Years ago I was watching a woman riding her horse over fences. Each time the horse landed after a fence, he threw his head up and bolted. The rider would then jerk the horse around in a small circle, pulling his head around until it nearly touched her boot at which point she would smack him with her riding crop and proceed to make several circuits of the arena at a brisk trot while see-sawing the reins so violently the horse’s head wagged back and forth.
After the horse had received this “training,” the woman once again rode him to the fence; he jumped it willingly but upon landing, threw his head up violently and bolted. The woman screamed at the horse and went back into her “training” mode. She yelled something to her companion who was watching from the ground, about the new, stronger bit not working. Then she proceeded to jerk mercilessly on the horse’s mouth while spurring him relentlessly.
It baffled me that this obviously kind horse continued to willingly approach and jump the fence while receiving this treatment from his rider. It further baffled me that the problem, which was clear to me after the second jump, seemed to completely elude the self-proclaimed trainer and her companion: each time the horse landed, the rider lost her balance and snatched him in the mouth. The horse was trying to escape the pain she was inflicting on him by her incompetent riding. She had failed to develop an independent seat, and her horse was suffering for it.
I wish I had been brave enough then to speak out in defense of the horse but I was young and lacked the confidence needed to approach this intimidating woman. I watched her ride toward the fence and yet again make the same mistake, then punish the horse for her incompetence. “Go get the martingale!” she yelled to her companion, “I’ll make him keep his head down!” My stomach churned and I whispered a prayer for the horse before turning back to my work.
That woman was not a rider, she was a parasite. A parasite, by definition is something that attaches itself to a host and harms it. The parasite is completely oblivious to (or perhaps just doesn’t care about) the harm it is causing the host. It only takes but never gives. There is not a reciprocal relationship; the parasite is the only one that gets any benefit.
Parasites come in many forms:
Captain Cram and Jam – holds the reins as tightly as possible while relentlessly kicking and spurring the horse in an effort to “get him in frame”
Inspector Gadget – this person is always looking for the next great training gadget to force her horse to do what she hasn’t prepared him (or perhaps herself) to do. Training staples include harsh bits, a martingale (or training fork), draw reins and side reins
See-sawer/plane flagger/goat milker –these are the individuals whose hands never stop moving – jerking up, jerking down, to the side, etc. These are easy to recognize as they are the ones riding the horse with the gapping open mouth, chin tucked in chest (usually preceded by nose pointing at the sky), and/or head wagging from side-to-side. These parasites tend to flock to “magic bits” selecting increasingly harsh bits as their horse’s mouth becomes scarred and deadened.
The Know-it-all – Usually this is the person who either has had a few lessons and won a couple ribbons and therefore is a self-proclaimed trainer or can take the form of a person who has decades of experience with horses but has yet to learn anything
The Blissfully Ignorant Weekender – this person takes old Frank out of the pasture once or twice a summer and sits crookedly in the saddle for a 4 hour trail ride on an out-of-shape horse.
Conversely, a true rider is not afraid to do the work it takes to become a good rider. She puts in the years of work it takes to develop an independent seat, she seeks to understand the horse, when a “behavioral issue” arises, she first looks at herself for a cause, then considers the possibility of a physical issue with the horse and lastly looks for an actual behavior that needs to be modified. A true rider wants to build a relationship with the horse; she works to ensure the horse is happy to do his work. She also works to understand the horse’s physical capabilities and to ensure the horse is physically able to do the work it is being asked to do. She doesn’t rely on training gadgets as she understands 99% of the time such devices serve only 3 purposes:
1. Cover up bad riding
2. Cover up holes in training
3. Force a horse that is not mentally and/or physically prepared to do the work it is being asked to do.
So, ask yourself the tough question: are you a parasite or a rider? The next time you run into a “behavior problem” with your horse consider the whole picture: is it something you are doing (sitting off balance, a poor cue, bouncing hands, etc.)? Is your horse in pain? Have you physically and mentally prepared your horse to do what you are asking him to do? Are you trying to ride above your level? Are you riding more horse than you can handle?
I’m not claiming to be perfect. I’ve made (and continue to make) mistakes, I’ve subjected horses to unfair training practices; I’ve blamed horses for my shortcomings. BUT in more than 25 years I have never stopped learning. I keep an open mind and am always working to improve my techniques, looking for ways to teach the horse in a way she understands, and always working to keep my horse comfortable, happy, and glad to do her work.
Our horses are a gift and most of them give of themselves until it hurts and even then, keep on giving. Learning to ride in a balanced, independent seat without relying on training gadgets to achieve artificial results is the least we can do for our horses. Pay attention to what your horse is telling you, and you both will benefit. You will connect with your horse on the deepest level and, by being a rider rather than a parasite; you can add many sound and happy years with your horse!
9/30/14 -- WOW! The response to this post has been amazing! I wrote this in-part because I was feeling quite alone in my horse training philosophy so I am thrilled to see there are so many like-minded people in this world! If you like this post, you may also enjoy these similarly-themed posts found HERE
Thanks so much for sharing!
Cheryl L. Eriksen, MSW, Equine Enthusiast, EAGALA groupie and writer of interesting, educational and entertaining blog posts!