It's Not About US

Several years ago I was asked to give a demonstration at a pony club rally. I was surrounded by a group of 20 or more girls between the ages of 7 and 14 years. I don’t know if my demonstration had any impact or not, but at the end of the session I asked if any of them had a question they would like to ask. A cute kid of about 8 or 9 put up her hand.


“Um, sometimes when I ride my pony out on, um, a trail, um, we go about a mile, um down the road, um and she stops and, um bucks me off and, um then runs home.”


I immediately started to think about ways I could help this little girl teach her pony not to buck her off. In my head I was thinking of telling her about hindquarter yields and trying to keep the pony busy when she knows the buck is coming etc. But the girl fooled me. I did not expect the question that was most burning in her young mind.


“Um, how do I stop her from running home after she, um bucks me off because it’s a long walk back?”


I laughed. I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help it. I was sure she wanted to know how to prevent the bucking, not how to teach the horse to not run off after it bucked. But the girl had her priorities. The bucking didn’t bother her. She just hated the walk home.


When I think of that story I think of how we all see things differently. We see our horse’s behaviour from our own perspective, not our horse’s.


For example, if we have a horse that baulks when loading into a trailer, we practice trailer loading. But because we don’t see poor trailer loading as a leading problem we don’t practice better leading everywhere we go – we just practice better trailer loading. In our eyes, trailer loading is the problem, not leading.


If our horse shies a lot on the trail, we try to desensitize it to different objects and situations because we think the shying is the result of fear of different objects. We don’t always see a lack of focus as the cause of the shying. We practice desensitization and ignore the poor focus.


If we have a horse that lacks straightness and balance when we ride a circle we try to use more inside leg and outside rein to fix it because we are not aware that the horse’s focus is to the outside of the circle rather than the circumference of the circle. We physically try to place the horse straight on the circle instead of getting them to think on the circle.


People are always chasing symptoms, because it is the symptom that most bothers us. We view the symptom as the thing that gets in the way of what we want to do. Without the symptom there would be no problem; or at least we wouldn’t know we had a problem. I mean, how many of us would know we had a cold if we didn’t have a blocked nose, headache and cough? We figure that if we cured the symptom we cure the cold.


But that is a very human-like perspective. In fact, it is self-centred. Horses exhibit unwanted behaviour because they have a problem with what we want. If we cure the symptom, we may have solved our problem, but we still leave the horse with its problem. For instances, teaching the horse to standstill using hobbles may cure our problem of a fidgety horse, but the horse’s problem of feeling the need to fuss and fidget remains unresolved. Forcing obedience on a horse does nothing to fix its turmoil.


It’s part of being human to make riding, training and handling all about us. We rug (blanket) horses in warm weather to keep their coat nice. We trim a horse’s whiskers and apply makeup and false tails to enhance their appeal to the judges. We use gadgets to enforce obedience and submission. We start, ride and compete with horses that are too young to do the job. We choose the instructors, trainers and clinicians that we do because they make us feel good about us.


The little girl at the pony club did not realize that the solution to her problem of having to trudge the long walk home was not to teach her horse to stand still after she fell off, but to teach it not to buck her off. She was just kid – I wouldn’t expect her to think about what’s the best thing to do for her horse. But I’d like to believe that she went home that day and had a talk to her parents about how to help her pony feel okay enough that it didn’t have to buck her off.

Two Stage Weaning

One of the most serious and commons issues that people seem to have with horses is separation anxiety. It’s everywhere and something that all horses and owners endure to some extent. If I could invent a magic pill that cured horses of separation anxiety I would be one of the richest men on the planet.


For some horses separation anxiety is displayed as a subtle increase in their level of distraction. A horse might be just a little less focused. In other horses, it can appear as constant calling out, a need to be pointing in the direction of the other horses and a lack of soft responsiveness. In more extreme cases, horses can be dangerous and threatening to anything or anyone that gets between the horse and their thought to be somewhere else. A lot of horses view being removed from where they feel they need to be as a life and death situation. It is not trivial.


I believe that separation anxiety is a consequence of a horse’s instinctual need to be around other horses for security. It's part of being prey animals. It is probably a remnant of when they roamed the northern Euro-Asian plateau and were hunted as supper for other species. Living in a herd was a safeguard for individual animals much like it is for zebras today.


In today’s domestic horse the instinct to be among other horses is still strong. It’s as much a part of being a horse as their sense of smell or memory. However, unlike smell and memory I think we can influence the degree of severity that a horse succumbs to separation anxiety. Apart from our training practices of utilizing focus, clarity and softness, I believe early life experiences play an important role in influencing a horse’s ability to cope with separation.


My experience of handling young horses has led me to believe that perhaps the way we wean foals has the most dramatic effect in the early life of a horse. I believe that the weaning practices used by most people are designed to be the most convenient for breeders and too little is understood about their effect on the mental well-being of horses in later life.


I don’t have any hard evidence (and neither do too many other people it seems), but my own personal experience strongly suggests that the method of abruptly separating foals and mares is the most likely means of making worse the problem of separation anxiety. Foals that have been separated from their dams slowly and over a long time period appear to be better adapted to separation from other horses, as they grow older. Almost every severe case of separation anxiety that I have come across has been in cases where the horse had been cut off and separated from its mum abruptly. Of course, this may be simply because most horses are weaned in this way and, therefore, the likelihood of the serious cases of separation anxiety being weaned in a similar manner is pretty high.


I was discussing this subject at the recent clinic in South Australia and Sandra Schmidt alerted me to a method being introduced in Canada with cows and their calves. In the cattle industry, calves are weaned all at once, in the same way most foals are weaned. It was noticed that when weaning was done this way, calves appeared very stressed, lost considerable weight and were prone to more injuries involving fences. This represented a loss of potential income to the farmers.


What the researchers discovered is that weaning involved two different factors. Firstly, the nutritional part of weaning meant removing the cow as a source of milk. But there was a social/emotional side to weaning, which involved physically separating the calf from its mother. When they treated them as two separate weaning practices instead of one, the stress level of the calves was dramatically reduced, they did not lose any weight and there were far fewer injuries.


The devised a plastic flap that fitted to the calves nose and prevented them from grasping the cow’s teat in order to suckle – so the calves could not drink from their mothers. They left the calves in the herd with the cows for 4 to 7 days. After that period, the flaps were removed and the calves separated from the cows. The bottom line was that this two-stage approach to weaning resulted in less stress and problems for the calves.


I don’t know if what the Canadians did for cows would work for horses. I suspect the nose flap would need a re-design to even be fitted to a foal. But what I am interested in is what would the effect of a two-stage approach to weaning mean for horses? Would it result in fewer injuries, less stress, and more secure horses? Would it reduce the very large problem of separation anxiety in adult horses?


I don’t know the answer to these questions. However, I believe it would be a great research project for a PhD student in animal science or veterinary science. I strongly believe that any analysis of the present way most people wean foals would reveal a high proportion of injuries associated with the emotional trauma of separation. It would seem an obvious worthwhile investment for various sectors of the horse industry to fund research as to how we can wean foals better. It has implications for both the welfare of the animals and the cost to the industry. It seems a no-brainer to me.


Children And Horsemanship

As a kid, I was pretty busy. In fact too busy to be bothered taking school seriously. It only got in the way of all the important things I had to do.


Each afternoon my brother and I would play one-on-one soccer in the front yard. Mum despaired at how we used her hedge as the goal and turned it into a stand of twigs. Naturally, living close to the water in Sydney meant surfing; swimming and fishing also occupied a big part of my leisure time. I took up ice skating and tap dancing (don’t laugh!) and, of course, horse riding.


What I have noticed as I get older is that the activities I did as a kid remain hardwired in me even though I have not done some of them for many years. I can still kick a ball, catch a wave and stay upright on skates. And I can still tap out a rhythm with my feet (I said, don’t laugh).


This should not be surprising. It is well studied that what is learned in early life remains with a person throughout their adulthood. For example, kids do better at learning languages and developing ball skills than adults.


I believe this has implication for riders too.


In my experience, the skills needed to be able to ride a horse come much easier to children than they do to adults. Kids find it simpler to develop the balance and coordination needed to ride. Furthermore, once they have mastered these skills they tend to stay with them for life. If a person learns to ride when they are young, then have many years out of the saddle; they re-establish those skills much quicker than adults taking up riding for the first time. Once a child learns to ride, the essential elements of riding remain entrenched throughout life.


Knowing this information, it is easy to assume that kids have a huge advantage over adults when it comes to being good horse people. We see a kid cantering their pony bareback around a jumping course and think to ourselves we could never do that. But there is no need to feel inadequate about that. Adults have one massive advantage over children.


I see a few of kids at clinics around the ages of 7 to 12 who have been riding since they were 3 or 4 years old. They invariably can sit on a horse quite well, are as brave as any war hero and come up with crazy things to that would scare an adult into an early grave. They are lots of fun to be around. But what they aren’t able to do is be a good horse person. Young children don’t have the ability to grasp the concepts of focus, clarity and softness when it comes to working with a horse.


Children don’t have the mental capacity to understand the nuances of being a good horse person. No matter how long they have been riding, until a child has enough brain development they can’t understand things like feel or timing or balance. To talk to a child about directing a horse’s thoughts is akin to explaining where babies come from to a cat. In both cases, they look at you with a blank expression while thinking about when dinner will be ready.


But things change for a kid at around the time of puberty. Physiologically, puberty is the onset of huge changes in people in many ways – not just hormonal. In fact, it is the beginning of the maturity of the brain that leads to the hormonal changes we all associate with puberty. There is no need to go into detail about what happens to a person’s brain when puberty strikes, but suffice to say that the development leads to a change in the way a person processes information. Instead of just absorbing information like sponges, people become more analytical and develop critical thinking skills after puberty. This is why young children can never be as good a horse handler as a young adult or older person.


There is no doubt that learning to ride at a young age is much easier than learning later in life. To a large extent the mechanical and co-ordination skills come much easier and stay with us for life. But to offset that advantage that those snotty-nosed kids have over us oldies is that we can understand the concepts that are fundamentally essential for a person to learn good horsemanship. Kids may be able to ride a horse bareback over jumps, but they can’t yet understand how to help a horse feel okay about it. They don’t know what’s required to turn a troubled horse into a happy horse.


I’m sure some of you will tell me that your child or a child you know is a brilliant horse person and has been riding since they were an embryo. Parents do tell me this from time to time, and maybe your child is the exception. But in general, my experience supports the hypothesis that true horsemanship begins in young adulthood.

Circling With Straightness

At the Canberra clinic over the weekend we work on lunging in a circle with quite a lot of the horses. It’s an exercise that I believe when done well, is a very valuable tool for achieving focus, relaxation and balance. So at nearly all my clinics we work on circling with at least one or two horses as part of the groundwork.

During one session, Dorinda picked up on the fact that all the horses that day tended to travel counter bent to the direction of the circle. They were crooked. Some dropped their inside shoulder and fell inside the circle and others dropped their inside hip and pulled away through the outside shoulder. But all were flexed to the outside to the direction of travel to some degree and for at least some part of their circle. 

Dorinda wanted to know why. After all, if it is physically easier for a horse to travel in a balanced way, why would they circle in an out of balance way? That seems a logical question to ask.

I guess the first thing I should cover is to describe in general terms, what is straightness/balance (I use the terms interchangeable because I believe they are the same thing), so we can all know what I mean when I talk about straightness and crookedness.

In the broadest sense straightness means a horse is working the left and the right sides of its body equally. The workload is equally distributed to both sides of the horse so that the burden is shared evenly. This is true if a horse is travelling in a straight line or on a curve/circle or performing laterally. In all cases, a horse is only straight if both sides of the horse are doing the same amount of work. I could go into some detail about what this means for the way the biomechanics of the horse function, but for the purposes of this article all that you need to know is that straightness/balance is when the horse is working equally on both sides and crookedness is when it isn’t.

So why does a horse not work equally when we ask for a circle?

Most people I come across explain crookedness as a physical restriction of a horse. I recently read that a lack of straightness was the result of the spine having “kinks and blockages.” Other people have explained it similarly with the belief that weak muscle development on one side causes a horse to work the side with stronger muscles more than the side with weaker muscles. In the end, the cure always seems to be the same, which is to do more exercises designed to strengthen the weaker muscles.

In the case of most horses I see, I believe this is wrong thinking. The horses that mostly come to clinics are not doing exercises that require a lot of muscle development. I just don’t ask them to work that hard. Unless their muscles have the consistency of jelly, the workload they get asked to perform by their owners and me is easily within their capabilities without very much exertion.

It is my experience that the majority of crookedness I see in clinics is caused by both mental and emotional factors. This is supported by the fact that when we address these factors suddenly horses become a hell of a lot straighter without the need to turn the weaker muscles into stronger muscles and the need to un-kink and un-block their spines. Horses just become more balanced when they feel better and can yield to a thought presented by the rider’s reins, legs and seat.

However unfortunately, it is not entirely that simple.

Let’s go back to Dorinda’s question about why are so many horses are naturally unbalanced on a circle?

When you watch horses walking or trotting or cantering a circle or an arc in the paddock, you almost never see them balanced and straight. Virtually every horse has a natural tendency to fall inside the turn and be flexed to the outside. The faster they go the more crooked their turn becomes. Humans, dogs, sloths, lizards etc are all the same. We all exhibit innate crookedness to some degree. We all stress and strain one side of our body more than the other in the way we use it. I don’t know why, but it is universal. It is probably linked to the reason why some people are naturally left-handed or right-footed or tilt their head to the right or put their trousers on left leg first. I don’t know, but we are all prone to it.

So horses have an innate crookedness built in when travelling on a circle or arc that has to be overcome in order to be straight and balanced. But I still don’t believe this is a problem of muscle weakness because the crookedness tends to exist whether the horse is clockwise or anticlockwise. It exists in both directions. If it was related to having weak muscles on one side and strong ones on the other, then on one side it would fall in and be counter bent, and in the other direction it would fall out and be over bent. But this is not what happens in most cases. When a horse is crooked moving in a circle it is inclined to be crooked in the same way in both directions.

To overcome the natural tendency of a horse to circle with a counter bend, we need to teach them to follow the line of the circle with their thought. The lead rope or lunge line or rein presents a feel to the horse to direct its thought. When a horse is yielding to that feel, staying balanced is easy. But when a horse is escaping or resisting that feel they will keep trying to do what they feel is natural to them, which is to remain crooked and unbalanced. Even when a horse is light to the feel of the lead, lunge line or rein if they are not soft (ie, feel okay about it) they will continue to be crooked. This suggests to me that their crookedness is not about weak versus strong sides or kinks and blockages in the spine.

This brings me to the other factor that contributes to crookedness - the horse’s emotions. The more worried a horse becomes the more crooked it becomes. You’ll often see horses circling nicely balanced when they are walking, but become crooked when asked to trot and the most crooked when asked to canter. This is because the faster they go the mos anxious most horses become. This causes an increase in circulating adrenaline and creates tightness across the muscles of the top line, which exacerbates the crookedness. When a horse can trot and canter in a relaxed manner, it’s relatively easy to help them balance.

It is important that we teach our horses to be balanced in all that they do. It helps keep them sound and allows them to put maximum physical effort into the work. They can run faster, jump higher, carry us further and move more beautifully. But most of all it means we will have them for longer.

The photos at the top show Dorinda lunging Starshine. You can see how much more balanced and straighter (on the right) he became.

How To Fix Competition

I was recently chatting to my mate, Bruce about the dismal state of competition in the horse world. Bruce was lending a sympathetic ear to my diatribe on the forgotten needs of the horse and the corruption of the ideals of sport that has crept into the competition world in the past 50 or so years. He nodded in agreement in all the right places and muttered a supportive “mmmm” and the occasional “tut-tut-tut”. He even added, “I hear ya mate” a couple of times.


To follow this thread you have to understand a little about Bruce. He knows nothing about horses. In fact, Bruce is downright afraid of the beasts. But come to think about it, Bruce is afraid of a lot of things. I recall at his cousin’s wedding trying to avoid hugging the bride because he has a phobia about lace. Then there was the time he ran screaming from a room because a moth was fluttering about the ceiling light. Yeah, Bruce is not exactly made from the “right stuff”.


The other thing you have to know about Bruce is that in his opinion the world is made up of bastards who are all trying to get him. According to Bruce there is a worldwide conspiracy to make his life hell and everything that is wrong in his life can be blamed on it – I mean everything!


If Bruce breaks a shoelace, it is a conspiracy by the mega-giant corporate shoelace conglomerate to make him buy more shoelaces.  In Bruce’s mind, if they can put a man on the moon then why can’t they make a shoelace that doesn’t break?


If the milk in his refrigerator turns sour, General Electric and milk producers are in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies to create upset stomachs in order to sell more anti-nausea drugs. In Bruce’s mind, if they can put a man on the moon then why can’t they make milk that doesn’t turn sour? He once told me that he bet Neil Armstrong didn’t have sour milk on Apollo 11.


This is the sort of man I am talking to about the woeful situation in the competition world – my mate, Bruce. I know! What was I thinking?


Even though I sometimes think of Bruce as being the village idiot in a village full of idiots, once and awhile he surprises me.


After patiently listening to me blab endlessly about the demise of horsemanship in the competition world he finally said, “Ya know what, mate?”


“No, what Bruce?” I asked.


“All ya’d have to do to fix it is ban all them bloody sponsorship deals and not allow any of them #&%* professionals to compete. Make it so that only poncy amateurs can enter competitions.


“It’s only money that’s stuffed everything up. I mean look at the #&%*ing Olympics. They use to be for amateurs and there were no problems. Then some wing nut decided it was a good idea to let professionals into the Olympics and #&%*ed it all up. Now half of those bastards are going to jail.”


At first I thought that was the dopiest idea I had heard in several lifetimes. And I still think it is a dopey idea from the standpoint that the world has delved too far into the lure of money to turn back. Having been initially only mildly tempted by the dark forces of making money from competition, it has know become an addiction and there is no 12 step program or rehabilitation strategy to recovery.


In fact, the addicts don’t want to recover. They don’t even know there is a problem. The governing bodies, the competitors, the breeders, the coaches, the judges, the sponsors etc are all either ignorant that anything is wrong or they are in complete denial. They still cling to the ideals for which their sport was established while at the same time being oblivious to how they have been turned to the dark side by the lure of professionalism and profit. And horses and the art of horsemanship have paid the price for their greed.


Money is corrupting the horse world without people even knowing. And it’s in every facet. In dressage, rolkur and tight nosebands would not exist if money had not lured people away from classical principles. In western, 2-year-old futurities would be unheard of without the enticement of money. In endurance, nobody would be competing with 3-year-old horses if the sport were just for pleasure. In horsemanship, nobody would run clinics with 25 or 30 participants if the clinician got paid the same amount for classes of 6 or 8 people.


Even if there is not a lot of prize money involved, there is still a lot of money to be made from competition success if you are a breeder or saddle maker or instructor or feed company or clothing manufacturer or whatever. And it all has a corrupting influence on the sport to some degree. Furthermore, the winners at the top of the ladder have a huge influence on the attitude and practices of the weekend amateur competitors at the bottom of the ladder. Those professionals set the agenda for the rest. It’s not so much a trickle down affect as a tidal wave affect.


Bruce had a few other suggestions for putting the ideals of competition back into the sport. I’ll let you be the judge if he needs to be locked up or not.


1. Outlaw all the professional horse people from competing.


2. A worldwide prohibition on sponsorship of competition at all levels.


3. Ban children from competing against adults because it is too humiliating when they win.


4. Every judging panel should have at least one person from Switzerland, Iceland or Denmark because according to a UN survey in 2015, those 3 countries have the happiest people in the world. Therefore, they are ideal candidates to judge if a horse is happy or not in a competition event. And points are awarded for happy horses or removed for unhappy horses.


5. At least one person 100 years or older must be on every judging panel because they can remember what competition use to be like before professionalism – excluding blind and senile 100 year olds. You can cut down on expense by having 100-year-old Swiss or Danes or Icelandic judges - two for the price of one!


6. No horse can compete in a breed class until they have proved successful in a performance class.


7. No horse can compete in a performance class until they proved they can be ridden by a novice rider, can be ridden on a trail, open gates, walk through an obstacle course (including water), stand quietly to be mounted and be ridden politely in company.


I think Bruce had some other conditions, like not being allowed ride with pink or purple saddle blankets and no brown horses are allowed to compete because Bruce thinks brown is a boring colour – but I can’t remember them all.


I sometimes have to ask myself why I’m still mates with Bruce.


This is the only photo I have of Bruce. He wanted to be anonymous. But I bet most of you could spot the bloke in the room with glasses and no head?