Monday, March 9, 2015

Guy McLean on How to Be a Better Human

Ethan and I took Gitano (we call him Mooch, by the way) to the Horse World Expo in Harrisburg, PA this weekend, and please don't tell Mooch but the highlight for me was not spending quality time with him (although obviously I love him, and scratch his itches and tell him he's beautiful and special and thank him for keeping my boyfriend on his back every chance I get).  For me, the best part of the Expo is, hands down, Guy McLean.

If you haven't seen him live, go do it.  If you're in an area of the world where you can't see him, I strongly recommend that you treat yourself to one of his DVDs so you can see for yourself (*not a paid endorsement!). We bought his Beginner Groundwork DVD and I can't wait to dig in to it.  I'm not a big believer in many of the horsemanship training programs out there because they feel gimmicky to me (YMMV - I'm not judging if it works for you).  

That said -- I do believe in Guy, and I'm going to attempt to explain why here.  This is a long one, but I hope it's a good read.  And I truly hope that Guy reads it.  He and his wife Emily are lovely, welcoming people.  But every time I see them I turn into pretty much the most incoherent, bumbling idiot, ridiculous fan-girl version of myself.  So I'm going to try to do a better job in print than I do in person of showing my appreciation.  

I saw Guy a few times at Devon and wondered "how the heck does he do that?"  He puts on a spectacular performance working his horses at liberty, bridle-less and saddle-less, and of course the famous three horses side-passing over a fourth horse, who is calmly lying down and ducking his head.  It's an awesome thing to behold, and I've stood next to both Grand Prix riders and non-horse people, who are equally awe-inspired by his abilities.  Not to mention, Guy is quite funny, and not in a slapstick sort of way -- his quick wit genuinely makes his audience laugh and applaud.

Denny underneath Lightning, 
and Mate and Aussie standing where they were placed.
Guy is an entertainer, sure, but more importantly a truly gifted rider.  His show features Spinabbey doing one-tempis, cantering in place, cantering backwards, and literally jumping invisible 4 foot oxers.  Spinabbey is an Australian stock horse and every bit as impressive in terms of his engagement, power, and agility as the GP warmbloods I drool over.  This weekend part of Guy's new act included a bridle-less, saddle-less musical freestyle (complete with top hat and tails) on Mate, who was doing beautiful flying changes and canter pirouettes, fully engaged and "on" an imaginary bit.  

And all of that is really cool, but that's not the part that impresses me the most.  Guy says in his performances that he does the grooming and feeding and mucking, and that's part of the reason he has such a strong bond with his horses and gets them to perform for him the way he does.  I'll admit it, the first time I heard that I thought it was a load of B.S.  Yeah right, this guy travels around the world performing, and is up at the crack of dawn feeding and mucking.  And I got a bridge to sell ya.  (Hey, I'm a born skeptic, not ashamed).

But then last year I had a barn pass for helping out with the Pasos at the Expo, and I walked by his aisle and saw him, pitchfork in hand, slaving away.  He was sitting at his booth twenty minutes later signing autographs with mud on his jeans.  Holy &%$!  This dude is not completely full of it!  (This year, I walked past a trainer and his entourage getting ready to go into the arena.  And then I looked up and saw Guy ahead of me heading back to his stalls, riding one horse and leading three others through a mob of horses and people, completely solo. It was a literal representation of how unique he is, even among the other people who do what he does.)  

So when I saw that, I went to check out his demo.  And that's where the magic happens.  Last year he started a two year old colt called Lightning.  The first day this thing was basically feral. He was instinctively terrified and flighty and not interested in cooperation of any sort whatsoever.  By the third day, Guy had him walk trot cantering around the arena (which by the way is the huge scary stadium at Harrisburg), and calmly wearing a tarp.  This horse was not only broke, but looked beautiful, and relaxed, and was now genuinely willing to offer whatever it was that was asked of him.  He was no longer a scruffy-looking beast, he was a beautiful athlete.  It was humbling to witness.

Lightning (laying down) with Midnight looking on.
This year, he started Lightning's younger brother, Midnight.  Once again, in two days he went from unbroke and unwilling, to happy and soft and working.  On the day I got to watch him, he first rode Lightning and worked Midnight alongside of him, and then rode Midnight alone, working on bending, softening to contact, and softly backing.  At one point he asked Midnight to back up, and the young horse backed as asked, and then offered a few more.  Here's Important Lesson #1:  Guy said, "He's thinking that if a few backward steps are good, then a few more must be great.  And I'm not going to tell him that's wrong.  I'm going to tell him, 'Gee that's great, thank you for offering that I really appreciate it.'"  And then Guy turned him right and walked off, and the horse started going forward, without ever being reprimanded.  Guy said "here I'm just saying to him, 'That's great, thank you for that, now can you do this instead?'
He finished the day by working Lightning at liberty
 off the newly-broke Midnight.
Important lesson #2:  When Guy taught the horse about contact, he said "I'm just keeping my hands down and still at the base of his neck, my elbows at my sides.  And when he wants a release from that pressure he's got to bring it.  My body is still and I'm being quiet.  Horses like quiet.  That's why they spend all day standing under a tree."  Oh wow.  How many times have I seen Tucker snoozing under a tree?  Trees are his friends.  I need to be more like a tree.  There are Buddhists and people far more enlightened than me who will tell you the same things.

On Day 4, he worked the rest of his team off
baby Midnight.  Amazing!
On the last day, I saw him work in a round pen, riding Mate, and working Lightning at liberty (Lightning is young and fairly new to liberty work, and in the big arena he ran off and didn't want to join up with the horse Guy was riding - I could do a whole blog post on how Guy handled that as well).  Just that morning over breakfast I was telling Ethan how I love that Guy's explanations translate to dressage, or hunter/jumpers, or reining, or cutting, or whatever.  Guy said it too.  He's working on liberty work, but if what you're working on is getting your horse to go in a circle (something I work on all the time), don't make the goal about the circle (Lesson #3).  "Ask the horse, 'Can you move off my leg this way?  Can you put your shoulders here?  Can you try harder?  Now can you stay between my hands and legs and move that energy forward?' And the horse will say, I'd love to work on this circle, this is easy for me."  

Mate and Lightning
Watching him work in the round pen, sitting just feet away from him instead of in the big arena, I heard him repeatedly say very softly, "Try," to his horses.  Just that one word - but what a powerful message.  When someone asks you to try, aren't you more likely to comply than if someone insists or demands that you do something?  (Lesson #4).  I need to remember to just ask my horse to try, or try a little harder, and see what kind of results I can get.

Finally, and this is why I titled this post the way I did, Guy explained how important patience, manners and respect are.  He explained that people tell him he's so nice and so polite, but that if someone came up and was rude to him, they'd say he was a mongrel.  He said for the people who flung a photo at him to sign, he scribbled his name Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, but for those who were kind to him, he was happy to stay a little longer.  Ethan and I have seen that for ourselves.  We interrupted him grooming Lightning and he was happy to stop and pose for a photo with Ethan and Mooch. He told Ethan that Pasos are "really wonderful little horses" and it made Ethan over the moon happy. What a special memory this photo captures.

Guy, Lightning, Ethan, and Mooch

So here's Lesson #5:  We give what we get.  I didn't write down exactly what Guy said, so I apologize for paraphrasing, but in a nutshell, if you want your horses to respect you, you have to earn it.  And if you want your horses to be mannerly with you, be respectful with them.  The same goes for people -- if you give out positive energy, if you're polite and kind, and patient, people will give that back to you.  

I leave you with a video that Ethan took of Guy reciting my most favorite of his poems, from horseback.  I hope it gives you an idea of why I'm so fond of this truly remarkable horseman.


  1. What a cool experience! I've never heard of him, but I'll look him up. I like the follow through of starting a horse one year, then bringing it back the next year to show the program works instead of frying them one year, then shoving them under the rug and getting a new one the next year.

  2. i've seen some videos of his demos before - super impressive! glad you got so much out of it! that point about: 'if you're trying to work on a circle, don't make the goal about a circle' is a real light bulb moment for me - thanks!

  3. We were there this past weekend and impressed with Guy McLean as well. Loved his clinics and walked away having learned so much. We had a chance to meet him briefly at his booth and his lovely wife - both wonderful people. A great article and a wonderful way to sum up the weekend. Thank you!

  4. What a great guy. I'm beyond sad that I missed it. Some day!

  5. I Love your article!!! I am a huge fan f Guy McLean. He is so down to earth and respectable! I have been very lucky to meet him on several occasions and chat with him. His wife Emily is as sweet as they come too! I am usually a clam person when meeting new matter who they are, but like you I turn into " pretty much the most incoherent, bumbling idiot, ridiculous fan-girl version of myself", when I meet him...LOL!!!! I think it is because I am so amazed by how much he truly LOVES what he does! I am the type that does NOT cry in matter what, but one complement from Guy and Emily about Hope(NASDHA) that I was riding in a breed demo, and I turned into a blubbering baby! He is truly a Humble Horseman, and I am forever a fan!

  6. Sherry Hart (and SunDancer)March 9, 2015 at 8:25 PM

    I absolutely agree. I got my first horse two years ago, my second (a filly) last year. I have been going to the Pennsylvania Horse Expo for three years and watched the various clinicians and presenters, exhibitors, whathaveyou, and Guy is my favorite. Out of all of them, he has the best relationship with his horses based on mutual trust, in my opinion. Thank you for giving him the attention he so justly deserves (and after meeting him, the same attention I think he shies away from). Guy will always be my horsey hero!

  7. Your "blog" was awesome, you have "captured" Guy so well in your words and his connection to any horse, especially his. For those who have never seen Guy McLean, it is truly a pleasure and honor to witness his "magic". Though, he will not agree with the word " magic", it is to those who watch the way he works with his horses and the new ones which come to him each time we see him. The video is so great as are his poems. We are lucky to know him, and respect him for what he teaches us.

  8. For the past 3 years I have staffed the expo and been ground crew for Theater Equus. Most of the performers are respectful. Guy has always gone above and beyond by making sure to personally thank every person involved in his act. He's easy going, never seems rushed, and makes one feel immediately at ease. This is so true that it is a topic of conversation backstage at least once a year. This year I got to spend a few minutes with his wife while on crew. She was as friendly and personable. It even extended to the staff he brought with him... they were all just the nicest people. BTW, I also recognize your boyfriend Ethan from the show. Really nice guy too - not surprised that Guy was willing to take a little extra time with him.

  9. You are an excellent writer!

  10. I greatly appreciate your apt description of the Guy Mclean experience. Among the Ray Hunt, Robert Miller, Tom & Ray Dorrance, Frederic Pignon and others group he certainly does stand tall. Thanks again, Lou Washburn

  11. New reader here. I really, really loved this! I'd heard great things about Guy McLean, but hadn't checked him out thinking he was just one more "natural horsemanship guy" (not that there's anything wrong with that; I love Buck Brannaman for example but some of the other guys are so gimmicky, like Parelli) This write-up really motivated me to finally go check him out. Thank you for sharing your experience!!


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