Every trainer I’ve ever worked with started our relationship with the comment, “You must get inside of your horse’s brain, not his body.” Throughout my life I’ve said, training is not always pretty; be assertive without being angry; if you think you are being abusive stop and recognize you have missed a step somewhere. As an instructor who works with many new riders, I need to be the example of how not to let abuse become the standard of training. But what is abuse? The guidelines are very fuzzy in the horse industry and the drive to win can really skew even the best person’s intentions.
Last weekend I took 16 horses and 19 riders to a hunter/jumper show. The overall outcome was fantastic!! We had multiple Champions and Reserve Champions, and then we had our disappointments, too. By Saturday night I had to rally and come up with a plan that might help out 3 riders who were on 3 horses that had decided to quit jumping. Earlier in the day during competition, we’d tried some motivational tactics that included a crop. The instructions to the riders, at that time, was to use the crop in a careful manner to help their horses find their confidence again, AND IT DID NOT WORK. On that Saturday night, the tired, but determined young riders, went with me to the schooling arena to try again. As we tacked up they asked, “Should we take our crops?” This time I said no.
As we started the training session, I was hopeful that my get inside of the horse’s brain instruction would prove to be successful. I wanted this to be a time when I could feel good about my example, and show how we could tap into the horse’s seeking behavior and not into their fear. I rode one of the ponies while teaching the young riders how to find a positive method to regain the confidence of their horses. Each of us spent 30 minutes on small circles and changing pace within the gait. I asked them to do the kind of flat work that makes a horse work hard and helps a rider to get inside of the horse’s brain. I explained we needed to connect to the horses without fear.
At the end of this session all 3 horses were going great with only a few tense moments and no melt downs. Sad to say, the next day was not perfect for all 3 of the riders. We did have some great improvement and we certainly jumped around the courses. But I know there was disappointment. Would the outcome have been different if we had gone into the session with spurs and crops? I believe it would have been different but not for the better. These horses were already at their breaking point and were losing their confidence. We had experienced a new venue with spooky glare, a torrential rain storm, and surely nervous kids. I would not have felt good about trying to whack them over a jump.
I am not afraid to get after a horse. I can use strength when I need to. I’ll wear spurs and I’ll hold a crop. Yet, my now 52 years of experience says, if I resort to anything that bloodies a horse’s side, leaves welts on his hide, or makes him exhausted and trembling, I’ve crossed the line. Call me soft in my old age, but I can’t look a good horse in the eye and feel okay about beating him in the name of training. And, if he’s not a good horse, a good beating won’t fix him either. I’d rather be a good example to the next generation…..