Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How to Piss Off Your Horse in One Easy Lesson!

I take ALL the blame for this one. And in all fairness, nobody did anything really "wrong". The problem is that I had not prepared the horse appropriately for the group lesson I blythely rode him in to. Here is a nice little horse that I started in the way that I have learned, and which has turned out some very nice colts: soft, relaxed, self confident, and willing. My horsemanship in the recent decade has focused on the Cowboy of the Californios tradition, a la Bill Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, and other fabulous horsemen like them. The constant in this style of horsemanship is that the horse is taught to find a release from pressure; all pressure can be mitigated by just finding the correct answer to the question the rider poses. The amazing thing is, when this is done correctly, as training progresses, the amount of pressure necessary to elicit a "try" from the horse becomes increasingly subtle! I whole heartedly believe in this philosophy; it turns out a responsible, thinking, accountable horse.

Uninterested in working cattle or handling a rope, which are the more common pursuits of individuals who practice horsemanship through feel, I started to investigate classical dressage. I became more and more convinced of the similarities between this and the Vaquero style of riding. I decided that this was a good path to take my riding to a higher level. Mind you, the level of competitive dressage in this country left me a little queasy; I saw too much heavy-handed riding, too many unhappy, restrained, Rollkured horses. When a dressage rider came to the ranch that showed the sort of feel and finesse I knew should be what dressage is all about, and when she graciously agreed to help some of us improve our riding, you had better believe I was all over it like fleas on a dog. But in my eagerness, I forgot where I've come from, what I've learned, and the sort of partnership I want with my horses.

Well ridden dressage is spectacular. But there is no disguising the fact that it is complete control of every inch of the horse by the rider. With very, very rare exception, the task of making the horse accept that level of unmitigated mechanical control is embarked upon with an aggressive timeline. The ultimate goal is competition...and winning. The horse is quite literally secondary to the goal.

I handle a LOT of different horses every day, and I can make some broad generalizations that many folks won't like much, but are unfailingly true: many horses well educated for the dressage arena according to traditional methods have learned to expect minute direction, not just in the dressage arena, but upon every interaction with humans. Let me editorialize a little and tell you one thing: it is a FULL TIME JOB working with a horse like that. You know what I find much more sensible and enjoyable? A horse that knows what to do when I do nothing but give him a loose rein or a slack lead line. I find it infinitely more rewarding to bring along a horse that can think sensibly for himself, and STILL manage to do exactly what I expect of him, than to take entirely all of the autonomy out of the horse and develop a creature that is helpless to help me unless I dictate precisely what to do.

Now, don't misconstrue that to mean that I think dressage riders do not care about their horses. But suffice it to say a truly driven dressage rider will sell a horse to buy a more talented horse, to further their dream. (Likewise, a driven reining enthusiast, jumper, etc.) Maybe I'm a creampuff, but if my horse isn't talented enough for a particular career, well, then, I won't be pursuing that avenue. That said, I STILL want to evolve my horsemanship, and my horse's training.

I have this steadfast belief that ANYTHING can be accomplished with a horse without force or mechanical devices. So when a flash noseband was strapped tightly around Mixer's nose in the first two minutes of the group lesson, I was crestfallen. Undeniably, woefully disappointed. So was he...and I felt like a traitor for letting it happen. I gave it a fair shot, and to his credit, he settled and worked. But honestly? His heart wasn't in it. I had let him down in a big way. Why? Because a piece of equipment like a flash applies constant, unrelieved pressure. There is no finding the release. Mixer was thoroughly confused and unprepared; I thought he was going to flip over backwards trying to find the "release" he was SURE was there. I've spent the last five days trying to make it up to him, and unselfish creature that he is, I think I've been forgiven.

What now? Back to my roots. Back to Bill Dorrance, and Buck Brannaman, and Leslie Desmond, and true horsemanship through feel. And a remarkable relationship with a smart little horse who deserves a 50/50 partnership, and no less.