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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sing Louder than Your Horse

I was recently forwarded a correspondence between two people by another fellow rider and found it interesting. The first was asking the second about the changed in dressage and how one uses the aide to effectively communicate with the horse. Now, I do think that the original writer was stretching things a bit far in what she has seen now, as opposed to 30 years ago, but I do think that the essence of what she was saying does right true of the change. Here is an exert of her question/comment:


In my mind dressage is inextricably associated with the qualities I was taught to value: Softness and rhythm and a horse with a relaxed way of going and a soft mouth and a soft eye. The horses I see at this barn, including the one I lease, aren't anything like that. Some of them have huge gaits, I can see that for myself, but they move like pile-drivers, there is some rhythm but no softness and I see no relaxation. Also there is certainly no softness in their eyes, they are either rolling and you can see the whites, or they just look dead as if the horse's soul had left its body. And their mouths are certainly "dead" at least by the old standards, the riders brace against the horses and the horses brace against the riders; instead of communication through the reins I see a brutal pulling contest. I realize that is a melodramatic statement but that is what I see. In the "old days" we did use whips and spurs but more as reminders and "precision aids" and we were - at least at the barn where I boarded my horse and took lessons for twelve years - taught that bits and spurs were only ever to be used to communicate with the horse and never to be used to punish it, and that there were no exceptions to that rule.
Now I am being told that none of that was correct and that it's important that a horse have complete respect for the bit, and that the rider teaches that respect by showing the horse that it must always obey and behave or the bit and spurs will punish it immediately. This is apparently the new definition of submission - can that possibly be accurate?


I find her comments very thoughtful of what she was seeing, and though I either believe that her trainer was off base at being able to describe things, or that she is being a bit indulgent in her description. Never the less, I do agree with the writer in saying that things have changed. People seem to be harsher these days, doing more forcing and less asking of the horse. Riders are now taught to be in a frame of mind that the horse needs to submit now, or face a consequence, instead of thinking that there will be long periods of waiting, and when the horse comes to terms and begins to go in whatever correct manner you are asking (not forcing) that there will be reward.

The person who responded said something along the lines of what I just did, but also included a good adage that was remembered from Betty Howett:

On one memorable occasion, it was clear that the rider in the ring had one idea about what she wanted to do whilst her horse had an entirely different idea of what HE wanted to do. The conflict was quiet, but the tension was palpable, and it mounted until some of us began to feel a bit uncomfortable. At that point, Betty stepped in with a brilliant analogy. "Do you sing?" she asked. "Do you know that singing game that children play when they're riding the bus to school or to summer camp? The children on one side of the bus sing THIS song; the children on the other side of the bus sing THAT song, and the winner is the side that sings SO LOUDLY that the other side gives up and begins to sing that song too. Right now you're having a problem with your horse, but force isn't going to provide a good solution. You've got to get him to WANT to come with you and do what you want to do - YOU HAVE TO SING LOUDER THAN YOUR HORSE."


I think this is good to remember as well: that we cannot just let a horse "run us over" while riding, but need to know when to "sing louder than your horse" and buckle down. I believe that this takes a skilled rider, and an even more skilled trainer to execute, and that it can be easily lost in the chase for the better stronger faster learning horse that gets you to Grand Prix or gets sold.

Its not about the final destination, but the journey getting there.

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