Warning: Loudmouth Party Pooper Rant.
I think we all know whose side I’m on in this horse training reality show. As an early holiday gift to my favorite four-legged friends, I thought I’d lob a few ideas to folks who actually like their horses. In a world where we normalize fear-based training, I hope to inspire a few rants in others.
A disclaimer: On the off chance you think I am the spawn of some sort of virgin birth, I can assure you I know frustration. When I started training in my local community, business was not great. I had only worked with good trainers myself, and only knew kind methods, but no one starts at the top of their game. There was lots of room for improvement; I could have done better for horses. I owe the biggest debt to good client horses who set me on a huge learning curve by giving me a kind of on-the-job training you just can’t buy. It makes perfect sense; I was the one who needed it. Years have passed, and I came by these rants honestly. Either that or there’s a mare working me like a hand puppet. Probably the latter.
Early in my career, I would often climb on a client’s horse and “tune him up” a bit. I was light and happy with them, and since I’d had enough riding lessons to pay for a Harvard law degree, I knew how to ride. A trainer should be able to reassemble a horse, but what trainers also know is that if we tune the horse up and send him home to the same situation that he was rebelling from, nothing is fixed. It’s a steady income for a trainer to keep fixing the horse rather than offending the rider, but isn’t fair to the horse. Horses work to the rider’s level. People need to learn to ride because riding isn’t intuitive. So the first gift to horses is I refuse to fix them. (I do work hard to fix riders.) You’re welcome, good horses.
I was so good at trailer training, so slow and so affirmative, that I could even show off a bit. But then some clients I really liked asked me to help with their gelding. They were good people who had a horse trailer that fit their horse like a string bikini fits Edgar Rice Burro. I told them the trailer was too small, and my clients said they were sorry. They didn’t have the money for a new trailer and in case of an emergency, would I train their gelding to get into this death trap? I am ashamed to say I did. The partition didn’t come out so his ribs pressed metal on both sides and his ears brushed the roof. He calmly loaded and unloaded, and my clients were happy with me. The gelding showed us grace that we didn’t deserve, I’ve felt bad about it for decades and I’ve never done it again. Buy a trailer that fits your horse, I’m proud to blurt out. Too late for you, kind Sir, but you became my gift to the others. I refuse in your name. You’re welcome, good boy.
For the startlingly beautiful black and white paint who returned from training as a two-year-old in a spade bit. Naturally, things came apart, and she spent the next few years in a pasture before I met her. At our first lesson, she stood quietly at the mounting block but then refused to walk forward. I refused to fight with her. It was a hard sell to her owner but the methods that broke her wouldn’t be what fixed her. After weeks of shallow breathing and yawning, she could walk out on a neckring. I’ve watched the tense horses compete in spade bits with riders, one hand on the reins, manipulating obstacles at speed. Do people know what is holding the horse’s head on the vertical, or see they cannot move freely or breathe deeply? I’ve been lectured about the “beauty” of training up to spade bits, maturing a horse gradually until they are “finished”, a literal term. How is this horsemanship? It’s more comparable to the slow-motion grooming of a young girl for abuse. Not destroying them all at once, but slowly enough that the worst soul-killing control is called an art, ignoring the horse’s eyes going black with dread. Yes, I went there.
The crazy part is that everyone agrees spades are the harshest bit, even those who use them. But too often untrained riders use a stronger bit when the opposite is needed. We’ll change a bit before we think to change our hands. So I
ranted wrote, “Using a stronger bit is like winning an argument, not because you’re right, but because you’re holding a gun.” We use snaffles or the equivalent. Never a shank of any kind and most of my riders use bitless bridles. Our gift to our horses is a neckring on every horse. You’re welcome, good horses.
A whip by any other name… We explain they are just communication, just an extension of our hands when a half-blind horse can clearly see the truth. A rider might say, “Oh, no. I never use the whip. I just carry it and he listens.” That’s because it’s a threat! Say what you want, give it a pretty name, pet the horse with it. I have carried them and I have tapped with them, but that was before horses taught me that breathing is quicker, they are smarter, and the smallest cue gets a better result. Maybe people who use them haven’t given breathing a real chance because if they had, they’d toss their whips away, too. If you must use a whip, please don’t pretend you and your horse are partners. Whips or whatever saccharine term this week, allow us to dominate with no authentic energy of our own. My clients breathe and communicate with calming signals. We refuse to threaten our horse’s safety. You’re welcome, good horses.
Oh, look at the clock; time flies while ranting, so this last one is a catch-all, junk drawer of demeaning behaviors. Ours, not the horses. We train tricks that are dangerous for the sake of showing off. We “desensitize” horses to tolerate manhandling. We tease animals with treats. We humanize horses with made-up stories and pity instead of letting them feel their strength and confidence. At our worst, we use horses as emotional dartboards. We are trying to do better and for their equine perseverance with us, our gift is a horse-crazy girl love, as unreasonable and unmanageable as a wayward donkey. We swear to the god of green grass that we’re trying our best to get it right and we’ll never stop. You’re welcome, good horses.
Finally, how many of us are cleaning up messes made by people who couldn’t see the sentient life behind these intelligent eyes? I live with forever-frightened horses and dogs, as do my clients. I’ll work to rebuild their broken trust but I won’t hold my tongue while I do it. For the horses, dogs, and also, for my clients who are bucking the traditions that cause damage to horses, may we refuse to “go along to get along.” Our gift to horses is to work for change and sometimes toss a rant. You’re welcome, good horses.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.