The Not-So-Scientific Training Challenge
If you have spent any time trying to train horses to accomplish physical goals, like moving more athletically, chances are good you have discovered that some individuals are more willing than others. Much as I would like to offer science-based explanations for this, I believe a lot of it owes to a less scientific trait that we’ll call ‘personal space.’
During recent clinic observations, I heard author and trainer Mary Wanless use this term to refer to a horse that was tickly in his back muscles. This made it difficult for his rider to help him travel with his back consistently engaged. The horse would offer a few quality steps followed by several unbalanced ones. His rider worked hard at getting the position of her seat and legs just right to influence him, because generally the better we improve our cues, the better our horses respond. Occasionally, though, as in the case of this horse, that equation isn’t fail-proof. As this rider sat deeper in to the saddle, the horse canted his body in ways to avoid her influence. In other words, he didn’t want her in his personal space.
So, was this particular horse being difficult? Was he confused? Or maybe even uncomfortable? In my daily life teaching horses to use their bodies more optimally, I often encounter their unique personal spaces as either an impediment or accelerant to what I’m trying to do. I define personal space here as an individual’s guardedness against contact or stimulation to his physical body.
Depending on temperament and past training or injuries, some horses have a much stronger sense of this. With these horses, training progress is often not linear. It requires more time and finesse. It can seem repetitive or frustrating to a rider, who asks herself: “Why is my horse not doing (X) today?? I thought we mastered this yesterday!” Mastery with these horses vacillates between fully owned and partially realized.
To be clear, I don’t intend the concept of personal space to give us reasons to not ask these horses to use their bodies in the ways we wish. I bring it up instead to help ridersbe more patient with the process. With most horses, physical progress is measurable daily. They respond comfortably and willingly to the tasks we undertake to make them more athletic, functional, and healthier.
Other horses, those with a strong personal space, can only be measured month to month. They initially wiggle away from, rather than respond to, our cues. They fidget in the postures that should bring them relaxation and ease. They tighten their bodies against any kind of stimulus rather than gain better alignment. My own horse, Corazon, has been my most convincing case for personal space and its influence on training.
As a breed, Andalusians tend to freeze up their backs rather than allow movement to swing through them. On top of that, Corazon is clever and sensitive and very adept at taking care of himself, which translates to not always offering up his body to be shaped as I’m trying to. Some days are harmonious, easy, and successful. Other days, though, feel like a constant negotiation with me reminding and convincing him that engaging his back really IS good for him. This can get frustrating.
When I feel that frustration, however, I remind myself that this trait, this protection of his personal space, is what makes Corazon such a strong horse and what keeps him not prone to injury. He is incredibly sure-footed and aware of his surroundings, he adapts quickly to situations that could otherwise escalate and cause harm. One time, I found him rubbing on a strand of barbed wire that I didn’t realize was in his pasture and saw him begin to get tangled up in it. Immediately, he paused, adjusted his neck motions, and carefully removed himself from harm. I stood there amazed, knowing most other horses would have started scrambling and cut themselves badly.
I remind myself of these instances when I struggle with Corazon’s personal space. This helps me see that, rather than be a struggle, his self-preservation is actually a gift to both of us. I cannot get caught up thinking his training will be as sequential as the timelines offered in books and training manuals. As I navigate his personal space, our progress can seem circuitous, lurching, or just plain halted. And that’s okay. In fact if there is any truth in the notion our horses mirror us, I have to admit that my own personal space is pretty big, too.
Power in Interruption
In the following photo, Roxy demonstrates what I call the power of interruption. This describes the benefit of momentarily altering the horse’s movement patterns for the sake of improving them. Not unlike their human pals, horses generate movement through patterns held in the neuromuscular system. These patterns serve them well, allowing them to move and perform various tasks with utmost efficiency and limited active brain recruitment to move limbs. While indeed efficient, these patterns are not always optimal. For instance, Roxy has a pattern of trailing her hind legs out behind her when she trots rather than swinging them well forward underneath her body as I would prefer.
My task is to help Roxy create new patterns than the ones she knows as comfy and familiar. I would prefer her to adopt a pattern that involves a body posture that is more beneficial to her long-term wellness, or in other words one that sees her carrying more weight on her hind limbs and easing weight OFF her forelimbs. There are number of ways to go about this task, and one of my favorite ones is to interrupt a horse’s existing gait patterns.
As you can see from this photo, the exercise I’m using in this example is fairly simple. It is just a polygon shape formed with poles on the ground. With the horse on a longe line, the handler can move herself all around the polygon, directing the horse across, through, and over the poles in constantly changing ways. The horse never knows where it will be asked to enter/exit the shape. In this way, it delivers all the benefits of schooling over ground poles but eliminates the repetitive and predictable nature of sequential poles set up in single line.
Exercises like this that encourage the horse to adjust her balance, or change her speed and height of stride, briefly interrupts motor patterns. What immediately follows is a chance to develop new patterns. This might mean more awareness of stride trajectory, more flexion in hind limb joints, more precise foot placement. These kinds of exercises open the door to further improvement. They work because the horse is guided to alter his stride with minimal anxiety or tension, given that he is not receiving a lot of input or cues from a rider. The exercises are offering him the input in a very natural, easy way.
Admittedly, there is plenty of time during a horse’s schooling when we want our work to be predictable for him so he gains confidence and clarity in our expectations. When changing his physical body and gaits, though, it can be helpful to introduce a little well-timed interruption. The key is to use just a little (not so much to frustrate the horse), and that any chosen exercise has relevance to an existing pattern you hope to change. In other words, we’re not seeking to interrupt his patterns just for the sake of adding randomness or variety to his routines. The exercises need to support your specific goal in each session.
Riders are the Best Training Aids
The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place. I have watched a couple of my colleagues step away from riding and training for just this reason, causing me to question my own participation.
I continue to believe that nearly every horse can be made better by a rider. To be clear, that rider needs to be skilled and patient, mindful and committed, and a keen observer. But having witnessed the value of dressage applied to all kinds of horses over the years, I believe a horse can have a better life through riding than without it. The physically transformative influence of the rider’s educated seat upon the horse guides him to a better version of himself– balanced and symmetrical, strong and noble, elegant, and confident through his partnership with a patient leader. I have witnessed dozens of horses ‘fixed’, or given more comfortable lives, because of the therapeutic training through dressage.
Last week, I was sorting through some videos and articles about vertebral crowding (aka “Kissing Spine syndrome”) among performance horses and several of the x-ray images showed such evidence of discomfort that I thought briefly maybe we have no business riding these poor animals. If we are pinching their vertebrae and bruising their mouths and causing imbalanced muscular development, then maybe we should just leave them alone. Probably this is a quandary many trainers wrestle with, but might feel ridiculous voicing.
When I went to the barn the following day, the x-ray images were still lingering in my mind especially as I saddled up my first horse of the morning. I paused and looked around my training facility. I noted the once anxious mare that has blossomed through training in to a serene and confident animal. I noted the big gelding that used to get stuck in place out in the middle of the field because his stifles locked up from lack of fitness. I watched the two senior Icelandics (one is 24 years old, the other 26) that remain healthy, sturdy, and energetic because of the consistent exercise program they’re in. All of these horses would currently lead lives quite a bit less comfy and content were it not for regular riding.
A rider’s seat can accomplish magical things. It can guide a horse to use his own body in ways that are far more functional and therapeutic. In this way, it is one of our most valuable training assets. Sure, many folks can accomplish– and enjoy– playing with horses from the ground only without riding. I don’t mean to infer that this has no value; it clearly does. I just wish to sing the praises of riding because I have seen it deliver such wellness to so many horses. And, yes, probably just as equally poor riding delivers deleterious effects, which we could rant on and on about here. In the spirit of remaining positive for the best interest of our noble steeds, though, I prefer to focus on the good we can achieve. For me, this means riding them.
The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more clear it becomes just how good we need to become as riders.