“What I see astounds me. It’s difficult to be around other riders who constantly give advice I didn’t ask for.”
“I have waited on my horse on the trail when things got scary only to have friends tell me I was causing more problems. I will continue doing what is best for my horse. Why is it so hard for humans to stop pushing and start listening?”
“The yard is really getting me down at present. All the drama, all the neediness. All I want is to be left alone do my own thing. They’re not my friends, they don’t know me, they don’t ‘get’ me. There must be a way of negotiating an acceptable path other than telling everyone to eff off? A good topic for a blog!”
Years ago, I had a client who boarded his horse tell me, in the most incredulous tone, that riders felt absolutely fine telling him everything he was doing wrong with his horse. I nodded. New to boarding, he was amazed that people were so comfortable correcting him; it didn’t happen in other areas of his life. With social media, now even people who keep their horses at home can be judged and criticized by strangers sitting on sofas around the world. Maybe you innocently post a photo and get naysayers critical of everything you’re doing. If you literally ask for an opinion, brace yourself.
The horse world is very opinionated. Some of it is tribalism; we are hooked on a method of training or a riding discipline that we think is the best. We have a hero who won at shows or dresses like a cowboy or speaks in a foreign accent and it means we belong or know more if we parrot that trainer. It would be great if there was some actual understanding behind the technique that made sense to horses, but usually, the railbird telling you how to ride just wants you to be harsher. A stronger cue, a louder training aid, or some way to gimmick the horse into different behavior. Sometimes they offer to climb on and make a few corrections, and the horse you get back is different all right. Frightening a horse isn’t the same as training.
What is our fascination with violence and domination? We act like we hate horses. Sure, we are born predators, but does that mean we have to be monsters? Oh, that’s right. Monstrous behavior has been normalized in every area of our culture. We’ve been doing it for so long, it’s been accepted in the weave of our daily experience, so we tell each other to be violent with animals as conversationally as we might remark on the weather.
Isn’t that what Darwin meant when he said only the fittest survive? We all seem to have a voice in the dark recesses of our brains that tells us to swagger with bravado, to be the wolf, stallion, dominator you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. You’d think we were still rubbing sticks together. Or in our case, hitting horses with sticks. At the same time, we all know a horse who’s been damaged by this martial approach to training. Most of us probably own one. We get defensive when we get lectured about what to do with our horses. No one likes to be corrected, but it’s more than that. Horse people all think they’re right. We are all overzealous about our training methods. I certainly am.
On top of that, we still want a simple answer and a quick resolution for a training issue as old as your horse. The problem is that what works on your older Quarter Horse gelding doesn’t necessarily work on a young Arabian mare. But then, what works on your older Quarter Horse gelding may not work on another one just like him, either. And by the way, that wasn’t exactly what Darwin said.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one more responsive to change.” Charles Darwin, 1809
The questions still hang in the air, even without being asked. “Why does my horse toss his head?” “Why won’t my horse go in the trailer?” “Why isn’t my new horse like my old horse?”
Welcome to Riders Against Bullies; Darwin was on our side all along. It isn’t our first meeting but it’s time we spoke up in defense of horses. Instead of cringing at old school brutality, put a smile on your face. Show your teeth. Women who smile in adversarial situations make people uncomfortable and that’s a start. The first response should never be trying to control, but rather trying to understand by looking, listening, and really paying attention to the horse. Then, instead of railing against old, dark voices, find your own. If the horse is not acting normally, ask more relevant questions.
Don’t talk training techniques unless you’re certain the horse isn’t in pain. Is the horse adjusting from a move? It would be shocking if he didn’t have gastric issues. In an hour-long ride, two liters of stomach acid formed in his stomach. Is the horse on free-choice hay now? If he has come from a dry area to moist ground, do his feet hurt? Does he need a farrier? You say he’s fifteen years old? Then, of course, he has arthritis and perhaps old pain from injuries in the past. Have you had a vet check him recently? What do you know about his living environment? Is he kept alone? These are all bigger questions that must come before training advice.
Does your saddle fit this horse? No guessing, have it checked by a professional. You’d need to know where it put your balance. Does your bit inflict pain? Don’t go along with the sales pitch on the bit, ask this horse. Then let your horse pick a more gentle bit. And finally, we have no idea what kind of rider you are. Have you had any riding instruction? Would you consider working with a trainer? And there are still more questions to ask before we can blame the horse. Encourage that.
Giving advice (or asking for it) when the full picture isn’t there, is not fair to the horse. Sure, affirmative training is good, but if the horse isn’t sound, no training technique will help. The priority must be the horse. Never substitute another’s eyes for your own and know that the full picture is impossible to know from an online question. It would be irresponsible to give training advice on a horse you’ve never seen. Let ethical behaviors begin with you.
At your barn, go for the scary smile and ignore the railbirds. The best thing that can happen to bad advice is that it becomes spoken-over, irrelevant, and forgotten. Negativity doesn’t deserve to be repeated in a louder voice. Instead, spend your time echoing something worth hearing. Be part of a move toward understanding rather than correcting. Advocate for horses.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.