The Kinder Rider

 

Ultimately, anybody who is reading this blog post, and anyone who has or is reading The Compassionate Equestrian can visualize themselves as compassionate and empathic with horses. If you feel as though you aren’t there yet, you’re certainly on the journey to becoming more understanding of your horse’s needs and his means of communication.

Unfortunately, however, it has been brought to my attention that the very word, “compassion” seems to evoke a broad range of emotions and opinions from equestrians, and not necessarily on a positive note.

IMG_20160622_132742834 Does it have a religious slant that distances some riders? Do some feel that it means you can’t ever show a horse without having “do-gooder” looking over your shoulder? Does it mean you can’t achieve optimal results within your chosen discipline? Given the conversations I’ve had with one of our younger trainer-affiliates, it seems as though all of the above applies. This saddens, yet does not surprise me.

I’m searching for the answers that will convince a greater demographic of the equine world to take a look at what the 25 Principles have to offer. And, of course, the last thing we want is for people to feel guilty or “less than” if they are unable to live up to the highest standards of equine care and handling. The key point is self-awareness and being mindful of the needs of horses, without beating up oneself, or anybody else, for that matter. I also realize this is an extremely difficult concept to grasp for many people, which often makes it hard to meet people “where they’re at.”

We all know what the horse industry needs. From the highest echelons of the governing bodies of horse sports to the backyard recreational rider, we must have clarity, best practices, and enforcement of the welfare issues across the board that would help make this a better place for horses. Horses that are receiving at the very least, a home that provides them with the 5 Freedoms*. You only have to scroll through a few Facebook threads or online forums to find out what the extent of violations are though, even with just those five essential principles of animal welfare.

So let’s just drop the word, “compassion” for a minute. How about we replace it with… “kinder?” The kinder rider. How does that look? I realize that not everyone who has a horse actually rides them as well, so we’ll include those who wish to work at liberty or simply maintain horses as companions and provide them with a safe home. We imagine that a beautiful partnership must originate and equate with a kind and benevolent rider or handler. I guarantee you, however, that the perfect picture also has the tough parts, the ugly sections, the down moments, and the ones that make you just want to give it up. Everyone has those times too. What helps? That base of kindness, starting with being kind to yourself.

animal black countryside daylight

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How does kinder compare to compassionate? Here’s the definition of kinder from thesaurus.com:

adjective, kind·er, kind·est.
-of a good or benevolent nature or disposition, as a person:
a kind and loving person.
-having, showing, or proceeding from benevolence:
kind words.
-indulgent, considerate, or helpful; humane (often followed by to):
to be kind to animals.

Seems to fit with our Principles, right? Now, without judging the tack, the discipline, the breed, the person sitting in the saddle, observe the situation in question. You can be a very kind person, and still end up in trouble on a horse. The horse may not have had adequate training, he might be in pain, he might be too much horse for the rider, or he might have spooked at something and bolted.

If you happen to be a very kind person and a competent rider, but your young horse decides to have a bucking fit at a show and someone snaps a photo of you pulling on your reins and posts it on social media with disparaging comments, does this then make you an unkind, non-compassionate rider? No, of course not. You did your best in a testy moment, and the next thing you know, you are subjected to hateful comments in a Facebook group. Everyone else thinks they’re being compassionate with the horse because he’s being pulled on, not knowing what might have happened in the split second before the photo was taken, or the moments that followed. And no, this is not compassion. Remember, compassion is putting yourself in that saddle, in that moment. It’s not about feeling sorry for the horse and trashing the rider. Who, in fact, may truly be a kind and benevolent rider.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’d like everyone to consider the basis of what makes a kinder rider, and we’ll just sneak in the core of the 25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation. We don’t need to say it, we’ll just do it.

Take a few moments and some deep breaths when you feel the need to criticize another rider or horseman. Do the same before you engage with your horse to ensure you are calm, quiet, and thinking clearly. Examine yourself and your connection to the horses you work with. Certainly, there is no book, DVD, author, or online training program that is going to encourage you to be outright unkind and cruel to your horse (although if anybody comes across anything that promotes the deliberate causation of pain to animals, action should be taken with appropriate authorities). The big problem we have in the equine industry right now is a disconnect from the fundamental training principles that are first of all concerned with the soundness of the horse and his ability to perform tasks required by the trainer/handler.

woman riding horse

Photo by Laila Klinsmann on Pexels.com

The second issue is the misunderstanding of biomechanics and the progressive development of the musculoskeletal system of the horse that is tasked with working with humans in any capacity. Too many trainers are missing the years of correct training of the rider before they are able to transfer that knowledge to the education of a horse. Even horses working at liberty are subject to these principles, as they are required to maneuver through various gaits, obstacles, school figures and other unnatural exercises that may overtax tendons, ligaments and muscles.

A kinder rider knows that they need the basics of good equitation that will provide them with an independent seat, quiet hands, and correct application of the aids. It doesn’t matter if you ride bitless or show jumpers. You can’t replace the foregoing with anything else.

A kinder rider continues their education in their chosen discipline, always seeking to further understand the needs of their horses, and developing the ability to know when they can proceed with the horse’s training, and when they need to back off.

A kinder rider knows that not everyone has perfect moments with horses at all times. Even the nicest horses can be out-of-sorts, especially if something hurts. It is important to realize that even horses trained with zero pressure can injure themselves. They’re made of the same soft tissue, bone, and other biological components as we are.

A kinder rider enjoys the success of others and seeks out the experts who seem to have a history of keeping horses sound and content, even competing well in the show ring for many years. Horses that have been overworked, beaten, or poorly trained will show it. Sooner or later, even the most stoic ones will break down and expose the rider or trainer for their bad handling.

A kinder rider encourages others, especially youth, to follow their heart when it comes to engaging with horses. If a child wants to jump their pony, find them a pony who loves to jump and ensure that they are trained under the supervision of a benevolent trainer. If the child announces that they no longer wish to jump or ride, allow them to bow out with grace. Same with other disciplines. If the trainer is mean, insulting, never seems happy, please go somewhere else. Even if they produce the desired results and ribbons, everyone will suffer at some level.

A kinder rider is compassionate. There. I said it anyway. If you want to be stealth about “compassion,” I think kindness will suffice. And I think you’ll experience some pretty good results.

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* The Five Freedoms is a core concept in animal welfare that originated in a UK government report in 1965 and was then refined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. It states that an animal’s primary welfare needs can be met by safeguarding the following five freedoms:

 1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
2.Freedom from Discomfort by providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
5.Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Read more at: https://www.humanecanada.ca/five_freedoms_of_animal_welfare

__________________________

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 58 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance since 2002. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and EFT tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, an internationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Whalsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  

Susan Gordon website

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The Riding Lesson

As trainers, we’ve all been there in the decision-making process. And really, those of us who ride are always training (or, sometimes un-training) our horses to do “something.” At a professional standard though, we have many more questions to ask ourselves when trying to provide the best option for our mounts, and our clients. At all levels, it is typically the horse himself who provides us with the most wisdom and profound teaching.

As with any human athlete, an equine in a high-performance discipline such as jumping, dressage, or reining, attains various periods of peaks and lows throughout the development process. On a day that the athlete feels good, all the training elements might come together for a surprisingly optimal effort, transcending even the current level of fitness. Ask any marathon runner how they feel the day of, and then after the big event!

Subsequently, the euphoria reached by the athlete, bolstered by accolades—say, for example, lots of pats and a happy rider—can manifest in painful ways the day after.

We may notice very subtle signs of trouble in our horses (see Chapter 13/Principle 13 of The Compassionate Equestrian), and in the case of being the person tasked with further development of the horse, we may choose to investigate further, attempt to push through the resistance, and possibly either pursue or slightly alter the planned session for that particular day. Our choices are best made when a focus is placed on the question we often ask in the book, “what is the most compassionate choice I can make for this horse, right now?”

Maybe your horse was enthusiastic about entering the arena yesterday, but today he stops before the gate, even taking a step backwards. We ignore the whisper of the horse’s body language, and urge him forward. Perhaps he trots over a few small cross-rails with ease, then suddenly spooks at a larger coop he scaled effortlessly the day before. Or was it really effortless? Did his rider forget about the stumble he took upon landing? He feels sound enough…but why the uncharacteristic spook? Dismiss and trot on, or, get off and begin the search for possible “hot spots” on tendons, or testing for trigger points along the spinal column? Do we return to the barn and contact our veterinarian or farrier?

Oh yes, it’s very easy to get caught up in our minds and try to “fix” our horse’s problems based on our own understanding of what might be wrong in the moment. What part of ourselves is speaking at this point? We remind ourself…where does compassion begin? The heart. Why do we practice mindfulness? To learn to “see” from the heart, and trust the subtle signals that are trying to override the noise from our head. It is the best chance we can give our horses, and ultimately, the most compassionate choice.

Co-blogger Melissa Deal has once again shared a very important aspect of our riding lessons. That is, the one taught to us by our horse. Thank you Melissa and your beautiful, wise, Eclipse!

As always, enjoy the read 🙂

Susan

 

Ali&I

Susan and Ali

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Eclipse takes his readership very seriously and though we both agreed that the following story needed to be shared, he declined in writing it as he’s a bit embarrassed. I assured him that shame has no place in his life, but he insisted on my writing it just the same. I am afraid that I am not nearly as humorous as he but I do hope that you will enjoy this excerpt from his adventures.

The Riding Lesson by Eclipse Deal’s mom

Yesterday, I rode Eclipse, a sensitive and affectionate horse that I am training. It was likely the best ride of this horse’s career! Eclipse was attentive, responsive, giving and accurate. He practically floated through the warm up and performed the more difficult movements with alot more ease than expected. He and I seemed connected at the deepest level. My wish was his instant act, as if he could read my mind. What more could a rider ask? My satisfaction with the second level performance offered by this first level horse was a true gift. My heart swelled with our success.

Today, a lovely day, promised an azure sky and warm sunny rays that were perfect for riding. Eclipse’s coat reflected the sunlight like a polished penny. I got on completely without expectation and no plan. I knew better than to try to repeat yesterday’s performance. It’s akin to trying to re-achieve nirvana. Here’s the story of our ride. I can only hope that relaying it will imprint the life/riding lesson in my mind and give you some forage for thought as well.

The horse seemed even more relaxed than normal in grooming and tacking today. The mounting block was relocated this morning for the first time since we moved to this farm. No problem. Eclipse walked to the block when called, positioned himself neatly and was ready to pick me up-something most horses haven’t a clue about doing. He did this despite the cows nearby, of whom he used to be deathly afraid. My leg was about to contact the far side of the saddle when I realized, no helmet. My hand signaled a request for him to stay, normally not an issue. I realize this behavior may not be status quo for everyone, but it is for him. Once inside the tack room, my eyes rested on the helmet. While I was taking it off its hook, through the window, I watched as he snuck a few steps towards the cow pasture next door.  When my “No” fell on his ears, I stifled a snicker. Eclipse’s hooves hurried obediently across the brick red pine straw back to the block. He presented promptly for mounting reminding me of a kid caught in the cookie jar.

Once settled in the tack I queried, “You want to see the cattle today?” (Yes, I am a lunatic who converses with animals out loud.) I gave him the buckle and a breath of leg so he had freedom to do as he pleased. Picture an elegant bright chestnut dressage horse marching the 100 foot distance from the mounting block to the rusty wire cow pasture fence. He was on a mission. When the fence blocked his access to the once scary and “now oh so interesting neighbors,” his neck telescoped toward the fence that held the fuzzy cattle and their young. Time and again, Eclipse bumped it gingerly with his soft muzzle.

“No give. Bummer,” I was guessing he thought.

He used to be afraid of cattle, so I am thrilled with his obvious curiosity. After about 5 minutes, I said to Eclipse, “We can’t just stand here all day.” I gave it another five. I distinctly felt that he couldn’t fathom why we couldn’t have just stayed there all day gazing at the cows. It was clear that if he had the option, that is exactly what he would have done. I grew tired of looking at the same pointy hips and swinging tails, despite the adorable young calves napping nearby. Their curled bodies adorned the green field of grass, laced with a nearby stream, as if they were decorations.

We left the cattle. I guided him as we meandered through the trees. The thick bed of pine straw beneath us muffled his hoof beats entirely. Leaving it, we entered the field and walked about a hundred yards. A path carpeted by grass led the way to the ring. His hooves left the ground so slowly that if felt as if he had glue on his them – a sharp contrast to his carrot store walk toward the cows. Eclipse’s pace dragged as if a horse heading to the knacker man.

Maybe he was weary from the past few days of arena time? With yesterday’s lovely ride in mind, I decided to let him have an easy day. We would walk through the woods on a trail. It’s a trail Eclipse has been on a few times before. Granted, trail riding has never been his strength. But, it was very short 10 minute walk at best. I hoped he would enjoy the change of scenery.

As the arena went out of sight, he perked up entering the forest and chose a sandy lane. Good! Eclipse was brightening up a little to my relief.  We traversed a few hills. (Remember, we are in Eastern NC, so a bump in the road qualifies as a hill.), I congratulated myself on my brilliant plan. I added more leg and cuddled the bit encouraging him to reach into the contact. He was really pushing well from behind-the key to all collected and upper level work. I reminded myself how good this was for his top line etc.

Suddenly, my blue heeler pup trotting alongside uttered a growl and barks burst forth from her curled black lips. Hackles stood high at the sight of a branch ahead in the middle of the trail. I thought it hysterical to see her so serious about this limb and enjoyed the ferocious display for a couple of seconds. Clearly the branch was refuse from the dreadful hurricane Matthew. Then, I felt the horse’s back tighten beneath me. His head elevated and ears pricked. Soothing words followed soft rubs on the withers. Bridge signals and praise filled his sensitive ears as we passed the horse killing branch. We stopped, and Eclipse scarfed down his favorite treats as a reward for his bravery. I was fairly unconcerned at this point. We walked on.

Soon, I noticed that his stress level seemed to be rising faster than the post hurricane flood waters in our ditches. My concern heightened. His muscles bulged tautly beneath his coppery coat. His entire body felt as if it were on high alert. Nostrils flared like morning glories as he read the balmy morning air for signs of danger. We rounded the corner to an opening in the trees. His paddock, his buddy – another chestnut gelding- and the ring popped into view. All were familiar sights. I hoped that seeing them would calm him instantly. Instead, he spooked- big without unseating me – barely. I found myself grateful to still be in the tack when Eclipse’s feet finally stopped. At the time, I guessed it was the heeler scrambling around in the woods a few minutes earlier that set him off. Later, I recalled another big spook occurring near the same location, but it was a long while back. This event was likely a contributing factor, since horses have memories second only to elephants. I tried calming techniques and more treats. His mental and emotional states were foremost in my mind as I considered the options.  Eclipse was still a bit up emotionally so instead of completing the ride as planned, we went back to the ring. I was confident that it would help him settle since it was a place he knew well. I was sure of it.

In the arena, my entire skill set was employed. All of the techniques were kind and likely to have been effective: easy walking on a long rein, close walk work with intricate patterns and gymnastics, forward and more demanding patterns, standing and relaxing for many minutes, lots of treats and canter work (just to give you a vague idea of the gamut explored). Finally, desperate for the right choice that would bring him below threshold (the level of emotion beyond which the horse is capable of coping in any given moment), I tried getting off. He responded with a huge sigh of relief. Then we attempted his favorite in-hand exercise, Spanish walk. Two steps and he spooked, again, jumping with all four hooves catching air simultaneously. I made the most compassionate and least horse trainer like choice I could muster. We went back to the barn.

After the saddle came off, another huge sigh of relief seemed to flow from his very essence. I apologized for the decision to walk in the woods and hung my head. Normally, I don’t tie him to un-tack. Today, I did. The entire time I washed him and dressed him for turn out, his head was held high scanning the horizon. Eclipse looked toward the unknown horse eating beast that I never saw. This behavior was completely uncharacteristic for an easy work day at home. When turned out after riding, he always followed me to the gate, as if begging me to stay and play. Not today. The worried horse went straight to his run in shed and stood in the corner with a watchful eye. A significant change from the confident and capable horse I knew yesterday.

What was running through my head? As a trainer, I wanted to bring him through this emotional trauma. But, I knew for a fact that sometimes, nothing can be done to bring a horse back from being over threshold. Thoughts circled in my mind. How was this different from a horse show? I had to be able to bring him back to some semblance of normal to show and have him not be terrified. Forget showing, he needed to be able to do most anything and not be terrified purely for his own well being. Anything included standing in the pasture on a day like this one, which he currently wasn’t comfortable doing. At least at a show if I wasn’t able bring him below threshold, the option of scratching and returning to the safe haven of his stall or going home existed. Today, I found his fear of life in general wasn’t as simple to resolve as scratching a class or loading up and going home, heart breaking as it was. In these times, the most compassionate choice is to do exactly what I did: put him in the place he felt most secure and give him time to settle.

The Win

In days gone by, I might have done some horsemanship exercises, more ground work, tried harder, ridden him longer or God forbid even lounged Eclipse (aka tortured him more) and then tried to ride him again. Wisdom does come from experience, and for that I am thankful. Getting off wasn’t failure. It was the right choice.

no punishment

The Lesson Learned

My only regret today is that I didn’t realize the level of his fear earlier on and dismount sooner. He would have been better off.  I would have been safer. I am concerned that the next time I sit on Eclipse he will carry the memory of today, a fearful one. It may mean putting forth a lot of effort to cover this experience with more positive ones. No guarantee involved.

Perhaps he will remember yesterday’s blissfully harmonious ride instead! Will he be fine tomorrow or will he be traumatized? Tomorrow holds its secrets. In the meantime, I will be thinking about how I can be his refuge or at least provide one in the future if similar circumstances occur. A fearful mind is misery for horses and humans alike. It goes far beyond discomfort and delves into the realm of survival, i.e., life and death. Fortunately, being scared to death isn’t the same as dying. We will both live to ride another day.

I look forward to tomorrow. It is a gift, an opportunity, to have the chance to replace his misery with relaxation and joy.  The challenges this experience affords and the lessons it will yield are yet to be fully realized. It is a wonderful journey of discovery and a privilege of the heart, this relationship with Eclipse, the horse who shares my soul.

**

p.s. Not long after this ride, with veterinary assistance, we found that physical pain was contributing greatly to the fear Eclipse was experiencing and the behavior that ensued. Neither punishment nor additional training would have made a difference for him at the time. Sometimes the horse just isn’t capable of understanding the aids or his own physical state. Currently, I am happy to report that Eclipse is feeling much better with the aid of veterinary therapy.

Two FACES of Training

 

Once it was confirmed I was a horse-crazy young lady, my parents eventually realized there was no turning back insofar as their daughter’s intense desire to ride, train and show. Their encouragement for me to be independent and creative may have caused them more than a few moments of anxiety, but it also produced a sense of responsibility that made me aware of the need to work hard towards the goals I would set for myself. I would be given the tools, but had to find my own path to make the finished products of my desire.

My first horse was good enough for learning the basics. She was limited by her conformation and lack of formal training however, and I had had a taste of watching friends with show horses living an exciting life of competitions and equestrian skill. My idea was to sell the grade mare and purchase a young training project. I loved appaloosas and was determined to reach my goal of having a registered show horse. Fortunately or not, my parents did not know enough about horses to realize that it would be a potentially dangerous and difficult transition for a 14-year-old to go from a reliable old ranch horse to a barely-broke filly. The fortuitous part of the story is that I did not get hurt (embarrassed many times, yes), and learned an extremely valuable lesson that shaped the foundation for my career as a professional trainer.

In 1974 we essentially had two sources of information for riding education… actual teachers, and the library. We had no way to scan the world via thousands of videos, websites or blogs. My family was now living in a city where white Stetsons and cowboy boots were a common sight and almost everybody, including big business-people had something or other to do with horses. It was easy to track down a breeder of top-notch appaloosa show horses and go visit a herd of up and coming youngsters. It was like a smorgasbord of equine-delight! My beginner horse found her way back to a ranch life and I had a few hundred dollars to spend on the horse of my dreams. Mom and I visited several breeders and patiently listened while they proudly touted the pedigrees of each animal and the histories of their illustrious stallions. It was quite a learning experience and I soaked up every bit of information and advice that came my way.

My final choice was a 2-year-old filly bred at a ranch with a famous stallion and a long line of national and world championships. There were older horses for sale that were already being shown, but they were out of my price range. I didn’t want to ask my parents to pay any more as I thought they had already been quite generous. So the owners agreed to throw in the cost of starting the red roan filly under saddle as part of her purchase price. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

Susan_Missy

Susan and Missy

 

We finalized the paperwork and left her in the hands of the cowboy at the ranch. I found out upon delivery that the young man had done what so many cowboys of his era were taught to do…throw a saddle on and just ride out the bucking until the horse was too exhausted to buck any longer.

I don’t know all of the details as to what went on during those few weeks, but whatever happened during Missy’s “breaking” process, it left her frightened of men in cowboy hats, hard to catch, and forever hair-trigger with unexpected bucking fits that would be set off by such things as simply trying to mount. I did not understand at first, but the day she blew up as I was swinging a leg over the saddle, I knew something had gone terribly wrong somewhere in between the time we first saw her and the day she arrived at her new home.

Then she scared me too. I did not want to get back on. So I employed one of the other cowboys on staff at the Quarter Horse show barn we boarded her at and watched in shock as she leapt about and bucked like a champion rodeo horse with the fellow on board. Luckily he stayed in the tack and we had no further incidents of quite that amount of drama.

It was very hard for me to have to ask for help with Missy. We had a series of schooling shows at the barn, and a couple of decent trainers, primarily in Western disciplines such as reining, trail & stock horse work. I devoted myself to the correct training of this filly, studying everything I could get my hands on to learn how to make my horse as good as the other competition horses. Besides watching the seasoned show riders, I studied the popular Farnam book series on horse training and diligently read Horse and Rider Magazine. Eventually we were winning ribbons in events ranging from cattle penning to western pleasure, and later adding hunt seat to our repertoire after being influenced by the very fancy warmblood jumpers that were coming to our English schooling shows. I still had to be very vigilant and quick to respond to the remaining trauma-memory in Missy’s brain however, as the explosive reactions were always waiting just beneath the surface. I was determined my next horse would be started differently, and I would do it myself.

In 1976 that opportunity arose in the form of a gorgeous, bay, spotted appaloosa colt that was on display at an Appaloosa Horse Club Conference. From the moment I saw him, I knew he was “the one.” Once again, my parents helped me out and I put Missy up for sale to help with the yearling colt’s purchase. Juniors aren’t even allowed to show a stallion so I had to take the polite and delightful little guy in open competitions. “TC” had already earned a Grand Championship in halter classes and had been extremely well handled and socialized. He seemed to love attention and nothing frightened him.

TC at Spruce Meadows

TC at Spruce Meadows 1977

 

By this time, I was seriously considering becoming a professional horse trainer and the high school allowed me to develop my own course of study in that regard. I had also been studying classical horsemanship and read books like Col. Alois Podhajsky’s “My Horses My Teachers” and “The Complete Training of Horse and Rider” over and over again. Having been highly influenced by the stunning Hanoverian jumpers that came to our barn’s shows, I was extremely pleased when Spruce Meadows accepted the little appaloosa colt and myself as a boarder to their now-famous international tournament facility.

There had been issues at the other barn that made me decide to leave, including alcohol-abusing staff, and a serious hock injury Missy had sustained after being run from the pasture into the barn with the entire herd of horses as was the barn’s procedure at the end of each day. The environment was not the best in which to try to focus on a green horse’s training, and I was beginning to clue-in.

Once again, I learned a lot by watching. The master European trainers at Spruce Meadows worked with young horses there each day, and I applied their methods to my young stallion. We did ground work and showed in conformation classes for over a year, as he was too young to ride. His joy and enthusiasm for everything made every day a wonderful experience. There were no setbacks and no traumas at all in the quiet, clean, and peaceful setting. Yes, there were large shows at times and many visitors, but I learned that the environment in which a horse is started is the one that affects them throughout their lifetime. They can always be brought back to the mindset of that early training should traumatizing incidents occur later in their life. It doesn’t seem to work out so well the other way around, as I found out the hard way with Missy.

TC was very bright and learned voice commands, enabling free-longeing at the walk, trot and canter in both directions, as well as liberty play that we both had a lot of fun with. I started him with care, introducing a saddle and bridle with a rubber snaffle. Each phase progressed into the next and by the time I got on his back, he was so well schooled that all he had to do was learn to balance with my weight.

Even as a stallion I was able to take him into a crowded show arena and he was never out of the ribbons. In effect, TC was my “proof of thesis” that there was a huge difference in the behaviors of a “rough-broke” horse versus one that was conscientiously started under saddle following a careful protocol of ground work adhering to classical methods that include development of the gaits prior to the horse being mounted. We not only had a tremendous relationship, but we also had the benefit of correct athletic training that set this horse up for a long and useful career.

Generally you would think a stallion would be far more difficult than a mare to handle in stressful situations. In the case of my two young horses, whose histories I knew from the beginnings of their training, the opposite was true. It was entirely their environment and process of how they were started under saddle that seemed to be the most prominent differential. What happened to the mind of the filly versus the mind of the colt?

I believe the FACES acronym by Dr. Dan Siegel can be extrapolated to traumatized horses. It stands for:

Flexible

Adaptive

Coherent

Energized

Stable

http://www.nicabm.com/treatingtrauma2014/a1-transcript-sample/?del=11.16.14LTsampleemailfree

Before we get to the details of how old a person (replace “person” with “horse” in our case) is or what kind of trauma it is or if the trauma is acute, one time only, or repeated or what adaptive mechanisms were in place before the traumatic event happened – and these are all absolutely crucial elements to answer your question, “What is happening in the brain?” – there’s a more global statement to make.

 “Trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.”

And that global statement, as far as my reading of the research literature on trauma and the brain, is that trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.

 Brain functioning will stop being flexible – it will become inflexible.

The brain will stop being adaptive – it will become maladaptive.

Instead of being coherent, it will be incoherent.

Instead of being energized, it could be depleted or excessively aroused – not functioning with an optimal amount of energy.

 “Re-integration is what repairs the brain.”

In terms of stability, it can have a strange instability – either repeating patterns that are recurrently dysfunctional, which from the outside looks stable, but the “stability” is recurrent dysfunction. (We use the word stability to describe the healthy way in which this system has equilibrium.)

 All of that is the most global thing we can say about trauma, but there’s also this: re-integration is what repairs the brain.

 So, we really need to ask specific questions: what was the context in which the trauma happened, at what time did it happen – what was the developmental framework – and what was this person like before the event?

 Trauma will affect the specifics of the brain depending on all of those factors.

     This isn’t meant to anthropomorphize a horse, which can lead to definitive inaccuracies in determining the cause of a horse’s behaviors, but rather to compare the results of trauma in a human brain to that of trauma in the equine brain. In my experiences with many traumatized horses subsequent to the appaloosa filly, I am finding that this newer research into the effects of trauma on the human brain is producing more similarities than differences in regards to horses. If so, then the reintegration process of repair should also work for horses.

Part of the human issue in working with a traumatized horse is also what happens if we are in the presence of a person with trauma…we tend to dissociate and stop listening to their stories. We don’t want to feel their pain or experience it for ourselves. I have seen that response in humans who ignore their horse’s distress signals, which can sometimes be very subtle. The rider, by insisting that the horse engage in an enjoyable experience by the rider’s standards, but perhaps not at all enjoyable or comfortable in the horse’s mind, can lead to even more trauma and further distress or pain for that horse.

For both horses and humans, a separation from a strong social connection can often be found at the root of trauma issues. There is a sense of a loss of safety, which in a herd situation is especially critical to wellbeing.

How much of that dissociation from a traumatized horse is related to our own traumas and subconscious desires to shut them out? Can you see how having self-compassion and bringing ourselves into awareness would also be of benefit to the horse?

It doesn’t mean we turn around and completely spoil a horse or let it get away with behaviors that may result from trauma. It means we are compassionate, consistent, and stable enough in our approaches that we create a safe space for the horse, while respecting the fact that it is still an animal.

Let’s say we could return Missy to her 2-year-old self and start her all over again. She wasn’t a bad horse. She actually had a wonderful disposition. It wasn’t her fault that she was quickly turned into a traumatized horse. Had the training been reversed between her and TC, I am quite certain the outcomes would have been very different for each of them.

How did their lives pan out? Well, Missy eventually sold to some out of town people that sent an experienced rider to try her. The fellow rode her well and she behaved perfectly. Thinking we had gotten past the reactive issues, I thought she was on her way to a good home. Months later, I called the new owners to find out how things were going and was completely dismayed at their anger…she had begun to buck them off as something had triggered her old traumatized brain. They invited me to come and ride her, but I was only 16 and I was not going to drag my mom into that situation either! I suggested they get a professional trainer. I have no idea how Missy’s life went after that.

TC was eventually gelded and was winning in the dressage and hunter arenas against big, fancy warmbloods and thoroughbreds. I leased him to an amateur who had a great time showing him, then finally sold him to a lesson barn. He lived out his years playing with ponies, retaining a sense of humor, and teaching countless numbers of children to ride and show. I visited him every year and found him healthy and happy. I was told the students fought over who would get to ride him in the shows because they were pretty much guaranteed a top placing on him. He finally died of colic at the age of 26, on the day of his last show.

I knew these two horses taught me a lot, but have not realized the full scope of those lessons until writing The Compassionate Equestrian and bringing in more of the neuroscience. Dr. Schoen has been extremely influential in this regard with his studies and practices of contemplative neuroscience and exercises in mindfulness and awareness that are featured in the book.

It has become quite clear that while horses can help people a lot with issues in psychology via Equine Assisted Learning, we also need to be aware that it goes in both directions. We, as compassionate equestrians, accept that we are responsible for the conditioning and training of the equine mind so as to at least give each and every horse the opportunity to live out its life with good memories of its early handling and training. It can make all the difference in the world as to how the entire lifetime of that horse will play out.

So there you have it, the face of trauma, and the face of stability. Let’s be compassionate with ourselves, with others, and our horses, continuing to evolve our hearts and minds as we move forward on a path to making this a better world for everyone.

 

Attached to That Horse?

Have you ever made a list of the attributes you’re looking for in a horse (or a relationship)?  Have you then gone to all the trouble to seek out exactly the horse or person of your dreams…and found them?  How did things turn out?

I’ve noticed something quite interesting about those “lists” over the years. My experience and observations have led to the conclusion that the more one pursues a relationship according to one’s list of “wants”, the more likely outcome is having chosen the wrong one.  Why is that?

First of all, whenever I went looking for the ideal horse, I ended up with a list of problems that I hadn’t anticipated.  For example, my off-track thoroughbred, Dusty.  I was looking for a suitable hunter-type for the 3′ amateur division.  There were several I tried out, but Dusty was the breed, color, age and temperament I was looking for.  He had been field-hunted after his racing career and presumably that meant he would be bold and safe over show-ring hunter jumps.  I chose him over an older, better-schooled, seasoned warmblood that would have actually been the better horse for me at the time.

Dusty was a problem from the get-go.  We’d only had a basic soundness exam done, which he passed at the time.  I was in a marriage to a horse trainer who was becoming difficult too.  I’d actually sold my horse trailer in order to purchase the perfect horse.  My husband’s mood swings were causing anxiety, and it was making me anxious about getting a new horse.  We were in a new barn and recently married, and a long way from my previous home with my parents.  I had no support system.  I really wanted and thought I needed that horse!

Dusty did not stay sound for long.  He had a crooked spine.  Interestingly, so do I.  He had anxiety attacks and purposely fell down on concrete flooring.  I was in an increasing state of anxiety at the time.  I could probably analyze every detail of my relationship with Dusty and find some way to relate his issues to my own.  He was like a mirror for my own problems.  With horses, as with people, it would probably be a valuable exercise if we realized the mirroring effect at the time, but usually we don’t.

That was over 30 years ago.  I learned to stop looking for horses after that and just let them show up in my life.  The ones that literally  “dropped into my lap” were much better overall.  The key?  I had to let go of the attachment to my list of what I wanted.  I didn’t realize the amount of suffering those attachments would cause.  Looking back, and knowing what I know now, the lessons were obvious.

I’ve had so many clients also make the wrong choice of horse.  Often against my better advice.  I don’t take commissions on sales horses as most trainers do so it’s not like my suggestions were related to money.  My preference was to see the right rider on the right horse, especially given my prior experience.  People still purchased the wrong horse, probably for reasons similar to why I bought Dusty.  You don’t even realize what’s happening or why.

Razzberry Zam.  An off-track thoroughbred who "dropped into my lap" as a sales project.  One of the most wonderful horses I've ever had the opportunity to ride.  So wonderful, in fact, he sold quickly.  His buyer was the perfect owner and a massage therapist to boot.  Love, compassion and no attachment.  I felt it with this horse and although sad to see him go, it seemed like the gratitude with which we approached each other had a most beneficial outcome for us both.

Razzberry Zam. An off-track thoroughbred who “dropped into my lap” as a sales project. One of the most wonderful horses I’ve ever had the opportunity to ride. So wonderful, in fact, he sold quickly. His new rider was the right person for him and a massage therapist to boot. Love, compassion and no attachment. I felt it with this horse and although sad to see him go, it seemed like the gratitude with which we approached each other had a most beneficial outcome for us both.

Then I learned about non-attachment.  Ah ha.  The “list” is all about what we’re attached to, whether it be in a person or a horse.  Buddhism teaches that attachment leads to suffering.  Yes.  I’m proof of that.  I’m sure many of you are too.  Those attributes we want so badly, or think we do, in a horse or in a relationship with another human, are exactly the attributes that will bring us suffering when things don’t turn out as we wish.

The perfect jumper goes lame.  Our perfect spouse sustains a head injury and his personality changes.  The horse ages and can no longer jump.  The husband decides he prefers a younger woman.  Are we still as excited about that horse or that person as we were when they fit our list of “wants”?  Can we have compassion for them when they no longer fulfill our desires, or if they’ve hurt our feelings?

Letting go of the attachments, especially an attachment to any outcomes, is a worthwhile practice.  The other is self-compassion… the desire to alleviate your own suffering, knowing that suffering comes from attachment.  I’ve found that letting go and living with a tremendous love and gratitude for all of life opens the door for loving and grateful relationships to return to you.

The surprise is that those who come into your life may not be anything at all like the list you’ve made.  The thoroughbred of your dreams might manifest as a scruffy little pony who needed to be rescued from somebody’s back-40, but that little pony could just end up being the best jumper you’ve ever had.

According to psychologist Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. “our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end. That is why recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship. An attachment pattern is established in early childhood attachments and continues to function as a working model for relationships in adulthood.”

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201307/how-your-attachment-style-impacts-your-relationship

So we can make note of this, and then turn to the practice of compassion and developing non-attachment:

“Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.” ~Dalai Lama

http://zenhabits.net/zen-attachment/ 

If you do go looking for a new horse (or person), my final thought on the matter is to first,  ask yourself why you want this being to come into your life.  Where are you with your self-compassion?

“When you stop trying to grasp, own, and control the world around you, you give it the freedom to fulfill you without the power to destroy you. That’s why letting go is so important: letting go is letting happiness in.”  Lori Deschene, Tiny Buddha

 

When a “Behavioral Problem” Really is Just That

In The Compassionate Equestrian Dr. Schoen and I stress repeatedly that when a horse exhibits behavioral issues, first rule out pain as the root cause.  This is especially true if there’s a change in the horse’s base personality.  Sometimes this takes more than one veterinarian’s opinion.   Diagnosis of subtle lamenesses can be difficult to pinpoint and the first sign of a problem might be the new or increasingly difficult behavior.

However, in my many 30+ years of working with all kinds of horses of varying breeds, ages, backgrounds and temperaments, there are a few quirky personalities in the crowd that are simply, well, weird.  They have legitimate behaviors that are out of the context of “normal” for most horses and sometimes the most compassionate thing to do is let them be exactly as they are.  If you can hang on, or tolerate them that is.

Sometimes you just hang on! (photo Alina Pavlova, 123rf.com)

Sometimes you just hold on!
(photo Alina Pavlova, 123rf.com)

Some of the most interesting have been the off-track thoroughbreds.  The subject of this post is one little, classic, plain bay gelding.  Nothing particularly spectacular to look at, but he had the kind of personality that made everyone look.  Kind of in the way you can’t take your eyes off the cars in a demolition derby.

His name was Earthquake.  As the story went, he was born in California during an actual earthquake.  We never did confirm whether or not this was true.  He was booted off the track in San Diego due to his “bad behavior”.  He ended up in a backyard in Phoenix that housed the other off-track thoroughbred jumpers belonging to his owners.  Besides a string of successful racehorses, they had produced some of the top amateur jumpers on the circuit.

Earthquake’s owner, Tracy, is the sister of the trainer I was working for at the time.  She told us “Quake” was almost impossible to ride on the flat.  Even with all of her experience in showing and winning at the “A” Circuit level, this little bay gelding scared her.  He would scoot out from under her, spin, leap, and generally act like a crazy horse.  She didn’t know what to do with him.

One day he was turned loose in the arena to play.  Tracy watched, somewhat stunned, while ‘Quake galloped over jump after jump all on his own, apparently inspired from watching her other horses school over fences.  So she clung through the flatwork with him and began to train him for jumper classes.

I had the task of helping her with him at his first show.  Lucky me!

I always maintained that somebody had to be the “entertainment of the day” at a horse show and frequently it was our barn.  Tracy’s brother was an excellent, caring horseman and would never consider drugging a horse to calm it down or make it easier to ride.  He just quietly rode whatever was underneath him in the moment, and so did his sister.

Taking thoroughbreds from the track to their first few shows is always a wild card.  ‘Quake was at least consistent with his quirky behavior.  I watched the crowded warm-up arena from the barns and it was easy to spot him.  That would be the horse and rider leaping above all the others, unrelated to where the warmup jumps were placed.

He was so excited to go in the show ring for his rounds, he couldn’t be contained.  He would paw, stretch, almost drop himself to the ground, spin, leap, and spook other horses at the in-gate.   Tracy hung on.  Then he would go in the arena, focus, clear every jump, and won almost every class he was entered in.  He was phenomenal.  Just impossible outside of the jumper ring!

He got better at his routine as he began to get the hang of showing.

I had to tack him up before one of the classes and it was exhausting.  He spun around in the stall.  He couldn’t stay still for a second.  I even tried pressing on an acupressure point on the coronary band, in the center of a front hoof.  It actually seemed to work, much to my relief.  He calmed down and I finished getting him saddled for his class.

Another day, and another class.  We got him tacked up and Tracy left him tied in his stall to go walk the course.  ‘Quake knew where she was going and he was apparently upset that he wasn’t going to the jumper ring with her.  I went in the tack room for a moment when I heard a loud crash from ‘Quake’s stall.  Mortified, I saw that he’d somehow jumped over the stall guard while still tied to the inside of the stall.  I have no idea how he could have maneuvered his body in such a way through a small opening and over the barrier.  Luckily he was unhurt in his desperation to follow his rider to the arena.

All you can do with that kind of enthusiasm is support it and hope the horse connects with the right rider and the right activity to accommodate his energy and ability.  In this case, the stars lined up and what would have been an extremely difficult ride for many equestrians, turned out for the best.  Last I heard ‘Quake was winning Grand Prix classes in the southwest.

Not every horse with behavioral “quirks” is lucky enough to find its way to a compassionate, competent owner that has the patience to simply let him “be” and allow the talent to shine through.  If ‘Quake had been punished for his leaping and spinning who knows what kind of a different horse he may have turned into.  Most likely not such an enthusiastic jumper who seemed completely enamoured with his owner.

If you have been able to rule out pain as the cause of your horse’s “behavior problem” and have determined he’s just of the personality type to be the way he is, then kudos to you for your compassion and understanding.  In my mind, I can see the happy little grins on all those clownish horses out there whose joy for life just can’t be constrained.

 

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The Compassionate Equestrian is pleased to be affiliated with the International Charter For Compassion’s new Sector on the Environment

For information about the Charter for Compassion, and the upcoming Compassion Relays, click on the following link:

http://compassiongames.org/compassion-relays/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Just” a Trail Horse

 

Many times when I’ve asked people about their horses they’ll say, almost apologetically, “oh, he’s just a trail horse”.  It’s as though their horse isn’t important enough for those of us who made a career with show horses to acknowledge as being relevant.  Or that it doesn’t require any special breeding or talent to be a trail horse.

Well, in the Principles of Compassionate Equitation, we see equality in all horses, just as we do all sentient beings.  They were given a life, just as we were, and all are subject to suffering, just as all humans are.  Everyone deserves the same amount of compassion, no matter who or what they are, or what they do.  Including trail horses :).

Recently I had the opportunity to spend time in one of my favourite places, Sedona, Arizona, on the back of a sweet, reliable trail horse who is as careful and kind as they come.

Shadow

Shadow

This is significant because my past experience with horses on trails has not always been so favourable.  My first horse, White Cloud, was a ranch horse.  When we moved to the suburbs of a large city, I had to ride along busy roadways to reach the trail system.  I was only twelve at the time and didn’t know better.  I thought that since the stocky white mare was so good on country trails, nothing would bother her on busier roads or trails either.  How wrong I was!

I was lucky we weren’t hit by a car.  We held up traffic a few times while Cloudy panicked at the sound of loud, fast vehicles passing and spooked by throwing herself into reverse.  As the area we lived in was lined with large ditches, her behaviour was quite disconcerting, not to mention dangerous.  Her tension translated into my tension and I was forever nervous about riding horses along busy roads after that.  I’ve never really gotten over it.

When we moved again, Cloudy was sold to a rancher and lived out the remainder of her life in a happy place.

The next horse to come my way was a very young, barely broke (in fact, badly-broke) appaloosa filly.  She was also born and raised on a large ranch and had no concept of behaving on multi-use trails or in traffic.  I really tried to overcome my fears and hers as I still enjoyed a gallop across a hay field or a pleasant trail ride down to the river, which required some riding along roads to get there.

Miss Demeanor, appropriately named, was one “incident” after the other.  I was still in my early teens and learning about training horses.  Determined, I kept taking her on trail rides, hoping for improvement.  One day she managed to thoroughly embarrass me on a group ride by running backwards down a steep hill until she finally backed into a tree, even with the reins thrown at her.  Then she scared herself and scooted forwards, spooking some of the other horses who had gone ahead.  I just seemed destined to not ever have a pleasant trail ride!

Trail running!

Trail running!

One day I was finally brave enough to ride “Missy” the few miles down to a beautiful spot by the river.  I let her take a drink out of a creek that fed into the river and in the blink of an eye, she was down and rolling in the muddy bank with me still on her.  I had to ride all the way back to the barn with one side of her plastered in mud so thick you couldn’t see her spots any longer.  I never did get all the mud out of the carved leather of my western saddle either.

I was in awe of people who could simply saddle up on a nice day, head out on the trail, and return still smiling with a happy and relaxed horse.  I had no idea why this “trail horse” thing was so elusive!

There was no problem in the show ring.  Even my spooky filly could open gates, walk over teeter-totters and tarps, drag a tire or a cow-hide, and jump a small fence.  Why didn’t that translate to the great outdoors?

Eventually I gave up on the idea of enjoyable trail riding, especially as my next horse was an appaloosa stallion, and confirmed “city boy”.  The first time I led him down a little hill he had no clue how to navigate it and promptly squatted on his hind legs and sat there in a half-rear.  I should have expected such things from my horses by now.

One day I was offered a beautiful big dappled gray warmblood gelding to ride on a charity trail event.  He was a lesson horse at the show barn I was riding at and generally very quiet.  Oh no, not on the trail however.  He spooked at… invisible trolls?  Maybe it was the shrubbery.

Finally I was married to a three-day eventing trainer and we were running a barn that was situated next to a cross-country course and thousands of acres of trails, accessible without riding along any roads.  Surely this was to be trail-riding heaven!

Sigh.  The appaloosa complained about the rocky footing.  The thoroughbred gelding pranced sideways thinking he was still a field-hunter and wouldn’t settle until after a full-out gallop. The off-track mare spooked at the cattle.  The part-Standardbred jumper bolted over the beaver-fall.  Was there anybody out there who wanted to be a nice trail horse??!!

I was starting to resign myself to having to ride in an arena forever, or continue having unusually adventurous trail experiences.  Gee, what was it like to have a safe, relaxing ride where I could drop the reins and enjoy the scenery?

The last barn I taught lessons at was a mix of many types of horses and riders, most of whom went on the rugged, rocky trails of Sedona on a regular basis.  I was still more comfortable jumping fences than going on a trail ride and stayed in the arena.

Finally, having really retired this time (it took a few tries), I thought I’d attempt trail riding again.

I know those trails from having run them on foot.  It’s very easy to twist an ankle or trip and there are many hazards on desert pathways.  Sharp cactus plants await along every edge and the rocks can roll underfoot or be as slick as ice when worn smooth by eons of erosion.  Deer or javelina can appear out of nowhere and in the warmer months there’s always the possibility of a rattlesnake coiling closely enough to do some damage.

Remembering to breathe, at first I guided Shadow, the pretty chestnut Arabian gelding, as I would in the arena, “helping” him negotiate the continually changing angles of the terrain and hoping he wouldn’t slip on any of the slick-rock.  I worked as hard as he did, staying off his back on the uphills and shifting a little rearwards on the downhill, monitoring his balance and speed.  Hoping not to annoy him, I tried to do as little as possible, telling myself he knew what he was doing.

He’d spent many more hours packing riders around these trails than I had spent riding horses on them.

Shadow was also lovely in the arena, and in fact very well bred to be a show horse too.  His gentle disposition and good training seemed to add up to his ability to be an all-around great guy.

At the end of our 3-hour ride, my reins were loose and I was letting him pick his way home, carefully stepping over boulders and not tensing up when his shoes slid on the steep downhills.  Yes, this little horse knew what he was doing alright.

What a happy day.  Now I know what it’s like to have a genuinely pleasant trail ride, with no spooking at wildlife, cars, dogs, cyclists, or loud noises.  What a special horse it takes to provide that kind of experience.  I can’t believe I had to wait so many years to enjoy such a ride.

Happy trails to all!

Happy trails to all!

I can tell you for certain that nobody ever needs to apologetically refer to their horse as “just” a trail horse.  They are a special breed unto themselves, no matter what their breeding or background, and they deserve every accolade that a top-notch show horse receives.  Trail horses also deserve the same kind of mindful care, compassion, and healthy environments as the most expensive, highly bred animals in the show-ring.  After all, horses don’t know how much we paid for them, or how much we pay for their training and board.  All they know is how they are made to feel in our presence, and you really can’t place a dollar sign on that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FORWARDS and STRAIGHT

Many years ago I was living at an FEI-level dressage barn as the assistant hunter-jumper trainer. It was a fabulous place to watch and learn from some of the world’s best and most educated riders and clinicians who came to ride, teach and show there. I’ve learned throughout my years as a professional rider that those rare horsemen who are consistently at the top of their game in the Olympic disciplines are also the quietest. They tend not to talk a lot and have dropped the egoic bravado that comes with so many trainers who are still out to prove themselves. Getting specific information out of them isn’t always easy… more likely gained by observing and the occasional politely asked question.

One day I was watching the head trainer, a soft-spoken, elegant German master rider, schooling a working student on an upper-levels horse that had been allowed by its owner to make flying lead changes incorrectly. Every other canter stride or so the student-rider would ask for a lead change and the rangy warmblood gelding would swing his haunches well off the track to the left or right. It looked awkward, and in fact, such swaying off the track results in a relatively low score in a dressage test due to the incorrectness of the movement. It also indicates a resistance in the horse and would eventually lead to unsoundness.

The trainer spoke in German – a language I don’t understand beyond a few words – and the next time the series of flying lead changes were attempted they appeared nearly perfect.

Surprised, I asked Uli, the trainer, what he said. “I told him to keep the horse straight” was his answer.

The difference a subtle change in the ride made to this horse was such a profound lesson I wished I could have had a video camera in my hand at the time as the teaching from this one apparently simple thing was quite dramatic. However, it’s the right combination of so many elements, including the keen eye and years of experience of such a trainer, plus a student who also came from the program in Europe that made the rapid change in the horse’s form look easy.

Candillo Jr, an imported Holsteiner stallion, now owned by OSJS Sporthorses of Canada.

In the classical training method the two key words that lead to a healthy, “finished” horse are deceptively complex. If it were a simple matter to ride a horse both forwards and straight, we’d all be riding relatively problem-free horses that stay as sound as possible and carry a rider without stress or discomfort.

Unfortunately, especially in North America, there are only a handful of trainers who still follow the programs of master trainers and not too many riders who have had the opportunity to sit on a horse that has reached a perpetual state of “forwards and straight”.

Horses naturally track with their shoulders closer to the rail and haunches more to the inside due to their shape. If you look at a horse from the top view, you’ll see the width of the shoulders is narrower than the hips, so it’s just a more comfortable and natural way for them to track. It also means they naturally drop an inside shoulder as they make a turn and counter-balance by shifting their heads & necks to the outside.

Running free without a rider, this is fine for the horse, as there’s nothing to upset their balance and muscular development. The moment we humans climb aboard however, we have to undertake a proper series of exercises so the horse builds up a correct athletic form and the musculature to be able to carry a rider through all of the movement we request of them.

It’s at this convergence point of “natural” vs. “training” that we seem to have broken the smooth process of the classical training pyramid as too many horses are pushed too quickly through the levels, whether they be destined for dressage, jumpers, or other show disciplines. Very few people who have the time and money to support show horses also have the patience to wait for a horse to develop correctly through lower levels.

Depending on the breed and conformation, some horses never progress out of a basic level of training, yet should still be given the opportunity to have a genuinely correct base that instills rhythm, suppleness, and a willingness to take contact with the reins.

In the “old” classical system, a horse is never punished by being ridden in reverse – i.e. pulled on or jerked by the reins – and the standard that was taught is to “correct forwards”.

This works for both exciteable and lazier types of horses, and all breeds and disciplines. Even a good western lope has to be forwards and straight and is an art unto itself. Not all horses can achieve a good lope, even the ones bred for it. Same with an extended canter for a warmblood. Not all of them will get there.

A horse that is ridden forwards, what we refer to as the “back to front” ride will develop an increased bend in the joints of the hindquarters, allowing for more freedom of the joints, which also helps keep them lubricated and healthy, and allows for the muscles of the lower back and haunches to develop “pushing power”. This is different from rushing, as that’s a balance issue.

A good illustration of the difference is to hold a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees and hold the weights with a bent arm, fairly close to your body. You feel strong and balanced. Now lean forwards a bit and hold the weights in front of you (careful – don’t get hurt!). You’ll immediately feel the stress in your back and want to take a quick step to keep your balance. Horses experience the same thing when all of their weight is carried in the forehand and not transferred to the hindquarters.

So far as straightness goes, look at a great athlete. Skier, skater, runner, etc., and notice the body symmetry. Straightness means efficiency and optimal performance. It’s no different for horses. When you ride a horse that’s been trained to go straight it’s like the difference between driving a high-performance sports car compared to an old 3/4 ton pickup truck with manual steering. Unfortunately, finding a straight horse to ride so you can experience that difference for yourself is not always an easy thing to do.

If all riders had the opportunity to learn on this type of horse, we’d have a lot more sound, rideable schoolmasters in teaching programs than we do now. Dr. Schoen treats horses repeatedly for musculoskeletal misalignment and subsequent pain that is frequently a side-effect of incorrect training methods.

I’m barely even scratching the surface here on the concept of “forwards” and “straight” as the training techniques and level of experience required to get a horse there would take up volumes of books and many years of study. Yet, out of compassion for our horses and knowing how beneficial a correctly trained horse is to the equine world, isn’t that kind of worth the time and trouble it takes to learn?