but as time goes on I will not let them rest that way, and send them off and try again.” One of the things he is looking for in the turn inward is that the horse softens in the loin and steps under their midline with their inside hind leg. “I don’t want them doing a sliding stop and rolling back the other way. If they are relaxed about it, as I draw them, their nose will come toward me, their body will bend and they will roll in in an arc and then I can send them off the other way. It’s a mental softness as well as a physical one.” This carries over to the next step, which comes after they can stand facing you and be focused. Schiller wants to be able to walk around the horse and have it step up and over behind with its inside hind foot, which keeps him in front of it. “This step is really important to me. A horse that bends in the loin and steps over behind is a mentally and physically relaxed horse. If they are tight, they will step behind, or together, or just run away. If they do, we just go back to the beginning again.”
This mare was initially distracted and worried, but by the time Schiller got to the walking around part of the process she had relaxed and was starting to get a bend in her body and step over behind. Once the horse is good at stepping over behind and keeping the handler in front of them, then Schiller says it is the time for the final part. “Then I will start spiralling out and having them follow me. Everyone thinks that if their horse follows them around that their horse is good at the hooking on, this the final part, but not the only part. Many times those horses are pushy and in your space. Taking care of the first step of the process would remedy that.” Even though the Hooking On process is the first thing Schiller’s horses learn, he works on it every day for quite a while. “In my program, I start in the same place every day, go through previous day’s work, then add something new. So the Hooking On is done at the beginning of every day for quite a while, until they are perfect every day for quite a few days, then I don’t do it.” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t use it though. “Any time I approach a horse from that time on, I am using the hooking on. Whether they are in a stall or turned out, I won’t directly walk up to catch them, but walk at an angle past them and expect them to step under behind, and turn and follow me.” By the end of this session, this formerly anxious and distracted Warmblood mare follows Schiller around relaxed.