by Mitzi Summers
On the positive side, I find more of my students and friends reading and seeking information and questioning what they find. I am getting more emails and calls from people who read something or went to a clinic and had questions about how it affected their horse, positively or negatively. I think many horse people are becoming more aware of how everything they do affects their horses.
Negative side, I can attend a games event and still find that the time limit and ribbons and excitement for some of the riders overtake their awareness of how their horses are reacting. I see most steering happening first from their hands, which gives their horse no preemptive signal on what direction they are supposed to go or what to do. I find myself wearing pretend blinkers on the sides of my eyes, so I do not see the open mouths of the horses and the pain in their eyes as they are jerked about.
It must be a lack of awareness. All of my students, once they become aware of when a horse is calm and comfortable and when he is confused, frightened, or hurting, are always aware of it. But I can remember as a child watching the Saturday western matinees and never taking the horse into consideration except for thinking how beautiful they were.
I think the general OPEN western pleasure classes in general are changing for the best. I see western horses moving as they used to — with a light contact and covering ground with smooth gaits and forward and balanced… not forced into an unnatural position with their heads below their knees and moving at a falsely collected gait. Can you imagine these horses actually asked to chase a cow at high speed over uneven ground? This is the importance of the up and coming Western Dressage (not Cowboy Dressage). It stresses the correct movement and training of western horses.
Something that does not seem to be getting too much better is the understanding that a lower head carriage, the neck stretching down and the head lower than normal, does not necessarily mean that we are strengthening our horses physically, and “building the bridge” between the back and the front of the horse.
I recently had a student that cried all the way home from a clinic. She had paid an enormous amount of money for a “top name”, and then was barraged with the phrase, “yank his head in, pull his nose in”. She could feel her horse getting tighter and tighter, and not going in front of her leg, and then was told to apply spurs to him. This was all done on the incorrect paradigm that to bring his nose in was to “put him on the bit” and “all horses must always be on the bit.” I recently heard an instructor inform her students to pull on the mouth, then when the horse gave, for the rider to give, then to pull “a bit harder.”
There are many wonderful teachers and trainers out there, but the student must not just look for easy answers. Know that a big part of the picture is the hours you must put in improving your riding. This spring some of the most fun I had was demonstrating how to get a horse to round by GIVING with the reins…ALLOWING the horse to round his back and stretch into contact.
Another positive was the woman who had come from the “jerk, kick and pull” clinic. The horse was in shape, was sound, the saddle fit, so I rode the horse to be certain that it was just the rider misunderstanding what she needed to do. I simply rode the horse FORWARD in front of my leg but in balance. The contact with the rein had to feel forward. I gave the student this image: from her shoulder to her elbow to her hand to the horse’s head was a garden hose, and the water either went TOWARD the horse’s mouth, or was PASSIVE, stopping at the soft hand. NEVER pulling back.
I asked the horse to go forward and at first he was not truly in front of my leg as he was expecting to be pulled in the mouth. I reassured him that he could trust my hands, that the bit would not be pulled back. I could feel his haunches start to push and as I GAVE with my hands he lifted his back, rounded, and came on the bit. It felt lovely and unforced, and, once you get the feel, it is SO SIMPLE because you do not do anything with your hands!!! They just follow and agree with what your seat and legs did first. I owe this wonderful ability mostly to Chuck Grant, the “Father of American Dressage” who is in the USDF Hall of Fame. I apprenticed with him for three years.
The owner of the horse got on and could feel the relaxation and power of her horse. I was able to coach her through the process. A lot of it was getting her to release with her hands; to allow the horse to move and stretch. She burst into happy tears and said she had been trying to get this feeling from her horse for over two years. She could feel how nice it was for her and the horse-that he wanted to come on the bit because it was a comfortable place to go.
Western Dressage is one of the positive upcoming disciplines that I believe will become more and more important in the western community. It stresses the correct riding and training of the horse. It recognizes the differences between English and Western Dressage and the rules support these. When I attended the TRAIN THE TRAINERS symposium in North Carolina, I had a question for the presenters, who were excellent. My question was, that in some of the western dressage tests they asked for a turn on the forehand. This is not asked for in regular dressage as it puts the horse on the forehand, and we are always working on getting him to push and transfer weight through his haunches.
The answer was immediate and excellent. Cliff Swanson (one of the presenters along with Frances Carbonnel), replied that some of the horses in the ring today (we were all practicing judging) would be out working on the range tomorrow. They may have to open a gate or turn around on a narrow trail. Therefore, this maneuver was mandatory. Even though all my horses have turn on the forehand included in their training for just this reason, I thought this was a wonderful concept. I have found a greater interest in the general horse public in learning western dressage.
A last thought. The fact that there was finally another Triple Crown Winner after all of this time was, I have to admit, exciting. But at the same time I could not help thinking of the interest this would renew in Thoroughbred racing. It is a huge money-maker and has so much tradition behind it, but we all know that for every American Pharaoh there are 50 horses who end up at a slaughter house because they were pushed too hard and too young. Every time there is a Barbaro or Ruffian scenario people think of this and then it is soon forgotten.
Even at least limiting starting racing at three and not two, and changing the big races such as the Derby to four year olds instead of three year olds, would give horses a chance to live a more normal life. Trainers would have to take longevity and soundness into consideration if their horses had to last at least until four years of age.
The horse industry continues to expand, and the bigger anything gets, the more room there is for excellence and also self-interest. Let’s all try to continue to learn and grow but have the welfare of the horse in mind.
by Mitzi Summers