Human ⥈ Horse : the balance : Part One

an article in instalments. Part Two will be published on 7 July.

For most of us, confinement is behind us, albeit there are still restrictions in place for many. It has been a complicated time, probably because of its simplicity and lack of choices — stay in; don’t mingle; keep your distance.


Right at the start of confinement, I wrote an article Coronavirus and the Horse; it was an article of high hopes. I must admit that I knew at the time that they were just that, nevertheless, even now, hope remains that things have changed for the better for some horses.


However, I am just as certain that for the majority of horses, nothing has changed. Which is sad, particularly when I hear the tales of yard owners telling how owners, unable to visit due to strict lockdown regulations, were suddenly complaining that their horses were locked up for too many hours a day. Ultimately, it was, and is, the choice of the owner and it is a good moment to reflect upon that choice.


Many decisions made on horse maintenance are born of pure ignorance — a term that can be very loaded, so maybe it needs explaining : ignorance is notstupidity; ignorance is that lack of knowledge of facts pertinent to a particular subject or situation; the mathematician who cannot quote a single line of Shakespeare or the Doctor of English who has no idea about E=MC². These are the people who feed their horses inappropriately because everyone else does; these are the people who stable their horses at night because it is dark, the horse needs to sleep and is safe in its little bed of straw; these are the people who shoe their horses believing that the hoofs will wear out otherwise.

Often it is dogma-driven. The majority of riders started their life with horses in a traditional riding school or possibly livery yard. These places are hotbeds of tradition : we have always done it that way, there is no reason to change now… Questions are poorly tolerated should they call into doubt the reasoning behind the status quo, let alone its correctness.

 

But often, it is ego-driven. For many riders, the world revolves ultimately around their own performance, with the horse —in the end— being little more than an accessory to that performance. I am not denying that they shell out (tens of) thousands on their horses, according them every conceivable ‘luxury’, care and (pseudo)protection; they will tell you, with a straight face, that they love their horse…and no doubt they do…only love and respect are not always the bedfellows they should be.

 

We can place almost any situation into one or more of three categories : ignorance; arrogance; the horse. Thus the dogma-driven situation, obliging the horse simply through ignorance; the ego-driven situation, obliging the horse through arrogance; the horse-centric situation that responds much closer to the horse’s own needs. Let’s look at each category individually:

Dogma-driven

This is possibly the worst of the negative categories. Ignorance has never been an excuse in the eyes of the law and neither should it be in the management and use of horses. The power of tradition has lead to an ignorance of just that which is central to the subject – the horse. We have always stabled / fed / shod / mounted / dismounted / led / ridden…like that. Why do you want to make trouble and change what we have always done? Well, just maybe, we should be looking at the original reasoning behind these practices: A few simple questions; see if you know the answers before checking the explanations in the next article…

Why do we stable horses?Think of war-horses

and why particularly at night?think of human fears

Why do we feed horses grain / concentrates?Think again of the war-horse and feeding it in battle

Why do we shoe horses?Think of the military demands upon the horse

Why are we always told to mount /dismount / lead from the left side of the horse?What would be worn, and by whom, that would prevent leading and mounting from the right

Why should the horse never be allowed to eat while being ridden?Indeed, why not?

Why should we keep our heels down (particularly in English style riding)?Think saddles, stirrups and cinching up

Ego-driven

Much the basis of (higher) competition, the ego is what pushes us along; demanding, dominating, forcing – irrespective of any other exigence, the obligation to do exactly that what is required by the rider and the heck with the horse.

A short anecdote: some years ago, accompanying my young neighbour to the local covered riding ring there we encountered a ‘girl’ of around 19 or 20 riding exercises in the ring. Every so often, her horse halted and refused to move. Clearly there was something bothering him. She kept dismounting, dragging him further, remounting and repeating the exercise – each time with the same result, the horse blocked. It could simply have been that he was bored to tears with the exercise; it could have been the light at that point in the ring that was bothering him; most likely, it was discomfort. But whatever the reason, the scene that followed was the perfect example of ego-centric horsemanship.

The horse was led outside and, on a lunge line, whipped repeatedly to a faltering trot. When I challenged the girl about her (atrocious) behaviour, it was clear that as far as she was concerned, all the blame lay with the horse that was doing its best to annoy her…after all, during the past six weeks, he had not shown any problems, so why now?

Indeed, why now? What had changed? What was bothering him? In her mind, nothing; she was only thinking of herself, not her horse.

It is the same ego-centricity that drives the ‘cavalier attitude’ that, when riding out, the horse should go exactly where and how the rider demands. Never mind the horse preferring the comfort of the verge, it is the rider ‘in charge’ that insists on galloping over the stoney path…and to hell with the horse’s health! Because it is the horse’s health; a twisted ankle or, worse, a torn tendon is far more likely when the horse is forced to do that which he would not voluntarily do than when left to his own devices. The insanity of the situation is that the rider would never consider running over rocky ground in safety shoes, and yet that is what he demands of his horse.

Horse-centric

This last category is always a point of contentious debate because it’s ok for other horses, but my horse can’t / won’t… The horse-centric approach is never going to be of interest to the ego-centric owner / rider. He is much like a weekend motorcyclist. Saturday morning, the machine is rolled out of the garage, wiped down with an oily rag, ‘fed and watered’ and taken out for a spin; on returning, the machine is hosed down, dried off and returned to the garage… If we are a competitive motorcyclist, then we may well get the machine out several times during the week and go for a blast. And when something goes wrong, the mechanic will fix it as quickly as possible.

For many ego-centrically owned horses, the story is the same; rolled out on Saturday morning, brushed down, fed, saddled up and taken out for a ‘spin’ (although not necessarily in that order since it is oft said that a horse should not be ridden on a full stomach…) ; on returning, the horse is hosed down, dried off and returned to his stable. The competition horse will be taken out for a ‘blast’ a few more times during the week and if something goes wrong, the vet is expected to remedy it as rapidly as possible…

 

The dogma-driven owner / rider is likely to be more open to horse-centricity but needs to be prepared to re-educate himself in order to become (more) horse-centric rather than continue to apply, often selectively, those dogma-driven ideas that he just cannot let go. But more difficult for the dogma-driven rider is the peer-pressure from the other riders with whom he mixes. His new-found horse-centric ideas that go against the traditional mainstream thinking will constantly be brought into question. And this is often the reason why riders are unable to persevere with their change towards horse-centricity.

Next week, we look at horse-centricity. Part Two, 7 July 2020.

This article is also available on the Sabots Libres website

Posted in Equine Behaviour, Riding and the Ridden Horse, Welfare and tagged , , , .

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