Friday, February 15, 2013

extremes - what's the deal?

Is it just my imagination, or is there really a tendency for attitudes to swing from one extreme to another? It just seems that all too often, people seek out and zero in on something specific, which is part of some riding style or purpose. This then becomes some kind of mantra, a goal in itsself, which then starts to overtake in importance the original purpose. In their zeal to become better than each other (to win money, ribbons, admiration etc), riders, trainers, breeders and all kinds of enthusiasts will go to unbelievable lengths. I wouldn't care if they just wear bigger and bigger hats or brighter and brighter clothings (and some do!). But unfortunately, some of these obsessions are quite damaging come at the expense of our equine friends.

Go and watch Western Pleasure. I'll be damned if what goes for a lope there in the show-ring isn't downright abominable. I see a caricature of a horse doing some horrid four beat "thing" which ought to be a canter. It's so far on the forehand it's damaging the horse. It's so slow it's almost backwards. I can't begin to describe how appalling I find this. What goes for trot is no better. Slow-motion zombie-like horses ridden by grim and deathly determined looking folks. Oh yeah, and must have BLING. I mean, the judges have to look at somthing.... But Western PLEASURE? Really??

Ok, now go to Saddleseat shows. It's the total opposite. We've gone from noses scraping in the dirt and deadened tails (sheesh, can't have that tail move!) to exaggerated movement and tails that have been manipulated to stick up. Evidently, tails carried naturally high, showing a happy horse showing off is no longer good enough. Jerky, exaggerated movement is encouraged by the use of over long hooves with gadgetry which has to be seen to be believed. Horses are stirred up so they look wide-eyed and crazy and barely within control. Oh, and for total BS, have a look at the Big Lick shows for Tennessee Walking Horses. Whatever possesses people to call that riding, to do THAT to their horses in the name of a few measly dollars and trophies, is totally beyond my understanding. These horses look like robotic zombies, like caricatures out of a horror movie. They move like a real horse would never, ever voluntarily move. Sure they have shiny coats, but what do they have to go through to be so brainwashed that they can move like that. Bear in mind, I do understand and love gaited horses. But this has nothing to do with gaits. Even without soring and all the other crappy "training" methods used to make their horse do THAT, it would have to be a sad existence for a horse.

Next extreme: let's look at modern dressage horses. They must have snappy movement also, and EXTENSIONS!, but for some reason it seems necessary (especially of late, and especially in certain parts of Europe) that their nose is cranked back to their chest. Rollkur is fashionable. Deep and round is the motto. Never mind the fact that you never see horses move like that in real life, just as you don't see real horses move like show-ring TWHs or QHs... And never mind that these horses can't see where they go and and end up in a state of learned helplessness. Oh, and it seems to be ok to ruin their backs and necks also. Again, some of the big names start that BS, and every little wannabe copies it, in the hope of being "in the ribbons".

There are other examples, but these are probably the most obvious and widespread ones. Thankfully, in all those areas, there are voices of reason, peopl e who care and people willing to educate and change to bring about a better life for those horses.

Going away from specific riding methods, we see excesses elsewhere, too. I'm thinking of excesses in attitude toward horses. On the one hand we have people who treat horses like bikes and don't give a damn about the creature. To them, a horse is just a method to get from A to B, to impress the friends, to have some mindless fun or as a sporting tool to win ribbons. Use and abuse and throw away as they see fit... Then there are folks who are just plain cruel. In the olden days, a lot of that cruelty wasn't directly pointed at horses or other animals. It was a cruel, harsh world, and people did terrible things to each other, animals probably just got in the way or were tools to be cruel to other people. But there are nasty folks out there who don't abuse animals out of ignorance or need, but who take a certain kind of perverse pleasure in doing so. Those people are sick and need help. I won't elaborate on what kind of help I'd love to give them.

The opposite extreme to that mindset are the folks who treat their animals like children. Those who are unwilling (incapable??) of being a leader to their horse, to give guidance and encourage the horse to do things which will help him to fit into a human world. Just as I'm sick of hearing of uncaring, ignorant or nasty people doing crappy things to horses, I'm exasperated about the attitude of those who seem to think they must impose no boundaries on their precious and beloved equine children.

The idea that a horse grows up in a vaccum, that no social rules exist and are enforced within a natural herd and that therefore, the human "herd mates" also have to just let it do it's own things always is, quite frankly, a lot of crap. Horses are gregarious, they love company. Most horses love to fit in and to have their place in a herd. Very few have the mental make-up to be leaders, and even those are usually happy to concede leadership to another individual, so long as that individual has leadership qualities, including calmness, consistency, charisma, boldness etc.

In a horse-human "mini-herd", the human ought to be the leader. If for no other reason than that he's qualified by way of a bigger brain and better understanding of what is required for survival in a world full of humans. However, if the human is ineffectual as leader or willingly relinquishes his role in the name of "kindness" our out of some other misunderstood notion about what makes horses happy, then the horse will fill that leadership vacuum. In some ways this may work ok for some time. Horse gets his way, horse learns that he can do what he likes and therefore does as he pleases. Human is happy to watch horse do as he pleases and is happy to make no demands whatsoever, only hoping that the love for the horse will be returned by the horse.

The fly in the ointment comes when there is an unavoidable task. Maybe the horse needs drenching, or his feet trimming. Being vaguely unpleasant, horse might decide to walk away instead of returning the human's love. Now the human has a dilemma. Be consistent and let the horse decide but ultimately see it come to harm as a result. Or... be insistent on the procedure and risk upsetting the poor darling horse. Sometimes, they try the latter only to find that the horse has well untruly learned that the human has no say in matters, and the horse actually reacts hostile to attempts to make him do something. Now there is a real problem. This usually escalates and then something happens that endangers the human and/or the horse, and then an "expert" will be called in to help and fix the problem. In the end, the artificial "freedom" we gave that horse is getting the same horse into potentially life-threatening situations.

Another scenario: the overly kind person won't insist on their horse to follow and pay attention. The day comes when a flood threatens the area and the person would like to rescue the horse from it's paddock. The horse does not know or understand the flood, therefore he does not see the danger. The kind person cannot get the baulky horse on the float and as a result, the horse has to be abandoned and downs. Dead horse and unhappy human.

I've heard of people who wait for their horse to "tell them" they wish to be ridden. Really? Same as I don't see any issue in people working for money, I can't see a problem in a horse being ridden sometimes in exchange for a good life with plenty of food, health care, shelter from the elements and a social life. This is the real world.

I've seen bolshie fillies run over their owners because they had learned they can get away with it. I've seen horses with abysmal feet because they kicked their owners to smithereens once they learned that nobody insisted on cooperation. In the end, those horses end up being put out to pasture until they get sick and/or injured and/or hurt someone. And then they get fixed by an export or put on the truck to the knackery. Does that still look so kind??

Sadly, many people who have good intentions, but lack the experience and the opportunity to learn are attracted to gurus or to ideals which lack any common sense or connection to reality. The Internet is full of self help groups and advice from experts. There are self proclaimed gurus, like Nevzorov, who are taking the esoteric approach to horsemanship to such extreme lengths that people are brainwashed into thinking his way is the only way. The preachings of some of those gurus very nearly resemble religious rantings and condemn all but what the guru himself approves (=sells). All I can say is that behind every successful guru there is a successful marketing person who knows exactly how to appeal to the emotional needs of the average well-meaning but ignorant horse lover.

What to do??

I'd like to call for rational action. For attempts to understand the horse as a living, feeling creature with it's own free will and certain desires. I call for kindness and for thoughtful leadership which benefits the horse and guides him in an environment far removed from natural herd life and undoubtedly stressful to a born prey animal. I encourage people to follow a path that treats a horse like a real horse: a valuable individual which enriches our lives and deserves our devotion. But also requires our kind leadership and guidance. This path is best followed if we avoid extremes in everyday interaction, in training, husbandry, socialisation and all other aspects of life.

If, on top of that, we can do away with manipulating hooves and leg action, fixing tails in the up or down position and let horses move naturally as opposed to against their nature, we should be a long way towards having an ongoing good relationship with our horses. Happy, contented and healthy horses are more delightful to watch, to ride and interact with than any currently fashionable, man-made, artificially "enhanced" robots which are on the scrapheap before the age of ten..

I, too, am on a search of bettering myself. I would like to be a better leader and friend to my horses, and I will continue to strive to achieve that. But I am prepared to use common sense, and fairly rigorously apply logic, which filters out a lot of BS. I'm in the lucky position of having a decent amount of experience, and therefore, I can usually interpret the response of my horses to my requests. Is it working? Are we progressing? Is the horse relaxed, keen, attentive, happy to do more?

I am wary of extremes of any sort. I try to be open minded, but I question everything. I am careful of people who promise ALL the wisdom and ALL the answers. The good horse people out there are the ones who are on a lifelong quest to learn, and admit there is always more to discover and understand. They make no false promises. In my observation, it doesn't matter which background they come from or which equestrian discipline is their passion. Good horsemen and women share the very similar basic set of of skills and ideas and philosophies, none of which are characterised by extremes.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

the darkest hour is just before dawn

Over the years, when working with young horses I've seen a lot of interesting things. Horses never cease to amaze me. They never cease to teach me new things. And they keep reminding me how little I know and how much more I need to work on my own self control. But that's a topic for another post :-)

There is one observation I've made quite often during the progression of turning a green (unridden) horse into a happy mount. Progress isn't linear. Some days I make a little headway, some days I can do three steps in one session and the horse is happy and relaxed. Other days, there is no progress and we both do well just to go over yesterday's lesson. Oh, and then there are those days when there is an obvious regression. That is when stuff I have gone over already, which the horse seemed OK with, suddenly isn't "there" any more. I have to be content with finding something from a much earlier lesson which I can reward the horse for doing well, so that we can finish on a good note.

Those days are frustrating. Most likely not totally pleasant for the horse, as he is evidently worried about every little thing and can't relax. But most definitely, they are frustrating for me as the horse's trainer and mentor. Firstly, there is the job of having to think of ways to not escalate any issues that emerge. Secondly, it's about looking for alternative ways to make the horse comfortable in what he is asked to do, and that calls for a fair bit of creativity on those days. Sometimes the regression isn't from the horse being spooked or upset. I've seen it happen in headstrong horses, who decided that today isn't the day to cooperate. I've also seen it as something that arises from outside circumstances, which meant that no matter how much I try, I can't get the horse's attention from the other exciting stuff out there.

Just as there can be no meaningful progress if the horse is scared, there can also be none if the horse has a different agenda or can't focus due to distractions. To get somewhere, the horse has to be OK in mind and body, with a willing attitude and me in the centre of his attention.

Well, some days it doesn't matter how good my intentions are. I just can't create that mindset. That being so, I really just like to do some basics and find a thing or two which I know the horse can do ok. Then I give praise and put them away. I will admit that I bitch and grizzle about it, because my inner perfectionist would like to see at least some progress EVERY training session. And so it was yesterday when we brought in the two geldings we currently have in work. It was (in my eyes) an abysmal session. They were flighty, scatterbrained, seemed to have forgotten most things and on top of it, seemed grumpy. I was grossly disappointed in what we achieved.

We all went and slept on it.

As so often in the past, today was a totally different matter. Both horses had a totally different attitude. Their facial expression, their posture indicated they were good to go. It was as though they had had a discussion about it overnight. Or rather, as though there were different horses in their skin. They looked keen, they were relaxed, they responded to tiny cues. The one time one of them was spooked (justified), he jumped and then stopped and settled immediately. We made huge progress. Both ended up going off the lunge, one of them for the first time. And did it well.

I could feel the different attitude and preparedness to work through the reins, and through the saddle.

Let me explain that.... Reins are sort of obvious, as one can feel if there is a give to a half halt or any other cue straight away. The quality of that little give is also important. There is just a different feel. I jokingly talk of butter sometimes. When things are perfect, it's like soft butter. (Accordingly, resistance feels like hard butter, or even frozen butter ;-) .)  There is also a different feel through the saddle. That includes whether the horse is relaxing the topline and seeking a bit of stretch. But it's more than that. When tense, it's not just the top neck and back muscles that are tense, but it also seems to be the whole skin. The saddle feels to be strapped to the back and it feels firm and unyielding and stuck. When relaxed in the right way, muscles and skin tone are different, allowing the saddle to feel a bit more loose. Not loose as in: loose girth, but loose as in: more movable, an organic part of the back and therefore a connection between me and the horse.

Honestly, it's a bit of a difficult thing to describe, and it took me some years to develop the sensitivity to feel it, and then some more time to come to realise just how important all this is. The next step is to try to create it in all my horses, all the time. That is not possible of course, but that's the goal.

Picture (by Yvonne Lehey): Castellano during one of last week's sessions. I asked for a stop. It's not too square, but his topline is soft, he's let out a big sigh and is lowering his head. That's the moment we reward, although of course, he is rewarding himself already.

The lesson learned for me here is that I should not be too harsh, but to accept that we all (horses included!) have 'off' days. This is no blemish on my record as a trainer nor on the horse's training diary. Rather, it is part of the overall progression, and it makes me appreciate the big progress days even more. Sometimes, the biggest problems occur just before the biggest steps forward. Sometimes, we just have to believe in ourselves, and keep working towards a goal. If the underlying principles are correct, then the goal will be reached, and often sooner than expected.

Out of the three horses we worked this morning, every one of them made me proud. To celebrate, I'm going to reward myself with going horse riding this afternoon :-)