Times have changed and so should we.
Times have changed and so should we.
One of the things which struck me whenever I watched The Countess ride my horse in dressage competition; was the lack of visible aids given by the rider. She could ask the horse for a specific movement without showing any visible signal to the onlooker. Partly this was because most of the aids were applied through the seat, the inner thighs and a few through a slight resistance of the reins. It was magical for me to observe even though sadly it came home to me forcibly that the way I rode the same horse was in conflict with the way the horse should be ridden for competition. Either I would have to change my riding style or otherwise I might ruin DiDi’s chances of proceeding up the ladder of competitive affiliated dressage.
My pleasure of her eventually came from acting as her groom. After DiDi’s performance in competition, The Countess would dismount and go off to gossip with her friends and I’d take over the procedure of getting DiDi ready either for the journey home or, sometimes, for the next round in the arena,. I’d untack her; I’d wipe her down; I’d give her a soft wash around her mouth. I’d dress her with a suitable day blanket or fly sheet . I’d give her a treat or two. Then, if I sensed she was still in super hype mode, I’d walk her in hand around the lorry park, so that she could see what was going on and making so much noise. The whole process of settling her down would not be finished until eventually we had arrived back home and she had said: “Hello” to the other four horses on the yard and she had been fed and made ready for the night. However on some of these competition days, there had been a period of potential mayhem created largely by DiDi playing up.
The constant risk with her was that if she flipped at the show and went for any of the other competing horses then, she would quickly be banned for life from competition by British Dressage. With the benefit of hindsight and further knowledge, I eventually surmised that her occasional bad behaviour towards other horses could have been caused by the, as then unsuspected, ulcers later discovered deep down in her stomach. Or perhaps I’d got it wrong. Who really knows? Maybe she was just a neurotic mare.
But DiDi’s problems weren’t to be solved by standardised positive or negative techniques. The problem was to be addressed by knowing her and recognising the clues as to when a bout of misbehaviour was imminent. Thereupon the handler had to quickly bring the horse back into a state of reasonableness. The recurring question was whether DiDi’s problem was the result of fear, sexual hormones, excitement, adrenaline, pain or whatever? Somehow I had to find the way to making her ‘calm’ and this usually meant my getting in close to her, and using my hands, my voice and my close presence to settle her down. It was on such occasions that I needed steel toe capped boots. But I had the advantage that I knew she would not want to harm me - a fact that had been proved on many occasions. She would not bite me whereas she might barge a bit and she’d wave her head about but the only serious risk to me was that she might tread on my feet. But she never did.
Dr David Servan Scbreiber writes in his book: “Healing without Freud or Prozac” that humans have two active parts of their brain - the conscious brain and the emotive brain over which we actually have very little control. It is the emotive brain, inherited at birth which controls our instinctive reactions and which largely directs our responses to situations. I believe there is a similar mechanism to be found in horses. Much of their behaviour is inherited at birth. Many of their responses are taught by the dam in the first year of life. Other fears and counter measures are learnt later in the herd or on the stable yard. We can readily see that a horse’s life is dominated by the need for food, water, shelter, safety and sex - just like we humans. Horses, dogs and even humans all seek routine and continuity.
The deciding factors in the lifestyle of a horse are health and environment. As a result horses like many animals have to come to an arrangement with the top predator in life on Earth - the human. If a horse does find a caring human then it has the chance to live to a ripe old age. The caring owner will make sure that the horse has all it needs to survive. The horse is not stupid, and with time it comes to know which side of its bread is buttered, just like my dog knows it is me who gives him the leftovers from my lunch plate and not my wife.
I accept that a damaged or broken horse calls for different techniques. Somehow that horse must be rehabilitated. The obvious damage has to be repaired; the deeper breakages have to be healed; and the harmful memories must be soothed and pushed, if not erased, to the back of the horse’s mind. Horses have long memories. The healing process calls for knowledge, patience, time and perseverance in the human carer. Not many humans have the skills required.
My DiDi knew exactly what to do to please her trainer/rider The Countess. The horse had learned through regular daily training by rote, how to respond to a squeeze of a thigh muscle. DiDi also knew that when she was in my care, that I’d see to her needs which she herself could not meet without my help. She couldn’t speak, but she could talk by non verbal communication, so long as I had learned how to interpret the tell tale signs such as the wiggle of an ear, a nudge of the muzzle, a look, a movement of the neck, a wave of the tail, a strike on the ground of the foot, etc, etc She had come to expect the regular routines of the day and she waited for me to perform my part in them. That was the bond formed between two animal species which bound us together
And ‘No‘, she would never have been asked to jump a four foot fence, nor a six foot tall hedge, neither should she be asked to race against a bolting group of super hyped Thorobreds. Nor would she be asked to charge against a gun emplacement; nor pull around the streets of London, a cart carrying crates of bottled milk. Time has moved on.
Nowadays horses are firmly established as companions in leisure. It is time we humans re-examined from scratch how we communicate with such unique beasts. The horse undoubtedly has a brain just as we have, but it can‘t speak our language. If only horses could speak, then co-existing in harmony with them would be so much easier. As a beginning we should give the animal the respect and the understanding it deserves. Also we, the casual riders, should re-examine the ideas passed down by the cavalry officer, the hunt master, the race horse trainer, the professional show jumper and the old fashioned horse dealer. We should ask ourselves if their aims and objectives, all forged in a byegone era, are in harmony with the thoughts of the riders and amateur trainers of today?
I could once chastise my horse with my tone of voice, as do I chastise from time to time my dog of today. I never needed a crop to chastise DiDi and anyway to use one on her would have been counter productive. So long as she understood what I was asking of her, the chances were invariably that she would do it. Responding to her demands by sign language, was far more of a challenge to me.
My horses certainly react to my tone of voice - their faces light up when I tell then they're 'good girls' but they look really ashamed when they get chastised
I'm sure a lot depends on how much time you spend with them.
If they get all they need from the 'herd' then they ask for less from us humans, the more they rely on us the more responsive they become - just like dogs really
The police horses, cavalry horses & work horses spend most of their time around the people who rely on them to do what's right.
In what way do you want to re-examine how we communicate with horses? and what parts of the old ways are you referring to, because I think that the subtle communication between a horse and owner is not one that is made up of set rules.
I take the opposite tack. Times have changed, but I'm not sure we should have. I'm reminded of the rancher friend who told me there was nothing wrong with Mia that couldn't be solved by a 50 mile ride. I admitted I wasn't physically up to a 50 mile ride. He grinned and admitted that, pushing 60, neither is he. "But if my sons are ever in this part of the country..."
He also told me that Trooper's sire was a stallion who didn't get the kinks out of him until the first 10-15 miles were behind him.
I cannot speak to Didi's needs, since I never met her. But my spooky, flighty mare needed me to become a good enough rider to push her, not to the point of blind panic, but to the point of significant mental discomfort. It is an ongoing process. She is still not an acceptable trail horse by herself. Not even close. There again, the biggest fault she suffers from is a rider who lacks complete confidence and a willingness to push her to go out for hours.
But what she needs is not more 'understanding', but more 'so what?'. She needs self-confidence, but that isn't taught in an arena. I'm not sure it can be taught well by an aging, inexperienced rider, although I'm all she has. If Didi's problems were caused by physical pain, then there wasn't a training solution. But most of the recreational horses I see with problems are the ones without enough sweaty blankets.
Like many other modern recreational riders, my challenges are time, places safe to work a horse outside the arena, and my own [lack of] skill. What the horse riding world may need to consider is if it is fair to a horse to NOT get lots of sweaty blankets, and to live in an environment where a 20 mile ride is unheard of for many.
For most of my adult life, I handled the stress of work by jogging 3-5 miles a day. If I had lived as confined as many recreational horses, I would have exploded too!
If a horse is really upset, soothing them by stepping in close to them and calming them by petting them might not be what a horse like that really needs. I have seen my trainer work with horses that are very upset, and she does not go over and talk to them in a soothing voice. That might be a part of what she does, but that sort of "noise"is really for the human's benefit in that it helps us to to calm ourselves, and thus stay calm in our dealings with the horse.
She helps the horse "feel" better by giving it something more important to think about, by getting the horse to look to her for stability. If you can get that by talking and soothing via voice, that is great, but for a hrose that is so worried that he doesnt' really even "see" you anymore and is walking all over you while he moves around in a panic, I think that voice/hand come off almost as "begging" the horse to pay attention.
I am not advocating smacking or hurting in any way. only that if the horse is really worried, they might NEED to move their feet, and what the human can do is have the horse move in the way that the horse comes to realize the human is moving his feet. next he comes to realize that he doesn't HAVE to move his feet if he pays attention to the human. Then he might be ready to hear some calming sounds, or be petted, but only after he is stopped and looking straight down the leadline at the human being, because he is giving you his attention, so your voice or hands will be "heard", instead of just background chatter while he is busy fleeing from some thing he is worried about.
I rode one horse in my years of training and riding like your DiDi. He was.. at times.. difficult.. and as a lesson horse he had a lot of riders doing a lot wrong on him. I rode him in lessons to satisfy my Physical Education requirement to graduate college.
One day he was assigned to me.. and from then on he was always assigned to me. On this horse I would think what I wanted to do.. and we did it. It was like being a centaur. One Tempe changes? Like skipping.. and that easy. Shoulder in? Shoulder out? Half Pass? Looked and felt like the smoothest glass.
Everything on this horse was like that. Jumping was like that. Dressage was like that. Riding in formation was like that. No effort.. no visible aids.. just thought it and did it.
And it was that amazing. He made me look the master I do not believe I was. He taught me what I needed to teach every horse I rode after that.
And I certainly tried.
BTW I do not believe I ever said a single word to him. In fact.. I am sure I never did.
Elana. It seems that you found your soul mate in a horse. Which is exactly why I believe that for some folks who are lucky enough to find such a partnership, a bonding with a horse is the fundamental reason for getting into horse riding.
As for talking - well what's the point? The horse can't understand a word you have said and for a time the horse will be wondering why you had made a series of funny noises. Now rub the horse's top line - or give his lower neck a stroke - then he'll come to translate your touch as "thank you".
I always reckoned that my horse recognised me by my smell and the way I walked - and he/she confirmed who I was by the way I sat in the saddle.
Tiny, this horse business is very individual. I accept whole heartedly that what used to work for me and DiDi would not necessarily work for other riders.
A trainer comes in performs a session and then goes away for a week or so.
The owner turns up more regularly sometimes even twice a day.
When, unexpectedly, the hunt and the followers went past the yard gate, DiDI would freak out and rush about. Then I had to stand clear - nothing I could do would calm her down - until she stopped running about. Of course if I had known the hunt and its followers were coming then I'd have put her in the bottom paddock as far away as possible.
But the dressage competition area was different, she'd be restless but not freaked out as with the hunt. At the competition, walking her around the horse boxes, stopping for an occasional chat - that was conditioning her to meet with the community.
With the hunt I'd lost her completely, but with the dressage yard she would still listen and respond to me.
BSMS, as I wrote the other day - horses respond to their environment.
Michael Peace's book, "The 100% horse", discusses ideas of how to condition a horse to be a "go anywhere, do anything, horse". He is describing pretty much how the British Horse Police train their mounts. Mind you they pay a fortune for their horses which are only taken on after a detailed trial of their suitability for crowd control work in cities.
Interesting enough, BSMS and tinyliny, your points were made at my Thursday lesson.
Dusk was setting in. The outdoor dressage ring had enough ambient light for me to feel comfortable (I don't do well in low light settings, visually). The air was still. The footing safe.
We were at the end of the lesson and my trainer was going over a few things and Sam fixed on something beyond the end of the ring; hell, it could have been the end of the field, the end of the neighbor's 5 acres, the end of the county line.
Ears straight up. Body tense.
we didn't soothe him and my lesson had to continue for almost another 10 minutes while I worked him in circles at a fast walk until the very moment when he stopped thinking about the field and started listening to me and his body relaxed. (I LOVE doing circles with a horse whose head is screwed in the opposite direction he is going.) I never said a single word to him. I rode deep in the seat with a purposeful body tone. Maybe my butt was yelling at thim, but not a single word came out of my mouth.
My position has always been with my dogs and now my horse, I don't comfort fear. I comfort pain. I praise and comfort good and expected behavior. But fear (and heaven forbid anger-like behaivors) are dealt with a non-physical firmness.
Sam does not yet "know" voice and tone. He is really oblivious to it still so my actions are my tone. My dogs do understand tone inflection. When they are acting nervous or anxious at their surroundings, they get a non-nonsence quit or leave it.
in my opinion, animals are much more one-dimensional in that regard. Your soothing voice and touch is regarded as praise. the dog/horse shows fear and you are praising them. reinforcing that they guessed right. it's scary.
Ending my lesson while sam was tense of the frightful woozle 2 miles away would have rewarded him. (he was practically froze at whatever he imagined). working him to the point of mental refocus was, in my opinion, the right thing to do.
(I was sooooo ready for that lesson to end on time.) :wink:
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