What should our goals be when training a horse? What is most important and what are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it?
To some, it is the immediacy of the horse’s response that is most important, for others it is the level of power and athleticism the horse displays that is of primary importance. While both of these ARE important to me as well, they are secondary and tertiary goals. In my interpretation of Classical Horsemanship, it is the ease and grace of the response to the aids that is paramount; the least resistance with the most freedom. I will not intentionally sacrifice this primary goal, in order to gain others.
There is a quote attributed to de la Brue, a student of Giambattista Pignatelli, an early sixteenth-century Italian riding master who had influence on the early development of dressage.
“One cannot better define a well-trained horse that is one which is elastic and flexible (supple), obedient and precise (correct); because if a horse does not have his body totally free and elastic he cannot obey with ease and grace… ”
Now it can be argued that he was talking about the need for gymnastic working of the horse in order to develop its suppleness, elasticity, and flexibility. I certainly agree that this is vital to the task of training a horse classically. But I maintain that is quote could also be interpreted to include the requirement that the horse must be moving and responding willingly and in full cooperation with the rider. I believe that true ease and grace can only be achieved this way and cannot be obtained through force.
So here we run into an interesting sticking point when one starts to discuss the pros and cons of one method of training over another. When one is willing to ‘force’, ‘pressure’, ‘drive’, pick your euphemism, the horse in order to accelerate the development of response or athleticism, for the sake of wowing an audience or impressing a judge, it is typically done at the cost of ease and grace. The choice to use such methods as employing mechanical devices to ‘aid’ in speeding up the training or overcoming resistance quickly are often the result of the perceived need to achieve results on a schedule. For instance, a rider trying to move up one level each year or a trainer whose livelihood is dependant of attracting clients who are in a hurry to start winning titles.
It certainly does not help matters that so many equestrian activities depend on paying audiences more and more to survive. To draw the crowds, the horses must perform larger than life, with a more exaggerated level of ‘performance’ in order to keep the uninformed audience cheering. Let’s face it, horse shows and equestrian sports are big money activities and who can afford to take the time to train the ‘old fashion’ way, when faster means to an end are so prevalent? This is especially true when you consider that the folk buying the tickets would rather see huge movement from horses in exaggerated and arbitrary frames, regardless of how this is achieved. Compared to that, what is the appeal of subtle elegance and graceful movement at the gentle touch of nearly imperceptible aids? The result of the training for mass consumption is magnificently capable horses, riding in dramatic but unnaturally exaggerated positions they hold only because they have been forced to adopt and adapt to them while performing impressive feats of physical prowess, but devoid of the natural grace they were born with that is lost with their freedom.
So again I ask, what is most important?
For me, the answer is fairly simple. What is most important in my training of horses is that they come to the gate of their pasture when I approach with lead in hand. They look forward to our training sessions. That they enjoy the work. That they are willing partners in every aspect of the ride. They try with all their heart to give me what I ask of them because it is their wish to do so. That they never have cause to fear or resist me. They return to their pasture with the same desire to be with me as when we started the day.
Yes, this is all about the ‘How’ of the training. The ‘What’ doesn’t matter you see, not if the how is right. If I have all the things listed above, then I can train a horse to do anything it is physically capable of doing, assuming I understand what I am asking them to do myself.
Do I succeed in all these facets of my training philosophy every time? Of course not, but I try and if I fail it is not that I give up because it is too hard or taking too long.
Horses trained this way must be given the time they require to come to understand what is expected of them and then willingly give it. Gradually raising the bar, the trainer employs the aids to lead the horse to the next challenge and supports it as it seeks this understanding, as it simultaneously develops the strength and flexibility required to achieve it.
It cannot be accomplished by using the aids to make the horse perform. Harsh or even just Strong hand aids are used in an attempt to force the horse into a frame or arbitrary headset; spurring or driving with a whip or crop to drive the horse forward; sawing or jerking on the reins to get the horse to put its head down; lunging with sides reins pulled tight… All of these and many more methods are antithetical to my view of training. They are really on the horse changing its behavior due to habituation rather than willingly participating.
I must add also, that this applies to the whole training process not just the goal of a finished horse. I do not coerce or attempt to force a horse to do something for a period of time within the training scale to achieve an ‘automatic’ response later; a response that has been so ingrained into the horse that eventually takes on the appearance of willingness and self-carriage.
One reason I can approach training this way is that I seldom take part in horse activities that are judged by some external observer. The only judges of my training that matter to me, are the horse and myself, and that is also the order of importance. The quest for perfection in horsemanship is a journey shared by the horse and rider only.
What about the owner of the horse that sends them to me for training? Yes, that is another issue. It is vital that owner and trainer have a clear understanding as to what their goals and training philosophies are, in order to make sure they are compatible. For instance, someone whose primary goal is to win a ribbon is not going to bring their horse to me in the first place.
This need to accommodate the customer is why I try never to judge another trainer too harshly when I see them work. With the exception of the few who are truly talentless and shouldn’t be training anything, most of them are doing what they must to pay the bills. Most have found a niche they target and train to a specific activity or handful of activities and do want what is best for the horse within the scope of said activities.
But no matter whether you are an ‘Upper Level’ professional trainer with an international following, or a trainer/rider working only with your own horse, though your goals and driving factors are very different, you still have to ask yourself the same essential question. What is most important and what will you sacrifice to get it?