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Safe start?

31 May

So, yet another piece suggesting the way to health and happiness with horses is not to ride them before they are “fully mature”.

Up until the last “table” about useful life span, it was pretty much just someone’s opinion backed up by the facts about skeletal development, which are fairly well documented, although there is no proof that it’s “wrong” to work/ride a horse with open growth plates. I would argue with the statement that this is “set” though as every study has suggested that while there isn’t necessarily a difference across breeds, there is a significant range across individuals. Anyone who has worked with a lot of young horses has seen a more obvious example of this in the schedule of permanent teeth coming in. We all know at which age teeth “should” exchange but they don’t magically pop up on the horse’s birthday and, in fact, horses of the same age can be months apart in this area.

What really annoys me though is the last “table”. It looks like “science” but if you read the notes it’s one person’s observation!!! That is clearly an attempt to make the opinion look like fact when it’s not. If you want to prove a point with science, have at it. But use actual PROOF not just your opinion dressed up like science. Frankly, for me, that sort of thing significantly devalues the argument – If there is all this proof that riding horses under, say, 6 damages them then it should be very easy to get those numbers together. It’s also a warning that if you are trying to base your own path – or attack other people’s practices – on the basis of hard data you need to look very closely at the source of that information. Disagreement and debate are good. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But at least be honest and admit it’s an opinion, not fact.

My personal view is that good sense needs to prevail. Unfortunately there is no easy chart or formula for this, it involves continually assessing the horses you work with. It certainly doesn’t mean trotting out the whole “Well they wouldn’t have YH classes if it wasn’t a reasonable standard for all horses,” or “YH classes are tantamount to child slavery” argument. YH classes are not for all horses. They aren’t even for most horses. If you’re not experienced enough to assess if they are suitable questions for your horse or not, either ask for help from someone who does know or work on the assumption you’re not experienced enough to produce the horse for them and just go at your own pace.

How a horse is produced is at least as important as the time scale. Instead of patting yourself on the back for “doing the right thing” consider all the many and myriad factors that go in to producing nice horses and weigh them against what is practical/possible for your reality. As my favourite Ludger Beerbaum quote goes, “Success is the SUM of good decisions.”

And then accept the fact (and it’s a well proven one!) is, there are no guarantees in life. I cannot imagine how anyone who has grown to adulthood has managed to cling to that belief. Sometimes you will do everything right and it will still go wrong. Sometimes you will do everything wrong and it will still go right. More often it will be somewhere in the middle. This is particularly true in horses, where the horse brings a lot to the party that we can’t control. I get that people want to do their “best” by their horses but maybe one of the things we need to accept is that they are not simply neutral lumps of clay for us to mould.


Why do people do it?

27 May

It’s a side effect of at least one of my areas of interest that I meet quite a few people who are unhappy with their horses. This is fair enough – no relationship is without its bumps!

But I seem to meet/read about/get told about an increasing number of people who seem constantly frustrated/angry/unhappy/frightened/fed up and generally not enjoying the bulk of┬átheir interaction with horses and their riding and training. They call their horses horrible names, they cry, they talk about them using abusive language, they describe them as victims, or as perpetrators. They attribute amazing, unpleasant, completely unrealistic motivations to them. They describe them as children or as pieces of sporting equipment – often almost simultaneously! They say they’ve “done everything” but in fact they’ve changed very little, or they’ve changed only the things they want to change and then feel the horse is “ungrateful” for their efforts.

And then often they say they’re “only joking”.

But they aren’t. More truth is said in jest and it’s pretty obvious that laughter is playing a very small role in the process.

I don’t get it.

Why do it?

Maybe they just don’t talk about the good days – the internet certainly is the province of ranters – but that still doesn’t explain the language and the attitude. Maybe it’s groupthink. People who don’t really feel that way are encouraged to think it’s “cool” and “tough” to speak about their horses unkindly. Or a small amount of perfectly reasonable fear gets turned into a paralyzing condition by endless examination and discussion, almost a competition to see who can be the most afflicted. Which then also often becomes the horse’s “fault” and requires extreme, difficult measures to overcome.

Yes, I get that there are highs and often these same people crow about the “victories”. But even that is suspect. Horses don’t really like drama and if you are looking for a roller coaster ride there are lots of cheaper, easier ways to get that without dragging some poor peaceful animal into it.

Last I checked this was supposed to be a hobby. Fun. A break from the mundane stresses of life. (Interestingly I rarely read or hear these sorts of emotional thoughts from people who work in the industry. Most of the great horsemen/trainers/riders I’ve met have been overwhelmingly horse-positive.)

I’ve had so many fantastic experiences with horses. Many of the most valuable have been quiet, peaceful ones facilitated by a meeting of minds and and the practiced development of skills. Others have been brilliant highs, burnished by the partnership and achievement. I am genuinely saddened that so many people seem to accept that being mostly upset and angry is a natural part of something I love which can bring so much fun and pleasure. What is more, that somehow all of that angst and upset is the fault and responsibility of an animal that, frankly, didn’t ask to be involved in any of it!

Put it into gear, just like a car.

30 Apr

One of the common analogies that often comes up when discussing how to use the driving aids is the one that it’s like driving a car – you put [the horse] in gear and it stays in gear until you ask it to do something different.

But cars don’t work that way! You don’t kick the gas then coasts at a set speed then, if you want to change, you kick it again. If you actually drove like that, he driver behind you would be ready to kill you! You certainly would not have smooth and easy progress.

Instead, you constantly monitor and influence, ideally with the minimum of pressure. This is largely an outgrowth of good timing and an educated application of necessary but not over abundant force. All sorts of outside and mechanical influences act on the car: road surface, gradient, wind resistance, steering, other road users (or, hopefully, the avoidance thereof), health of the engine etc. Every situation is subtly different and constantly changing and you are constantly adjusting your actions accordingly.

The trick is, if you drive well, most of the time you don’t think consciously about what you’re doing with your foot, you only assess the ongoing situation and your reactions. As your skill increases the margins between action and reaction become smaller and eventually you are proactive as much as reactive. Your passengers have such a smooth trip they are hardly aware you are acting at all! Also, if your car suddenly changes in its reactions without reason then you assess the situation and/or, if the reason for the change isn’t immediately obvious, you get someone experienced to help you get to the bottom of it. Ignore these changes at your peril – no one likes to breakdown on the motorway!

A well made, well tuned car should be a joy to drive, easy and responsive. If you had to chuck your whole weight on the accelerator every time you wanted to speed up, you wouldn’t be too pleased! So don’t accept that from a horse either. (Leaving out that no one wants to be kicked all the time!) Make the necessary adjustments to foster lightness and precision.

So yes, horses are like cars. (Except for the thinking bit, although that almost always means a rider has to be less careful than a driver because a horse can and will make up for mistakes and miscalculations.) They require constant monitoring and LIGHT influence to perform optimally. Of course you can drive by the “gas brake gas brake” method but you run the risk of other road users resorting to choice language and rude gestures, which is kind of like dealing with an upset horse. And if you’re really unlucky you end up in a smash!

Simple, if not easy.

16 Apr

I have worked with a selection of horses this week with, on the surface, very different “problems” or undesirable behaviours. But their weaknesses all really boiled down to two questions.

Does the horse go CALMLY and APPROPRIATELY off the leg?

Does the horse ACCEPT and go TO the contact?

That’s it, that’s all.

If your horse doesn’t move pleasantly and promptly off the leg and/or it leans, fusses, tilts, drops behind or otherwise doesn’t accept the hand under normal circumstances at all three gaits, you have a problem. It may not be a PROBLEM but it’s a hole and because we don’t train for the 90% of the time it goes right (or right enough) but for the 10% of the time it goes wrong, the hole is most likely to cause a problem right at the time it will cost you the most.

I have worked with a lot of “problem” horses over the years and I can honestly say I’ve never met one that does both those things reliably well. I’ve also never met one that wasn’t improved overall by improving those areas, including those horses with underlying physical issues. It’s not a magic cure, but as with, say, a person with a bad back, attention paid to make the body straighter, stronger and more relaxed will only be of benefit. Add to that the mental benefit of making the aids clear and simple to the horse, and you’re on to a winner!

Try an experiment. With your horse on a loose rein, apply the leg lightly. What happens? Does the horse take a slightly longer step and stretch its neck forward? If so, you have the essential component in place. If not, the basics are suspect. Whatever else happens, it’s not what you want. Don’t get me wrong, your horse might still be doing a perfectly serviceable job for you. You might very well be winning ribbons. But there is more in there! And if your horse is crooked or sticky or unwilling to stand to be mounted or struggling with a movement or whatever, attention to those two requirements will improve things.

Simple. ­čÖé

Improvement without effort.

18 Mar

No, this isn’t going where you think it’s going, I’m not going to have a rant about people expecting to improve without putting in the effort. Quite the opposite, in fact!

So what is this magical secret lazy system you can use to improve your riding?


Easy, right? You go to watch events all the time. Just sit on a hill in the sun, watch good riders and next thing you know, progress is yours!

Okay, it’s not quite THAT easy.

Years ago I got a job that was a big step up from where I had been – nicer horses, more successful business, higher expectations. Because the abiding rule of ambition is to say yes first and then figure it out after, I took the job even though I really didn’t ride well enough to give them the results they wanted. One of the “perks” was the owner/trainer was around most days I jumped, not teaching per se, but setting fences and weighing in on how the horses were going. VERY useful but it meant there was nowhere to hide! I also, obviously, didn’t have any latitude to get other instruction or influence the pace we worked at. It went okay but it would be a lie to say I wasn’t struggling.

A few weeks in I had a day off and did what any self respecting young aspiring horseman would do, I went to a horse show. But I went with a plan.

We had a local rider who largely dominated the scene and was one of the few who was routinely competitive in bigger markets. All his horses jumped beautifully, he never seemed to make adjustments, or even influence the horses most of the time, they just flowed around, no fuss, no muss. So I decided I would sit and study and I would – hopefully – try to figure out what he was doing differently than the rest of us mere mortals.

Of course I was well aware some of his success was down to his horses and his system, so I tried to see as much of the prep as I could, but mostly I sat on a picnic table next to the ring and really, really watched him jump horse after horse after horse. I watched his hands, I watched his subtle weight shifts, I watched how he used the ring, I watched how he did things differently with different horses and which things never changed. I watched hire a correction in one round paid off in the horse’s next round. I watched how he dealt with a horse that wanted to look a bit, and one that wanted to lean. (Very similarly, as it turned out.) I isolated a few key things about his ride that seemed a big part of his success. I just sat and ABSORBED it. I tried to think what it would FEEL like to do those things, not just do them mechanically, but how the horse would react and how I would react to the horse. How it might feel to be him. Even now I can put myself back there, hearing the sounds of the show and the horse’s foot falls, seeing his hands in close up as the horse landed, flowed down the line and jumped out beautifully.

I can’t say I was inspired – I was pretty used to being around his riders by that time – but I was thoughtful and felt it had been a day well spent.

The revelation came the next day.

We had the usual morning jump school and I could not miss!! The horses jumped better than they had ever jumped for me, even the ones that were only decent jumpers at best. Every distance came up easy, every corner was balanced and unhurried. My boss was as flummoxed as I was but told me to just keep on doing what I was doing and not think too much! (Anyone who knows me will laugh at that advice!) It was a brief shining moment when I thought I might actually be able to do the job!

Of course, it largely and quickly wore off, back in the real world of riding young horses, sorting out problem horses, and spending most of my time with people who rode only as well, or even not as well, as I did. Such is real life. But some of it stuck and there are still moments when I visualise his hands when I jump and I knew it helps me do the right thing. (I did keep the job, by the way, and learned a lot from it.)

I’m reminded of this today because I had a similar experience recently, of REALLY WATCHING one very good rider on a series of horses. It was circumstance more than a conscious decision, but it was there so I took it. I didn’t chat or play on my phone. I didn’t sit half an arena away with my friends. (Don’t get me wrong, I love a good forum/clinic/demo but it’s not the place for quiet contemplation.) I didn’t just take in the big picture, I watched the parts – the rider’s hands, the horse’s mouth, the muscles in the horse’s neck, the hock action – not the sum. I did it much less consciously now, as I’ve been doing it for years, on and off, but I can still pick out moments and images of specific things and hold them in my mind.

And guess what? After that experience I rode better. The horses went better. Although, in one case, the horse technically looked worse because the shortcoming I accepted before was no longer an option. Even the more specialist aspects of my work were better because I had reaffirmed my own standards, that I can do and be better. Best of all, I didn’t even really have to think about it and I certainly hadn’t “worked” at it.

So for everyone looking for a “quick fix” – and I know you’re out there – there is one. Will it cure all that ails you? Of course not! Does it negate all the hard work involved in improving your riding? Of course not. But you might be surprised at how much sitting on a picnic table in the sun can bring to your ambition. Watch the very best you can. Consider it an investment. Don’t get do caught up in “doing” that you forget about learning.

Read golf books.

12 Mar

That’s it, that’s my whole tip for the day. If you want to read up on the mental game of competition riding, or even just riding in challenging situations, in front of people etc then read golf books.

Let’s face it, there are a lot more people playing golf than riding in the world, a lot more money being spent on it, and a lot more scope for profitable research and writing. But there are a great many practical similarities with riding – the “uncontrollable” elements, the huge range of players, the time and money investment, the potential for public embarrassment, the fact that while there is a physical component it’s also a sport people can enjoy at almost any age and level of health and fitness – which make the psychological issues equally applicable.

Reading about something that is NOT “your” sport gives a bit of distance and takes some of the emotion out of it. You’re not comparing yourself to your idols or investing the scenarios discussed with your own memories or fears.

So the next time you want to read about riding, try reading about golf. You might be surprised what a good walk, spoiled has in common with a ride.

Don’t let the struggle define you.

3 Mar

I assume people have horses/ride/compete for the pleasure of it. I don’t mean every second is filled with unfettered joy, or even easy camaraderie. Quite the opposite – horses are expensive, hard work and occasionally dangerous!

But I’m always perplexed by people who seem to take a constantly adversarial approach to their horses. They call them unpleasant names, talk constantly of their disobedience, and seem to be always spoiling for the next fight. Surely there are cheaper and easier ways to make oneself angry and unhappy on a regular basis? And why involve another living thing – a peaceful, grass eating one at that – in the psychodrama?

They blame the horse, they blame the people around them, most of all they blame themselves. It’s exhausting!

All I can think of is they are letting the struggle define them. The constant battles, the high of “victory” and the low of “defeat” becomes what they “get” out of horses. I even understand it – I like a good fight more than most! (As anyone who follows me on Facebook may have realised.) But horses don’t choose that dynamic and they have no way of escaping it. In fact any attempt to resist seems to confirm the aggressive stance and ramp up the pressure.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to be said for being strict with horses, at least in terms of having consistent boundaries and expectations. That’s how horses interact with each other. But they get it done, preferably with a warning, and then it’s done. No drama, no crying, no sulking. Friends again and on to the next thing.

So, if you want results and a productive relationship with the horse, don’t let the struggle define you. If you are constantly upset or unhappy with the outcome IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY!

Get help, make a change, do something. Unless you like the struggle, in which case maybe take up boxing.