Jul 122013
 

As I was sitting outside this morning, enjoying the sun, I watched two workers relaying a pavement. After a while I realised there are many similarities between laying down a pavement and training a horse. Every tile is part of the whole, if you leave one out there will forever be a hole, disrupting the connection between both ends. You need some necessary skill and knowledge, familiarity with the technique, to lay an exceptional pavement, but learning by yourself is not out of the question, if your eyes and heart are willing to see your mistakes. Sometimes you might have to go back and repair your error, sometimes you might have to start over from where your pavement was still sound. Just like a tile laying only slightly askew, it might be hard to locate your mistake by sight, but you will feel its presence every time you walk over the path. Training a horse is a process, it takes time and effort, you can’t miss a step and you need to evaluate regularly. Others can help you see the things that need improvement, so don’t turn them away, but remember that perfection is is just a state of mind, and that you can only reach perfection in your own eyes.

20130712-160058.jpgThis view of training as a process, building blocks and making connections, is not a new one. Take a look at the Scala of dressage, of which I prefer the version put into a pyramid form. The rider is added at the bottom, because the rider, being the worker, controls the whole process and carries the responsibility of completing every step and reaching the top. After all riding a horse is a partnership, equal parts of human and horse, so why should the Skala concern only the horse?

Apart from the rider, relaxation is for me the first and foremost step in training. Lack of relaxation is not only signified by tension or nervousness, but also by a certain amount of resistance against being manipulated by the rider. Relaxation means the horse is willing to let go, both in his body and his mind. This is achieved with trust and feel, force will only create submission, never true relaxation. This is where the relationship between horse and rider stands or falls.

Rhythm, or tact, is the basis of the horse’s movement. We all know walk should be four beat, trot two and canter three, but can we feel the difference? Can you help your horse achieve this purity of gaits? Rhythm comes naturally to a horse in freedom, which can easily be messed up by adding a rider on top. Rhythm is for me not only the beat of the gait, but the horse being able and allowed to move at his own natural potential, which means the rider should not get in the way with his own riding, or force the horse to move in an unnatural way.

Contact is not just the tension in a leather strap between the horse’s mouth/nose and the rider’s hands. Contact is the connection between rider and horse, which includes all physical, verbal and ‘mental’ cues, with understanding coming from both. A horse shouldn’t be afraid to take up this contact, and the human should let go of everything standing in his way to achieve it.

Impulsion is both the power and strength of the horse’s body, specifically hindquarters, achieved by correct conditioning, and the horse’s willingness to lend all this power to his rider. Impulsion is what the rider feels in his hands when the horse’s movement flows from back to front without blockages.

I think the term straightness would be better served by balance. As a horse, like every living being, will keep his own preferences for one side or the other, I don’t think any horse can be truly straight. However, the horse can be brought into balance, with assistance from the rider and his acknowledgement of these preferences. Balance is what keeps the horse healthy, an even loading of each foot, each bone, tendon and muscle, will ensure there is no overexertion of either. Balance is physical balance of the horse, but also balance in his training and a resulting balance in his mind.

Back to the original pavement. Every tile is the same size, it doesn’t matter where exactly you put each of them. However, small irregularities might make them serve better when placed at a particular time and place, to improve the strength of the whole. Just like that, horse training is individualized and every horse will need different things at different times. That does not mean, though, that every horse’s path won’t need to be complete and laid entire to reach the end result: collection. Ability to carry both himself and the rider in a way that doesn’t harm him.

So, let’s stop laying only stepping stones and risking the health of our horses. It is each owner’s responsibility to care for their horse’s well-being, and correct, useful training is very much a part of that.

The pyramid in this article is sourced from http://www.ridingart.com/balance.htm.

Jul 122013
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Jul 122013
 

The first question is why do we need anything other than the customary practice we’ve built up over the years? And the answer would be that many of those practices are remnants of a past that was radically different from today.
You only have to go back a little over a 100 years and the horse was still the single most important utility in human society. Large numbers of horses were used commercially, for transport and draft in and around towns and cities, requiring them to be kept locally and intensively. Large numbers of military horses were concentrated in cavalry line accommodation to allow for daily group training or immediate deployment.

Those conditions of use and the utility value of horses joined together to produce an attitude that was completely different to that of today: the following quote is from a recent book by Ann Norton Greene: By century’s end, the people driving the horses were in most cases mere employees, who thought of horses as company property. As managers demanded the hauling of larger and larger loads, the employees sometimes abused the horses to satisfy them. (1) Pretty much the whole focus of horse management during the age was how the greatest use could be made of the horse – and, once the horse is confined in a building behaviour becomes of less importance, except where it either interferes with or restricts use.

Go back further in history and we come to a time in which many horses were kept extensively by nomadic or semi nomadic peoples. Their survival required that they knew the horse in a very different way. Without fences and walls and gates your ability to manage and maintain a herd of horses for the use of your immediate or extended family depended entirely on how well you understand their behavior. Each day your primary task was to make certain the herd had sufficient feed and water, or you could expect them to voluntarily relocate! With the horses constantly moving they tended to stay far fitter and healthier, and there was far less need to protect the tough durable hoof that such movement produces. But competing stallions, geldings and mares need to be effectively managed, and in such a way that organized cavalry maneuvers can be mounted rapidly. Very little of the knowledge from this older past has trickled down, often because it was held by people with no written language – which is a great shame. There may be a lot more useful lessons to be learnt from those more distant times than from much closer history.

And so here we are at the present. We have a very different environment to that of the 1800 or 1900s. The commercial and military use of horses across the developed world has all but vanished. There is no longer the necessity for large groups of horses to be kept so close into towns and cities that they need to be managed intensively and in confinement. By contrast there are greater pressures on real estate, which, for a space hungry animal such as the horse, is a major threat. There are also developing concerns over the environment, requiring that we think about how horses fit into the larger, sustainable, picture. Plus there is the growing movement of people that want to connect with animals in a more open, respectful, practical and ethical way.
Arguably what we need is an up to date and complete philosophy suited to these present needs, rather than a mish-mash of customary practices from the past that reflect a different reality. Behavior based horse management (BBHM) is one attempt to create one.

You’ll note that the word ‘natural’ is completely absent so far – and for good reason, since the meaning is so very open to perception. For example ‘natural behaviors’ would likely refer to those found in an ethogram of a particular feral or semi-feral group – in a single, specific, environment. But whilst free expression of those behaviors has often been seen as synonymous with ‘good welfare’, the behaviors a native pony may need to carry out in the New Forest, or a brumby in the Australian outback, are not necessarily going to be the same as those of a fully domestic horse living in the suburbs of an industrial city. In each case what the horse needs is to carry out a package of behaviors that allow it to become functionally adapted to its specific environment. How natural or not those behaviors are, or by what standard they’re ‘naturalness’ might be judged is really irrelevant.

In any case for most horses it’s the human element within their environment that has by far the most powerful impact. And if the horse is going to survive in a domestic environment its ability to interact with people successfully is essential. There are behaviors that might work for feral horses but that don’t fit the majority of domestic environments. Encouraging the expression of a behavior from the ‘wild’, but that has a negative effect on the ability of the horse to function well in a domestic environment makes no good sense, no matter how ‘natural’ it might be.

BBHM operates on a principle, shared with conservationists and the organic movement (2), that what is needed is a caretaker, whose role is defined as “a human who assists animals in their daily interplay with their environment”. (3)
So the caretaker’s role is to assist the horse to adapt functionally, and fortunately horses are very adaptable creatures. Even so, there are going to be environments to which it is simply not possible for the horse to adapt, and in which it fails to function well. What makes sense in that situation is to acknowledge the reality, and move the horse out and into one where successful adaptation is possible. Across the remaining range of environments how much work the caretaker has to do will depend; in some the horses are going to need a lot of assistance to get through each day, in others far less.

So what would ‘successful adaptation’ mean? Let’s consider a horse kept primarily for riding. The horse will need to be healthy, and both physically strong and fit enough to carry the rider’s weight in comfort and safety. The horse’s senses need to be operating efficiently so that the horse is able to make decisions while being ridden that impact on rider safety. The horse needs to be well rested and in a well balanced emotional and psychological state in order to interact well with both the rider and the riding environment. Effective communication must exist between horse and rider, plus a co-operative attitude in which the horse carries out the movements that are communicated to it willingly – and for that to happen the attitude of the horse to that particular person, and really to people in general, has to be good. And obviously the adaptation should have some duration – so however the horse is kept it has to be sustainable over an extended period.

If they are to assist the horse to adapt functionally caretakers have to be able to design and manage environments that reliably produce the desired outcome. And for it to have widespread value it has to be done at a reasonable cost.

A majority of the horses that are slaughtered each year have failed to adapt in some way. Physical problems such as with feet from insufficient movement, or lower leg lameness’s from being put into work too early, allergic reactions to housing, obesity and other systemic issues from feed problems, plus the raft of psychological problems; dangerous or anti-social behavior, stereotypies, work intolerance, anxiety and depression. The aim of a philosophy like BBHM is to facilitate successful adaptation to the benefit of all involved – horse, people and the greater environment.

By Andy Beck

www.equine-behavior.com

1. Norton Greene, A. (2008) HORSES AT WORK – Harnessing Power in Industrial America. Harvard University Press.
2. Algers, B. (1990) “Naturligt beteende – ett naturligt begrepp?.” Svensk Veterinartidning.
3. Segerdahl, P. (2006) Can natural behavior be cultivated? The farm as local human/animal culture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2007) 20:167-193

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Jul 122013
 

Just checking over the site as administrator, I noticed a couple o f draft articles lurking. They actually go back a couple of years but for some reason never got to the point where the “publish” button actually got pushed! So, with profound apologies to the authors – and I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are, except one of you is Suzanne – I shall do the honours and push that button…

Jul 042013
 

Ever wondered why you should always mount from the left, lead from the left, why in sports black saddles and brown warm blood horses of a certain size are favoured? Or why people call it horse sports but wear uniforms instead of comfortable sports gear? Ever wondered where sports such as competition dressage and show jumping came from? Then read on, for you are about to find out!
Many will tell you it all started with Xenophon, the Greek war general who was the first (that we know of) to pen a dressage and horse training manual. In fact horse sports did not start there at all; they only started much later in history. You see, up to the early 19th century horses were very important for people’s everyday life. It did not really matter what one did, a horse was almost always part of everyday living and surviving. People were mostly brought up with horses and communicating and working together came rather naturally from very young age. By working together constantly, human and horse would learn to cooperate side by side, simply by trial and error. Repeat what works, get rid of what does not. What people found out many centuries ago is, that when you just sit on a horse without certain preparation this horse will soon start to function less and less. The horses started to get physical problems which of course showed up in not being able to perform up to scratch. What people also found out is that you should wait at least until 5@half; years before you start preparing for ridden work and that stallions, because of their build and stamina, were most suitable. Besides that, all the mares were needed to bring up foals; after all for safe and light communication, one needs horses of excellent social upbringing.

20130705-131012.jpg

The Friezes of the Parthenon in Athens, which I visited several times as a child, clearly show extremely collected horses on their haunches without bridle!

I imagine that horse trainers would have observed the horses in their herds and discovered what specific qualities those horses possessed that would function best under their riders. What they thus discovered was that those horses that were able to move their bodies in a certain way, were the ones who would perform best and last the longest as a riding horse. So a logical conclusion would have been to ask horses to perform these certain movements, which the best quality horses did, to see if that would improve their performance and withstand being ridden longer. Obviously, it did and the Gymnasium of the horse was born. You can read about it in Xenophon’s book ‘The Art of Horsemanship’ and many books of the so called ‘classical masters’ thereafter.

The art of war
Also, from Xenophon (and even before Kikuli) up to La Guérinière, we see that war training and horse training are interlinked, they are in fact one and the same thing. Within war it is obviously of vital importance to have outstanding communication with your horse that almost reacts to your thoughts. After all, you won’t last long in battle if you have to fight your horse as well as your opponent. Having said that, having a horse reacting to your thoughts is but a start, the next is that you have to have the horse’s thoughts as well. With that I mean that a thinking horse will also expand your lifespan. When being attacked from parts where you can not see but your horse can, would you rather have a horse who only acts on your commands, or a horse that reacts by getting away from every type of danger, whilst – mind you – keeping you on board. The ultimate war horse, called a ‘destrier’ would even protect his rider should he be slain and on the ground, by standing over him or by pulling him out of harms way by his garment.
Another example, this time of every day life. Towns were small and separated by enormous woods through which you had to travel, sometimes days on end. These woods were full of thieves, not all the likes of Robin Hood and his merry men, rest assured. So, if your horse did not want to go down some path and kept snorting and staring, it was to listen to one’s horse and choose a different path which the horse thought safe. The sum up, to have a long life you need a horse with which you have optimal communication, thatis healthy, agile and strong and that thinks! As it obviously takes time to get to this level of partnership, starting afresh with a new horse was not that evident. So the Gymnasium was designed to keep horses healthy, thinking and communicating for the many years to come. From the start of training at 5½ years preferably up to an age of 25 to 30. Still really common in places like the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, for instance.

Xenophon’s thoughts on the subject:
“But whoever would desire to have a horse serviceable for war, and at the same time of a stately and striking figure to ride, must abstain from pulling his mouth with the bit, and from spurring and whipping him; practices which some people adopt in the notion that they are setting their horses off; but they produce a quite contrary effect from that which they intend.”
“For by pulling the mouths of their horses, they blind them when they ought to see clearly before them, and they frighten them so much by spurring and striking them, that they are confused and run headlong into danger; acts which distinguish such horses as are most averse to being ridden, and as conduct themselves improperly and unbecomingly. “
“But if a rider teach his horse to go with the bridle loose, to carry his neck high, and to arch it from the head onwards, he would thus lead him to do everything in which the animal himself takes pleasure and pride.”
“That he does take pleasure in such actions, we see sufficient proof; for whenever he approaches other horses, and especially when he comes to mares, he rears his neck aloft, bends his head gallantly, throws out his legs with nimbleness, and carries his tail erect.”
“When a rider, therefore, can prompt him to assume that figure which he himself assumes when he wishes to set off his beauty, he will thus exhibit his steed as taking pride in being ridden, and having a magnificent, noble, and distinguished appearance.”

20130705-131259.jpg

This section of the Bayeux tapestry shows the battle of Hastings in 1066. The reins hang slack and often are not held at all. The front and hind legs at the same level suggests terre-a-terre.

Cannon Fodder
This was all fine in man-to-man battle until in the early nineteenth century when warfare changed. Heavy artillery was the new deal and all these horses that were brought up with such care and had so many years of careful training died by the masses. Years of work gone in minutes. Everything changed there and then: it was painfully clear this era of intelligent horse training was over. There was no time for long training and above all, it was not needed! For horses would not come back from the battlefield and if they did, they would often only be good as meat to feed the soldiers. So, to save time they now started the training with foals of 2½ years. Not much preparation at all, just saddle on, lunge and rider on, done. Of course, this would destroy any horse in due time, but who cared? The horse was not meant to last. An other advantage is that a young child of 2½ is much easier to bully around and brainwash than a 5½ year old agile stallion. After all, galloping towards cannon fire does not seem like and intelligent thing to do, and it isn’t. So intelligent, self-preserving horses were not a choice; on the contrary! Now horses were needed that did not think for themselves and complied with every order, no matter how stupid or dangerous. For this purpose the army needed horses that did not offer any objections whatsoever, which became the new purpose of training. Horses who acted like machines to all commands. To reach this goal, stallions were no longer used. Geldings started at an early age, 1½ to 2 years. Mares were used as well. There was a vast demand for horses now as they did not last long anymore. The social upbringing of horses was no longer valued so much, so the foals were taken away from their mother at 6 months as opposed to staying in the herd for years as was common in the past. The training now had one prime directive: complete and utter obedience. Or in other words, to train cannon fodder. To get that obedience it was vital to break any resistance (thus thinking in fact) by a constant demand for precisely that which the horse did not want to do. For instance, a horse did not want to canter, then the riding soldier was commanded to use violence by putting spur and whip to the horse until it cantered and then keep it cantering for as long as the rider wanted. Of course the obvious reason for a horse not to canter would be that his body was not strong, supple and straight enough, nor mature. But again, that did not matter anymore. A horse spooked somewhere? Beat him towards that spot. This was all just preparing for artillery warfare. Or in short, training cannon fodder.

20130705-131306.jpg

British cavalry rider from 1842, sitting behind the movement therefore hindering his horse, and pulling his horse behind the vertical with the reins.

Being the army and liking things uniform, horses were preferred to be the same height and the same colour. Bay was more available than black; grey was not practical and red blood is such a dramatic sight on a white horse, it could lower moral. In training, all riders would lead from the left, mount from the left because their weapon would hang left and above all, in exercises horses would all need to be ridden in the same head set. Head down would prevent the horse from looking around. It is far more easy to dominate a horse who can not actually look around. Now tell me, by reading this, does it all seem familiar? Of course from the late nineteenth century horses became less and less important in warfare. The lieutenants and generals however kept horses for inspecting troops and keeping fit. Busy bees as these high officers were between battles they would start holding contests to show off how obedient their horses really were. These horses were so obedient that they could pull off movements that almost looked like some high school movements! Of course, trampling on the spot is not piaffe, so levade could never follow as the horse is in contra-collection. The horse would sooner stand on his head than on his hind legs, from this contra-balance. Shoulder-in could only be performed on 3 tracks not 4, simply because it was not really a shoulder-in, but just a form of yielding along the track. For a true shoulder in, a horse needs to be able to lift the shoulders and that is impossible when not being prepared from early and correct training. All the high school movements were gone… a true piaffe and levade is the door to the airs; cannon fodder was never able to reach a performance like that. From this cannon fodder training modern horse sports and school riding developed. It is all about showing how obedient your horse is and what a rider can let him do, inspite of the horse itself. The cannon fodder training is therefore constantly present all around us and riders, just like the soldiers and their horses then, do not think about what is healthy, sane, logical or even fun. They all keep up this training without questioning why, looking at the old master’s training as if they were aliens or even worse… do not even know they existed. I once spoke with a well known grand prix dressage rider about Riding Art and he had never heard of La Guérinière, nor of Antoin de Pluvinel. He did not know what Levade or terre a terre was. I was shocked… to me that is like being a painter and not knowing who Rembrand or Rubens were! Or a chef who has never heard of Michelin stars! What would you think of such painters or chefs? Would you expect any good work from them? Not me.
So to complete this – alas- ever so true saga, I would like everyone to ask themselves one question:
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Are you training your horse for the benefit of both of you, or are you training cannon fodder?