You’re bored at work and casually looking through horse ads. Most of the ads say the horse has no “buck, bolt or rear” and you think, “Hmmm, I haven’t ridden in a month because my horse does two out of those three. Maybe I should do something about that.”
You want to finally start your big, 6 year-old stallion who is a pasture ornament now because you have no time for him.
Your once honest and brave jumper is now refusing even the smallest of cross rails. You’ve had a few trainers try to help, but hooves are still firmly planted on the ground and you’re about to give up hope.
Who should you call?
The Man. The Legend.
We’d been hearing about Travis Robson like a sort of mythical creature. A trainer who will accept even the toughest cases. A trainer who is kind and fair while dealing with the worst of the worst cases of behavior and aggression. A trainer who stares down the fears others can’t or won’t face with his calming strength. A trainer who gets the job done quickly and efficiently at a reasonable rate. We even heard that horses like him so much that they follow him around like dogs. Did we dare believe it? We had to see this man for ourselves so we packed up our lattes and granola bars and hit the road.
We pulled into the driveway of an idyllic little farm with a quaint bank barn and happy horses of all shapes and sizes quietly grazing in paddocks. Travis immediately came out, greeting us with a warm smile and the small-town manners that made it easy to like him immediately. You may be picturing the stereotypical, good-looking cowboy in jeans with tousled wind-swept hair or maybe Robert Redford’s ruggedly handsome “horse whisperer,” and well, you’d be right on the money. Not only is Robson an incredibly fit man, his sinewy frame forged by decades of working horses across North America, he is handsome and articulate and cool with a shy smile and wry sense of humor. We’re not going to lie, we all had a crush on him by the end of the day. (Sorry Travis. We know you’re burning with embarrassment, but it had to be said.)
Extreme Makeover: Horse Edition
As we walked through his barn, the horses quietly munched hay or swung their heads over their doors looking for a pat from Robson. The horses under his tutelage appear at ease and relaxed – almost as if they’ve adopted their trainer’s personality. We stopped front of a huge draft-cross mare who was known to kick and bite. She was 8 years-old and had barely worn a halter in her lifetime, let alone a saddle. When we asked him if there was ever a case that he wouldn’t take for breaking or re-training. His answer was simple.
The first horse he brought out was a big, flashy warmblood – an eventer who had developed a fear of jumping after an accident and an injury. Unfortunately, sometimes long after an injury heals, the mind does not, and after falling into the wrong hands a few times, the problem grew worse. Fear and tension had taken over this horse even when ridden on the flat. A horse like him, although full of past success and future potential, could very well have ended up a lawn ornament. Or worse.
After tacking him up in a western saddle, we went to the arena. Robson mounted this 17 hand, coiled powder keg with the relaxed attitude of someone on a beach with a margarita in their hand. Every step the horse took at the beginning looked poised for an explosion. It was kind of scary to watch. The faint of heart among us had to go sit in the car. But Travis schooled this horse like he was always intuitively one step ahead, sometimes pushing but often compromising, to avoid the explosion. He always channelled the horse in the direction he wanted, never once straying from the horse’s centre of gravity. The ultimate result was a horse so filled with quiet confidence, he was happy to go for a relaxed canter around the newly-harvested soybean field.
Fear and Frustration
Robson has built a reputation based on stories of unparalleled success training and rehabilitating horses across all disciplines and levels of competition hand in hand with humane, horse-centred treatment. It is a skill and an art he has developed over a lifetime. Robson is from a family of horse people and mostly self-taught as a self-described, “lifelong student of the horse.”.
“Fear and frustration are the biggest things in horses. They’re either scared or frustrated,” he says of the two main problems he is hired to help solve. Somewhere in that bucking, bolting, or rearing there is something the horse is trying to communicate and Robson’s experience unearths this quickly.
“I always tell people my whole training program is not a physical program. Most guys go out and they work ‘em hard,” he explains of the “break down and build back-up” style.
Robson tells us the story of a sour jumper that came in to his barn. His owner was about to give up. Now all the horse knew how to do was stop at every single fence. Robson’s approach was to figure out the underlying issue – not just correct the resistance to the jump with brute force.
“I had to ride him for a while and figure out what it is that’s stopping this horse from going over the fence,’” he says.
It turns out that the horse was struggling with the landing and the lead change after the jump, so the solution was to fix the change to the point where the horse could enjoy his job again. When Robson returned the re-programmed horse however, he witnessed the behavior come back immediately with the owner.
“When I took him back to her, I said ‘Let’s saddle him up, you’re going to jump him today. She went to two or three fences, but he stopped at every one of them,” he sighs.
The rider was clamping down on the horse’s mouth, so rather than maintain contact he directed her to ride to the fence and let go of his mouth.
“She was riding to every fence like he was going to quit,” he explains of how the owner herself would trigger her horse to continue to bail out time and time again.
Training the Trainer
It’s obvious that Robson is not just a horse trainer, but a human trainer as well. He helps owners, riders, handlers and other trainers learn how to better interact with their equine partners because sometimes it’s the humans who need to be re-programmed. Robson is adamant about how the rider’s attitude and body language can teach the horse to behave well or can perpetuate bad behavior. Watching him in the ring, it is incredible to see the ease with which he confidently re-directs a horse time and time again until it does as he intended. It’s not about handling a rear or recovering from a refusal after the fact, Robson is providing constant direction and driving the horsepower with clear intention.
“You have to prepare the horses to try to avoid those bad situations,” he says.
Even when at their home stable, Robson explains that there is often a mismatch between what the horse needs and what its owner wants.
“The biggest problem in people’s training programs is they just don’t do enough homework,” he says. They’re just not able to provide the horse with the type or frequency of work it truly requires. “People think they’re a trainer if they ride their horse two or three days a week, when that horse really should be ridden, say, nine times a week.”
So rather than fitting convenience into our schedules, Robson advocates doing what the horse actually needs you to do for them. Which may mean more work and more discipline than you are equipped to provide. But it’s not about doing things by force for him, Robson’s success seems to come by fostering the horse’s desire to please.
“I think it’s a huge mistake that horses are put in the same category as cats and dogs. They’re considered a companion animal. But that’s not what they were developed for…they’re supposed to have a job. Horses like to work. Horses that don’t work, it’s like a child with no direction. Horses need to work to because valuable members of society and they like it. Give them a job, the better they’re going to like you.”