Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Training vs Development

This morning I read an interesting piece on standing outside the box, away from the crowd, out from under umbrellas, being different, taking a different approach etc. It's a good piece and worth the read.

I was nodding in agreement, quite merrily, being proselytised to with great delight in self-congratulatory recognition, feeling good about myself until I came upon this: "Using such words as break, train and desensitize can be improved upon..It's easier and more comfortable to resort to those words since they are normal..It is not as comfortable to replace them with start, develop and build confidence."

I agree that breaking horses as a term has agendas where I choose not to go. And I am in two minds about how politically incorrect desensitising is, which I think is embedded in the methods and processes taken, and if bound up with the intent to build confidence in the horse is not so offensive. I found the rejection of the word "train" difficult. I can develop my horse in a number of ways and not train her. And what do we really mean by "develop"? What is the objective? And to, and by, whose criteria is the horse developed? By the horse's? I am pretty sure a horse considers itself already developed, as a horse-entity. So develop makes as much sense as train, and to me, a little less sense.

In order to achieve having our horses do things by cue or request, they need some kind of training. Sure, if you wanna develop them, you can call it that, but frankly, it's training. Training develops a horse to be the kind of animal we want to have around. Developing a horse does (should, otherwise what is being developed and why?) the same thing. So it actually benefits the human directly, and the horse indirectly, because a well trained horse is more pleasurable to have around, and is less likely to be neglected (that's a big assumption I know) and end up prematurely dead in a can of dog food.

It makes me wonder what the issue is for the author of that blog post around the word "train". Since when is train a dirty word? We train our children to go to the toilet, we train ourselves to get up in time to make it to the office at work o'clock. When we train our horses, we are also training ourselves, whether we like it or not; to watch ourselves, how we behave, react, respond, reassess, control ourselves as well as doing the same for our horses. In this regard, training is a two-way street, of dialogue and negotiation.  Developing our horses to me, doesn't contain this dialogue and the capacity for negotiation. Develop is something we do to our horses, a bit like developing a photo in a chemical bath.

So while we "develop" our horses through "games" on the ground, or in-hand sessions between two long reins, or under saddle during school manoeuvres, cattle work, jumping etc, we are also training them, and ourselves, hopefully building trust, and confidence in both horse and human in themselves and each other. Yes, good quality work, that is negotiated and created around the needs and readiness of both horse and human,  in this regard develops the human-horse relationship to one that is more harmonious and safer for both entities. It does so through training the horse to do what we want, when we want, in a manner that is (hopefully) acceptable to both parties. If you want to make what you do sound softer, more acceptable, by calling it developing the horse, then go ahead, but it is what it is: getting the horse to respond in a way that we want, when we want, to a particular cue through a series of discussions we have with horses. I call that training.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How to make a dressage horse, phase 1

I've been watching the European Dressage Champs this week. Some of the horses competing are a similar age to Maz. They are doing international Grand Prix, she is in the first stages of becoming a riding horse. Currently there are billions of lightyears between the two. But this is how all those GP horses started, albiet some 6-7 years earlier!



I have trained and ridden a lot of young horses, racehorses mainly, arabs, stockhorses, warmbloods, back in the day. I have retrained older horses, either off the track or who have had time off from being under saddle. The difference between these guys and Maz is that they started as youngsters, so the concept of being a riding horse, a horse that works regularly for a few hours, a horse that has a job is instilled. Maz has been sunbaking poolside with cocktails and cute waiters all her life. Now the money has run out of the expense account, and she is expected to do some work. You can imagine the culture shock.

She is 9 weeks in work now, and 8 weeks under "saddle" ( the first week was bareback!) and the last 5 weeks with me. We are still working on accepting the initial saddling up process (without walking off, barging, humping, half rearing, aggressive behaviour). Once the saddle is girthed up, it can be taken off and on without drama multiple times. So she is not what I would call classically girthy, just resistant to the idea in the first instance.

She is sometimes resistant to the first steps under saddle. This I am not worried about. As her strength, suppleness, confidence and understanding grow, this will disappear.

Turning and bending right is an issue. Sometimes she can do it beautifully, if only for a few steps, but more often, it's a battle of mind, body and flexion to get any bend right, and sometimes even a simple turn right is overhwelming. You'll see above where I go to turn right on her and change my mind, take her left to avoid the resistance that is building up, and take her back right again when she softens. No point arguing over something that can be negotiated on for a better outcome later. Ingrain quality at every attempt, and reward and encourage any try.

Often she is very resistance to the very first request for halt under saddle. If I get that blockage, we go forward and I ask again later. Same with backing up. First attempt usually results in humping, head shaking and a big fat no. So again, we try again later until we get a lovely soft rein back, based on intent only.

So while I dream of rhythmic, cadenced 20m trot circles, each day when I ask myself what does Maz need from me today, what support does she need, what does she need help with, what is she struggling with today, my goals are always around softness and calmness in the mind and body, and to finish the session with understanding, acceptance and more confidence from her than she walked into the arena with. If that means she doesn't get ridden that day, to achieve my basic goal, so be it. I think we are slowly getting somewhere. And on those days, like yesterday,  when she snakes her head at me, fronts me up and does beautiful levade in a game of "Who will yield ground first, little puny human",  I remind myself of the upfront, bolshy yearling who captured my imagination nearly 10 years ago, and I tell myself that's why I bought her, and why we are still together.





Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Horses make me happy. You, not so much"

from behindthebit.com


It has been noted, repeatedly,  at my agistment that I am riding Maz in a halter. And I have been questioned on this ie do you ride in a bridle? With a bit? Why not? etcetc. One of the agistees asked Mr Nancypants about Maz and how she is going only yesterday, after seeing me ride in the arena. Again, it came up that Maz is ridden exclusively in a rope halter at the moment. She commented when told no bit, no bridle, "Gee, Maz must be quiet then." The reply was no, she's a bucket of dynamite. I would have replied, nope, that's why I wear a helmet!

But the comments and observations, some with agendas behind them, some with appreciation for what I am doing, indicate various levels of understanding of riding horses, most based on myth. And in my inbox this morning, the lateste Cynthia's Natural Horseworld Blog. And in that blog, an article on this very thing ie riding bitless and people's responses to that.  Exactly what I have been thinking about since I have been riding Maz over the last few weeks. It's worth the read, to save me writing the blog I was going to write (until I read the article!)

So, let's take the comment made yesterday, that Maz must be super quiet to be ridden in a halter. So only quiet horses can be ridden bitless (and then, if so, how do those horses get quiet?), that other horses (ie not quiet) must be ridden in a bit. That a bit controls a horse and confers a level of safety (having ridden racehorses, bolting, bucking and rearing horses, I'll refute that til you are blue in the face listening to me). That riding without a bit is not safe, unless of course you are riding a really quiet horse. And that you can't really train a green horse properly without a bit, and riding in a halter is a beginning phase of education that will be surpassed at some point with the use of a bit.  This flow of logic astounds me, but this heuristic seems to be a quite solid base for the comments I am getting on a regular basis.

I guess it comes down to choice: what kind of relationship do you want as a rider, with your horse? I am well aware of the damage a bit can do, as can a severely used noseband, chain, rope, halter. Brute force might work once if you are lucky, but it's not sustainable. Time spent building trust, respect and solid responses to trained cues is.  Severity is a quick fix but it doesn't address the base cause or issue that elicited the action or response. And severity has repercussions that may not display immediately, but may at some point down the track.

Some people may not want, or have the time to spend developing their relationship with their horse through training.They enjoy riding and just get on with it. That's their thing and they are comfortable with it. And if something bad happens to them out riding, often the horse will be blamed, will be given the responsibility for whatever happened. To me, that's like blaming a five year child for crashing the car.

Safety isn't found in a piece of metal, rubber or leather. It's found in thoughtful training, well timed communication and considered handling of the horse. It's about keeping things within the boundaries of what you and your horse are capable of at this moment now. It's about anticipating potential problems and making decisions to avoid that possible outcome ie thinking ahead, planning and being prepared. It's about being proactive, helping your horse out of trouble, so that they can help you out of trouble. It's about respecting the capacities of your horse, and your own skill sets. It's about knowledge, information and applying that knowledge at the right time, with the right intent. You won't find that in a bit in your horse's mouth.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Slow cooking..

Having a "new horse" to work during late winter is a bit of a reality check. As cyclists, if it's too wet, too dark, too cold, too much of anything, we can hop on an ergo and wack out a few intervals no problem after we get home from work. No rush, no bother, all rather civilised.

Unless you have ready access to an indoor arena, horse riding is truly an outdoors sport. So without cover, or floodlights, there is a mad rush to get from work to the paddock to take advantage of any daylight left to do some work with Maz. Consistency is crucial for starting/retraining a horse. My only excuses now are if it's really raining and the arena surface is not up to being worked on (or the agistment owners have closed the arena), or the sun sets.Unfortunately work does get in the way, and some days the sun set too early for me to ride after doing the preparatory ground work. Dealing with not being able to "achieve" what I had planned for the day has been interesting! You just gotta deal with what you've got at that time, basically.

Luckily, the Union Movement invented something called "weekends"! Maz was getting more and more tense in her work during her first week back home, although performing ok, I was getting less confident getting on her - there was a little time bomb ticking. I realised I had been rushing her, in my attempt to beat nightfall. So it was time to slow it down a notch and change my end goal, from needing to ride her, to achieving calmness and true softness and then retaining it under saddle. I used the weekend to refocus on ground work, as well as then having enough time to ride without stress. It worked a treat.


End of week 1:


Ground work - consolidating stand-next-to-the-mounting-block-and-don't-swing-your-hindquarters-away (and also foot control for float loading)




And then the ride. Despite suddenly coming into season and showing the world, she was calm, responsive and working with me. It was our best ride to date.




Week 2 was a bit of a write-off, thanks to the aforementioned thing called work. No riding, but lots of ground work. Thursday was not a good day under saddle, firstly in girthing up, and secondly in getting on. A bit of a dummy spit by Maz as I got on the first time had me backing off my plans for riding, and just settling for a relaxed horse while I simply mounted. We achieved that, but there were obvious issues with saddle acceptance. This was compounded the next day by a swollen lower foreleg, and finding out Maz had been playing chasey with a new neighbour for two days. Lots of skidding on greasy paddocks equals a sore horse! So I was less worried about Maz's reluctance to take the saddle on Thursday, and was glad to have not pushed it.

All the things we take for granted with a riding horse are trained. Standing still while saddling up, getting on, pace control, stop, go, left, right, leading, dropping the head for haltering, loading onto a float,  tying up, ground tying, not barging, pushing, shoving, walking too fast or too slow, being hosed and scraped down, wearing boots and bandages, waiting when being fed. And these are the basics. But it's time well spent, and it's seriously true: if you don't have it on the ground, you won't have it under saddle.