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.
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!
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!
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!
Categories: Horse thoughts