Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What horsemanship means to me (and then some)

Hubby has managed to get himself into a bit of a pinch.
Sunday was our sixth wedding anniversary. Our celebration? All-you can eat seafood extravaganza Sunday brunch at Salty’s on the Columbia. I ate SO much. I’m not used to eating like that anymore. In spite of my two-month weight plateau odyssey, I’ve tried to stick to the WW regime in hopes that my metabolism with knock it off, and allow me to start losing again. At least I’m not gaining. But Sunday was a special occasion. I think I ate something like: five crab legs, five oysters, two scoops of steamers, a moderate pile of shrimp, one muffin half of eggs benedict, two sides of a mini bagel with lox and cream cheese, a half waffle with a small dollop of whipped cream and hazelnut maple syrup (as delicious as it sounds, trust me), scrambled eggs, two slices of bacon, two crawdaddies, four sushi roll slices, a tiny pear tartlet, a teeny slice of raspberry cake, a small scoop of fruit loops (don’t ask), one strawberry and a tiny little block of rice crispy treat. Yes, I ate ALL that. Trust me, I paid the price. BUT IT WAS WORTH IT!

After that, I rode Tag for the first time in over a month. His foot wound still persists, but at least now it’s drying out a bit and the muzzle has helped keep it from getting worse since the horse is a dork and chooses to mess with his wound. He is no longer lame, and I worked his ass off. I had him sweated up. He was being obstinate to a fault too, really rebellious and after all this time without being put to work, he felt it necessary to test me. His behaviour was considered shocking to some who were present, but I expect it from my hot-blooded brat horse. After I worked his socks off, he was more compliant. I took some time to flip my leg over his neck and to ride ‘sidesaddle’ in my Stubben all-purpose, just to see how he’d do with my crop as the far-side aid and how he’d feel about my foot being crooked up on his shoulder/neck. Yeah, I was sitting uphill a bit, but it was just for experimentation purposes. He was totally fine. I also did some other trust exercises, like lying backwards on his croupe, and forward onto his neck with my legs going down his length. I like ‘snuggling’ with him that way, and it builds trust.

That was of course after I’d made him canter his butt off after defying me a few times. Poor baby, how evil of me. People say I work him too hard, but Tag needs it like a juvenile delinquent needs discipline and structure. Tag definitely needs an experienced rider on his back, that’s for sure. When Sharon, a barn-friend, suggested that I allow other people to ride him on trails when we were camping at Timothy Lake at the end of July, I had to bite back the urge to bark out laughing. 1) NOBODY rides my horse. And if I allow anyone to, they will do it with my direct supervision. Especially someone with no experience who can ruin all the work I’ve done with him, and *especially* people who would be an automatic liability, who my horse would take advantage of. I know people who would say that if my horse were better trained that anyone could ride him, but that’s not true. Even the best-trained horses can hurt people who have no idea WTF they are doing in the saddle.

Those people are in ample supply where I ride. No offense to the ladies at my barn, but MANY of them ride scared and fear always influences how horses interact with their rider. Most of riders at my barn use their western saddles and other tack/hardware as ‘safety crutches’ and all of them are so terrified of falling or the horse ‘acting up’ that they hardly enjoy themselves and spend their rides in a state of low-grade terror, waiting for their horse to freak out. When riding tense and jumpy, how do they expect your horse not to feel that and reflect it? Or worse, to test your limits? Many of the riders do not really know how to be the support for the horse. I see a lot of horses manipulating and acting out against inexperienced riders, and the riders choosing to use a cruel bit, or some other piece of hardware as a solution rather that learn to actually ride a horse in any way besides just sitting in their Western sofas and holding on for dear life, whimpering every time the horse spooks, kicks a fly from their belly or farts. I just don’t condone that kind of ‘horsemanship’ (and I use this word loosely). Most of the women I see at my barn who are like that would not be encouraged to buy a horse, to ride alone, or to ride outside of the lessons at our stable until they were better riders. But a lot of people own horses they can’t handle where I ride; and apparently that’s allowed. You can say that as a barn owner, that it’s an individual person’s responsibility to make safe choices for themselves, and wash your hands of it, but truth be told, as an instructor and an owner, you should be responsible for the people under your care, and you should certainly apply your experience towards making them as safe as possible as riders before you let them have free rein (excuse the pun).

I’m especially concerned about a lot of the ‘Western Pleasure’ riders at the barn. Western saddles are useful when you are roping cattle and driving them for days and days across the badlands. There are many people who use them with skill and intelligence. But the greater part of Western Pleasure riders don’t know what the hell they’re doing. In truth, these huge, secure saddles should not be used for pleasure riding. This is my firm belief. These big saddles with the horn to grip and the deep seat can fool a lot of people into thinking that they’re excellent riders, and don’t realize how much they rely on them rather than their own skill. I believe this mostly because too many people rely on the saddle’s ability to hold them on the horse, rather than learn to hold themselves onto the horse. And too many people use the huge, terrible shank bits that come with Western Pleasure (scourge) as a control device to cow their horse into submission with pain and discomfort rather than earn the horse’s cooperation and trust with skill and ability. Many of these pleasure riders can’t even recognize certain behaviours that can be warnings, or understand that their horse doesn’t respect them. A lot of people get hurt because they have a great deal of false confidence from learning to ride without really acquiring enough foundational skill and knowledge of what horsemanship is really about.

Falling is not the end of the world. And once a rider accepts that 1) it’s going to happen and 2) it can be survived if handled intelligently and without panic, then there is a great deal less to worry yourself about when you’re in the saddle. I’ve met a lot of people who are very proud that they’ve never fallen from a horse. That’s great, but it’s not a mark of a good rider by any means. Neither does it mean that experienced riders are invulnerable to being hurt, but they are less likely to be taken advantage of, and more capable of controlling and understanding their mount. Riding without being crisped up like a mummified corpse is a start. Riding a thinking, instinctive animal that outweighs you several times should not be considered a hobby like scrapbooking, this is a skilled sport and should require teamwork, not dominance; and teamwork means the horse has to trust YOU as much as you trust it. In order to gain the horse’s trust, you must earn its respect as a leader, not as a master (and yes, there is a distinct difference). It should willingly follow your will, and be eager to please you, rather than follow it because you will punish it otherwise. That’s a wobbly and unstable relationship that is very likely to crumble quickly and dangerously.

I’ve taken a few falls from Tag. I’ve torn my cruciate. Throughout my lifetime in the saddle, I’ve fractured ribs, broken an arm, foot and leg, and once, while bringing a whip to a friend who was longeing her horse, I got kicked in the head and achieved a nice concussion & internal bleeding on my skull that landed me in intensive care. I have fallen without injury more times than I can count. Granted, many of those falls were the result of youthful fearlessness mixed with cockiness. I see a lot of that in the teenaged girls at the barn now. But I was lucky. I had an instructor who taught us all our very first riding lessons as small children on a full sized horse, on a longe. He taught us confidence by doing those exercises (leaning back, forward, sitting backwards, standing on the horse’s back, sitting sideways, learning to trust the horse), teaching us to sit the gaits first with no saddle but just a surcingle, and teaching us that when we fall (an inevitability), that we should always let go of the reins, and always ride with only the ball of your foot in the stirrup—and definitely never to rely on the stirrup all the time. Hell, he even made us post without stirrups to build thigh strength. He taught us to ride with long stirrups, and sit deep in the seat, saddle or no, and to visualize our spine connected to the horse’s, to pay attention to muscle bunching on the horse and to understand their body signals. Only after a few lessons of confidence training and balance training were we allowed to graduate to a saddle and bridle, to group lessons and to ponies.

If you are going to spend your time in the saddle living in constant fear of falling, you probably shouldn’t be riding a horse, I’m sorry to say. It’s too dangerous a sport, and if you give the 1200lb animal and idea that he is the one in control, you’ve already lost. Being dominant and punishing is a way of showing fear to your horse. They will eventually rebel against it. Horses feel fear. In every muscle in your body---even through those massive, leathery sofa chairs some call a saddle. No amount of tack is going to keep you from risk—in some cases, it will increase it. And when and if you decide to buy a horse, know what you’re getting into and know what you’re capable of. Too many inexperienced riders are sitting on horses they are not equipped to handle. It’s a dangerous combination. We’ve had several pretty serious falls and injuries in the two years I’ve been at my barn because riders were too inexperienced to handle their horses.

So whenever someone admonishes me for making Tag work harder the more he pushes me, or when someone says I’m taking unnecessary risk riding in my postage-stamp saddle on trails (or anywhere), or when someone thinks I should give up horseback riding and be scared just because I’ve fallen, I have to just bite my tongue and keep doing what I do, because when Tag is acting like a d-bag, it means he’s testing me, and when he knows I can gain his cooperation and teach him by gentle and rewarding means, he’s learning.

My sister rides Western, but when I say she rides Western, she actually gets on her horse and ropes cattle. Her custom saddle is spare, and light and strong enough to tie a roped calf to. My sister can also do a Prix St. Georges level dressage proof, and train horses without any forceful means at all, with her eyes closed. People ask me why I don’t use a Western saddle, and my answer is why? Why would I add unnecessary bulk and weight to my horse’s back when what I have now works fine? I’m not going to rope cattle or dodge barrels or whatever else people do using those saddles. There’s no point except to add back the 27lbs I’ve lost to my horse’s burden in the form of a saddle. I think not.

Tag and I, pre-roach (before I shaved his mane off)
This past year, since Tag was never taught safe mounting, my sister gave me an exercise to teach it to him. When I’m mounting and he tries to move in any way, I make him circle me. Eventually, he’ll let me mount when he’s ready, and has grown tired of my making him circle every time he doesn’t do as I ask. Gradually, the mounting time is growing shorter and shorter; his circles are growing fewer and fewer. He was green and was never properly trained from the moment I got him. Now, he’s learning. But every time I perform the safe-mounting process, someone invariably asks if I want them to hold him, or if I want the barn owner to mount him to teach him to sit still in her own forceful way... I can barely keep from rolling my eyes. Everyone seems to have the ‘fast-cure’ advice to offer. Horsemanship is not instant gratification. Horsemanship is patience and persistence. It cannot be advanced by draw reins or huge spurs or a bit with shanks that are longer than my forearm. I sure as hell am not going to take advice from people who buy into that philosophy. I’d rather take six months teaching him to be a good boy when I’m getting into the saddle than make him look at me as anything but his teammate. He has my life in his hands, so to speak... I need to know my horse trusts me.

I found on Sunday that with work, Tag is going to make an excellent sidesaddle horse. He’s balanced and strong, and over the two years I’ve had him (10/31 is our second anniversary together) he’s come a long way. I remember that first day I rode him, when he didn’t even know how to move forward on my leg, and the doors of the stalls scared the bejeezus out of him. I remember getting into a battle of wills just to let me ride him out of the arena. Now, I can do yoga on his back and he doesn’t give a crap, he still has trouble collecting his canter, but that will come in time and with work. He has bratty moments, but that’s okay, I’d rather have a horse with a mood and personality than some defeated, lip-hanging plugger with a leather mouth and spur-worn sides. Besides, he looks so awesome and powerful when he’s being a douchbag.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

Excellent post! I couldn't agree more. Horses are like children and need discipline and structure, appropriate discipline of course :) And I firmly believe that anyone who owns a horse should take riding lessons, period! There is just soooo much riders can do to not only mess up their horse's behavior but their bodies. Again, great post, Steph!


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