As I sit here scanning Facebook on a rainy day, I keep stumbling across catchy little picture phrases that say educational things like “You can’t train pain!” and “Flicking the toes is not an extended trot!” and my ever favorite “Cranking the horse’s nose to his chest is not a ‘frame’!” To say I’m not guilty of passing these things along would make me a liar, and the entire point of this blog has been unabashed honesty. These things are true. In a record setting, perfect dressage test, you will see none of those issues.
You’re probably sitting there rolling your eyes and wondering why on earth I’m writing a blog to tell you something you already know. Well, allow me to elaborate.
Let’s invent a rider. Her name will be Susie because it’s the name that popped into my head. Susie is 16 years old and she has a horse named Phil that she boards at a local facility. She’s old enough to have dreams of success with Phil, but she lacks the funds to afford a lesson program and, let’s just say, she lives in an area where she has limited resources. As many of us do, Susie joins multiple groups on Facebook, becomes friends with some riders that she admires, and reads the articles that come across her news feed religiously. She absorbs the information, creates her own lesson plans, employs them in each ride, and has a friend take photos and videos so that she can compare them to what she sees online. This isn’t an unusual situation.
Now, since we all have Facebook and access to the world wide web, we’ve all become armchair Mclain Ward clones. We share these catchy articles and memes that make us thrust our fists in the air and say “Yes! Someone gets it!”Then we go about our merry way, taking our weekly lessons and packing up to head off to our latest clinic. Meanwhile, little Susie in Snoretown, Idaho gets some pictures from her friend. Her precious Phil has his nose behind the vertical in some of them. A video clip shows him prancing away down a long side, toes flicking. She decides that perhaps he’s in pain. You can’t train pain, right? Or maybe he just doesn’t want to work? As we all know, a seed of doubt is often easily planted.
What these articles and quotes don’t emphasis, or even mention, is that riding and training horses, even fully trained horses, is never a linear process. Every week, every day, every ride, can make you feel like you’re on a roller coaster car instead of a horse. Just like with everything else these days, people want short, sweet, and to the point. No one has time to stop and process information. Our attention spans have abandoned us and much of our information is delivered to us with this in mind. Magazine articles are brief. They lay out an exercise and tell you how it should go. They very rarely mention common issues and if they do, they certainly don’t go into detail about how to fix it. They tell you to find a professional that can help you work through your horse’s individual problems. While I fully support that notion (nothing can replace a good set of eyes on the ground), there are inherent dangers to going into an exercise with a horse and expecting a black or white outcome.
Well, allow me to be the first person to tell you that toe flicking is not wrong. Tucking behind the vertical is not wrong. They are twists and turns on the roller coaster ride of horse training. They are forms of what I call passive resistance. They are ‘commas’ in the conversation you’re having with your horse. Your horse can’t come out and say things like:
“My back is too tense to properly extend right now.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recoup and try again.
“My hind end is weak and tired, so my nose is dropping behind.” That doesn’t mean you should abandon exercises that encourage connection.
He does these things and expects (hopes? Prays, even?) us to understand the function behind the form; whether it’s a desirable endpoint, or not. Because when it all comes down to it, that’s our ultimate responsibility as horseback riders. It’s not to sit on our La-Z-Boy and criticize someone’s form, whether you make a comment or not.
However, for the sake of avoiding potential hypocrisy, I should mention that I’m currently writing this blog while reclining in an armchair…