When we want to train a horse, we are demanding him to enter our world, doing things for us -sometimes admittedly unnatural to the equine nature-, performing for us, living with us, trusting and respecting us.
This is technically not cruel practice, as we are in return looking after him. We keep him safe, feed him, care for him. But so often this balance doesn’t quite add up – we give him all those benefits, and still here we are, he’s napping, rearing, bucking, not standing still when being mounted, not loading. How rude!
Because “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” is a human thing, not equine. Let’s have a look what horses ultimately seek as a flight and prey animal. Taking away the obvious – food, water, shelter, company, space to act out natural behaviours.
SAFETY. It’s a prey animal’s first and foremost requirement, and now our responsibility is to give him this feeling of safety. The fact that there is no cougar behind the mounting block, we know this, but if we jitter around worrying about what could go wrong or what we are doing wrong and what he thinks about us and so on, we are SCARED. The horse reckons you could be scared because of that predator in the corner. How would he generally know what you are scared or worried about ? Ah yes, that crystal ball in his stable…
So if you want to make him feel safe and you aspire to be a lead horse, your responsibility is to not be worrying when you are around your horse, or at least camouflage it. Now for example I am terrified of lifts, but when my little boy is in it with me I have the best time ever. Or so he thinks anyway!! I pretend to have a lovely time, so I do not instil my fears on him.
To make things clearer, if your horse sees you in a weak mental state (fear, worry, frustration, sadness, anger, desperation, and so on), he has no choice but to take over the leading role and therefore be the decision maker to look after his little herd, which is you and him, because SOMEONE HAS TO in his world.. The disadvantage of that is that horses aren’t the greatest decision makers as we know..
Equality may work in our world, it doesn’t in the equine world. One leads, one follows. You decide which one you want to be, but there’s no swapping around depending on the daily mood. I know which one I prefer personally, especially on a cold winter’s morning..
I have a favourite analogy: Imagine the janitor of a million pound company is being promoted to the manager. He’ll be feeling very chuffed with himself,perhaps he will get a new car, start wearing designer clothes. The moment he has to make an important decision, he will not have the experience or knowledge to make an informed decision.
Your horse will walk all over you, as nature tells him he has to dominate you if you are not a valid leader. If you are constantly worried about what to get for tea, whether you have enough time, what the trainer said last time, if he will spook in that corner again- your horse will start making choices for you. Your horse will make these choices based on his instincts. Unfortunately i often see riders humanise these choices and think that the horse is doing things on purpose to annoy or scare us.
Another important element that is removed during the development of breeding horses for sport and leisure and which we need to give back, is sufficient CHALLENGE.
So let’s have a look what happened when we domesticated the horse. In this process we took all natural challenges away from him. But how does an equine “perform” in the wild?
Finding food- now it’s ready in the stable at 8am and 5pm with his name on the bucket, in a stable so the neighbour can’t challenge him for it.
Mating- I don’t need to go there, we all love a placid gelding.
Mental stimulation – Be honest, how many things does your horse need to work out on a daily basis? The hay net? The horse walker?
Fighting for hierarchy – individual turnout is needed to keep most livery yards peaceful (the humans that is!) – he might get bitten or kicked, but it is highly unatural for our equine friends to live solitary lives
Flight – most paddocks don’t allow a good fast gallop (he would DEFINITELY lose a shoe, so no no no) and apart from that there are no predators to flee from
So when people tell me it’s cruel to ride horses, because they should be in the field, throw in a few dominant mares, couple of colts, a cougar and limit water and food supply. THAT would be natural.
Therefore challenging your horse by making him perform physically and mentally is not unnatural, but it is REPLACING his needs, in combination with the elements that want us to keep a horse in the first place. This way we are not just taking from the horse but rather exchanging demands. And that’s fair.
Just a few examples..:
– Being “snug as a bug as a rug” might be your or a bug’s idea of happiness, your horse will rather be out there caked in mud with his herd mates. He is not bothered by that one dropping that you didn’t pick out of his pristine white shavings bed (That is you, humanising your horse).
-Rather than spending his life in isolation to not burden you with a vet bill your horse will rather be out there with his buddy , grazing, heads together and playing bitey neck games!
– If you like bobbing about slowly and steady that’s fine, but on other days encourage him to have a buck and a fart on the lunge at least to free up his body and let off some steam.
As owners and riders we must learn to differentiate a little clearer what ACTUALLY satisfies our needs and what TRULY satisfies our horse’s needs.
To find out more about how Melanie Beckman and her team train horses and riders check out her website, www.hallcourtdressage.co.uk
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