Keeping it Honest
For those of us who care about our horses, regard them as our partners and strive to do our very best for them, the modern fashion for almost regarding the horse as a piece of sporting equipment, and indulging in harsh methods that work against nature and the laws of physics in the pursuit of glory, is saddening and frustrating to watch. It’s easy to get angry about it and the heat that’s generated online these days is quite something to behold.
“Brutality begins where skill ends.” ~ Egon von Neindorff
I have removed myself nowadays from any pages that indulge in mud-slinging and name calling, not just because I don’t enjoy the energy of such places but also because absolutely non of that helps horses in a real sense. However good your intentions, once you start shouting at people, bullying and name calling you have ceased to make it about the horses.
So in the pursuit of truth and the absence of mud-slinging what is it really all about? And how can each and every one of us help to make a difference for horses?
“Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful.” ~ Xenophon
I believe that most people who choose to keep and ride horses do so because somewhere in their heart it began with a love for them, whatever that word means to them? So where does it so often seem to go wrong? From grass-roots level right up to the international competition arena? Why do we see young children taught to be harsh and domineering towards their ponies and top level riders openly bloodying their horse’s sides and mouths? Whilst all claiming to “love” their horses.
“In the art of riding, any excuse to yield is justified.” ~ Nuno Oliviera
The older I get the more I find myself only interested in seeking the truths of things because the truth of a thing is not based on opinion or belief, it’s based on actuality. Truth doesn’t come and go like the latest fashion and albeit sometimes painful to look at, for me truths are a relief because they are reliable and enduring and living by them helps make my life ultimately less stressful and gives me more faith in my decision-making. When ‘I don’t know’, there is always a truth out there somewhere that I can refer to if I care or dare to look.
“Increased body awareness gives you a greater awareness of your inner self as well as your surroundings. Changing your habits will cultivate an ability to make clearer choices” ~ Sally Swift
It recently became necessary for me to lose some weight. Although I “tried” and “tried” I couldn’t seem to shift the pounds. I then proceeded on a moan-fest about how unfair it was and how I just couldn’t understand it and so on… I was doing everything! There must be something wrong with me? Blah-blah etc. You get the picture. The painful truth was that despite what I liked to tell myself, the amount of calories I was putting in was still exceeding the amount going out. Once I was honest about that I was able to set about changing it. Oh but HOW I wanted it to be about something else! But when I stopped and examined the truth, it told me that to lose weight you actually do have to use up more calories each day than you put in. Hmmm…Problem solved. I am now two stone lighter.
Our horses are a part of our whole life story so the way in which we view them, interact with them, treat them and even train them will always reflect how we are generally conducting ourselves in all aspects of our life; because why would we change who we are just because we arrived at the stables or got on the back of our horse?
Because of who I am, rather than ranting and name calling I ask myself, what is going on when people who claim to love their horses and care deeply for them can then be found jabbing them in the sides with their heels or spurs, bumping up and down on their back thoughtlessly or pulling back on the reins continuously with tight strong hands? There are degrees of abuse that’s for sure, but the truth is that it’s not always confined to the bespurred competition Rollkur brigade that we like to get so fired up about.
“Pulling on the reins never creates lightness either at the time or when you’ve finished”
For some unknown reason I’m yet to fathom, horses stoically and generously bear the brunt of our general ineptitude. It seems to be their lot in life and it doesn’t always appear to bother them overly as long as it remains within certain parameters. The problem I see can be our potential lack of honesty surrounding that. Perhaps it’s because horses often allow us to get away with a great deal before they really start complaining it can mean that if we aren’t careful, we can begin to ‘get away with’ more and more when what we should be doing is checking-in on ourselves continuously in order to ensure that we are never taking advantage of that.
“If you can’t yield the rein contact without feeling like you’ll fall backwards you need to look at that”
The early part of my own riding journey saw me spend many years learning and becoming quite good at, ‘making horses do stuff’ because I genuinely thought that was the point. I won rosettes and outwardly to the uneducated eye, probably looked like I knew what I was doing, but every now and again my ‘honesty alarm’ would go off and when it eventually became too frequent and deafening to ignore I went in pursuit of something that might finally silence it. It transpired that a part of this journey became about making a commitment to myself that I was no longer going to invent reasons for behaving in ways on the back of horse that I knew were wrong. Amongst other positives, my learning progress speeded up immeasurably once I learned how to run things through my ‘honesty filter’
“If you always do what you always did, you‘ll always get what you always got. If you are not happy with what you are getting, you have to change what you are doing.” ~ Kyra Kyrklund
There are plenty of crimes we can be committing around and on the back of a horse if we aren’t vigilant and listening to their responses but the one I’ve specifically chosen for this post is, pulling backwards and downwards on the reins because it’s one of the most damaging and yet at the same time, simplest to understand and easiest to perceive.
There is not a book or a DVD or an online course out there that will tell you it’s ok to pull continuously backwards on the reins with stiff tight wrists and muscular forearms and shoulders. It’s not part of any reputable training methodology and your horse will clearly tell you that it’s not working for them. Most riders don’t want to do it, it’s not our intention to be rough, jabby or unyielding on the horse’s mouth and we are even a fully paid up member of the ‘be kind to horses’ club and yet…
“Acceptance of the bit happens in the haunches, not in the mouth.” ~ Thomas Ritter
The truth is of course that the quality of your rein contact and the subtlety and softness of your hand will improve over time in direct relation to the education of your seat together with your horse’s increasing ability. This can be used as a reason why we don’t all have hands like Arthur Kottas… Yet. And thats ok, however we must not make this into an excuse. There is a difference. How often do I hear as a reason for the horse feeling hard in the hands? He’s strong, he’s rude, wrong bit, when he’s better trained he’ll be lighter… Check-in and see if you have any of your own? I had plenty of quite inventive ones at one time.
“Poll flexion is not Pull Flexion.” ~ Thomas Ritter
The truth is, that it’s a mouth and unyielding downwards acting rein contact causes pain and resistance. The truth is, that it’s your responsibility not the horse’s, to ensure the contact is not hard and pain causing. The truth is that it works both ways. If you keep allowing yourself to hold on with and rely on your hands you will never discover all the other things you need in order not to hold on with and rely on your hands. The truth is that when you have half a ton of horse arriving in one or both hands you have a balance issue that’s never fixed by more pulling. The truth is that when your horse is opening his mouth you have a training issue, more often than a bit issue. The truth is that it takes two to pull. There is an endless list of bankable truths associated with just this one subject. You aren’t expected to never end up with too much horse in your hand. It happens. But don’t let this become your truth. The feel in the contact is always your responsibility.
And if you find yourself saying ‘yes but’ to any of the above then the truth is you’re just not quite there yet, and thats ok, just keep searching… Seek out the kind of trainer who is willing and able to help you. If by the end of your lesson you have a horse who feels heavy in your hands, you might want to think about changing trainer because the truth is it’s not supposed to feel like that.
“Each use of the hand has to be preceded by an action of the upper body, otherwise the rider is merely influencing the horse’s head.” Nuno Olivera
So all of that can sound a bit daunting. It can be tough to admit that despite what you perceive as your best efforts you may be falling short of the mark as far as the horse is concerned, but the truth is you will never become better at not doing those things as long as you deny they are happening and the effect they are having on your horse.
“The reins are not for ‘keeping you up there'”
The good news is that after the initial uncomfortable phase, allowing complete honesty and truth into our riding is empowering, stress relieving, it leads very quickly to the improvement of all the things we were avoiding and it always leads to a better life for your horse. Which is the point right?
I can only imagine that most of the people we despair of, who use and abuse their horse’s body and kind nature for the sake of personal gain and prestige, despite being shown every evidence that what they are doing is harmful to their horse, firstly just have truth and honesty issues to the extreme.
“Strong contact through the reins, whether constant or occasional, is counterproductive to the goals of dressage.” ~ Charles de Kunffy
I prefer to believe that the majority of these people don’t set out to abuse their horses, they just have goals, both short and long term, which is fine, however they have allowed the pursuit of these goals to become ‘the point’. If they started with a love of horses then in order to achieve these goals at any cost must require them to build up very firm barriers and filters to reality in order to not see the compromises they are making to their horses. At it’s extreme, they almost don’t know they are doing it any more. I feel desperately sad for their horses but also sad for them because until they do they will never experience the joy of true partnership and what it could be like for them and perhaps this is their punishment even before we start shouting at them.
“In schooling horses, pulling on their mouth is unnecessary and causes them anxiety and eventually physical damage. The discomfort and stress to the rider is also enormous, unnecessary, but well deserved” ~ Charles de Kunffy
Each and every time we ride we have the chance and the choice to assess the truth and reality of the things we are doing up there and what we are telling ourselves about that. Take every opportunity to listen to your horse and your inner voice. Run your choices through your ‘honesty filter’ It doesn’t mean you have to be the greatest rider that ever lived but it will speed up your learning, your progress and do a great job of protecting your horse from the inevitable mistakes you will make along the way. Never put your goals above what you are feeling in the moment.
“It is a lot better to risk losing a bit of contact than not to yield.” ~ Nuno Oliveira
It is ok to admit that you have things you need to learn to do better and you’ll find that these will diminish much faster when you confront them rather than denying they exist. What’s not ok is for the horse to constantly feel hard in your hand. He never ‘wants’ it to feel like that. What’s not ok is for you to be constantly pulling your fists downwards onto your thighs or backwards towards your body. If this is happening, then be honest, prioritise it and set about fixing it immediately, in every moment, because you will have little else of value beyond this fundamental error. Taking photos of yourself can be a great honesty tool.
“Not pulling is for ‘now’ not for in a minute”
So whilst we are rightly concerned about the welfare of those horses out there who are being abused at the highest level and perhaps feeling that shouting at people might help. Don’t forget that you can’t look outwards and inwards at the same time. Regularly take moments to check in on your own levels of honesty. We may not always be able to change the way others behave but we can ensure that in our own world we are responsible for our actions and the impact they have on those we are interacting with, both humans and horses alike. Whilst kind thoughts, idealistic words, good intentions and even the odd rant is admirable, we must also check in on ourselves regularly that at our own level we are walking the walk not just talking the talk.
“…If I have always worked honestly, my horse will carry me to the end of the world.”