26 December 2010

Dick Sparrow RIP


Some people are famous in small circles. I suppose Dick Sparrow was one of them. I read about him many years ago back when I subscribed to the Draft Horse Journal. His obituary in the Des Moines Register pretty sums up the most tangible result of his tact, timing, talent, and experience:

"Elmer R.'Dick' Sparrow, 1929-2010: Zearing Farmer Hitched up 40-Horse Team"

A photo of Sparrow driving a forty horse hitch accompanies the obit, but this one from the Draft Horse Journal is more spectacular.


As if that weren't enough, Sparrow went on to put together a forty-eight horse hitch that got him his Guinness World Record.

I'm sorry I never saw him drive. I'm also sorry so few people have even a remote clue how difficult driving even one horse is.


03 December 2010

Trees and the Forest


When the Obama Christmas tree was delivered by horse to the White House, it struck me as a pleasant but contrived photo-op because the delivery was made by a carriage company, and they haul people, not trees, although obviously they are willing to make exceptions.

On the other hand, when Prince Charles received his tree, the message was far more motivational. The story "Horse Power Delivers Charles's Christmas Tree" says,

Charles has been a supporter of the working horse industry for a number of years and met Ella [the Percheron mare pulling the cart] a few years ago when he visited Cornwall to learn about the work of Mr Joiner, [the driver] who is a professional logger and woodland manager.

There are logging horses working the in the US as well. So, while I liked the horse delivery to the White House, I would have liked it better had the horses actually represented the non-luxury, non-decorative working horses still functioning today in the US.

Oh well. At least there were horses.


21 November 2010

Becoming a Centaur


In competitive, individualistic America this headline from Chakra might surprise more than a few people: "Buddhist Monk Horse Rider Wins Gold at Asian Games" It shouldn't. Buddhism, as I understand it, is about becoming one with the universe. In many ways, so is riding.

The linkages to dressage riding and strains of Buddhism are strong. My favorite American and European dressage authorities all stress the connection between horse and rider, ribbons and trophies are rarely the goal. Although this is the first time I've read about Buddhism in connection with jumping, I've found similar expressions of the need for connection in works by some of the best authorities on jumping. In fact, I think I first read about show results being at best secondary to horse-rider team performance in Riding and Jumping by William Steinkraus, a book I need to reread.

A happy effect of globalization is that more than a handful of American riders and trainers now use meditation and martial arts training to advance their riding skills. Here, for example, is a line from American dressage master Paul Belasik's Exploring Dressage Technique: "All the best riders have tried to exalt the horse, to ride it carefully, as a reverent thank you for the gift of travel--real travel towards enlightenment."

One such brief moment of enlightenment was caught on tape appears in the 1963 Disney movie The Miracle of the White Stallions. Watch for the pirouettes in the performance before Patton. Alois Podhajsky, doubling for actor Robert Taylor who portrayed him in the movie, said those pirouettes were what every horseman hopes to experience a few times, a moment of effortless oneness, a glimpse of nirvana.

I've had a few moments like that just jogging down a trail or riding twenty meter circles. Suddenly there was no horse, no rider; there was just inner peace. My horse had to have felt it too or the moments would never have happened.

I've long held that learning to ride a horse is about introspection, calmness, empathy, and erasure of the self. In the article, Buddhist monk Kenki Sato said his "special life path" was to "become one" with his horse. I suspect my fascination with the partnership started when, as a small child, I saw depictions of centaurs. Whatever our inspiration, for some of us, working with horses is a never-ending path, a pursuit of happiness and self-discovery, perhaps even enlightenment and bliss. It's a good path.

09 November 2010

Fabulous Losses


Horse racing isn't all about horses; it's all about the finish line.  In some cases, however, the finish line hardly tells the full story.  Two losing efforts stand out in my mind as examples.  In the 1976 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Seattle Slew showed me he was indeed one of the best race horses of all time and in last weekend's Breeders' Cup Classic, Zenyatta crossed the finish line a few inches short and left me wondering how much speed and stamina she actually had.

Both Slew and Zenyatta were clearly running faster than the winners when the finish line ended the race; they both simply ran out of race distance.  However, these two races were vastly different.

In the 1978 race, Exceller's camp had used a legal tactic to bring down Slew; they entered a "rabbit," a horse with great early speed but not capable of going the mile and a half distance to quicken the pace and burn out competitive horses like Slew and Affirmed, the other Triple Crown Winner entered in the race.  The plan worked.  Hall of Fame distance horse Exceller won, but not by much. 

Despite having gone most of the race in blistering fractions, Slew dug deep and battled back to the surprise of most knowledgeable watchers, me included.  Passed by the great Exceller, Slew didn't fold.  Switching his tail in exhaustion, Slew drew on what horse people call "heart," and dug in for a final drive that, like Zenyatta's, carried him in front of his rival just a few strides too late.   

These two losses, however, were vastly different.  While Slew was set up and responded with Spartan determination and effort, Zenyatta lost simply because of racing luck and her heart-stopping racing style.  Running from behind is not an easy style.  Statistically, racing from the front or near the front produces far more winning efforts. 

Mike Smith nobly took responsibility for her loss, but what happened is intrinsic in the late run style.  Here, unfortunately for Zenyatta and her fans, the field split into two groups, carrying her way too far back for a stretch run.  Considering her utterly dismal first quarter and the circumstances that put her something like twenty lengths back, her second place finish was in itself astonishing.  For me though, the major difference between these two losses was that it didn't look like Zenyatta was running all that hard.  


This stretch photo shows Zenyatta wearing her usual, relaxed, floppy-eared expression as she was gaining on Blame.  On the other hand, Blame was the one that had dug in.  He was the one with the switching tail.  He was the one with his ears pinned in determination.  He was the one showing what horsemen call "grit."  The mare was eating up ground, suggesting that Smith was not exaggerating when he said he a lot of horse left.  This photo shows that.  She looks like a horse doing her usual job of running down the front horse in the last few hundred yards.  Nothing special.

Unfortunately, races are absolutes.  Style counts for nothing--except maybe in the hearts of horsemen who like horses more than horse racing.

Here are links to both these races:

1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup

2010 Breeders' Cup Classic

31 October 2010

Horse Talk


Today's offering from A Word a Day (wordsmith.org) closed, as it does every day, with a quotation.  AWAD's Thought for the Day usually intrigues me as much, if not more than their vocabulary word, but this one sent me to post here, because it goes to the heart of horse training:
Our expression and our words never coincide, which is why the animals don't understand us. -Malcolm De Chazal, writer and painter (1902-1981)
I have no idea who De Chazal was, but he identified a central problem I've had to deal with when working with people. Horses observe humans quite well.  In fact, as any good trainer can tell you, horses, are adept at reading people.    Horses, like most other animals, respond to human body language and to the pitch and rhythm of the human voice.  Lowering the voice soothes, raising the voice energizes, and rising the pitch can terrify.

I've lost count of the times when students have blamed their horses for "running away" when the horse was just following orders.   They'd lean forward or inadvertently cue, and when the horse responded, they'd begin repeating the word "Whoa!" with every repetition higher-pitched and more frantic. 

Once the event ended and the rider's heartrate returned to normal, I'd yet again explain that, yes, they were saying "Whoa!", but their voices were high and tight, in some cases even squealing and shrieking.  Worse yet, they inevitably became tense throughout their bodies as well.  The horse perceived--rightly--that the human perceived danger.  Not having any way to understand that the poor human perceived the horse itself as the danger, the horse fled, increasing its speed even more as the human indicated even greater danger. 

Horses understand us just fine.  Few of us understand them at all.

23 August 2010

Hand Holding


One of the first things I teach my students is the proper way to hold a lead or a lunge line.  Over the years I've noted that the safe and functional folding of the line back and forth across the palm has become less and less common in horse circles. In fact, one of my students came back from a large show where she had happily worked as ground crew and told me that a number of people came up to her and asked why she held her lunge line "funny."

I don't know if her explanations impressed those who asked, but, unfortunately, I now have a news story to point to that should: "UF Student's Hand Severed after Horse Gets Spooked."

Actually, a number of safety violations occurred in this incident. A more detailed version of this story added that the student who wrapped the lead around her wrist was sitting inside a vehicle and holding the horse through a rolled down window. When I read she was inside a car, I hyperventilated, but, for now, I'll just address the problem with the lead wrapped around a wrist.

The across-the-palm method of holding a lead or lunge is--or was--common knowledge.  I learned it from an old US Cavalry officer, but the importance of a safe hold shows up in a good many well known books.  For example, The Complete Riding and Driving System, Book Six: Lunging explains WHY a safe hold is important:

If the lunge is gathered incorrectly, one cannot pay out the lunge quickly or smoothly enough when the horse is moving off. A lunge which is gathered untidily is dangerous and can, if there is an emergency, cost the trainer his hand, or give the horse too hard a jerk in the mouth. The loops should lie nearly on top of one another so that they can slide freely when the hand is opened slightly. (33)

This comment in The Official Instruction Handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation repeats almost word for word what I heard from the old cavalry officer some forty years ago.  Only the cavalry officer clarified HOW to fold the loops.  Not folding the loops correctly creates the problem.

Some otherwise excellent books teach people how to lose their hands.  For example, page 21 of Sheila Inderwick's 1977 Lungeing the Horse and Rider shows how a person should position of the hand during lunging:



While the hand hold is lovely, the looping itself here is NOT safe.  First, the lunge line itself has a loop end.  It's as if the manufacturers wanted to tempt people to slip the loop up around the wrist.  Of course, this loop most likely comes from the driving handhold loop tradition.  In any event, on a lunge line, it's merely a temptation. I try to get people to buy lines without end loops.  The lunge lines with circular stoppers at the end are my favorites.  More seriously though, the looping shown goes AROUND the hand, not across the palm.  Were a horse to take off, the lunge person could most likely let go, but this line could tighten around the hand. Do you want to take this chance?

The across the palm method leaves the lunger or leader with two sets of loops sticking out from either side of the hand. There's nothing wrapped around the hand at all. Opening the fingers can release one loop at a time. Opening the whole hand allows the line to fall away cleanly.

Flipping through my book collection, from beginner manuals to advanced works, I found quite a few commentaries on this safer method of holding a lead or line.  This one appears on page 135 of Susan E. Harris's The United States Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship:  Basics for Beginners/D Level.


I'm not sure why horse safety has diminished of late, perhaps it's because most horse people today consider them pets, more like big dogs than the easily panicked prey animals they are. Unfortunately, around horses, what you don't know can cost you a hand or a life. Be safe, cross your palm.

25 July 2010

Colts and Stallions


Right now, a little stallion is padlocked in one of my stallion pens. The padlock is because his owner hasn't paid his board, not because he's a problem. He's totally atypical, kinder than most geldings, but for typical stallions padlocks are not necessarily a bad idea.

Too many people today don't even realize most stallions are physically aggressive--open mouth, teeth showing aggressive. More than a few are downright vicious. The good ones are the best horses around, but even those require special handling so that it's clear to them that humans rank higher than they do.

Mannering stallions is an art. In all horse-training, timing is vital, but in working with stallions, it can be the difference between life and death. Timing comes only from being aware of stallion behavior, recognizing it, and correcting aggression instantly. Stallions must know that nothing unauthorized will be tolerated. Once they get away with a little, the typical stallion immediately tries to get away with a lot.

For example, here's a story from today's Bloodhorse online "Eurton Recovering After Savaging Episode." It's not every day one sees the word "savaging" anymore. In fact, I hadn't heard it for years although it's the accepted horseman's term for being attacked by a horse. Here's what prompted that usage:

"We were behind the gate at the time and the rider got off the horse because he was acting up," Eurton began. "The horse then reared up and got away from his handlers. They got him to turn back behind the gate and he came right toward me and my pony.

"I turned the pony and the horse grabbed me in the back, picked me up and threw me down to the ground. I landed on my head, but fortunately I was wearing my helmet so I wasn't injured that way. But I have a huge hematoma on my back and a big bruise on my right knee."

The article does not mention the horse's sex, but I'm willing to bet big money--and I'm not a person who bets--the offending horse was a colt. What happened is extreme, but not atypical, colt behavior. Unless this colt has blazing speed, I'm sure this incident will prompt a visit by a vet. As a gelding, this horse probably still won't have an ideal temperament, but castration should temper his aggression greatly.

While extreme, this savaging is still typical stallion behavior. Many years ago, I bred a lovely TB to my Arab stallion and got a most impressive colt. My vet suggested keeping him as a stallion. I was dubious, and, as the colt began showing aggression I had to impress upon him that I, not he, was herd leader. He was fine with me, but I saw problems coming. The colt was smart enough to know that most people weren't me. That is, he was aggressive with anyone other than me. Nevertheless, my vet continued to recommend keeping him entire. Then, one day, my vet walked into his pen and the colt charged him. My vet dove through the rails of the pen to safety and said, "OK, let's geld the [expletive deleted]." I walked in and the colt respectfully let me put on his halter and lead him out to his fate as a high quality gelding.

Trainer Lynn Baber relates similar experiences with stallions. Click here.

Like Baber, I've pretty much come to the conclusion few women--or men for that matter--should be handling stallions, pretty much for the same reasons Baber gives. Most people, alas, lack the necessary knowledge, experience, command authority, and timing.

With stallions, knowing just how much pressure to put on the horse is also a major issue. A beaten stallion is likely to become even more dangerous than he was before the beating started. A well-disciplined stallion is often more charming than a good gelding. Knowing when and how to discipline to get the latter result is the mark of a true horse(wo)man

I especially liked Baber's recollection of backing up the unruly colt in a halter class. Backing up is one of the best disciplinary tactics to use on an unruly horse, whether mare, gelding, or stallion. Most horses dislike the movement, but it's not something that causes pain. Better yet, it's quite easy for a person on the ground to teach even a youngster to back up.

Backing away from a person on the ground is one of the first moves I teach a horse. I ask for only a couple of steps at first, but asking them to relinquish space at my command tells them I'm boss hoss, and they had better yield to a subtle cue or the cues will become ever more emphatic. If, for example, a subtle jiggle on the lead or light pressure to the chest with a fingertip sends a horse backwards without resistance--or at least with serene resignation, the horse is offering a major sign of respect.

Training a stallion requires both offering the horse a higher level of respect and in return demanding from the horse a higher level respect. Depending on the trainer's skills and the horse's underlying temperament, this can be an anything from an exhilarating thrill to a chain saw massacre nightmare. Finding out which can be, shall we say, a challenging experience.

27 May 2010

How Great the Disconnect?


Loss of terminology can tell one much about a society.  All the college instructors I know complain about not being able to make historical or literary or even religious references that most students will get.  This applies to horseman's terms too, but a number of my compatriots are unaware of their lack in this regard. 

How far have most of us come from the days when even non-horsemen at least knew common horseman's terms?  A long way.  Lately, I've noticed an increase in the use of the odd phrase "reign in" where the author was looking for another way to say "restrain."

Today I opened my email titled "Edge 319: Emanuel Derman: Breaking the Cycle; Dawkins, Church, Taleb et al on Venter" and found this in the introduction to the Derman interview:

Watching that interrogation of the bankers at the Senate hearings, I had the feeling that this is the way karma works in the universe. Everybody is going to do something not quite right as they act out their destiny mechanically, doing what they unthinkingly believe they have to do. The Wall Street people are going to reflexively overshoot and be too greedy. The Senate people are going to reflexively grandstand and be too uninformed and try to reign them in. There isn't going to be an elegant solution to any of this.

Edge aka edge.org is one of the most intellectually sophisticated sites around, so this small gaffe surprised me. Gaps appear in everyone's knowledge, but this area is one that widens by the day.

During the last week of the semester, I said something about horses to a fellow instructor, who, in response, asked if horses were solitary animals or liked company.

Gee! Knowledge does not have a free rein these days. It's curbed and checked and almost hamstrung. Haw!!

21 April 2010

An Unfortunate Historical Remnant


Recently, I ran across a story about a British group's donations of snaffle bits to horsemen in the desert area of the subcontinent of India. 

One look at the Indian snaffle bit below, a bit of current vintage, should explain why these British folks were so eager to donate snaffles of modern design.




I took one look at this bit and said, "Echini!"  Greek for "sea urchin," this style of bit was well known to Xenophon some 2400 years ago.  In fact, he describes something quite like this Indian bit in The Art of Horsemanship.

Here's a bit from Xenophon's era:



The article said that the donated bits were well received.  I imagine so!  Riding with a thick, smooth snaffle is tough enough.  It takes a lot of careful schooling to teach a horse to give to the bit.  The horse's natural reaction to the pressure of ANY snaffle is to raise its head.

Considering the severity of the "sea urchin" bit, it's unsurprising to find this depiction of an inverted horse on this ancient Greek plate:



I need to contact these British folks and see if they need any more donations.

29 March 2010

A Little Advice


I had most of this entry typed out in response to some comments on John Michael Greer's post "Logic of Abundance." I decided it was more appropriate to publish this entry here since his blog audience is far broader than my topic.

This began when I responded to a comment by someone planning to get into horses and was quite disappointed in Greer's take on the situation. In general, I have great respect for Greer and look forward to his essays with eagerness. Unfortunately, he gave his readers some egregiously bad advice about horses.

So, now that I'm safely back in horse territory, I'll recap what happened. For ease and continuity's sake, I'll excerpt from the comments that comprise this conversation.

First, Hawlkeye wrote this comment:

I'm going to purchase a breeding pair of Suffolk Punch draft horses after taking a hands-on "horse-farm school" course in the summer. Am I an ignorant, green-horn wanna-be horse farmer? Yes, of course, but I have to start somewhere.

I responded with this:

Suffolks are a good choice since this breed, although regaining interest, has reached critically low numbers.

I wonder however what you mean by a "breeding pair." I hope you mean two breeding quality mares. The French were famous for farming with a stallion hitched next to a mare, but most experienced American horsemen still blanch at the mere thought.

Like you, I have no illusions about horses replacing the car. However, car ownership is far more common than horse ownership ever was. First of all was expense. Second was human skill. Yes, draft breeding stock was decimated during the Great Depression, but bringing back the stock wouldn't be as difficult as training the people. A talented, fast learner might become proficient with horses in a few years. Few people are either. I hope you are both.

If you buy a solid, well trained team, they'll teach you a good part of what you need to know. Good luck!

To which JMG answered thusly:

Houyhnhnm, I trust he means a stallion and a mare, so he can start producing more of a good breed that, as you say, is in very low supply right now! He can start plowing with a team once the first couple of colts get old enough; the crucial point now is to get 'em breeding.

A bit later Danby entered the fray with this thoughtful advice:

RE: horses

It's far better for most small farmers to keep a pair of mares than an stallion and a mare, for a couple of reasons.

First, stallions are unpredictable and prone to assert their dominance at inopportune times. An experienced horseman can handle these situations, but the last thing you need when you're trying to put up your hay during a short spring dry spell is a thousand kilos of horse challenging your authority.

Second, a mare can easily be bred by someone else's stud, for a relatively small fee (or for free if the fences aren't too good). Having two mares doubles your foal production, adding a bit to the profit margin.

And on a related note, you only want to breed the best males. Since one stud can cover literally dozens of mares in a year (hundreds if AI is an option) keeping all of the male population intact is a bad breeding plan and a waste of a lot of horses that would make perfectly good geldings.

For many uses, geldings make a better choice than a mare, i.e. where the teamster has no knowledge or desire to deal with breeding the horse, where the lower cost of feeding a gelding makes a difference, and where the horse will be in an urban environment around a lot of other horses, the gelding's more even temperament and lack of sexual aggression make him a better choice.

I have long been of the opinion that one of the worst ideas for most horse owners is keeping a stud.

Danby's solid advice brought forth this from JMG:

Danby, I don't claim to know horses well, so I'll take your word for it -- but I hope there are enough farmers in every region who don't take your advice, so breeds don't go extinct because nobody thought it was a good idea to keep a stud.

Most of the time Greer's observations are spot on.  Unfortunately, he went sailing into the ozone here.   However, since he's clearly not a horse person nor are most of his readers horse people, I decided against inflicting my long response on his blog.  Here, I expect only horse people will stumble onto it. So, below is the response I wrote for, but did not submit to, the comments section of The Archdruid Report. What follows appears only here on this blog.

JMG— Since so many rely on your usually excellent advice, I’m most upset by your comments both on my post and that of Danby.

In response to my post you said, “Houyhnhnm, I trust he means a stallion and a mare, so he can start producing more of a good breed that, as you say, is in very low supply right now! He can start plowing with a team once the first couple of colts get old enough; the crucial point now is to get 'em breeding."

JMG, I admire you greatly, but this response displays exactly the sort of naive ignorance I constantly battle when I start talking to wannabe horsemen.

At best, what you suggest wastes time and money. Eleven month gestation. Five years from foaling to maturity. Another year to train—minimum--and that assumes a skilled trainer. With a pair of trained, proven broodmares, a newbie could learn the ropes, give the mares a bit of maternity leave and get them back to work with foals at their sides.

At worst, your advice on a breeding pair could get a beginner killed. It’s clear you don’t know stallions.

I do.  I have 40 plus years experience breeding and schooling horses and 30 training people to handle horses. I stood a top quality stallion, handled him myself for 18 years, and, watched happily as his get won locally, regionally, and nationally. Of course, I’d been working with horses every day for over a decade before I bought him, and I’d been studying conformation and bloodlines for over twenty years. I knew what I was getting into and what I wanted to produce.

Still, well mannered and kind as my stallion was, I held my breath when I came with his breeding halter. Most horses are bred with someone holding the mare and someone directing the stallion. In this situation, the MARES create danger. A fellow a few miles away was killed when the mare evaded her handler, swung around, and kicked at his stallion. The stallion ducked. The guy didn’t. That’s why most vet schools have students and handlers wear helmets and other protective gear.

Some will say that pasture breeding is the answer. It isn't. A few knowledgeable breeders can introduce a horse to normal herd behavior, but most stallions these days are poorly socialized and tend to act like "paddock rapists." Several of my friends have had major vet bills having their stallions sewn up after violent rejections.  In fact, my stallion had scars from pasture breeding when I got him.  So, like most responsible stallion owners, we bred him in hand.

Part of this is sheer economics. Most who own a good stallion will also say a horse worthy of his testicles is too valuable to be allowed to pasture breed except under rare circumstances. For example, the Irish National Stud keeps a pasture breeder for mares that have proven hard to settle, but their pasture breeder, while a quality horse, is never their premier stallion.

In breeding up livestock, great skill is required. It’s both art and avocation. Few have the enough of an eye or educational background to match appropriate phenotype to appropriate genotype.  Even then breeding's guesswork.  A top notch sire will get 20% top notch foals.  I consider my stallion's 18% champions from decent but hardly top 20% mares a testimony to the research I did before I bought him. Brag, brag.  Plus, of course, I was lucky.

Given that most horsemen agree with Danby and me on stallion keeping, JMG's response to Danby added to my consternation.  JMG said, "Danby, . . . I hope there are enough farmers in every region who don't take your advice so breeds don't go extinct because nobody thought it was a good idea to keep a stud."

Reading that, I thought, Do you advocate puppy mills too?!

Most neophyte horsemen wouldn’t know a potential breeding stallion from an ungelded nag even if it bit them, which it likely would. Backyard breeding is NOT the way to maintain a breed much less improve it. That the Suffolk breed is in low supply does not warrant standing just any stallion just because it has rare breed papers.

As Danby noted, a fertile stallion can easily serve a hundred mares a year, live cover or AI.  So the ratio of stallions to breeding quality mares in all breeds ought to be AT MOST something like one to forty or fifty. That’s enough to keep genetic diversity while maintaining and even upgrading the breed since only about half of all mares will meet minimum standards to qualify as breeding stock.

Stallions are—and should be--rare and expensive commodities. In pre-Industrial England and well into the Industrial Era, it was common for the “stallion man” to come around leading his horse on a circuit to service local mares. Such a system could well be returned to post-Industrial America.

Until the collapse progresses beyond its current state though, most rare breed mare owners would do well to buy shipped semen--cooled, not frozen--and have their mares artificially inseminated. That way they could remain local and still breed to the best stallion available—nationwide or worldwide. Most horse registries other than the Jockey Club allow artificial insemination and, for most people, spending money on AI is not much more expensive than sending a mare out to be bred. And, in most cases, it’ll be much easier than the worry of keeping a stallion.

A typical stallion’s housing and feeding needs are not like those for a mare or gelding. Most stallions fret and pace, so keeping weight on them sometimes isn’t easy. More importantly, the fencing and housing have to be much sturdier than normal horse fencing. When their hormones rise in the spring, a good many undergo serious temperament changes. For example, one of my students was working with a kind young Friesian stallion belonging to her friend. She told me the friend's fencing wasn't that great. A month later the stallion went through two fences to get to a mare. He broke a leg going through the second one.

That was to be expected. He was just being a stallion. So on one point, I quibble with Danby’s otherwise excellent post. He says stallions are unpredictable. I say that stallions are quite predictable. We can train most of them to behave well when working, but left to themselves they revert to their prime directive: MARE! MUST BREED MARE! That fine young horse died because his owner was ignorant.

I admit though that watching a true horseman does make a lot of wannabes think handling a horse is EASY. For example, long ago at a county fair, I watched a fine horseman dangling off the ground as his Percheron stallion coiled up and bellowed his availability to all nearby mares. This handler grinned and with experienced grace regained his stallion's attention within a short time. Most beginners and not a few experienced horsemen would have dropped the lead and run. That, of course, could have set off some serious carnage. Merely catching a loose stallion is beyond many otherwise competent horsemen. This is why most boarding stables will not accept them. This is why most neophytes shouldn’t be near them. This is also why I love them, but that’s another story.

In short, I recommend that anyone wanting to enter the horseman’s world TAKE TIME to find out what working with horses requires. Go to some county fairs, some horse pulls or competitions if they’re nearby. Take some riding and/or driving lessons. Look around. Ask questions. Then ask more questions.
          Houyhnhnm

Just because I can, I'm going to end with a photo of a couple of green horses that my students were schooling.  In the foreground is Kendell with Bastion, a 17 hand appendix Quarter Horse, working in long lines.  Unseen to Kendell's left is Erica lounging Ebey, an Arabian mare.


25 February 2010

Legal Documents for Riding Instructors


Most people who teach riding or allow instructors to give riding lessons on their property already know the importance of legal protection in the form of lesson releases. Some have codes of conduct, but here I’m going to suggest that even these may not go far enough. I propose that those who give riding lessons should ask their students and the parents of students to read and sign that they understand a list of commonly used and/or idiosyncratic terms they are likely to hear during their lessons, their children’s lessons, or in discussions with an instructor about lessons. I’ve found from personal experience that horsemen without all three of these open themselves up to anything from bitter misunderstandings to serious lawsuits.

THE LESSON RELEASE

The bare minimum is a lesson release. Any rider, whether it’s his first time on a horse or her fourth Olympic competition, can end up injured or even dead. Ignorant survivors of the most ordinary sort of accident are likely to sue. Ignorant kin of those who've had fatal accidents are even more likely to sue.

Before I allow a human on one of my horses I require a signed release. I drew up mine based on my knowledge of riding, and I had my attorney husband review it before I presented it to anyone for signing.
Anyone teaching riding needs to be as bulletproof as possible because, even with a signed release, some people will sue. For example, here’s a unpublished--except on the Internet!--Vermont Superior court case opinion as an illustration showing what can happen. Click on the title for more. Here, I’ve edited a bit and cleaned up typos.

Ventura County Superior Court
2005 WL 3163537
Unpublished Opinion
November 29, 2005

Plaintiff Gorlin was injured during a riding lesson when her already bucking horse was caused to stop abruptly. Plaintiff fell when owner’s daughter ran at the horse shouting “whoa.” Court held that falling from horse was within those risks contemplated by the release.

Thankfully for Sweet Spot Farms, the judge in the Superior Court ruled in their favor, citing previous cases and adding, “The prospect that Gorlin's horse might encounter an animal or a person that would influence its behavior was something any rider could reasonably anticipate.”

Hallelujah.

However, even though the defendants were awarded costs, they had to go through a lot of time and agony. Furthermore, the plaintiffs were definitely out of pocket for the whole thing, and, most likely, they still think the horse should have been an automaton, not a well-trained horse who stopped on command.

Aside: Did anyone else reading this opinion wonder what the rider’s actual position was when the horse stopped? I’m betting she was neither sitting deep nor sitting back as she should have been on a bucking horse. How many times have I called out "Sit back!" and watched a rider curl forward? Sigh.

CODE OF STUDENT CONDUCT

The second legal form I recommend is a Code of Student Conduct. For example, Serenity Farm of Texas integrates a section of Rules and Policies into their Lesson Contract.

Here are some rules of Serenity Farms:

3. Respect the instructor—no arguing.
13. No loud noises or running. These actions can spook a horse and cause serious injury/death to that horse and/or student.
22. Please be responsible and treat the horse and equipment as if it were your own
[I’m going to rewrite this one because some students really do treat the horse and equipment as if it were their own, and they’re wearing month old shoes that are already torn up. Much of my equipment is over forty years old and in exquisite condition. I want my students to treat my tack like I treat it.]

24. Failure to follow the rules and guidelines of Serenity Farms can result in removal from a lesson or permanently.
27. By signing this contract, you (student/parent) agree to adhere to the rules and policies set forth. However, instructor/owner has the right to remove student at any time if any infractions are made toward this contract including a parental conflict at any time.
Reading these points, I sighed deeply. My guess is that these folks have had some of the same experiences I have. Through my thirty years as an instructor, I’ve taught many wonderful people, children and adults. I’m still in contact with many by phone, in person, or by email, and those now living in other states often stop by if they are visiting my area. Unfortunately, it’s the few negative experiences that haunt me. My Swifthorse rant of 13 February 2009 details some of those.

Some unfortunate incidents are, of course, inevitable. It’s simply impossible to anticipate everything. However, I now suggest that there’s a new way to anticipate at least some of them: Add a glossary of terms to your list of legal documents.

THE GLOSSARY OF INSTRUCTIONAL TERMS

Good instructors always explain the principles of riding and define concepts before, during, and after lessons, but not everyone hears or understands. To help prevent this, I suggest riding instructors prepare a list of possibly confusing horsey terms that students and parents are likely to hear from them during lessons or discussions. Sadly, I’ve discovered some ordinary words often mean one thing to horsemen and another to the rest of the world. This can lead to grievous misunderstandings.

So far, I have not found anything online like the glossary of terms I suggest. Basic lists of horsey terms are available, but many are rudimentary at best, for example, saddlery terms, gaits, that sort of thing. The list I suggest will be more specific, more idiosyncratic. Although many of the terms will be ordinary horseman’s jargon, some may be unique to one instructor; others may be terms used within a specialty field.

Since every instructor’s list will likely be different, I suggest instructors jot down any term they have ever had problems with in the past lessons or discussions. No instructor should assume riding students or parents of riding students will intuitively understand horseman’s usage and be on the same page. It’s more likely they don’t yet own a copy of the same book.

Sometimes even experienced horsemen work from different books. For example, several decades ago, I foolishly allowed a local “trainer” to ride my Arabian stallion. I watched in dismay as what should have been a simple circle went horribly wrong. I said, “Half halt” and waited for results. The situation got worse. Raising my voice, I said, “Half halt!” Instead of saying something halfway reasonable like “Which rein?” this “trainer” looked up from my horse’s ears, which were by now alarmingly close to the guy’s nose, and said, “What do you mean? Just stop for second?”

This situation was my fault. I failed to ask him if he was familiar with dressage terms before I allowed him to sit on my poor horse. If I had asked him, he never would have gotten on, and my stallion would have been spared a nasty few minutes.

So anyone who teaches or talks about horses needs to sit down and think both of specialty words like half halt and of even more dangerous words where everyone understands the standard use but is likely ignorant of a variant or non-standard use typical of horsemen. Preparing such a list may take a while, and most of us will be adding to ours over the days, months, and years. No matter how short or long, the list may come in handy.

I also suggest that anyone teaching children make sure parents read and sign that they’ve read and understood this personal glossary. Trying to teach students with highly protective, non-horsey parents creates a whole new set of problems for a riding instructor. For example, here are my definitions for two words now prominent in my glossary:

Monster: noun. Any person, place, or thing that spooks a horse; any action emanating from objects animate, inanimate, or imaginary that might spook a horse.

Recently, I saw a non-horsey father nearly shaking with rage because he’d heard an instructor had called his child “a monster.”

Actually, this term is not at all uncommon among horsemen. Anyone who’s talked to a few riders has probably heard stories about the plastic bag “monster” or the running child “monster.” In fact, here’s an example of the term in use. The source is the January 2010 Equus, page 53:



Respect: verb. To respond instantly and appropriately to a clear, established cue or command. Applies equally to horse and student.

A schooled horse shows respect by moving away from the pressure of a rider’s leg. A schooled horse shows respect by stopping upon hearing “whoa.”  When a frightened, clutching student loosens the reins in response to an instructor’s command, that student respects the knowledge of the instructor—and possibly avoids injury or even death for rider, horse, or both.

For an example, I again post a link to the YouTube video “Bolt.” I love this video because I teach using Thoroughbreds and Arabs--hot and hotter. My horses are kind and responsive. They are so because I try to keep students off their mouths. Even after months on a lounge line, most students will still be heavy-handed, so it's vital they respect my commands and loosen when I say loosen--lest they DIE.

As a further example, a couple of years ago, I dismissed a student on multiple grounds after several futile attempts to explain the problems to the mother over a period of months. At the end of my rope, patience, and expertise, and fearing my kindest TB was at the end of his rope—literally--I offered the mother the fundamental reason for the dismissal. I said, the student “doesn’t respect me.” I meant the student would or could not follow my commands and was ending up in more and more dangerous situations.  

The mother, however, replied calmly, “Of course she respects you. She quotes you all the time at home.” She then added, “Couldn’t she at least come out and ride [my kindest TB]?”

I just stood there flummoxed. It took me a long time to realize what caused the level of disconnect the two of us experienced. I like to think a glossary might have helped.

In any event, it can’t hurt to compile, hand out, or post such a list somewhere around the barn. The horse and mind you save may be your own. Better yet, make it a legal document, separate or part of your total lesson contract. The time and money you save could be yours, too.

Who Are You? -- Part Four





Antoine de Pluvinel (1552 - 1620)

Here’s another great master that I have yet to read.  Despite my ignorance though, a little research shows Antoine de Pluvinel to be a pivotal figure in the history of dressage.

Pluvinel studied under a protégé of Grisone, so one might expect him to have continued the practices of his masters, but he didn’t. In rejecting the theory of harsh punishments and returning to and expanding upon the principles of Xenophon, Pluvinel was in the first wave of the humanism that would soon sweep across Europe.

I’m not alone in this opinion. In a 1985 journal article, Hilda Nelson argues that the revival of classical horsemanship should not be credited to the Renaissance humanism of Grisone but to the classical humanism of the 17th Century. Following the ideas of Paul Benichou, Nelson presents a good argument for the 17th Century as the first wave of humanism leading to the era we know as the Enlightenment. This modern humanism emphasized rational thought and refinement of manner.

Here article is available here:  http://www.jstor.org/pss/392816

Since many good Web resources exist on Pluvinel, I’ll resort to copy and paste for much of this.

Margarethe de Clermont also has an excellent page. There, she says this: 
Pluvinel is most well-known for his kind, humane training methods, contrary to Pignatelli, who often used harsh methods to gain obedience from the horse, Pluvinel used praise, careful use of the aids, and softer bits (simple curb bits) to get the horse to work with him. He claimed that the use of the spur or the whip was a confession of failure. Pluvinel introduced a form of equestrian ballet known as a "carousel" in which groups of horses and riders perform intricate patterns to music. In one such instance, over a thousand horses and riders performed together.
Suite 101 has another good page . There, Elaine Walker says this:

While Grisone’s manual of 1550 accepts and even advocates extreme brutality for overcoming any resistance from the horse, Pluvinel chooses instead a courtly refinement. His return to the gentler methods favoured by Xenophon also completes the movement from the battlefield to the riding house. Pluvinel uses the exercises purely as a recreation through which the nobleman may develop physical skills alongside judgement, grace and self-control. This was seen to show the natural moral superiority of human over animal nature without any descent into violence or anger.
Here’s also a nice bit from a sporting art gallery, which, not coincidentally offers some fine prints:

Antoine de Pluvinel was born in France and taken to Italy to study horsemanship from the age of 10 to about 16, when he was taken in by M. de Sourdis, the premier ecuyer (first equerry) of King Charles IX. In his early 20s, Pluvinel was appointed first equerry to the king’s brother, who soon succeeded to the throne as Henri III. His reputation grew, and when Henri IV took the throne in 1589, Pluvinel remained as a member of the court. In 1594, Pluvinel realized his dream of founding a riding school. He was at work on his book Le Manege Royal when he died. A first, incomplete edition appeared in 1623, illustrated by Crispijn de Passe. A second version, illustrated by the same artist, with improved text was issued about two years later under the title L'Instruction du Roy, en L'Exercice de Monter a Cheval and this version was translated and reissued many times. The book shows the instruction of the young Louis XIII (1601-43) who was crowned in 1610 under the regency of his mother and reigned from 1617 onward. The text and illustrations explain Pluvinel’s principles of training horses in the form of a dialogue with the king, interspersed with commentaries by M. le Grand and other distinguished authorities. Pluvinel’s book was groundbreaking in its advocacy of humane training methods, a departure from the harsher practices commonplace at the time.
Drawing from these sources, it’s easy to state that, as a member of the court, riding teacher, and author, Pluvinel exerted considerable influence on the aristocracy in France.  For example, the controversial Richelieu, who would become Prime Minister for King Louis XIII, studied at Pluvinel’s Academie.

Pluvinel’s influence also came to England in the form of his student, William, Duke of Cavendish, the next master I’ll examine.

For now, mere snippets from the writings of Pluvinel are all I have to offer directly. But they reveal a marked shift, going well beyond the scope of Xenophon in attributing riding as the meeting of two minds. The recognition of an animal as having a mind is in itself remarkable for this era.

ArtisticDressage.com offers quotations with commentary from current dressage master Dr. Thomas Ritter.

http://www.artisticdressage.com/pluvinel-quotes.html

Another set of Pluvinel’s words appears here: 

http://www.equiworld.net/foundation.htm

It never fails that someone who does not work with consideration either destroys his horse's gentleness or teaches him incorrigible vices.

I concentrate mainly on exercising his mind and his memory, in such a way that I achieve what I want: so that it is the horse's mind which I work the most: the mind of the rider must work perpetually as well, in order to detect all kinds of opportunities to arrive at his goal, without letting any movement pass unnoticed, nor any opportunity unused.

But in so far as the perfection of an art lies in the knowledge of where to begin, I am very well advised in this regard, to teach the horse his first lessons, since he finds them the most difficult, in searching for a way in which to work his mind, rather than his thighs and shanks, while being careful not to annoy him, if possible, and not to rob him of his spirit: since it is to the horse as the blossom is to the fruit, which, once withered, never returns.

Next time, on to the Duke of Newcastle.

15 February 2010

Another Loss


Competitive Trail Horse Elmer Bandit, 38, Euthanized

Dick Francis -- The Man Who Didn't Win the National -- RIP


My morning email from The Blood Horse featured this story:

Best-Selling Mystery Writer Dick Francis Dies


Francis was 89, so he had a long, fruitful life, but those who love horses and pleasant fiction from a man who loved horses will miss him.

Here's the best news article I've found so far: "Dick Francis, British Jockey Turned Popular Mystery Author, Dies at 89"

See also my review of Silks.

03 February 2010

Who Are You? -- Part Three





FREDERICO GRISONE


Getting  my energy up to discuss the Italian nobleman Frederico Grisone is difficult.  First of all, his 1550 manual on horse training has yet to be translated into English although I've heard someone is working on it.  I'm not sure I care since, to me, the bit to the left pretty much says it all.  Grisone was a product of the Renaissance, a glorious time that glorified Man--specifically, the civilized Christian man doing God's work, i.e. dominating the world.  Lesser creatures--be they New World natives or horses--look out!

Did I mention that horses often had teeth pulled to accommodate this type of bit, which I believe weighed up to five pounds or so.


Here is another example of Grisone's methods. This one shows how to teach a horse to lead. I wanted to use another illustration, one with a man poking a horse with a vicious cat that's been bound to the end of a long stick, but I can't find it right now.  I suspect the less inventive illustration shown here is still vivid enough to make my point.

This Who Are You topic is not simply to condemn Grisone. I consider his horse torture reprehensible, but it is important to understand the underlying assumptions or beliefs that led to this type of approach.

Most horsemen are products of their time.  A few rise above their day, but most do not.  Perhaps Xenophon was just lucky and reflected the most enlightened atmosphere of ancient Greece. Perhaps Grisone was trapped by unfortunate elements of the Italian Renaissance and hence became a different type of trainer. As Sylvia Loch points out in Dressage: The Art of Classical Riding "sixteenth century Italian thinking was concerned as much with creating a grand illusion, as with seeking the truth. In drama, literature, art, and politics, rhetoric and spectacle abounded." That's the key to Grisone's methods and his time: "A grand illusion."

Unsurprisingly, Grisone was a contemporary of Nicolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the ultimate guide for leaders who want to retain power without having to be ethical or even particularly competent. The advice found in The Prince contends that the ends justify the means and that appearance trumps reality.  

So, with Grisone the central issues of Who Are You arise. For horsemen perhaps we can simply ask this:  Who was closer to the truth:  Xenophon or Grisone?  Which is better: democractic cooperation or totalitarian coercion?

I'd like to think the answer is simple, but it isn't.  Both nature and nurture are at play.  Our eras may pull us in one direction while our natural inclinations may pull us in another.  Few of us think or intuit our way out of cultural givens.  And in this case, Grisone succumbed to the standard assumptions of his culture and resorted to force, still an easy path for all too many people.
 
Let’s face it. Force can work IF the ends justify the means. Grisone solved disagreements between horse and rider not through the patient coaxing advised by Xenophon but through force, brutal force if necessary. For example, Grisone actually used something not unlike waterboarding on horses that feared crossing water, and anyone familiar with the work of psychologist Martin Seligman knows that relentless torture produces a sort of resigned compliance, “learned helplessness.”

This however leads to a more central issue of the governance of a horse: Do the ends indeed justify the means? Grisone's results were probably quite pleasing to the eyes of most. Only a few, undoubtedly those with both knowledge of and an innate sympathy for the horse, would see the underlying truth of Grisone's methods: a master-slave relationship.

The concept of master-slave then leads to a still deeper question. Isn’t that what all horse-rider relationships are? Is partnership possible with a lesser being? Are horses indeed lesser beings?

These are questions that people I deem real horseman answer in ways that most people, including many top riders, do not. Unfortunately, I still know people who heartily approve of the master-slave relationship between horse and rider. They apply draw reins and tie-downs and scoff at what’s now called natural horsemanship.

Reading Xenophon or just looking at the illustrations of Grisone's work should prompt a person to ask  "Who am I? Do I  seek CONTROL or COOPERATION?" These are central issues, not just for horsemen but for humanity. Who rules? How? And why?

Luckily for many generations of well-bred horses, Grisone's harsh methods quickly fell from favor--if not always from practice--at least at the upper levels of riding.  But this leads to yet another question.  Why then is Grisone often still referred to as the father of modern dressage?

From what I see, Grisone's importance lies not so much in what he wrote but that that he wrote SOMETHING.  The printing press was invented in 1440 and a century later books were becoming much more common among the wealthy.  So the printing press allowed Grisone's then fashionable method to spread rapidly.  Indeed, his work was printed, reprinted, translated, and spread around much of Europe. As a writing instructor, I know that it's much easier to rewrite or even rip apart a text or one's own draft than it is to sit down and come up with original ideas while staring at a blank page.

What's true for reading and writing is also true for actual experience, and the Italian riding schools attracted Europe's aristocracy.  So Grisone and his proteges gave other noble horsemen a framework to refine, retool, and rebel against.  And they did. The ideas of others prompt us to respond. So we have to give Grisone credit for giving later, more humane horseman some starting points and a choice.  In this case, most went back to Xenophon. 

As proof of the evolution of horsemanship in Europe, here's an illustration from a fine German site showing the progressive changes to dressage bits that occurred as other horseman started reworking what Grisone began. Click on the picture to make it larger.


For still more information, there is a good discussion here:  Federigo Grisone's Gli Ordini di Cavalcare

I'll post more on these later folks in Part 4, whenever I get around to it.

26 January 2010

Who Are You? -- Part Two


In Part One, I suggested that the shaping and developing of the horse through breeding and theories of horsemanship tells the contemplative person quite a bit about individuals and even civilizations. Part Two is about the first surviving Western treatise on horsemanship. It's still a useful book, but I contend it tells us more than how to manage a horse.

Xenophon: The Art of Leadership

The prehistory of horsemanship suggests brutality and force. So does much of the history of horsemanship. Force, brutality, and even outright cruelty have dominated since the beginning, but a few prominent texts scattered through the ages suggest other methods. In the Western tradition, the first of these is The Art of Horsemanship written around 350 BCE by Xenophon of Athens, a student of Socrates and a prominent military man. Xenophon’s slim treatise remains a worthwhile read for horsemen today, both for its practical advice and as a guide for the moral development of leaders in democracies.

I wonder if Xenophon himself was fully aware of what he was doing. For example, here's his first line:
         It has been my fortune to spend a great deal of time in riding, and so I think myself versed in the horseman’s art. This makes me willing to set forth to the younger of my friends what I believe would be the best way for them to deal with horses.

This is a strong hook. He establishes himself as an authority and offers “to the younger of [his] friends” some practical advice. At worst, that’s what they get. At best, those young friends of old or new may come to realize they’ve been given some excellent advice on diplomacy and the management of mankind as well as horses.

This is advice on leadership and delegation. His forthright and practical advice does not romanticize horses or even suggest a mutual friendship between man and horse. The horse is not a friend, but more a willing subject. Still Xenophon is the first to advocate that patience and judicious care bring willing submission. For example, he says,
     See to it that the colt be kind, used to the hand, and fond of men when he is put out to the horse-breaker. He is generally made so at home and by the groom, if the man knows how to manage so that solitude means to the colt hunger and thirst and teasing horseflies, while food, drink, and relief from pain come from man. For if this be done, colts must not only love men, but even long for them.
This doesn't sound like today’s idealized partnership of horse and rider, does it? In this stage, the owner/rider isn’t even directly involved. To me, it sounds like tasks are designated to underlings whose duty is to develop something like a horse version of Stockholm Syndrome.

I am not attacking Xenophon. His advice is still sound horsemanship, but his words reveal strong political and military undertones in his methods. For him, horsemanship is about learning control—both self-control and the command of others, horse or human. That his advice is meant for future leaders is also clear. His audience, “the younger of my friends,” had to be the sons of power and privilege, for only these people would have been literate and able to afford good horses.

So to those young men, Xenophon gives not a didactic treatise on morality or tactics, but excellent advice on practical horsemanship, a skill and a sport that still appeals to the vigorous, athletic youth of today. Under that though is another message: Knowing good horsemanship provides a model on how to lead, to command with ease, with authority, and even with the cooperation of the led.

It’s unsurprising that Xenophon of Athens would laud this type of relationship with a horse. Although we are taught that democracy means equality and freedom, people like Noam Chomsky have noted that underlying the concept is the art of convincing people to be willingly led. In a totalitarian society, the rulers simply use intimidation or outright force to silence those who resist.

The swings between authoritarian force and authoritative seduction are evident throughout man’s relationship with horses.

More of that in Part Three.

22 January 2010

"Stop Pulling! Stop Pulling!!"


video
I just watched this video of a bolting horse and I felt like I was channeling this rider's instructor, mouthing her words, feeling her concern.

Although I can't quite tell what started the bolt on this video, it's quite common for beginner riders to go off balance and tip forward after even a small jump. In fact, it's an inevitable part of learning, but more serious problems then arise because a horse understands leaning forward as a request for more speed. English riding instructor Heather Moffett, cleverly and appropriately, calls this curled position the "fatal crouch." The situation typically becomes even worse when the rider tries to slow down the horse by pulling. Again, it's a natural response. People instinctively want to bend forward to protect their soft bellies and to use their hands to force a stop. Unfortunately, this clashes with the horses' instincts to go faster when humans tip forward and to flee in terror when people grab and pull at their mouths. So, if a rider wants a recipe for a bolt here it is: Lean forward and pull.

Anyone wanting to see how experienced riders slow a horse down has only to watch a televised horse race. After the finish line, how do jockeys slow and stop their horses? Do they crouch and hang on tight? Hardly. That's what they did to get their mounts to try to break the sound barrier. To slow and stop, they stand straight up and slowly lengthen the reins.

Going back to the video, it also shows how pulling can also cause a horse to rear. This far more dangerous situation is from seconds 30 through 38 on the video. The horse had stopped, but the rider's adrenalized tension and lack of experience likely caused her to pull when the horse fidgeted. Luckily, this rider respected her instructor enough to follow her instruction to "stop pulling." Almost anyone who's ever taken a riding lesson understands how much bravery and discipline it takes to surrender to instruction and respond appropriately when the body is screaming clutch the reins and hang on for dear life.

Learning to disregard instincts is among the most difficult challenges for a rider. This is one reason my students typically spend months and months on the longe. And even when they go off the longe line, they ride in bosal hackamores or natural horsemanship halters for a long time before their introduction to the snaffle. A beginner can do enough damage with even a halter, but my no-bits-for-beginners policy helps keep my horses sane and,in turn, keeps my students safer. Meanwhile, they learn that even riding with a halter means working on lightness.

It takes a couple of years to develop a good seat, but it's generally a lot longer before a rider grasps--pun intended--the limited role of hands in good riding.

21 January 2010

Who Are You? -- Part One


The English have this proverb: "Show me your horse and I will tell you who you are." Still one of the best lines I've ever heard, it deserves several posts on the history, psychology, politics, ethics, and meditative aspects of horsemanship.

I'll start with a personal story. My husband grew up in a wealthy Southern enclave, a place where women wore gloves and hats to shop and not just on Sunday. He once described his hometown as a place where people could live long, full lives without ever knowing what others thought of them. This most likely describes the ideal of a community where gatherings were superficial or politely guarded to promote a tolerant yet non-intimate type of social harmony. Such an ideal is, alas, far less likely between those brought up in less proper communities, and almost impossible between horse and rider where the horse will be direct and honest even if the rider isn't. In other words, the intimate relationship between horse and rider reveals the inner self whether the rider knows it or not. Aside from basic horsemanship skills, this relationship shows our ability to communicate, our basic assumptions on the use of force, fairness, reciprocity, and a whole bunch of other things. In short, it shows much about our personalities and even our politics.

Of course a few riders of extreme patience and skill avoid too many awkward and intimate revelations of their flaws and those of their horses. These few make themselves and their mounts look good no matter what problems they’ve encountered. I’ve seen some examples. A local woman regularly exhibits a Shire at the local county fair. In his early years, she rode him as both a dressage horse and a western reining horse. And now, showing him as an exhibition horse, she still makes a member of the coldest of the cold breeds look light and easy! On the international level, Many years ago, I watched a televised interview with veteran eventer J. Michael Plumb where he complained how dull and uninterestingly unpleasant his Olympic mount Bluestone was. I was surprised. Watching him on the cross-country course, I would have sworn they were a happy, harmonious pair. Those who have been lucky enough to see Reiner Klimke's victory lap with the heralded seventy-five consecutive flying changes on the once notoriously difficult Ahlerich will know what I mean. Such tactful, persistent skill in riders is rare indeed. At the very least, it shows a nearly miraculous connection with a horse. At best, it may well show the most noble, patient aspects of a human being.

Most of us can expect our horses to tell the world—at least the world of horsemen—exactly who we are. Non-horseman may argue with this. In fact, one of my daily vocabulary emails arrived just now with this as the daily quotation:

         The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older
         and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete,
         gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never
         attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not
         brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught
         with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of
         the splendor and travail of the earth.
                        -Henry Beston, naturalist and author (1888-1968).

With the horse, Beston was wrong. While most of the elements Beston describes are true, the horse did not arrive “finished and complete.” Man selected and shaped the horse, and, for better or worse, that selection and shaping of the species and finally the development of specific breeds, for work, for war, and for display, allowed man to spread across the world and dominate the earth. This shaping and developing also reveals much about the people who changed horses and horsemanship

That's what I want to talk about over the next series of posts.