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Routine Tasks With No Inherent Meaning Diminish the Spirit of the Horse

Routine Tasks With No Inherent Meaning Diminish the Spirit of the Horse

You clip the lunge line to his face and send him away. A flick of the whip or the rope and off he goes. Short time, long time, whatever, he walks, trots or canters in a circle. Your purpose for this exercise is clear in your mind: exercise, smooth transitions, an attempt at calming, lameness detection, etc. His understanding of the point of lungeing? ZERO.

Mounted or on the ground, you tug gently on the lead rope in the direction of his withers to ask for flexion to the left and then to the right. You practice this each and every time before you ride. Sometimes it’s a part of all the groundwork you do each day. A routine. It’s good horsemanship. You have a clear intention of what you want to achieve: a quick and soft yield of the head. Your horse’s attention. You have his attention al lright. But do you know what is in his mind? I wonder if it’s this:

I learned what you want in this flexion thing in a few tries. I don’t understand why I have to do it over and over. It’s boring. If we don’t do something new pretty soon, I’m going to find something else on my own. Oh hey, look what I can do…!

Serpentines.

Backing up on the ground.

20 meter circles at the walk and trot.

Lead changes.

Trotting over cavaletti.

Sliding stops and spins.

Most of what we ask our horses to do on a daily basis is not as inherently harmful as dressage practice with rollkur. Yielding the head and trotting in 20 meter circles can’t physically hurt a horse unless he has health problems or injuries.

It can be harmful in other ways, however, as Frédéric Pignon says,

What people do not appreciate is that every time a horse submits to pressure, whether subtle or overt, he is diminished. Probably the great majority of people who achieve their own ends by making their horse submit are not even aware of what they have done. It is a sad fact that a horse can be made to do many things by breaking his will. If he can be persuaded to give his assent freely and pleasurably rather than give into man’s pressure or clever techniques, he is not diminished.

In Do We Really Know What We Do?, I posted the quote above also. I don’t believe we can contemplate what Frédéric was telling us enough. Horses who cannot find meaning in what they do are sour. They “misbehave.” They go lame. What we often do not realize is that it’s our fault.

Each and every time we as ordinary riders, just like the stars of the horse world, ask our horses to repeat an action they have already learned, or to do something contrary to their nature as horses, we are asking for a kind of submission, “making” him do things that make no sense to him. Most of horseback riding is not natural to horses, to be sure.
Horseback riding and training require a certain amount of repetition. This is irrefutable. But how much is enough? How can we be sure that our horses’ activities have clear and valid meaning for them?

One way is to change the way in which they are rewarded for producing the desired behavior. The pleasure of spending time with us is a reward for social animals like horses. We don’t always have time, but making time within our riding and training schedules to add a few extra moments of just being together with no goal in mind, and using this as a reward/positive reinforcement adds meaning to the tasks we ask horses to do.

Another way is to increase the amount of physical contact we have with our horses. Not the kind with the whip or with the leg. The kind where you both are on the ground and your hands are on the horse. Touch is a miracle communicator because horses are sensory creatures. Like us, touch in equine life is an important part of the establishment of social hierarchies and family interaction. The reward of human touch is powerful for such tactile animals. You’ve seen a horse with a metaphorical sign reading, “will work for food,” but most of them also will work for touch.

Do what comes naturally to your horse. An Icelandic Horse is bred for moving out across country. Their minds are not suited to riding in circles in arenas. If you are going to ask them to work in confined spaces at tasks they don’t inherently understand, make sure they get to do what they do understand, on a daily basis. Ride out, at speed!
Likewise, a Percheron is not built for, nor does he have the mindset for, the rapid changes in tempo and rhythm of dressage. Don’t even try it! I’m not suggesting that owners of Percherons take up hauling logs instead of riding. But perhaps long rides in the country are a better option for the health and sanity of the horse.
The much-abused Thoroughbred also comes to mind. OTTBs just aren’t constitutionally suited to a great many of the jobs we give them. Sure, they are in plentiful supply. They are inexpensive and easily replaceable. But consider suitability for your desired activity first. And if it’s just impossible to match breed to discipline, make sure you keep in mind my suggestions above for keeping your horse sane: avoid mindless repetition of meaningless tasks, give plenty of downtime in your company, and make sure to touch touch touch! I have one further suggestion for helping your horse find meaning in his working life.

The best way to ensure that horses find meaning in what they do is to change things up. On a routine basis. Yes, we will have to put considerable thought into this.

Non-habitual movements, like those described by Moshe Feldenkrais, capture the horse’s attention in a way that habitual actions do not. When practiced in a relaxed atmosphere without provoking typical fear responses, any new activity involving all four feet, the head or tail, or the back or belly engages the horse’s mind in a new way. Expanding the horse’s body image through new and different (non-habitual) movement sequences brings attention to parts of his body he might not be fully aware of (we all know those horses who forget they have hind feet and leave them parked out, for example). Asking a horse to do new things allows you to become more aware of their habitual neuromuscular patterns and rigidities as well because you are seeing them in a new way. You can then expand his options for new ways of moving and living his life more fully and comfortably, not to mention with greater ease of performance.

The Tellington TTouch Method™ has a variety of ground work and ridden exercises called the Playground for Higher Learning . Through brainwave studies, it has been shown that working on the activities in the Playground activates both hemispheres of the equine brain and calms the sympathetic nervous system, the part that excites the flight reaction so common in horses when they don’t understand what is being asked of them. The opportunities for learning are increased greatly. It is interesting to note that when navigating corners in the labyrinth, a horse’s BETA brainwaves are activated. They are actually thinking logically while working in the Playground for higher learning.

Why get excited about a horse thinking? When lungeing or repeating the activities we might need endless practice at, horses turn off their brains. They get sour and sometimes they get angry. A sour, angry horse who is merely becoming fitter as a result of all this mindless exercise is not the horse we want. This does them a profound disservice and does not further our goals.

Guiding a horse deliberately and gently through non-habitual paths while in close physical contact is the very essence of mindful horsemanship. The bonus is that it’s fun!

It’s easy to make any of the items in the Playground for Higher Learning. You can use the stuff you have lying around the barn or purchase it cheaply. It’s not heavy and can be set up and then moved out of the way to ride by one person in minutes. Here are some examples of what you might want to include.

The Zig Zag

The Tractor Tire

The Labyrinth

The Fan, or Star

The Triangle

These tools are not your typical obstacle course. They are not intended to be negotiated at speed, or as objects for desensitization. Rather the object is to practice focus and self-control, and to increase flexibility, body awareness, balance, coordination, and confidence. Increased patience is a wonderful side effect of working in the Playground. You can immediately see the benefits of working youngsters here.

It is beyond the scope of this post to describe how to use each of these obstacles. I suggest that you visit the Tellington TTouch website to read about them in more detail or get a book or video. Better yet, take a training so that you can practice with a horse before trying yourself. The TTouch methods of leading a horse through these obstacles is an integral part of the exercises. Last week in Bodega Bay, California, horses worked in these obstacles, and on a plywood platform raised 6 inches off the ground, in addition to walking through a gradually-built path of straw bales with people standing on them, eventually holding bright pool noodles in an arch over the horse. I saw striking changes in these horses in a short time–just four days of work two hours a day. These horses ranged from a youngster aged three (not yet mounted) to an elder aged 23 (unrideable due to past neglect and possible abuse), to a Grand Prix dressage horse with impeccable training and manners.

Horses’ capacity for learning and engagement with their human handlers never ends. It is our responsibility to meet them more than halfway by providing the opportunity to do so.

I’m not suggesting that we all drop our favorite equestrian disciplines in favor of turning our horses out into a field and visiting them daily with a carrot, a massage and a turn in the Playground. Though that would be excellent. We have horses so we can do things with them. Balance is absolutely necessary. It takes skillful means to strike and hold that balance. It isn’t easy, and it takes more time than grabbing the horse from the stall or field, scraping off the dirt, slapping on tack and circling the arena 50 times.

Rather than seeking yields (submission), we might instead seek cooperation, fun and learning with these tools, which will allow us to pursue our personal horseback riding and training goals without completely eradicating the soul of the horse. In this, we can all learn from Frédéric Pignon and Linda Tellington-Jones, whose mutual goal is to uphold the sanctity of the horse.

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