The final instalment in a series of three
Making the change
Maybe you are already well established in a good horse-human relationship. Maybe you feel the relationship between you and your horse is good but could be better. Or you know that it is far from ideal but you want to achieve something better – what to do…
Where problems lie…
As we mentioned earlier, many –if not most– riders / owners fall into the trap of saying that they agree with an idea or philosophy but their horse…is somehow different. For them, there is no realisation that the problem does not lie with the horse. Yes, the horse may need to learn, to adapt, but treated correctly the horse is a willing partner.
Perhaps a fundamental example of this is shown by a recent study into the reactions of horses to grooming. A shocking 80%-90% of horses in livery and riding schools shows some form of aggression during grooming, usually directed towards the groom. (It may also be worth noting at this point that an earlier study also suggested that 80%-90% of all horses suffered from stomach ulcers. Whether there is a link, this would need to be the subject of another study.) Personal experience shows that when we look at horses that are managed more naturally, the reverse is generally the case — the horse actually asks to be groomed. This is further underlined when we look at horses that have shown a clear aggressive manner when managed traditionally; when the living environment changes for the better –large paddocks, no stabling, no unnatural feedstuffs, less forced and more complicit activities, other companion horses– the attitude of the horse also changes substantially for the better.
The Wilful Horse
Many an owner will define certain behaviours as ‘wilful’ — the horse ‘getting its own back’ for whatever reason. The horse in the arena the stops (often at the same place) and refuses to move – but yesterday he had no problem; the horse that refuses to cross a bridge or pass a gate that yesterday posed no problem… The horse is not wilful. Any refusal —in fact, any dissonant behaviour— need analysing with the logic that the horse lives in the here and now and is incapable of wilful behaviour based upon an incident that happened last week.
In the case of the arena, has something changed? Is there a shadow or a stream of sunlight? Has someone placed an object in the field of view of the horse (remember that a horse has potential 360º+ vision, depending upon proximity)? Or is the horse uncomfortable? It could be that he has pulled a muscle or overstretched but in general movement is not experiencing any real discomfort; however, the rider is now asking for a tighter turn or an uncomfortable tempo…
The bridge or gate problem is similar. It could be a branch, a ray of sunshine or a shadow. It could even be something as ‘silly’ as approaching from the wrong angle. It could be a genuine fear. Or an uncertainty caused by the behaviour of the rider. We all think we act the same under the same circumstances but it is rare, if not impossible, that our reactions are exactly the same – and the horse feel this. Never underestimate the sensitivity of the horse. The rider’s emotions transmit themselves very rapidly to the horse and the horse reacts to these minute signals instinctively just as he does to the signals of his fellow horses.
CommunicationFundamental to the behaviour of the horse with respect to the rider is communication. When the horse does not do what is asked of him, it is almost always because he has not understood the request. The rider wants the horse to turn right but the horse keeps going straight-on, or even turns left…the rider should examine his own actions. If the rider is distracted by something to the left, his whole body will reflect this and unless the horse is completely accustomed to such conflicting information, he will only do that what he thinks he is being told.
For the horse, everything that has just been explained is natural. He has no need to learn it. But as a rider, often we have been drilled for years with traditional techniques and we expect things of our horse which are not in his nature. This traditional mindset is the enemy of a truly good relationship with the horse. We demand things which are both mentally and physically challenging and damaging.
Aside the general atrocities of daily management (stabling, inappropriate feeding, turn-out) probably the most physically damaging for the horse is the horseshoe or the hoof boot. Both of these deprive the horse of essential feeling of the ground he is crossing. The feet of the horse are like the fuse or the circuit-breaker in the fusebox; they show when the maximum load has been exceeded. By applying horseshoes or hoof boots, we are effectively short-circuiting the fusebox and creating a potential fire further up in the circuit.
Many riders complain that their horse, if barefoot, will only walk with difficulty on certain surfaces — mostly stones or gravel — while shod, they have no difficulty. This is fundamentally true. But the reasoning is flawed. The barefoot horse can feel the surface under its feet and therefore goes carefully to avoid injury. The shod or booted horse feels little or nothing and consequently risks injury. Riders complain that their horse, barefoot, prefers the grass verge to the rocky path; what they never reason is that they too would prefer grass verge to rocky path – often even when wearing shoes! A shod or booted horse can be likened to a marathon runner is steel-toed safety boots…
It is this mindset that needs changing to accommodate the needs and comfort of the horse. Accept that the horse prefers the verge…you can steer him around the low hanging branches. Accept that stony paths are not the place to trot or galop.
After the shoes, the next major problems revolve around food, saddles and bits. A horse does not need feeding. Three meals a day is wrong. The horse eats 12 to 15 times a day. Allowed to do this correctly, he has absolutely no need of commercial feed. Not even such ‘quality natural products’ as Thunderbrooks or Agrobs, to name but two. The simple fact that the horse is being ‘fed’ is an aberration in his natural rhythm.
People spend a fortune on saddles — or not. Scrimping on a saddle from the local equestrian store is doing your horse no favour. But at the same time, spending a fortune on a saddle albeit fitted by a Master Saddle Fitter, or just an expensive job ‘off the shelf’ does not do the horse any more justice. A traditional saddle with a tree needs to be adjusted, or at least checked, by a Master Saddle Fitter; it needs to be checked and adjusted at least three times a year, if not more often. Remember that the shape of the horse changes over the seasons. And yet very few people do this. The only saddle that does any justice to the horse is a treeless saddle. This allows for seasonal changes in the shape of the horse and it allows for lateral flexibility. The treeless saddle is just as supportive of the rider as traditional treed saddle, without the disadvantages of a tree that, at its extremities, puts pressure on the horse’s back. Riders will often claim that they sit correctly in the saddle but the rider that sits perfectly does not exist. The bad rider is almost static and will be like a sack of potatoes, but even a good rider, dynamic and compliant with his horse, will transfer his weight forwards, backwards and from side to side, increasing the pressure on the extremities of the tree at the same time.
The bit is the most misunderstood bit of kit in the riders armoury. Every argument for the use of a bit is flawed. The bit will not stop a runaway horse; the bit is not a means of subtle communication; there is no such thing as being ‘light in the hands’; no horse ‘prefers’ the bit.
The expression ‘the bit between the teeth’ does not exist for nothing! The bars, the part of the gums where the bit is laid, are very thin skinned and the bone of the jaw under that thin skin is very sharp. Just putting a bit into the horse’s mouth is creating discomfort. And that is before the reins are picked up. A bit might stop a runaway horse but it is through the application of pain; however, the effect can very easily be the reverse with the horse running to try to escape the pain.
The correct communication with the horse is through the sit and the legs, not through the bit. Even in dressage. This can be augmented by the gentle application of the reins against the neck.
Although the application of pressure on the reins varies from person to person, from gentle to rough, and although rough use of the reins will cause great discomfort for the horse, light use of the reins is still an important source of discomfort and even pain. It is not necessarily the hands, although these will always move and be constantly altering the position of the bit, but the bit itself resting on the bars is sufficient on its own.
Anyone who truly considers that their horse prefers the bit is not thinking of the horse. Try walking around for five minutes with a pencil in your mouth… Often the argument is that the horse is ‘reassured’ by the presence of the bit; that without it he won’t advance. This is all a matter of conditioning and learning the signals without bit.
Most important of all, learn what the horse’s true needs are : correct accommodation, correct feed, companionship etc.
Accept that the horse is an individual too. With good days and bad days; with fears; with aches and pains…
Accept that he can make decisions for himself regarding where to walk and how. If he prefers to walk than to trot, let him — he has good reason even if you do not see it. If he prefers the verge to the roadway, let him use the verge.
Accept that he is slower on stones barefoot than shod — remember that it is less likely to lead to expensive veterinary bills.
Remember that sand in the arena is far less abrasive than the concrete floor leading to it…he does not need shoes or boots to compete on sand.
If his feet really start to wear down too much (forget it, they won’t) then you are asking too much of your horse. He is not a military animal; he is not pulling a coach to a timetable; he is your companion. Love him, but above all, respect him.