I got on the Dark Mare (better known as Lee) today for our first ride since late December. In the ten years we have been together, this is the first time I have ever let her “rough out” for the winter. With our recent move and lifestyle change, though, allowing her some time for R/R seemed not just prudent but inevitable—what little tolerance I used to have for riding outside in the snow in sub zero temperatures wore off many years ago.
But spring is just around the corner, and ride entries for CTR’s are starting to come available, so I decided the time had come to get Lee back under tack. All things considered, for a sensitive Thoroughbred mare who has had two months off…she was pretty well behaved. I had planned to just walk around our fields for about an hour or so, but at the forty-five minute mark, her entire demeanor changed. She became jiggy and more spooky, and I could tell that she was on the verge of one of her infamous meltdowns. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, we headed home.
I was surprised when I untacked to discover that even with just that short bit of walking around, Lee had gotten a little sweaty on her hamstrings and under the saddle area. I think her “unsettled” behavior was just her way of telling me that she was tired and it was time to stop for the day. Knowing this, I will now adjust the plan for our next few weeks, taking shorter walks, with the goal of gradually working back up to one hour.
This experience reminded me of a fellow blogger’s post that I read just the other day. Her theme was that in training animals, it is important to consider the day’s interaction from the animal’s perspective. Specifically, she discusses that if you achieve your intended outcome for the day, but neglect to consider the quality of the interaction with the animal, then overall, your training has failed. Animals which are forced to submit to training, or who are pushed beyond their capabilities or physical endurance, typically do not willingly seek out that interaction again in the future. When considering your day’s work with the animal, the author asks, “Have you left the animal better off than before you interacted with him?”
Lately, I have been reading through some long archived copies of Dressage Today, and in the January 2007 issue, a reader “asked the expert” how they could better deal with resistance from their mount. I thought to myself that I would have no idea how to answer that question without more information, but Becky Langwost-Barlow, a USDF certified trainer, did an admirable job of doing so. Langwost-Barlow provided many excellent general thoughts in regards to resistance, but there were two paragraphs which I thought were just exceptional in regards to how the rider should handle resistance in their horse:
“Every rider makes mistakes. Some are small; some are huge; some last for seconds; some can continue for years. Even misreading how the horse is feeling can be a huge mistake, taking the rider down the path of resistance….I also don’t go for a 150 percent every time I ride. I try to break up the work and look for any sign of discontent. If the horse is cranky in his stall and doesn’t want to come to me, I know he’s not happy, and I need to look for the soreness or back off in the training.”
Being a true horseman requires that you be in tune with your horse and how they are feeling on a given day. During the summer I spent with Denny Emerson, he always reminded us that a rider cannot get on with an agenda, or be too earnest, because to do so usually meant that they rode without sensitivity or compassion for the horse which they were sitting on in the moment. While we were working to re-establish Anna’s confidence over fences that summer, there were many days where I would warm up and literally jump ten fences, then go off for a hack. It is far better to do too little in a work session than too much. The horse must always finish feeling like they have been successful.
This is not to say that you should ride without goals, or fail to address disobedience or other issues. However, such corrections must be done with mindfulness and compassion. In the November 2006 issue of Dressage Today, author John Winnett offered a historical overview in an article titled “The Foreign Influences on American Dressage”. This article discussed the role which many of the great cavalry officers played in shaping the development of riders in the US. I had never before heard of Jean Saint-Fort Paillard, a retired cavalry officer from Saumer (France) who later relocated to California after competing at the highest levels in show jumping and dressage. Paillard authored Understanding Equitation in 1974 and according to Winnett was known for his patient, humane approach to training. In Paillard’s words:
“Let us try to remember for a moment what the atmosphere in the riding hall or around the show ring would be if the horses yelped whenever they were hurt as dogs do. Wouldn’t certain jumping competitions be punctuated by howls of pain? And wouldn’t certain dressage classes be punctuated by plaintive whimpers? What a nightmare!”
I hope that this statement would give most thinking horsemen cause for pause; we certainly have all been witness to situations in which Paillard’s words might ring true. But in my opinion, a rider who overworks their horse, or who drills, or who doesn’t learn to feel enough to quit the day’s work before the horse is too tired or exhausted to argue, is just as guilty of being inhumane as the one who overuses whips, spurs, bits or various artificial contraptions.
We are only human, and the reality is that sometimes we are going to make mistakes, misread our horse or a situation, or react inappropriately. But the thinking horseman must recognize that they have erred and actively work to avoid doing so in the future.
In the memorable words sung by Kenny Rogers (and written by the much less well known Don Schlitz): “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” In horse training, the thinking horsemen must learn when to push (know when to hold ‘em), when to quit for the day (know when to fold ‘em), when to end on a good note (know when to walk away) and when to abandon a training approach which isn’t working (know when to run).