by Mitzi Summers
Through many years I have been hired by clients who had either purchased a horse that had formerly been haltered, and/or ridden and driven in the Park Horse classes in their breed division. Even though the breeding of these horses was usually specifically aimed at a certain way of going in the show ring, the new owners were eager to try to allow their horses to move more naturally and with more positive energy.
To the untrained eye watching these horses perform, one might think that the horses are somehow actually enjoying themselves, tearing around a ring with their tails flagged, back inverted, neck, head and throatlatch area crunched. But if an awareness in general of some training methods employed is understood, and the energy and mood of the horses is examined, it becomes apparent that most of the horse are operating not with a calm understanding of what was required. They are usually barely controllable, and their eyes are hard and frightened. Often weighted shoes are used which will eventually break them down. Severe bits are also often adopted.
My first concentrated experience was with Morgans who had been trained to perform much the same as gaited Saddlebreds. They were nervous and held their heads abnormally high. Their tails had had ginger put underneath them to encourage high tail carriage, and they backed off from the bit. The chiropractor found many sore spots, and gave the owners and me daily exercises to do with them to start to alleviate the physical damage that had already occurred.
Whenever I worked with them I always used low, reassuring energy. I first needed to do work in hand and massage their crests as I worked them in a halter and encouraged the “long and low” frame that would eventually result in an improved movement of their bodies. I made use of poles on the ground, and graduated to quiet longeing, encouraging through my body language and hand movement that they were free to stretch down. I used no auxiliary devices that are widely used to get a horse to stretch — I wanted the whole process natural and to allow the horse to learn to balance and stretch by experimenting and relaxing.
I only used correct fitting halters — even a longeing cavesson made most of them feel tense. I also successfully employed use of the Bitless Bridle. Yes, it took a while, but the horses started to trust that they could stretch down longitudinally and telescope their necks and heads forward and down while pushing more with their haunches and raising their backs. Gradually we started riding them the same way as soon as they had developed some correct muscling. The most difficult part was insuring the horses that they could trust our hands — that we would not hurt them. I remember the first time that a client called me and said that her horse pulled on her a little that day when she was riding him. I shared her enthusiasm but then cautioned her that she might want to word this milestone differently. It would be better to say that her horse was finally seeking contact with her hands so that the process was more easily understood!
Once the horse felt secure in seeking contact, their training could be less specialized. We could start to ask for bending, teach them the meaning of half halts, and work on improving their gaits through transitions and light lateral work. All of them within a year were showing successfully at Training Level dressage. It must be remembered, however, that their training was individualized according to each horse, and it was consistent throughout the year. They were never drilled, and trail rides and small jumps were included in their schooling. Also, the in-hand work and correct longeing including double longeing, proved vitally important.
Two Saddlebreds that I worked with in much the same way actually showed more promise in jumping. All the basics were the same, with allowances made for individual preferences, but they seemed to be more comfortable going in a hunter “frame”. They were able to respond to half halts quite well. Developing a bascule over fences and having the ability to go forward including fences definitely was where they worked best. Their owners were able to show them in recognized shows and place, which was a very successful conclusion for everyone.
I will relate a few incidents that I personally observed so that the reader realizes what some of these horses go through. I was at a show that included Gaited Saddlebred classes. I noticed parts of the stabling that had drapes hung over the stalls so that no light got into the horses. I asked the trainers and they straightforwardly said they kept their horses in darkness all the time except when they worked or showed them. Then they would quickly bring them out into daylight, yell and jerk at them to get them upset, and then mount them and take them out into the ring. I also observed a Saddlebred horse brought out into the warm-up ring at the Syracuse All Breeds show. He was completely blindfolded, with four people holding him down. They managed to give the rider a leg-up and he proceeded to ride the horse BLINDFOLDED around the ring until they called for the class. The rider waited until the last minute, the grooms ripped the blindfold off, and into the ring the horse went. He looked insane. I honestly think these people had literally driven him mad. HE WON THE CLASS!!!
Arabians are always a fun breed with which to work. As you know, they will flag their tails and raise their heads and dash around the pasture even when they are babies. It is a natural way of going for them. It is when they are used for halter classes where whips may be used to get them to travel in a tense and tight manner, and park classes where the same thing may be accomplished by harsh bits and tight contact that more problems can occur.
Arabians are extremely intelligent. Each one is definitely an individual, and the reschooling has to be thought out to follow in whatever path the horse leads. I recently had two Arabians now owned by a wonderful woman who saw that the conformation that resulted from how they were originally were used was going to result in their breaking down. The gelding, especially, had a very swayed back. I could not free longe the gelding at first as he always thought he was going to be chased around. I knew that eventually he would trust our energy, but in the meantime he was just strengthening the wrong muscles and the wrong way of going.
Both horses had seen a chiropractor and massage person, so with their feedback, we were ready to begin.
I just started working with the gelding with quiet in-hand exercises, and then progressed to a single line. He was not receptive at first to double longeing. He is now calmly free longeing alongside the walls of the area, walking and slow trotting and cantering to just voice commands. He is usually going around with his back stretching up and his neck long and low, such a difference!! We are not riding him until he develops better muscling.
The mare at first was quite reactive-kicking and bucking. By calmly working with her — short, short sessions and all positive reinforcement, she now eagerly comes to the fence to be worked, and the owner is quietly riding her. The mare is also starting to travel correctly.
The greatest part of working with these horses is when they decide to trust me… that I will never hurt them, and the sessions are not going to be stressful or hurtful. I do not want to sound mystical, but you can definitely communicate with a new horse, even abused, and let them relax through your positive energy and love. How lucky we all are to be with them — the least we can do is to work with them with the best intentions.