The A.R.T. of Horsemanship
The Making of Great Horses
By Greg Sokoloski, Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol

First, let me give you a short introduction on myself: My name is Greg Sokoloski, and I am a Police Officer for the City of Houston. I have spent over 21 years of my career as a member of the Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol Unit. It has never been boring, and I continue to look forward to going to work everyday.

When I first started with the Mounted Unit, I knew very little about horses. When a new horse arrived at the Mounted Unit we would just get on and ride and hope for the best. Supposedly, the more you rode the horse, the calmer the horse was supposed to become. To a certain extent this seemed to work, as my assigned horse would get somewhat use to its surroundings. However, if something in the “normal” surroundings changed in the least bit, we were off to the races, or the rodeo would begin. Also, depending on what type of day I was having, if there was something that I knew my horse really disliked, I would simply try to avoid the situation, as I did not have the knowledge at the time on how to correct the situation.

It took me awhile to realize, along with a few broken bones, that simply riding a horse was not the answer. Neither, the horse nor myself would ever advance by just riding. It was time to start over and learn how to develop the inside of my horse, before I did anything else. I needed to stop training my horse and start teaching my horse. I needed to become a leader, not a follower, so my horse could become confident. I needed my horse to think, be curious, and have fun.
I began reading and trying to obtain as much knowledge as possible about horsemanship techniques. Luckily, when I asked the Houston Police Department to send me to a horsemanship clinic, they allowed me to. After my first clinic, I could not get enough. I saw dramatic changes in my horse and myself. I stopped training my horse and started teaching. I now relate training to physical aspects that condition muscles and lungs, and teaching to working the brain. I now realize that using physical strength and or leverage is not the way to teach a horse to think. Once my horse is thinking, any problems that do arise are easy to resolve.

After teaching and playing with many horses, I have found that there are 3 key ingredients to being successful with horses. Those ingredients are Attention, Respect, and Trust, or what I like to call the A.R.T. of horsemanship. If any of the 3 ingredients are missing, you are going to have trouble getting problems resolved. For example, if we make a comparison to a Chicken Soup Recipe: If you have water and heat and no chicken, all you are going to have is boiled water and not chicken soup. It is the same thing with horses and Attention, Respect and Trust; if you forget one of them you will not have a complete and successful relationship with your horse.

When teaching a horse, I first get all 3 ingredients, Attention, Respect, and Trust on the ground. Once I start teaching my horse from a mounted position there are 3 more ingredients that I combine with the first 3 key ingredients. The next ingredient is a controlling rein, or a one-rein stop to disengage the horse when he becomes “non-thinking”. This ingredient is crucial to get the horse to stop his feet as quick as possible and use as little space as possible. The downtown area of the City of Houston is very congested, thus this ingredient is taught from the first day I mount a horse, and practiced continually. I must have the horse stopping its feet or disengaging its hindquarters before going downtown. I do not release the one rein even if the horse has stopped its feet until the horse relaxes and softens and indicates he is back in the thinking mode. Most people release the controlling rein once the horse’s feet stop and don’t wait for the horse to relax and soften and start thinking and not reacting.

The next ingredient is a reliable “go forward cue”. Horses get confused when their riders are not consistent and fair when they ask their horse to go forward. When I give the cue to go forward, there should be no questions asked, and no confusion involved. There are situations that the Mounted Unit works in like crowd control in which I need an immediate response with no questions asked.

The last ingredient is a reliable “directional cue”. After I have the go forward cue instilled, I need the ability to direct the horse where I need them to go. Again, the cue must send a clear message of what I am wanting, and there should be no questions asked. I try to use my hands last when asking for a change of direction. Most people use their hands very quickly, and cause their horse to brace against them. “Quick hands” confuse a horse; they will brace, and try to use their strength and quickness to overcome the rider’s inability.

The pictures for this article are from an evaluation I did back in February of this year. The horse’s name is Storm, and he is a 7-year-old Spotted Saddle Horse that was used for some trail riding. In the pictures, you can see that I am keeping Storm thinking, and looking at everything I introduce him to. Storm’s focus should stay on me and not his pasture mates or the tractor that is driving down the street. After teaching Storm or any horse I evaluate on the ground, I mount and immediately work on lateral flexion to keep the horse soft and relaxed. I am then able to check the horse’s go and directional buttons to see if they are responsive. If the horse stiffens or braces, I will use a controlling rein to disengage him. The level of intensity is continually heightened during the evaluation with addition of smoke, fireworks, tarps, and flares, to see if the horse is able to respond in a soft and relaxed manner. During an evaluation I do not need any refinement, just a sense that the horse is willing to change and learn, and be soft and relaxed. I am not looking for perfection during an evaluation for a Police Horse.

Storm was accepted into our Unit for a 90-day trial period. I rode Storm for a couple of days in the arena and worked on all of the ingredients. I took Storm out to one of our largest city Parks, Memorial Park with no problems. I then decided that Storm was ready for harassment training with the entire Unit. Storm had no problems with the harassment training and I then decided to take him downtown. This is not the norm to have a horse that I feel is ready to experience all of this with only a few hours of riding, however, I felt that all of the ingredients were in place, my cues were understood, and I could keep him thinking. The horse before Storm took over 6 months to develop, but the results were the same, a nice, calm relaxed and respectful horse with all the ingredients in place.

If you realize that you are missing an ingredient and you and your horse are confused, stop, and go back and get it right. Continuing with a horse that is missing key ingredients will lead to problems. There are many great horsemen and women who have excellent programs that will empower you to become a leader to your horse. Get your degree in horsemanship and you will look forward to riding your horse as much as I do.

Everyone is welcome to stop by the Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol facility and see the police horses. Be sure to bring plenty of carrots, apples, and or mints for the 35 police horses located at the facility. We are located at 300 N. Post Oak, along the West Loop just south of Interstate 10 and north of the Galleria Area. The phone number is 713-812-5151.

I will be at the Equine Expo of Texas, May 14-15 with my assigned Police Horse “Shadow” to demonstrate the A.R.T. of horsemanship.

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