Asking and telling

This is another piece I’ve been toying with for weeks.  I’ve held back as I wanted to take a considered approach to the debate, rather than giving blanket praise or criticism.  It’s difficult with this topic – as one blogger put it when she heard what I was doing, “you’re opening a can of worms” – but I decided to go ahead.  Because all we gain by ignoring contentious issues is the knowledge of what sand tastes like.  And this has become Debate Week at Kicking On, so here we go.

Regular readers will know that I’ve recently become a natural horsemanship convert and student (I’m trying not to be a NH bore… and possibly failing – I’m on the steepest learning curve I’ve been in a long time, and that means I have a lot to process), but I see this as being very literal.  Looking back, I think I’ve always had a NH mindset – I’m kind to my animals, considerate of their needs, and as forgiving as possible with my body.

Most riders who are classically trained are taught to be very dominant of their horse, that the rider is the boss and the horse will do as they say.  Little thought is given to how the request is made, what might be behind the horse’s resistance or what could be going wrong.  Many riders, having satisfied themselves that there isn’t a problem with the horse’s health and that the tack they’re using does indeed fit correctly, will then persist with what they see as benign dominance – essentially, brute force.

The force exerted does, of course, have degrees.  Certain practices have been developed which are fairly widely panned by the equestrian community, although they may once have been regarded as acceptable – by this I mean techniques such as rapping in show jumping (whereby when the horse is in the air over the jump, two helpers on the ground will pick up the pole, tap the horse’s legs with it and lead the horse to believe they’ve misjudged the fence and should always jump even higher than required, to ensure no penalties are incurred by rubbing a pole and knocking a fence down), or rollkur (most frequently used in dressage, this involves hauling a horse’s head into an overly-flexed position via force).  There are rules regarding the use of whips – what they may be made of, how long they can be and how frequently a horse can be struck – and spurs in competition, but these may still be used inappropriately by riders.

Whilst many riders will agree that forcing a horse’s head behind the vertical – rollkur – or breaking the skin of his flanks and drawing blood – with over-use of a whip or by wearing sharp spurs rather than blunt ones – are unkind and unsafe practices, the real can of worms is in a greyer area.  I’m talking about training aids.  For the purpose of clarity here, I’m not talking about items of tack: for me, anything which is within the rules of putting on a horse in competition counts as tack, whereas items which are not allowed would be considered training aids.  Whether I would choose to use them on my own horse or not, equipment such as hackamores, gags, flashes, grackles and martingales are all acceptable up to and including at international competition level.  The items which aren’t allowed are those such as draw reins or Pessoas – additional pieces of equipment which hold a horse in the “correct” position.

The thing is, whether your method of choice is a Pessoa (or similar) or rollkur, your intention and the desired result are the same.  What both options do is speed up the training process, offering the rider a short cut to the outcome they seek.  After you have your horse’s health and tack checked, pause for a moment and consider why he might not be making the shapes you want.  Have you been clear about what you want from him?  Has he heard your request and understood it?  If he has, and this is an act of defiance, what’s the root of that attitude?  Is it that he’s scared, anxious or uncertain?  It may be that your horse just isn’t ready.  And where’s the harm in waiting?  Take a step back, break it down and walk through it with your horse.  Make sure he hears and understands you.  Be certain that his body is ready.  And, most importantly, be confident that he is willing.

Many non-equestrians view riders as barbarians who force horses to race, jump and prance in a way which is unnatural.  We bite back that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink – which is true – but then my former riding instructor would chip in with her line that, if it weren’t for humans, horses would graze 24/7 (it’s a slight exaggeration – they would socialise in their herd and move around a bit, but essentially, she was correct).

When my sister and I rode with this woman 15 years ago, draw reins were very much in fashion, particularly for young riders making the transition to horses.  For us, the equivalent was grass reins: fed up with our ponies getting rounder out hacking, our instructors decided that they should be trussed up in these strings to prevent them from wandering around the lanes like hoovers.  Two of the ponies soon didn’t need the grass reins – they were suffering from learned helplessness, assuming that they had them on even when they weren’t wearing them.  They had been trained to think that they couldn’t put their heads down.  I can’t help but think that we, as riders, could have learned a better lesson from this if we had been shown how to invest more time and training into the situation.

It’s a slippery slope to think that you can solve the problem of a greedy pony with grass reins, followed by a potentially slightly unfit horse with draw reins, and then a confused youngster by trussing him up in a bungee cage.  My other feeling is that the horse perhaps isn’t producing the desired shape because the rider isn’t certain of how it should work: rather than forcing a horse into a position so that a rider can learn the sensation of the movement, more time could be invested, a greater degree of in hand or ground work could be undertaken, and all involved would have an increased understanding of the goal and how to get there.

Because for the average rider, where’s the rush?  It’s not an emergency: the horse won’t go out of date if you work at a slower pace.  Armageddon isn’t imminent.  And if it’s a competitive career that you’re aiming for, here’s the best news which you already knew: riders can be older athletes.  We don’t need to have gold medals hung around our necks before we’re 25 because the 16 year olds will be chasing us.  Equestrianism was responsible for the oldest Olympian at the most recent summer Games – experience wins in our sport.

The ethos behind equestrianism is that you are working in partnership with another sentient being who cannot communicate with you verbally.  Horses are animals, not machines.  They will behave as such.  Some things take time.  If you don’t have time, or can’t make time, put the reins down and pick up a steering wheel or handlebars.  Your horse will reward your patience with everything he has.  He will work on the bridle, he will trot on the spot, he will canter in a tiny circle, he will clear that enormous brush cantering downhill into driving rain… when he is ready.  When you have taken the time to prepare both him and yourself.  When you have asked the right question and you have asked the question correctly, rather than when you have forced him into submission.  Because if force is going to continue to be our method of choice, we might as well carry on chewing sand and tightening our bearing rein.

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9 thoughts on “Asking and telling

  1. Well written, thanks for the mention 😉 I think that training aids can be used to point the horse in the right direction, but should be temporary and only by people who know what there doing. I found the Pessoa was great for encouraging my horse to stretch down and after a couple of months of once weekly use he learnt to seek the contact and stretch forward and work long and low on his own accord. I feel it just showed him what to do and helped trigger the correct muscles 🙂 now he’s ridden in a snaffle bridle and lunged in just a cavesson and bit 😄

    • Thanks for the comment, and I think that your point is a very good one. All horses learn differently, and some need to be shown in a different way to others.

  2. One of my favorite parts of working with horses (and dogs too, to some degree) is that patience is required. When else in our culture/world is patience considered an esteemed virtue? Everything about our lives is instant, and increasingly so with smart phones overtaking our world (don’t get me wrong, I love to Google a question at dinner with my husband when we’re discussing a topic and begin to wonder about something). I think humans benefit from working with animals (and I guess children, but usually they can at least talk back to us in words) by making us go to a place of sensitivity, empathy, problem solving, etc.

    I noticed something a few summers ago when my stepdaughter (probably 12 at the time) took her first (and last) riding lesson while we were on vacation. I will preface this by saying she is a sweet girl and athletic and quite smart. So, the horse she was riding was not responding (probably because she was not asking in his “language”) and I remember her verbally complaining to the horse (like she does to her brother when she’s annoyed). She was the poster child for frustration, flailing and loud talking at the horse. I wondered how her personality/character might have been different if she grew up around horses where she would have to learn to be quiet and calm (as opposed to amped and loud).

    I heard a wonderful clinician at the recent horse trade show I attended. I had not heard of him before but he gave very practical tips on what to do when a horse spooks crossing water, etc. All of his philosophy sounded so considerate. You might want to check him out (he’s also easy on the eyes). Jonathan Field.

    I rambled, but I was just trying to say, I agree with you.

    • Thanks for your comment! I don’t consider myself to be a very patient person, and horses can be very frustrating, but I find that for some reason I’m more patient with them than with people. And in a way, there’s a greater sense of achievement for me when I FINALLY get the hang of something that I’ve sometimes spent months working towards. For me, it’s a bit like cheating on an exam: the only person you’re cheating really is yourself.

  3. I agree with the rubbercurry comb – many training aids are potentially useful if you remember they are literally an aid to training, not a substitute for training. As long as training is considered as a whole, with the aid fitting into a bigger picture I think it can be educational.

    I also think that whatever you submit your horse to you have to try to see through his eyes whether what you’re asking is reasonable. If a horse finds something difficult it is ridiculous to expect them to perform that to the same level as a horse for whom it is natural. This is where your patience paragraph comes in, and it seems obvious to me, but I have seen many people expecting their horse to do what horse X does without considering whether that’s reasonable, and then trying to instantly force their horse to match that ideal. That’s when training aids are at their worst I think: when applied without consideration of the particular horse in question.

    • I think that’s a really good thing to be aware of, and something I forgot to mention: the fact that no two horses are the same and also, no two riders or trainers are the same. Not only will different riders get different results from the same horse, but the same rider will also achieve at a different rate with different horses. It’s inappropriate to compare two animals or two riders, and it’s about what works best for you and any given horse, rather than the horse and someone else, or assuming that what works with one of your horses will also work with another.

      And I absolutely agree that natural talent comes into it – for me, enjoyment is also part of this – some horses will piaffe straight out of the womb (well, they won’t, but I think you take my point) and others might never get it. Similarly, the horse with a natural flair for dressage may hate it and, in that instance, I don’t think there’s any point in ramming your leg on, trussing it up in a bungee and forcing the horse into it. There are so many stories out there of horses who are bred to race lying down at the start line – it’s the same thing with pleasure horses, but for some reason it’s generally viewed as being more acceptable to force the leisure horses to do what we want them to do. I’m sure it’s very difficult, but the answer for me would be that if I were determined to do Activity A but my horse absolutely hated it or couldn’t do it, I’d offer the horse to someone who could love it and do something in harmony with it, and find myself another horse who loved Activity A.

      Thanks for commenting, I love hearing what everyone thinks 🙂

  4. Take the time it takes, so it takes less time, right? I absolutely love your article and can only agree with you. I don’t think those training aids (pessoa, martingale, etc.) are necessary for any horse. It’s only a forced short-cut to get results. If your horse doesn’t want to put his head down while trotting on a circle for example, he just isn’t confident or comfortable. But I also think that riders or trainers shouldn’t judge other riders and trainers. We can only show that there are different ways of training your horse. That there are ways of training which make your horse ‘wants’ to do it, instead of ‘makes’ him do it. It’s so valuable to have a good relationship with your horse.

    • Sorry I missed this when you originally posted! I’m glad you like the piece, and I agree with you – though this is a Parelli line – “It’s not about the [x,y,z], it’s about the relationship”. Each to their own method, but at the moment I can’t see a time when I’d use one of these things.

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