For those readers who are non-riders, I am hoping this post might convey a new idea or observation relating to the importance of how someone sits on a horse and also provide some value to those who do plant their seat in a saddle on a regular basis. Although, as with much of The Compassionate Equestrian, we can extrapolate the equestrian issue at hand to something relating to our interactions with humans – in this case the horse’s possible discomfort at having a rider on its back to the human idiom…”that doesn’t sit well with me.” Given the rash of hostilities on our planet at the moment, there is much we could refer to that does not sit well with just about anybody. I almost feel a twang of guilt writing about something as mundane as a seat on a horse. However, this is our particular niche and there is a lot going on in the horse world that requires continuous vigilance too. And we know how soothing a connection to a horse or other animal can be in times of trouble. Whether seated on a horse or seated on a meditation cushion, there are specifics to both that can help us on our journey to becoming more compassionate beings.
I have spent countless hours lately scoping out the online world of equestrians and equestrian sports, lurking in some forums, watching YouTube videos and writing down the number of “likes” on horse-based home pages. The vocal majority in the digital horse community lately appears to be in regards to developing relationships with horses, identifying all of the wonderful feelings that can arise in humans when interacting with horses, and the joys of beautiful photos of prancing stallions working at liberty or guided by the hand of a handsome, masterful horseman. There are very deeply rooted desires in most human beings who long for that kind of partnership with an iconic animal that represents freedom, power, and the very essence of the natural world. The number of clinics, facilitators, workshops, and growing businesses dedicated to the non-riding aspects of horses seems to be expanding exponentially.
On the upside, this allows renewed and ongoing interest in horses from the media and general public, helping to build audiences and prevent horses from going the way of vinyl records and cars without power steering. The curiosity about horse herd dynamics and the effect of horses formally engaged in programs that utilize their “therapist” qualities has also afforded many horses that may be unsound for riding to be useful in a career that supports their care, but does not require them to be physically fit enough to carry a rider.
The mere image of a gorgeous horse can uplift one’s heart, and in my own opinion, if a person wishes to be around horses, they absolutely should be, in any way their circumstances and resources allow for that to happen. There are so many horses in need of extra attention and care that it would be a wonderful thing to match more compassionate, caring people with those animals that could use the grooming, handling, and exercise, with trainers, horse owners, and other professionals who would be willing to connect the right people with the appropriate animals. Unfortunately in our libelous society it is no longer a simple matter of “sure, you can come and ride my pony whenever you like”, but here in Canada you can at least become a member of your provincial Equine Canada affiliate and be covered by a basic insurance policy automatically, with further options available for instructors and businesses.
In light of the loving, horse-hugging/kissing imagery and practices we are cautioned in the rise of misconceptions that horses should only be worked at liberty, ridden without saddles or bridles, and are able to be started “without force” by anybody who has been to a few workshops. The unfortunate limitations created by a vocal social media presence have led to a huge missing or forgotten detail amongst this demographic; that of proper equitation and its contribution to the health and welfare of a horse. With all of the sweetness and oxytocin-releasing activities now abundant in the horse world, for many, the anthropomorphizing of the horse has created an industry subsection where people are forgetting about the intricacies and amount of time it takes to ride really well. It is true that riding with wanton abandonment does come naturally to some people, but not to all, and it can set unsuspecting newcomers up for potentially dangerous situations, especially where children and inexperienced riders are put on horses without helmets or protective footwear. Even for someone with good balance and the ability to sit upright on a horse, it still takes a long time and a lot of quality instruction to be able to apply the aids correctly and learn to school a horse so that it continues to make progress or at least maintain fitness.
I have had some beginner to intermediate level students who just seemed to have an inherent sense of balance, flexibility, strength and muscular symmetry, not to mention confidence on a horse. Sorry ladies, but almost all such students were boys or adult men. We could get into a discussion about gender differences in the pelvic floor, hips and thighs, but that is another issue. I do find it interesting though that all of the most popular clinicians advocating a particular style of horsemanship are men who ride extremely well themselves, and generally in a western saddle. I have witnessed some training methods originating with European men lately that are not translating well to North American women either, although the fundamental ideas are sound.
Due to misunderstandings and terminology used around the label of “horsemanship,” Dr. Schoen and I have chosen to use equitation in reference to our 25 Principles (in The Compassionate Equestrian) instead of horsemanship. Good horsemanship is ultimately included as part of equitation, and even further, the emerging field of Equitation Science* is providing us with the research and scientific backing in support of how horses are best trained and handled in ways that keep them sound of both mind and body. For example, researchers have determined through objective, quantitative research that rising trot and riding in a two-point (hunt seat) position place the least amount of stress on the horse’s back and are best for stabilizing the rider .
For all of my searching around the world wide web for tidbits of traditional, classical horse training and riding techniques, I have found the real gems and voices of reason still existing, but buried under the hundreds of thousands of “likes” on sites that are appealing more to people’s emotional reactions to images and possibly the feelings of freedom they would have riding bareback, galloping through fields of tall grass and blooming flowers. Such images, after all, are far more likely to grab readers quickly scanning their news feeds than a picture of the anatomical construct of a rider’s lumbar-sacral anatomy and how it should be placed in the saddle, followed by an explanation of why it should be situated in such a way and how it biomechanically affects the horse’s musculoskeletal system and way of going. Yet, there are marvelous opportunities to be gained from studying those images and exercises of correct alignment (such as in The Riding Doctor, by Beth Glosten MD, pub. June 2014 Trafalgar Square Books – http://www.horseandriderbooks.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=H&Product_Code=RIDO&Category_Code=WNEW).
Let’s put those two pictures side by side and see which one gets the most “likes” on Facebook. I think we already know the answer to that, especially as so many social media users are very young and will take the time to make comments. The kids and professionals who are already working hard on their equitation, showing, and horse care are far too busy in the barns and arenas to pay much attention to what is going on in the rest of the equine industry unless it is something that affects them personally. In mixed-discipline barns where there are some people practicing newer forms of horsemanship philosophy and techniques, I have been hearing stories of heated dialogues and questionable methods leading to much tension and outright clashes amongst riders, as well as a few very bad accidents.
In the “old days” (such as when I was showing the most – 1970s & 1980s) equitation classes were judged on seat, position, and use of the aids. We all knew as riders that a good seat and hands were the mark of a competent rider, and the making of a willing, happy equine partner. Pretty straightforward amongst both western and english styles, but no easy feat so far as being a consistent winner in equitation classes. Yes, of course those competitions still exist, but the participants are few compared to the audiences that turn out looking for ways to connect to equine nature and work from the ground. Sure, there were also some quirky trends in the 80s, such as “piano hands”, and the “point & perch” riding, but savvy judges and course designers who had ridden through the previous decades found ways of separating those who could really ride from those who were merely able to hold their position on a well-trained horse.
Nowadays, however, I see little to no emphasis placed on the quality of how well someone is sitting on their horse, yet it is the foundation so far as being able to ride without doing harm. It seems to me that horses used to stay a lot sounder than they do now, especially when it comes to neck, back and hindquarter problems. This is in spite of updated knowledge in saddle fitting and considerable advances in veterinary diagnostic technology. With all of the issues Dr. Schoen and I have observed in our respective fields, we feel that bringing compassion to the equine world at large involves a suggestion to look into one’s heart and ask if the pressure being inflicted on the horse is legitimately to its benefit, or to its detriment. We realize the answer to that will vary extensively until there is more evidence revealed through formal studies in Equitation Science.
A rider may have a great relationship with a horse on the ground, but what value is left if that relationship disintegrates due to a heavy and unbalanced seat? I have seen many riders of all ages who would benefit greatly by spending some time on the longe line, providing of course, their horse is also trained correctly and safely on the longe. Oftentimes this is not the case either, as a lot of horses are chased in round pens or longed on very short lines and do not stay on a large enough circle.
In the current equine world many seem to have forgotten one very important thing… teaching people how to ride properly with an emphasis on solid basics. While vocal about creating harmony and not using force (great trainers were never apt to use “force” anyway, and always start horses with careful groundwork), in the sea of popular buzzwords, for some strange reason, there is a big, confusing, gap between bonding with one’s horse and the value of riding with due care and attention to one’s equitation so as to create the least amount of stress on the horse as possible when asking it to walk, trot, canter, jump, and everything in between.
I used to work at one of the top show jumper barns on the west coast and we always used to joke about “equitating” properly. These were the young, talented riders who had horses and trainers at barns on both sides of the continent, qualifying for the big medal finals and making it to the top of the junior rankings. There were a lot of issues in those barns during that era that certainly didn’t make us perfect. I am happy to this day that I made the decision to remain removed from the craziness and partying that went on. The underlying dark side still permeates show activities and there are some people who continue to see horses as expendable commodities that can be pushed past their limits with drugs and procedures until they simply cannot be worked any further. I am mortified when I hear of youth who are competing for national standings talking about “putting a needle in their horses” so they can get around a class without blowing up or breaking down. In many cases it would be nice if there actually were a better relationship between the horse and its rider. There is something going amiss with the entire equestrian world and one poignant missing element at both ends of the spectrum seems to involve the key question we ask throughout The Compassionate Equestrian… and that question is “what is most compassionate for this horse?”
We look forward to the forthcoming advances in Equitation Science and in the ongoing research in human-animal communication and relationships to help us create a more compassionate world for everything we do that involves horses, and all of our animal and human companions. That actually does sit rather well… 🙂
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*What is Equitation Science?
Equitation science promotes an objective, evidence-based understanding of the welfare of horses during training and competition by applying valid, quantitative scientific methods that can identify what training techniques are ineffective or may result in equine suffering. Equitation science uses a multidisciplinary approach to explain horse training, for example from a learning theory perspective that removes anthropomorphism and emotiveness.
Read more about the ‘Advent of Equitation Science’ – by P. McGreevy (2007, Veterinary Journal 174, 492–500)
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 Peham C1, Kotschwar AB, Borkenhagen B, Kuhnke S, Molsner J, Baltacis A.
Vet J. 2010 Apr;184(1):56-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.04.007. Epub 2009 May 9.
A comparison of forces acting on the horse’s back and the stability of the rider’s seat in different positions at the trot.