Friday, August 14, 2009

Festina lente

German: Eile mit Weile
English: Haste without Waste

If ever there was a maxim that applies to horse education, this is it!

What is a horse owner's first question when sending a horse for starting to a trainer? A wise trainer will reply that it takes as long as it takes, because it depends on the horse.

Haste in training usually leads us to not giving the horse enough time to be OK with things or to skip necessary steps altogether. We miss the little signs that should tell us the horse is not OK, and consequently we push the horse too much mentally. We can also push a young horse too much physically. But I believe that the horse's mind is the most important thing. He needs time to learn new things. Familiarization with new signals, objects, situations, learning the 'correct' response and then refinement is what are involved in the learning process. If we skimp on any of those steps, the learning process isn't happening the way we wish. Or maybe even worse, the horses learns something we don't want him to learn, for example that a situation is scary and he should bail out, simply because we haven't given him enough time to look at and digest the experience the first time.

Once we've created a problem by rushing through steps, then we have two jobs instead of one. Before any more learning can take place, some unlearning has to take place. Once a horse has learned that stepping onto a board is scary, you have to break down all the fear barriers in his mind first before anything else can progress. Only then can you ask him to engage his mind and give it a go.

So instead of asking him to put all four feet on the board in one session, allow him to get used to the hollow sound of the board, and maybe end the session when he touches the board with one foot. Next session he might put his weight on it. He may even volunteer the other front foot. And so on. And in a matter of a few short sessions, each of which will be a few minutes, he will confidently walk onto and stand on the board.

Is that not a better investment of your time than pushing him hard to get all feet in place in your first session, which he will probably not manage anyway? And next time back, he looks at the board with suspicion because last time he was near it, you put a lot of pressure on him. So it takes nearly as long as the first time, and he won't be keen on the idea even next session.

So what took longer?

Oh yes, I've been down both roads. And I can honestly say that in the end, taking the time it takes, takes less time than not taking the time it takes. He, that was fun to write and if it's not a tongue twister, it's close to a mind bender ;-) But you get the idea.

I see this in working with horses all the time. The youngsters which come for starting vary enormously in the time they require to absorb and be OK with various things. And there are times, even now, where I could tear my hair out thinking we are not progressing. But we go one little step at a time. Some days we even do less than the day before, because that's what the horse tells us he's happy with. We quit when the horse is OK, and because of this, in due course, usually very soon, the day comes where you know you can ask more.

Because the horse is always OK, you have solid foundations which you are building on. So when you get to what I call a sticky spot (let's say: a scary dog out of the bushes the first time you take the youngster out on the trail), the horse only has to concentrate on that, because he is OK with everything else. If your foundations are insufficient, this is the time you'll know about it. If your horse props because of the dog, and he's OK, he won't mind that you also make a little involuntary move in the saddle, and your reassuring hand and voice will calm down the rest of his unease. But if your horse isn't quite OK, then maybe the bounce he starts which bounces you in the saddle is just enough reason to go into mental meltdown, and next thing you are right in the middle of a western moment.

So take the time it takes with your youngsters, they will thank you for it. You will thank yourself for it, too.

Festina lente.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

High time for a change

For a long time I've been disgusted by what is called "Dressage". Mainly that which falls under the general heading of competitive or sport dressage.

It was bad enough to see the wooden looking horses performing lifeless if accurate movements under the heavy hands (and often spurs) of grim looking riders. To my mind, if dressage is the art of educating a horse to be a light and responsive mount, so these riders weren't practicing dressage! And then someone thought that wasn't enough and perfected the already common system of tying the horse's heads and necks down, by any means necessary, by adding systematic hyperflexion of the neck to the training schedule.

Someone coined the term rollkur. The word is cobbled together from "rolling" as the neck looks rolled in. Rosskur is the german word for a medicine or healing practice for horses. In colloquial language, it means any rough and painful "fix" for a body, coming from the understanding that in olden days, some pretty rough treatment was doled out to "fix" horses. So you can see that rollkur is a pretty meaningful description when it comes to hyperflexion.

I've seen photos and video of horses trained using rollkur. Nothing, NOTHING that's said by the people who practice and propagate this crap can convince me that it does anything good or useful for the horse's health or it's education. All it is is a pathetic attempt to shortcut training and to control horses which are already so frustrated by the way they are ridden, that they are mentally fraying at the edges and are sometimes barely controllable.

Whatever happened to correct education of a horse's mind and correct preparation of it's body to carry out the task? Is this a sign of the times, that we need instant fixes, instant gratification and if there is a by-product in the form of an unsound or mentally ruined horse, well we do live in a throw-away society. So we just buy another promising young superstar and go and do it all over again in a quest for competition glory, money, prestige, ego....?

And just as I thought I need to become a hermit and move to an island, it looks like there is a movement to put an end to this idiocy. Little by little I see articles in magazines which decry the practices used in even the most famous dressage stables. Vets are speaking up, prominent horsemen are speaking up.

Dr.Gerd Heuschmann published a book called book "Finger in Der Wunde" in Germany in 2006 and the English version "Tug of War - Classical versus "Modern Dressage" in 2007. He also made a film which is still available to order in English or German from WuWei Verlag. But have a read on his website or go to Stimmen Der Pferde to see a trailer of the film.

I also take my hat off to Philippe Karl, who appears to have made it his personal mission to better the lot of horses in competitive dressage. If you don't know who PK is, google him, it's worth your while. His latest effort was a letter to the German Equestrian Federation. This letter was ignored until it was published in a magazine and over 10,000 people added their signatures by way of signing up on PK's website. Finally the Germans replied, in a fashion. PK has recently published his answer to that. Please take the time to go to PK's website where you can find the full text of all three letters. It makes for interesting reading.

I hope that Mr.Karl and Dr.Heuschmann have successfully jumpstarted a revolution of the competitive dressage scene which is long overdue. For the good of the horses, let's support them in their endeavour.

Friday, August 7, 2009

How to describe a Paso

Pasos are very lively and proud horses. They are a horseman's horse. They are very smart. If they like and respect you, they will work their little butts off for you. While they are a bit hot, they are generally very easy to manage, but you need their respect.

I've found they don't do well with riders that like slow ploddy rides and who worry when the horse shows a bit of go. They do not like riders who continually pull on their heads to keep them slow.

On the other hand, for a confident rider, even if not too skilled, they can provide a lively ride. Because they are proud and funloving critters, they are great when you engage their minds and give them things to do, both in your interaction on the ground and under saddle. They are not flighty and run away types like many Thoroughbreds and Arabians. Some are a bit hot but if you set boundaries and give them a job to do, they do great.

If you are a rider who likes a bit of flair in a horse and who can laugh when the horse puts on some airs and graces, then a Paso will enjoy you and you will enjoy him.