I guess what I’m eluding to is that tradition is great, but there is a fine line between loving tradition and being backward. When it comes to working with animals it is always important to be forever looking forward and always questioning.
As Stephen Budainsky says: “Science is beginning to allow the horse to tell its own story. And indeed I would argue that at this late date in the shared history of man and horse it is only the objective tools of science that can sort out what millenniums of tradition, love, and wishful thinking have sometimes muddles.”
Science is no magic elixir, but I feel that after 6000 years of much wishful thinking and distorting myth, science holds a source of truth that we need if we are to approach the horse with a clear mind.
Humans were riding horses at least 500 years before the wheel was invented, so it is no surprise that our histories are so entwined that it is sometimes very hard to believe that the horse is a completely different animal to us. He sees, hears, processes and thinks in completely different ways. He is not just a slightly backward person dressed up in a horse costume – despite what we sometimes want to believe.
Let’s have a look at a few traditions that might have slipped through the cracks and, if we look at them objectively, we might realise that we could do away with some of them while being just as well off and make the world a slightly nicer place for the horse.
Seriously, if you told most people that we trim horses up to make them look how we like them to look by pulling their hair out by the roots they’d think you were crazy, and rightly so! It may be how some people choose to trim themselves up to conform to societies views on how they should look but the horse didn’t ask to look any different to how he would if left in the paddock so leave the pulling behind and trim with scissors. I too, like my horse’s mane a little shorter for ease of plaiting but I know he doesn’t care and he certainly didn’t ask for me to spend half an hour ripping it out.
Fashion or quick-fix? Nosebands have been a contentious issue recently and there is much debate. It is traditional to wear a noseband of some description. In fact, it’s a rule in some disciplines. But there also used to be a rule that the tightness of said noseband should allow two fingers to be inserted on the nose bone. Not many nosebands this loose can be found these days and it has now become fashionable to use all sorts of nosebands of varying degrees of tightness. Read more on our take on the noseband debate here…
Legging up (or mindless hammering of the horses legs on the road)
There was once a belief that after a break or ‘spell’ horses need to be ‘legged up’ by spending hours trotting around the roads to ‘harden’ their tendons. While there is definitely truth in the fact that bone gets more dense with use, and tendons strengthen, it appears that what we were actually doing was adding to the already large levels of concussion our horse’s legs experience in a life-time! The sport has changed, as has our understanding of how the horse’s structures work. Many people still believe that trotting around the roads in the key to their fitness, but I urge you all to talk to experienced trainers, vets and even Dr Google to see if you can find other ways of increasing your horse’s fitness and strength. There is no doubt that after a long spell, plenty of slow work with a gradual increase is required…but do we need to trot for miles on the road?
I know, I know… they look really pretty! But we know now that they can heat the tendons and ligaments of the legs up by several degrees. This increase in temperature is enough for the fibres to start to denature (in other words, they cook). Over time, if enough fibres cook, you end up with a whopping hole in the tendon and the horse breaks down. Ouch. Think carefully before bandaging and booting up (especially in the heat or for long periods of time). We find that if the horse is trained calmly and in self-carriage we don’t see many knock injuries at all. We’re definitely more minimalist than most in this area, but it’s worth thinking about.
Double bridles (and spurs)
It seems to me that as our horse’s training progresses we should be able to use less and less gear or tackle, and become more and more refined in our control aids. However, according to the rules, as we go up the grades the requirement for double bridles and spurs increases! Odd? I know that in traditional thought it is because with spurs and double bridles you can be more refined with your aids but it appears to me that poking the horse between the ribs with a piece of metal, or clamping its lower jaw between a bar of metal and a metal chain, is not more refined at all! I’d like to see grand prix dressage in a snaffle rewarded, not eliminated. That said, I love the traditional look of a double bridle on a horse and understand that in good hands they are merely a different way to control the horse. But it’s still two pieces of metal in his mouth instead of one.
It’s cheap and easy but we now know that the horses stomach is not designed to digest grain and that it is to blame for quite a significant number of the gastric ulcer cases in performance and racing horses. Despite there being other options available, high-grain diets are still very commonly used among sport and pleasure horses usually because ‘that is the way it has always been done’.
It’s a common misconception that if you rug your horse to the eyeballs it won’t grow a fluffy coat. All of a sudden we have horses in Australia being rugged far more than horses in the middle of a European winter. It’s potentially quite bad for their physche, their posture and over-heating has many proven physiological issues including weight loss and dehydration. Have you ever seen your horse rush over to the grass and almost appear to throw itself down for a roll when you remove his rugs for the first time in a while? Scientists call this post-inhibitory rebound behaviour – the horse has to fulfill his need to roll and scratch so he is making up for all the lost time while he was heavily rugged. Our 3 star event horses wear rugs when it is cold and raining, so in the winter that is most nights, but as often as possible they are un-rugged during the day. It is worth remembering that horses take much longer to get cold than we do – so just because the air feels chilly on your skin doesn’t mean you need to rush out and put three rugs on your horse.
Stabling and isolating horses from each other
Horses are herd animals, we say this all the time, but we still isolate them, stable and paddock them with no ability for physical contact with other horses and fail to recognise that they are tactile creatures and that attachment is important to them. Space issues, risk of injury, cleanliness and feeding all contribute to the decision to manage horses in the way that so many of us do – in stables and individual paddocks – and while many horses cope in this environment, those with more ‘marginal’ temperaments are more likely to struggle. It pays to think about your management in terms of the horses ethogram (the behaviours he was evolved to enact) and see if there are any ways you can improve. Read about why we keep our horses in small groups. There is also an interesting article about horse housing here.
Submission is a difficult thing to understand and measure and as such makes me wonder whether what we really want is a ‘submissive’ horse? Is the submission that traditionalists are after actually just a slippery slope to learned helplessness? As Dr Andrew McLean says in this Horse Magazine article: “Optimally, criteria should be directly observable with no exceptions. You cannot directly observe submission. In fact the word ought to be rubbed out – it has no place in training. Training is about setting up a behaviour, reinforcing it and repeating it until it becomes a habit. Anything less shows up as the horse trialing an alternative behaviour (because he can) or as confusion and this is mistaken for lack of submission. When you’re riding a dressage test, you are not asking questions but eliciting reflex reactions that you have installed. The horse isn’t obeying you like a slave, but reacting to what you have correctly or incorrectly reinforced in your training. Things happen far too fast in a dressage test for a horse to ponder what he might or mightn’t do (environmental stimuli excepted). The job of trainers of all animals is to turn action into habit, just as we do when we do sports or drive a car.” It’s worth thinking about.
Riding from “leg into hand”
I understand where old school trainers come from when they say you should ride from leg to hand. It’s that feeling you get when everything feels good, you feel that hard-to-understand-and-measure thing that we often refer to as ‘throughness’ and it just all feels connected and nice. That’s fairly non-specific isn’t it?! If you break it down, you’re basically asking riders to rider from their go button to their stop button. Now I know that seems simplistic, but it is unfortunately how a lot of riders translate it, especially those that find riding hard to manage with all its formulas and ‘feels’. I think we need to be careful about how we specify what we want from the horse, and how we get it. This way we are most likely to be ethical in our training, and clear for riders.
Training methods that promote notions of dominance and submission in the relationship between human and horse (seriously, I’ve never met a human with a long mobile neck, a swishy tail, or movable ears…so chances are it’s pretty hard for them to communicate with horses from a herd dynamics way point of view!), or that promote riding with opposing aids (go and stop and the same time) really need a review to shift into the 21st century. It doesn’t take much time on Google to discover some interesting facts about horses that might change your ideas in regards to training and horse keeping in the 21st century.
To that end, I don’t believe there is a black and white line between tradition ending and horse-welfare beginning, but that there is a great deal of cross-over and some traditions need to be looked at with our science goggles on rather than our ‘but this is how it has always been done’ mind-set to ensure we always put the welfare of the horse first. And that’s coming from someone who loves tradition ;-)