by Mitzi Summers
Flexibility is one of the goals in training — the ability to improve the horse’s suppleness and ability to bend easily. But it is also one of the most important characteristics of a trainer-rider.
The dictionary defines flexible as “able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances and conditions”, and “(of a person) who is ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances.”
The ability to be flexible is paramount in the character of a trainer/rider of horses. Every time you do anything with a horse you are in the position of a trainer. You can either improve the horse’s trust, respect, calmness and ability to be worked with, or you can affect him in a negative way.
It is so important for clinicians, equestrian authors and those who produce educational DVDS to frequently stress that whatever they are demonstrating is what this particular horse was ready for and needed at that particular time. It may well not be what would be correct for even that same horse under different circumstances. Training articles need to be careful in explaining that the schooling of a horse is not a formulaic process, i.e. as the solving of a mathematical problem.
Because we are working with a separate entity with his own memories, emotions, and reactions, riders must be able to interpret these almost instantaneously to fit the moment to moment reactions of the horse. I have seen so many examples of both incorrect and correct interpretations of horse behavior.
A student who is also a trainer was taking a jumping lesson with me with Dakota. Most of the lesson had been directed to stress forwardness and trotting over ground poles, as Dakota’s conformation and temperament did not make jumping effortless. Indeed, his career was to be dressage, but the trainer wanted him to be able to jump small jumps for his owner.
I put up a small and inviting course of jumps that Dakota had successfully jumped before. My goal was to insure that he did not start to dislike work over small jumps, so it was important to stress positive reinforcement. The last jump was close to the end of the large indoor ring where bales of hay were stacked almost to the ceiling. Dakota was about three strides away when a barn cat suddenly leaped down the bales, causing loose hay to fly about. Dakota saw this and reacted as a reflex; he was frightened and he refused the fence. The rider, even though she was aware of what happened, had previously been taught that if a horse refuses, hit him. … punish him immediately.
She hit Dakota fairly hard with her crop several times before she heard my shouting at her not to hit him at all. I immediately had her start stroking him instead. I went to the end of the ring and lowered the jump and had the trainer walk, and then trot him in a circle at that end. Dakota was VERY nervous — not from the cat but from being hurt. He soon took a deep breath and regained his trust in his rider and then calmly jumped over the fence. We stopped the lesson there.
This is the same principle that occurs when a horse shies. I have seen riders severely punish their horses when the animal was actually afraid of an object (maybe in the corner of the ring). After being hit, the horse refused to go anywhere near the corner. Horses do not mentally process events as humans do. He was honestly afraid of something. Horses are prey animals-their reaction to fear, flight or fight, to them may be a matter of survival. To hurt the horse when he is in this state just further confuses him.
Someone was going to load a horse in a trailer. They had had problems with him before, and apparently had watched a DVD in which the “trainer” had advocated “making things really bad for the horse outside of the trailer so he would want to go in.” Again, possibly for some horse at some time with attitudes and experiences of his own this may be an effective formula. But that was not stated in the DVD.
I watched while the owners started to jerk the lead rope back and forth violently. The horse had a knotted halter on so he immediately experienced pain. This increased his fear and raised his adrenaline level and the owners not only could not load him, he would not go within 40 feet of the trailer.
He associated the unexpected punishment with the physical appearance of the trailer. It took several days of calm and positive reinforcement for me to get the horse to load easily. With the extraordinary memory that horses have, it could have been more serious.
Rob, a friend of mine who is a well-known dressage trainer, once owned two spectacular Hanovarians who were full brothers. They both eventually became grand Prix horses. Rob said one of them, when it was five years old, was so athletic that he was performing one tempi flying changes at the end of his fifth year. His full brother, to quote Rob, was a “klutz” until he turned seven. Then his progress matched that of his brother. Rob was insightful enough to be flexible and give one of the horses more time.
I once had a client pay me to come a very long way to them to help with a very talented Trakehner named Breeze. Breeze had been badly injured in an accident and instead of having her put down these dedicated horse people spent three long years nursing her back to full physical health. She was now six and they had been slowly conditioning her. She was extremely talented and her owner is an exceptional rider. They naturally wanted advice from trainers, but the problem that they were having was that some professionals insisted on putting Breeze in the “six years old and should be doing this” slot. When she was unable to learn whatever it was, they usually responded with force. As a result, she was becoming more and more difficult to ride, and had started bucking.
The ability to be flexible was missing in the schooling strategy. Breeze was actually NOT six…mentally, emotionally or physically. She had to be brought along in a completely individual way. One had to gage all of her training on her responses and on her ability to learn without being stressed. Breeze is now quite successfully performing Fourth Level at eight years of age and is winning consistently. She is relaxed and confident. We had to adjust to her time table of development.
If what you are doing with your horse is not working, do not immediately “up the ante”. Take time to assess what is actually going on. I have often had to adjust what I had planned to do with a particular horse four or five times in a session until I found out what was needed at that time for that horse. Horses teach us so much if we just listen.
by Mitzi Summers