Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Perseverance or Just Plain Dangerous

Unfortunately it seems like the past few weeks in my horse-y network have been rife with stories of injuries, accidents, and other misfortunes at the hands (hooves?) of horses... And thus I've been re-inspired to update my blog, pertaining to something I've pondered for awhile... When does determination, or "love" for an animal turn in to selfishness, or just down right danger?

Just about every horse person you meet will tell you, they understand injuries are probably inevitable when it comes to the horse world, but we do it for the love of the horse.... All the fantastic rides, all the breakthroughs, all that we learn about ourselves, and just the down right good feeling we get around a horse makes it worth the risk. Personally, I ride because when I'm on a horse, it's the only place I've found that nothing in the world matters, except the animal underneath me. Any problems, worries, emotions and even physical pain, melt away the second I hit the saddle and I'm 100% engulfed in what the horse is thinking, feeling, about to do next, and what I'm trying to accomplish with that ride. 

I've observed countless friends, clients, and acquaintances over the years with the "wrong" (in my eyes anyways) horse for them. And they've all told me something to the extent of "I love this horse. I'm not giving up on them. I want to put the work in to "fix" them and make this work." While I can respect and admire perseverance, I ponder frequently, at what point does it become too dangerous? At what point is it unfair, or selfish, to expect an animal to completely alter their personality or way of being to suit our needs? And furthermore, at what point is it no longer fun and rewarding, to have an animal that you are constantly having World War Three with and is inevitably going to hurt you, however serious or minimal? Now, I'll be the first to admit, I've had plenty of pairs come into my barn that I thought, "there is no way in hell this is going to work, this is a terrible match," and have been proved wrong to the tune of happy horse and rider gallivanting all over creation. Surely putting in consistent efforts with training, lessons, and just plain old time in the barn, DOES pay off, and it's even more rewarding in the end, knowing you put all that work in. But where does it cross the line? What is "the line"? I have no freaking idea....

I guess part of it comes down to the difference between an overtly aggressive animal vs. an animal that is simply above the skill level of it's handler. In the case of an aggressive animal, I wonder at what point are we doing more damage to the horse trying to "fix" it, than we would to allow it some sort of sanctuary (whether that be a literal sanctuary where they can live out their days without potentially dangerous interactions with others, or the more metaphorical take on "sanctuary," euthanasia)? Never mind the fact that continuing to "pass the buck," so to speak, will potentially put more people in harms way? In the case of an animal that is just poorly matched with it's owner, at what point do you step back and remind yourself you're doing this for fun, to release stress, feel good, and NOT to come to the barn to have a fight or be scared every time? Or when does it become just plain unsafe? When does your "love" for this animal become more important than your health or even potentially your life? And is it selfish to expect this horse to morph into the creature you need it to be, to suit your desires and abilities?

Having been on the wrong side of two hind hooves myself a year or two ago, spending 2 weeks in the hospital, and another month on bed-rest has given me an even deeper respect and understanding than I ever did I think, of just how powerful the animals we choose to work around are. To put it simply the experience was quite humbling. I don't have the answers to all these questions, or probably even half of them. And I can absolutely respect that each and every person regardless of their extent of involvement with horses will have a different answer.

What I learned from my accident is to trust my gut more often. Be willing to admit when you're feeling you're dealing with a horse that could be potentially dangerous to you, regardless of whether that feeling is justified or not. Be humble and not be afraid to ask for help, for someone else's opinion, or just plain out of the situation. While it sucks that it took a broken shoulder blade, lacerated spleen, collapsed lung, and a few separated ribs, for me to come to some of these realizations, I'd be lieing if I said I would have come to them without the help of a delightful warmblood mare.

So whats my point anyways?? My advice (not that you asked for it) is to take the time to step back, look at the relationship with the horse(s) in your life and ask your self those questions. I guess there really is no "right" answer. I think what's most important is that you're willing to challenge yourself by asking, and answer yourself with conviction.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When Push Comes To Shove

Lets face it... The horse industry, and we as horse people, have become obsessed with pulling! From the first riding lesson we take, we're taught the very basics.... "Pull the horse in the direction you want to go." "Pull the horse to stop." Then we progress to "pull on the bit to get a headset" "pull the horse to rate them towards a jump." Pull! Pull! Pull! The key to any horse's success in any discipline is momentum. Push!!

Pull is a foreign concept for a horse. Push is something they can understand. Ever try pulling your horse somewhere they don't particularly want to go? You against their thousand pounds isn't going to cut it. In this scenario, "pushing" by means of driving them forward from behind is usually much more successful.

Ever look out in the paddock and see your horse cantering around, perfect frame, round body, perfect lead changes? Then, we, the egotistical human, get on and think we need to train these things. Add martingale, draw reins, tie downs, and heavy hands, pull to make the horse have the headset we want. The best thing we can do for our horses is get out of their way, the rest comes naturally, as it does when their loose in the paddock. Push!!

I like to think of a horses momentum as a circle, when explaining why your horse needs to move forward to achieve proper frame. A horse is trotting... driving up underneath, then stretching out behind, with their legs. Energy travels up through the horses hindquarters, and over the top of their rump. It then travels across the top of the horses spine, lifting it up. From there it continues through the horses wither, round through the top line of the neck, and through the head to the mouth. And it all starts with pushing your horse forward. When the focus becomes on pulling the horses head in to where we want it, some strange shape of the body is formed that defies the laws of physics, and we achieve what I like to call "faking it." The horses back becomes hollow, stride shortens and becomes less smooth, and usually a tug of war ensues at the end of the reins. By instead focusing on push we ride our horse forward and "into" the bit, producing a naturally round body, smooth stride and supple mouth, all without ever touching the reins.

A good illustration of forward motion and circular momentum can be seen on the lunge line or in long lines. The horse enters the ring head up, looking around, acting silly, with a short choppy gate, sometimes even tripping. As the handler drives the horse forward a noticeable difference becomes evident. The horse begins to relax, stride and body elongate, back rounds, head and neck reach down and forward. This is usually followed by "Wow, that looks way more comfortable!"

So, get out of our horses way! They'll thank you with a gorgeous, smooth, and natural frame, that I guarantee yanking on draw reins will not.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Being the Friend/Parent/Mentor Your Horse Needs

One of the most common "issues" I run into when meeting with people who come to me for help with their horses is "Well, I want my horse to like me..." and thus they are not willing to provide structure or discipline for their horse. We all want our four legged companion to like us, this first article will discuss some of my observations on being "liked" by your horse without creating a monster. With any "friendship" must come respect!

I like to first think of horses in their natural and original habitat, as herd animals... There is first the alpha stud, and then a hierarchy of mares. Each member of the herd attains their status not "just because" but because they've asserted themselves and essentially "demanded" their spot in the herd. There are no equals in a herd situation, there must be an alpha. When we are not willing to step up and being that alpha we have essentially paved the road for our horses to step up into the role. Where do you fall in the hierarchy of your herd?

Trust comes into play when it comes to being the alpha. The herd relies on the alpha for protection, to not lead them into harms way and to alert them when there is some sort of danger to be concerned about. When we allow the horse to become the alpha, they step up into that protection role. This can become troublesome or annoying when you and your horse don't see eye to eye on what you need "saving" from... Butterfly, bush, mailbox... You're probably better off being the one in charge of the protecting.

Lastly there is the most obvious reason you need to be the alpha.. Manners! When a horse becomes pushy it's not because they just don't know any better, or just want to be mean. It's all about respect. In a herd situation when a stallion wants to move his herd he uses his body. Even biting or rearing at them if necessary. However, a lower member of the pack would never dare encroach on the leaders space. When the horse becomes the alpha of "your herd" they WILL use their body to manipulate you as they feel necessary.

So, you want your horse to like you? Take a weight off their shoulders and be the leader of your herd. Your horse will love and respect you all the more if you can be the alpha they so desperately rely on.