Thursday, April 14, 2011

I'm Not Bad, I'm Just Ridden That Way

Getting older makes it harder to come up with relevant pop culture references. How many people are going to read the title on this and remember the quotable line (I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way.) from Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"? If I am going to continue to write these posts, I am going to have to become much more hip.

The metaphor is meant to lead into my feelings on horse behavior. Routinely, I talk about my "bad horse" or "bad pony" sometimes grumpily, but always with affection. No horses are literally bad. There are horses with physical limitations, lack of education, too much or too little nutrition and personality issues. There is no way that we can call our horses bad when everything that we ask them to do is completely unnatural and ridiculous. I touched on this in a previous post so won't go too far, but a training session today with one of the horses reminded me that when the horse isn't performing as needed or requested, then it is up to the rider/trainer to find a solution. The horse's only job is to not kick and bite. The rest is up to us.

The point becomes glaringly obvious when you watch a horse ridden by several different people. Some riders bring out the best in the horse, some hinder it. Some riders are more confident or persuasive, some are blissfully ignorant, and some are inhibiting.

Along with a change of rider, different results can be seen with a change of tack. A better fitting saddle, a new saddle pad, a variation on a bit, a less pinchy girth, an alternate noseband, and such can go a long way in getting the cooperation of your horse. Adversely, some tack will be detrimental to training, especially in a novice's hands, and should not be used as a replacement for training. Any type of tie down, martingale or draw rein can be cruel if misused. Harsh bits or painful nosebands will not help your horse learn or understand anything. Most often, they cause him to be more resistant. Training isn't about the creation of pain. It's about making the horse more comfortable.

Regardless of tack, a horse will rise or sink to the level of its rider. The highly trained Olympic mounts would make mincemeat of an average, amateur, recreational rider. Heck, a highly trained Olympic mount would make mincemeat of me, and I consider myself an experienced professional. Just because a horse knows stuff, doesn't mean he will perform. As I said to someone today about Rocket, "He knows exactly what he is supposed to do, but if he thinks you aren't going to tell him to do it, he's not going to do it." A horse is similar to a marionette. Someone has to know how to work the strings, in the right order, at the right time in order to get the desired movements. A greenhorn can turn a finely crafted marionette into macrame in seconds.

Today, riding Image, I was having trouble getting a good canter transition. He kept throwing his head up. Was he bad? Not even a little bit. When I figured out the right combination of aids, he didn't throw his head. Did I train him not to throw his head? Only a little bit. By using the right combination of aids, I helped him find a more comfortable way to get into the canter. With repetition of those aids, he will develop the musculature and get into the habit of making the canter transition more correct. Horses learn by doing. If I always let him throw his head for a canter transition, he will learn to do it that way. If I create a way for him to canter with his neck and back more relaxed, he won't throw his head and will learn to canter that way instead. That is the essence of training: to show the horse how he can make his life easier and more comfortable by responding a certain way to the given aids. But the rider still has to give the correct aids, to get the correct response.

You may have heard of the proverbial "push-button" horse, meaning a horse that is easy to ride. Easy, if you know which buttons to push and when. Push the wrong button and the whole file gets deleted so that you have to retype the thing after spending an hour working on it already. Oh, wait, that's the computer. Thankfully horses never delete files. However, they will give you the 404 message if you don't push the right buttons. A-ha! Current reference at last!

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