The Horse Comes First!

A video recently popped up in my timeline of a lovely horse being ridden roughly around a substantial jump course. My heart went out to the good fellow, who consistently jumped, in spite of his mouth being yanked most of the way, and the rider bouncing on his back most of the time, landing often like a sack of grain over the fences. When I commented that it was a lovely horse who deserved better riding, the rider herself responded. Apparently, the horse is a difficult ride and the rider is a year out from having a stroke. Kudos to her for returning to riding, but let’s be clear on one point – the horse and its well being must always comes first!

I have respect for the woman for tackling the daunting task of returning to riding after a stroke. It is a life changing event that often leaves people in struggling to find their old ‘normal’. But it is up to her, as the human, to make sure that her gains are not at the cost of her horse’s well being. We are a burden our horses did not elect to take on, so we owe it to them to be the best burden we can be. Wrestling matches and bangs on the back make us quite a painful burden to bear.

Remember, from Horse Brain, Human Brain, that the horse can feel the equivalent to three dandelion seeds on their withers – we cannot even register that on the most sensitive areas of our bodies! Imagine having that level of sensitivity, then having a metal bit banging your sensitive gums, and a grain sack banging you in the back as you try to run and jump! My sympathy for a human’s journey stops when they ignore the burden they are placing on the horse, and surpass the level of riding they are capable of in the moment.

Does this horse look likes it’s enjoying it’s jumper round? (not from the video mentioned, as the rider later took that down, but representative of what I saw)

We also have to acknowledge that a horse is only ever difficult ride due to a human – either the training was filled with short cuts, the job given the horse does not suit it, or the rider is creating some great difficulty for the horse. Over the years I have gotten on many horses who are ‘difficult’ – especially jumping – and in a very short time created a much calmer and tuned in partner. It is how horses all prefer to be – any other situation is human-created. So, my answer to anyone who feels their horse is difficult to ride is to go back to the basics. Certainly you should not be competing with that horse, though sadly too many do.

That video came on the heels of another in which a universally beloved competition horse was featured. It was a fluff piece, meant to be heartwarming. I was first struck by the dullness in the horse, and his lack of interest in the human holding on to him. If you have been around a horse who has a positive view of human beings, you will likely know what I’m talking about – a human-friendly horse is curious, and will interact with the human at their side. They look at you, sniff, maybe nuzzle or nudge. There was none of that – just a dull eye. But the shock came when I saw the scars in the corners of the horse’s mouth! First the right, then matching scars on the left. Imagine the harshness of the riding that causes scarring in the corners of a horse’s mouth! A friend also pointed out that the lower lip sagged. We’ve perhaps all seen a horse sag its lip at rest – but this was actually hanging at all times. Other signs of misuse were more subtle, but the resulting picture was a sad one, reflecting a career that did not match the popular mythology.

I am currently reading Ridden, by Ulrike Thiel (review coming soon), in which she clearly outlines many of these negative effects on the horse – not just the physical signs we can see, but the mental and psychological effects as well. The trouble is that we too often focus on the human story, and match what we see in the horse to what we want to believe.

Take the rash of videos I’ve seen lately of small children bashing around a big course on a pony. Adults always love those – kids who are braver and better than them making a clear fast round at top speed. Fierce and fearless – what’s not to love! Except if you watch the ponies, and the way the children really ride around those courses you might take a different view (the top image is from one of these). I see kids who use the reins for balance, and ponies clearly registering stress in their bodies and faces. These children are not learning to ride, and certainly are not learning to honor the horse. They are learning to be daredevils – and daredevils have no place on a horse!

The rider in this photo is doing a fist pump in triumph … does the horse reflect a shared ‘joyful’ experience? Yet most comments focus on the joy of the rider.

Now, in the case of the children, it is the adults who are not being the guard rails. Kids will generally not know their limits, and will go gung ho into whatever adults let them. If you cannot ride without your reins for balance, you should not be competing, full stop! That goes for the seven year old raw talent, or the Olympic team member whose horse now bears those scars. Horses are not sports equipment that you can break with no harm, save for the money you spent. They are innately gentle, curious, playful, social animals that crave deep bonds and friendly interactions. They have no ambition. They don’t care how they look. They don’t know that they won anything. They want to communicate and to be heard – a whisper will do, thank you.

As part of the equestrian community, it is our responsibility to make life better for horses. We claim to be in this world because we love them – but some of the most abusive out there make the same claim (as does the woman on the chestnut above). I recently saw a post that asked whether it can be called abuse if the abuser is not aware they are abusing. Of course the answer is ‘yes’! It may not be criminal abuse, as crime often requires intent (though not always). But the victim of the abuse suffers the same whether the abuser has intent or not. We are often reluctant to call something abuse in the horse world because so much seems of it seems so normal – and because we worry about the feelings of the human involved. But you do not have to go as far as ‘abuse’, if that is uncomfortable, in order to recognize when the rider is a painful burden for the horse. Just keep in mind that hard rein action, banging legs (especially spurred), and bouncing seats do in fact cause pain, if not permanent damage. Should we really be cheering a human achievement that is had at the expense of pain for the horse?

Thankfully, there are examples out there of horses and riders working in a respectful and pleasant partnership. Unfortunately, it is rare in competition – but examples exist just the same. There is my friend, Sonja Weber Reitkunst, whose horses featured in my last post. Her horses always have a pleasant aspect in their work – relaxed bodies and soft expressions. In her videos and images she is clearly an easy burden to her horses.

There are the many ‘happy hackers’ I see from some of the groups I’m in. Some are bridled, some bitless, some even bridleless. One thing most have in common is a horse who has their ears forward, only turning back momentarily when they need to listen. Many post videos from the rider’s view, and you see a head and neck naturally swinging, often casually taking in the scenery. Neither horse nor rider cares whether they might win a prize – they are happily coexisting. Based upon the stories they share, the riders are all doing everything they can to give a happy life to their horse – more worthy of a medal than those who often win them!

Sonja on Finito
(Photo by Sabine Grosser Munchen)

Then there is Brianna Noble. You may not know the name, but you may have seen the images of her riding her horse through Oakland, in support of a Black Lives Matter protest. I saw criticism of her for putting her horse in that situation – yet the pictures tell a different story. The horse appears relaxed in every image – no signs of sweating, jigging, or chomping on the bit that you would see in a tense horse. She knew the risks and she planned for them. She got there before the protest formed, left before it was fully underway, and knew her horse’s tolerance for crowds and traffic. More recently, she was asked to bring her horse to Hollywood to film a commercial. She refused to put her horse through that. The ad company found a local horse, trained for such things, and the commercial was filmed. We need more equestrians like Brianna, who are willing to put their horse’s comfort before their own glory.

As for the little kids, if you want to be impressed try watching this video of Claudia Groves and her pony Trooper that went viral last year. Is she a perfect rider? No, she’s obviously still learning. Is she attempting things that might be outside of her real ability – occasionally she is. But she is an easy burden for her pony. Unlike the children in those jumping classes, she has clearly been taught to be light with her hands and to respect her pony as a partner. This happened to cycle back to my newsfeed just after I watched one of those daredevils on a jump course. It was balm for my soul!

It is possible to find heartwarming stories of achievement that also honor the gentle souls that are our beloved horses. Rejoice in the human interest stories, as we would want others to rejoice in our own! Just try to keep a lens on for the horse, as they should be the center of interest in any story in which they are part. The human may be living their fairy tale while the horse is experiencing a horror story. In that case, we must not congratulate or celebrate. The horse must always come first!

A frame from the video of Claudia Groves on her Dartmoor pony, Trooper, last year

12 replies

  1. Over the years I was giving my mobile vet a helping hand with his horse clients, I got to see the dark backside of the competitive barn scene. Scarred mouths, cut tongues, scarring and bone callouses on the nose and jaw and nerve damage that results in floppy lips, ears and eyelids are at least as common as leg and back injuries. And for the record, bitless is NOT mild. Most of the bitless models are based on causing severe inescapable nerve pain and/or interfering with the horse’s breathing.
    One ‘trainer’ put it most succinctly, saying: ‘I don’t care if it kills him, Doc, as long as he wins…’

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly, all too familiar. Knew of one horse who they removed the lower 1/3 of the tongue, so it wouldn’t hang out. I worked with a Western rider who said nerving the tail was a quality of life issue for the horse, because it made them more competitive, and therefore guaranteed them a better life. What a life! Most competition horses these days are living a nightmare.

      I agree that bitless and bridleless are not automatically better. It’s about the hands holding the reins … but try to tell bitless converts that.

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      • I got kicked out of a bitless chat group because I could not keep quiet when people asked questions like ‘how do I get the dent out of my horse’s nose after a ride’ and the response was ‘ line the inside of the poll and nose band with the burrs from a rubber curry comb to teach your horse not to pull.’

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      • Well, that’s horrid! I am in a couple of groups (got added) and don’t see any of that. But many do believe things like bits prevent swallowing and inhibit breathing, therefore are cruel by their very presence.

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  2. Since horses are strictly nostril breathers, nose-bands are more likely to interfere with their breathing than a bit. But far too many bits actually are designed with the intention of causing pain. I have taken to pointing out that horses do not actually have little brakes built into their jaws that make their legs freeze up and stop moving if you pull hard enough on the reins. Which does not make me popular.
    What a mild well-fitted snaffle bit does offer that is unique and valuable to both the horse and riders is the ability to ask your horse for pandiculation or the Stretch-Yawn-Syndrome. Relaxing and moving the jaw and hyoid process resets both the nervous system and the connective tissues so that the horse can carry a rider with less stress. I wish that there was some interest out there in researching SYS in horses. SYS is the physiological basis for the classical schooling quality of suppleness and evidence based training is only as good as the questions being asked…

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    • It is exactly that connection with the jaw that keeps me using a bit. Have been riding Coffee bitless, as an experiment, and mostly it’s fine … but it lacks that highly refined level of communication, and especially feeling of whether the jaw is locked. The finest touch is all it takes, but it really does make a difference. Sadly, you are right that the appropriate training is not given to horse or rider to be able to communicate in a refined way.

      The other aspect that affects both breathing and swallowing is hyperflexion, and compression in the throat/parotid region. Seen all too often, and I think the source of those conclusions blaming the bit – but have also seen bitless – just not as often as bitless is rarely used in competition.

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      • If the bitless apparatus puts pressure on the thin skin of the lower jaw and/or the poll, horses tend to throw their nose up, turn their necks inside out and drop their forehand.
        If the bit(s) are jabbing the roof of their mouth, they will hyperflex. Sometimes the pressure from ‘shaped’ bits on the bars inside the mouth can be relieved by hyperflexion. But in the end, it all comes down to riding with your seat not your hands!

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      • Hyperflexion is a concious choice of the rider, and can be created with any apparatus, if it is the only way the horse acheives any relief from the pressure applied. Flipping the head is most horses initial response to any of it … the follow-up from the rider determines where it goes from there. But there should be no pressure on either – just the lightest of indications … still, that sort of riding and training takes too long for most people to invest in it. Hence the myriad of gadgets.

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      • Relentless rein pressure can force a horse into all sorts of contortions to avoid pain…including flipping over and breaking their necks. But before that extreme, heavy hands and a curb bit will tend induce hyperflexion or ‘break at the poll’ while heavy hands and a rawhide bosal will tend to induce a horse to flip their head up. Heavy hands and the many variations of the warbridle can put enough pressure on the superficial nerves of the horse’s skull to make them sull up and shut down. James Rooney DVM explained the neuro-reflex chains that can be triggered. And while most amateur riders don’t study how to provoke the behavior they want with the least effort, those designing the equipment those amateurs buy are often as thoughtful as they are ruthless.

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      • On a more cheerful note, watching the you-tube videos showing how Peirre Durand quit yanking on Jappeloup’s mouth (1984) and won the 1988 Olympics with light hands demonstrates that putting the horse first does pay off in competition.

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      • Most US top jumper riders rode light, without yanking, and were very successful. In fact, one of our female riders (Melanie Smith, perhaps) rode Jappeloup in the World Cup, as part of the swap, and he went quieter and softer for her. I always enjoyed that contrast to some of the other country’s riders. Sadly, that has eroded along with everything else.

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