I have read several articles recently regarding bombproofing and many of them offer some handy tips and tricks. Most of them provide information on what many of us would do anyway in terms of schooling with a plastic bag, or tying one to the arena fence. But what I would like to add is something all of the articles left out, and the 2 things I do which are so fundamental I would consider it a dangerous oversight not to do.
The only reason I looked up from the very important task of minding my own business was because I heard someone shout. You find yourself already looking in the general direction of the noise before it even occurs to you the golden rule of minding your own business has just been broken. The horse tentatively drifting about in what I assume was intended to be a 10 metre circle was wearing what is potentially a nightmare contraption in uneducated hands – a Pessoa. Fortunately it was apparent the horse was completely desensitised to the lunging whip that for some reason was been held high in the air gently swaying. If you had seen the same action from a distance while standing on a beach this person would have resembled a talented kite flyer. Being desensitised to a whip waving about is generally a good thing for horses, but they should also recognise when you are attempting to apply pressure.
From the ground the stick can be thought of as an extension of your arm to communicate with the horse. There is all types of pressure everyone should be aware of which will include your own body language and even the direction of where one is looking. I’m aware of what my feet are doing, my eyes, hands and the stick, and this is perhaps just 10% of what I could actually include in this article, but it’s not possible. This is the reason I hardly ever lunge, I see it as such a fine art to get everything correct that I don’t believe I am good enough. I accept it takes 100% concentration and only a skilled professional can properly lunge a horse. So take on board that if someone can say they have been around horses for nearly 40 years and feels they cannot expertly lunge a horse, then why are people doing it when they have owned a horse for the last 2 years?
They lunge because they are unaware of the fundamental errors they are making, the horse is going in a circle and that is all lunging means…apparently.
I am in something of a unique position having owned one of my horses for over 20 years. I can look back and somewhat painfully recall the mistakes I have made with this mare. Yet when I had professional training my horse transformed before my eyes, my horse didn’t become good as she was always a good horse. Unfortunately she was owned by an ignorant human that could not correctly communicate with her. She has taught me that horses are very forgiving creatures, because even after all my fundamental errors this mare is gracious enough to still have a ground and ridden relationship with me.
As I continued to look toward the horse in the Pessoa the owner brought that stick down and thumped it on the ground behind the horse, the horse took two steps forward and for reasons I don’t understand the person made snapping motions on the line causing the horse to stop. Again the lunge whip came crashing down, and the hapless horse took a tentative step forward. Nope, that wasn’t correct either as the line was again used in the snapping motion. I was confused as the horse! My eyes were darting between the horse and the person’s hands to attempt to understand what they were trying to achieve. I am of a species that is allegedly the apex predator, the most intelligent of this entire planets numerous species, yet I couldn’t understand…so what chance did this horse have!?
Well the horse had no chance of understanding. He’d tried forward and back none of which seemed correct. He did the only other thing that seemed an option, he gave up trying. This is the point I was rewarded for breaking my golden rule of not staring. The horse turned to the owner, sighed and planted himself. The human equivalent of this body language would be a human turning toward someone else, shrugging their shoulders and say ‘What?’ I have termed this the EquiShrug. The owner was quick to shout and call the horse stupid. I wish I could have told her the horse was a kind-natured animal that had done its best to understand the human. He didn’t rear out of frustration, he didn’t buck in anger, and he didn’t gallop in a circle with anxiety. No, he’d done his best to understand and his kind soul had responded with an EquiShrug.
Another example of this was again witnessed as I patiently waited for someone to turn their horse into the paddock. I was holding my own horse 15 feet away waiting to use the same paddock. The horse was asked to walk through the opening, which it attempted to do, but again the lead rope was banged under the chin. Different owner, different horse, it was even a different yard! The horse stopped, even backed up which I saw was a completely correct response after receiving such halter pressure. Unfortunately this isn’t what the owner wanted, and the horse was pulled forward again. I turned my back as the horse went through the gate to resume minding my own business. I had to turn back when I heard shouting and for some unknown reason the horse was back outside the gate! I can’t even imagine how this came about, I should have kept watching. The rope was pulled again to indicate to the horse to walk forward, at this point the horse planted himself with the EquiShrug response, to which I simultaneously burst out laughing.
Laura considers herself an experienced horse owner and rider. Laura is the person you go to if you require something from her extensive and always stocked first aid kit. She is the one with 27 rugs in her stable and every type of equine boot that was ever invented. The knee boots admittedly hang on a hook in the corner as they fell out of favour in 2011. Laura has rented her stable at this particular yard for the last 17 years and in that time has owned 3 horses. Every yard has a Laura, they become part of the woodwork. As a new livery you soon learn no-one upsets Laura because of the sometimes fraught, but mostly amicable relationship she has built up with the owners of the establishment, she has reached the status of ‘I’ve been here longer than anyone’. This gives the impression that if you do not like Laura, her 17 years makes it apparent that if you fall out with her, you will be the one that leaves. There-fore even if you dislike Laura, it’s beneficial to always greet her with a heart-warming ‘Good morning!’ while continuing to raid her extensive first aid kit as and when required.
Everyday at 9 a.m Laura breezes onto the yard clutching a bag of apples, flap-jacks and sometimes the latest copy of Your Horse. You duck down in your stable because you are terrified Laura will insist on feeding your horse 7 or 8 flapjacks while pointing out why your horse must have gastric ulcers because he is showing all the symptoms that are listed in the magazine. You breathe a sigh of relief only when said magazine and flapjacks are safely in her storage cupboard and only then emit a totally fake, and an overly high pitched ‘Good morning!’
After 2 hours of coffee drinking and educating the obviously grateful liveries that all their horses have gastric ulcers Laura decides it’s high time she gave her horse some much needed schooling. After-all, her horse has spent 2 hours kicking the stable door and throwing his head about, which has nothing to do with the fact his stable is an oxygen-deprived stink-hole or that he’s fetlock deep in poop and hasn’t had his hay-net filled since last night. No, it’s because he’s an attention freak.
Laura leads her horse out of the stable, puts his bridle on and ties him up to get her saddle. At this point Sarah the yard owner strides across the yard and Laura must tell her how some of the riding school ponies must, yes you guessed it, could have gastric ulcers, and rushes to retrieve the now battered, somewhat soiled copy of Your Horse. After yet another coffee, 3 cigarettes, a pair of snapped reins, and finding spare reins, Laura finally gets the saddle on the horse.
Been somewhat rushed for time now Laura enters the school and does 2 laps of walk around the arena. The horse is lazy this morning and chooses to ignore Laura’s constant tap tap tap of her heel. This does not deter Laura however as perhaps the horse will choose to listen on the 800th tap. She doesn’t count, but she stays optimistic that although her horse ignored the first 2 taps he might miraculously pay attention when the tapping gets in the high hundreds. Laura decides a trot will wake him up so kicks just that little bit harder, unfortunately the horse has already squirreled this particular type of pressure away into his brain under the file name ‘ignore’.
All is not lost however, Laura has a special friend she can rely on called ‘Mr Schooling Whip’. 2 or 3 asks on the flank of her horse and the lazy walk becomes something of a lethargic trot. After one lap consisting of a lethargic trot, breaking back into a lazy walk, then back into a lethargic trot Laura is exhausted and decides it must surely be time for a coffee break. On dismounting, her horse gets the most gloriously grateful pat and 4 flapjacks for being such a good boy. Laura, now feeling ecstatic that she has finished riding for the day, can resume breezing around the yard telling everyone else how to look after their horse, and if you are especially lucky, she may help you with transitions in the arena while sipping her coffee and pointing out why your position is incorrect.
There are many Laura’s probably on every livery yard the world over. Not much is asked of the horse, in-fact it’s the horse that is in control. This supposedly ‘dumb’ animal has trained the human. It’s an advantageous situation on the whole. The stable isn’t much fun, but no energy is been expended while being supplied with hay, and he does eventually get turned out to pasture some 47 coffee’s later. The situation becomes serious however when you have a dominant horse that in time learns to ignore the owner completely when in the saddle, when leading, when loading and all manner of handling.
But for now, let’s just address the riding. Riders make the fundamental mistake of changing gait when the gait they were in remains far from perfect. No-one should be asking for trot when the walk is not perfect, and at all speeds i.e. slow, medium, fast walk. No-one should be asking for canter when the trot is not perfect, and again at all speeds. People need to just slow down the rate at which they train their horses. If your horse is ignoring your leg aid at walk, you are not ready to trot. Take an hour or take 2 hours concentrating on keeping your lower leg still and when you do use it make sure the horse knows it means something. It doesn’t matter if it takes 3 weeks to achieve walking around the arena in a medium walk, this is hands down better than the flappy whip yielding exhausting way that Laura rides. Laura is a passenger because her horse ignores her and this is potentially a dangerous situation. Far better to develop a partnership with your horse and this can only be done with patience and understanding. Fitting in a quick ride between Tesco and the school run should not exist in your brain. Have a monthly plan on what you would like to achieve and make time to make every schooling session count for something. Forget the coffee and chitter-chatter, attend to your horse. Lastly, unless you brush your horse’s teeth, leave the flap-jacks at home.