Late one Sunday afternoon there was a hesitant knock on our glass-paned back door. One of the dressage trainer’s students stood outside. Two dressage trainers used my facility as their base of operations and I cared for all the horses. On Sunday afternoons, I was often the only one around because I lived there. Everyone else had the day off, which meant I worked harder.
“What can I do for you, Melody?”
Defining the Problem
“I’m having a problem with my new horse. Can you come see what’s wrong?”
Thirteen-year-old Melody’s trainer recently agented the purchase of this new prospect, an eight-year-old leopard Appaloosa gelding. He was broke to ride and physically mature, suitable in conformation and movement for her discipline.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m working with him in the round pen, trying to get to know him a little better, but he keeps rearing at me. I’m kinda afraid.”
“Let’s go see.”
The stately Appaloosa gelding arrived a few days earlier and was, so far, a perfect gentleman in his stall. As we approached the round pen, he looked at us with interest and curiosity. Nothing in his manner suggested concern.
“He looks happy to me. Why don’t you show me what you were doing?”
Melody picked up her longe whip and went into the pen. Her horse watched her expectantly. She moved toward his front end and wiggled the whip at him, intending to send him to the perimeter of the round pen. He seemed to think about it but didn’t respond. She wiggled harder. He reared up.
“That’s, good, Melody. Let’s trade places for a minute.”
Context is King
I walked into the round pen and introduced myself to the attractive spotted gelding. It was the first time I had a good look at him. Other than stall checks, I had little contact with him in the short time he’d been at my place. If you removed the spots, he looked like a white warmblood; balanced, higher neck set, uphill topline, good heart girth, substantial bone, and feet big enough to carry his weight.
Running my hand over his body, I made my way around him. With a final pat on his neck I went to the center of the round pen. He was looking away from me, so I asked him to move using my body position and pointing the whip at the dirt behind his back heels. He moved off at a trot. It wasn’t a clean gait, but that’s another story. I stopped asking, let him stop, then asked again. This time he stood facing me, so I indicated which direction I wanted him to go with my hand and arm. He didn’t go, so I lightly bounced the whip on the ground between us.
Ah. The lightbulb flickered. After messing with him a bit more I stopped, gave him a pat, and went out to speak with Melody.
“He’s not dangerous, he’s been trick trained. The whip is his cue to rear. He’s doing what he thinks you want him to.”
I discovered later that he was, indeed, trick-trained.
The view from the top of a horse is not the same as the view from the ground. A frequent and common mistake is reaching a conclusion without understanding the perspective or viewpoint that gives context to the facts.
Three Topics Create Trouble
Three topics ignite sparks; religion, politics, and horses. Ideologues, dogmatic and uncompromising, are as prevalent in the horse world as they are in the society at large.
Friendships end over arguments about bits, horse shoes, blankets, or stalls; disagreement that pale in comparison to the debate over unwanted horses. Even if we ignore those flash-trigger issues, there’s still a lot of disagreement among experts in the world of horses. Which expert should you listen to? How do you decide who is right and who is wrong?
First you need to understand where they’re coming from; their perspective. To illustrate the point, I’ve held up different objects and asked audiences:
- Which is right, a western headstall with a snaffle bit and rope reins or full dressage bridle?
- Which is right, a cowboy hat or a helmet?
- Which is right, chaps or breeches?
- Which is right, western spurs with a three-inch shank and bumpy rowels or simple English spurs with short curved shanks?
- Which is the correct way to wear an English spur, curved up or curved down?
The answers change as the audience changes. What surprises me is how definitive the answers are; no ifs, buts, or wiggle room. One is right and the other wrong.
Does that really mean that what is right and what is wrong changes with the folks? Certainly not.
Who’s The Final Authority?
The final authority on what’s right and wrong with horses is the horse, identifying what best serves the equine body, spirit, and soul as God made it. Trappings don’t matter to horses as long as they fit, make sense, and enhance experiences rather than create trouble.
The final authority on what’s right and wrong for people is the one Who created them. I doubt God notices the particulars of bridles, spurs, or equestrian wear unless they inflict harm. Horsemanship requires stewardship excellence.
What is acceptable and what is not depends on an individual horse or the specific rules of an organization or competitive discipline. As a horse show judge I was consistent on this one point – I judged according to the competition rules of the specific event or association. I used travel time or evenings in motel rooms to review whatever rule book I’d carry during the show.
Equine “Salvation” Issues
Unfortunately, many people think that questions of tack, hoof care, attire, or training are “salvation” issues in the religion of Equus. That’s what makes the topic so volatile. I first shared my Horse Religion Speech in Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace, but this seems a good place to repeat it.
Two dressage trainers used my Arizona facility as their home base, each having a brood of students and clients. One day, one of the older trainer’s students complained that the younger trainer was abusing a horse.
The Storm Began
“What’s she doing?”
After listening to the details, I replied, “That isn’t abuse, it’s just another way to train. Thank you for sharing your concern, but I guarantee no horse will be abused here.”
A few days later, one of the younger trainer’s students found me, worried that the older trainer was abusing a horse.
“What’s she doing?”
The student shared the details and got the same answer. There are many ways to train the same thing. No horse was being abused.
After the third complaint of abuse I called a barn meeting exclusively for the dressage folks. Once both trainers and their clients gathered, I delivered my horse religion speech for the first time. It didn’t exist before that meeting but I’ve used it a hundred times since.
The Horse Religion Speech
People interested in learning all they can about religion visit different places of worship. One week they attend a Baptist church, the next a Jewish synagogue, then a Catholic church, Islamic mosque, Shinto temple, Mormon congregation, and maybe even a Pentecostal revival. By this time, their head is spinning from conflicting views.
Everyone seems to believe what they preach, going as far as trusting their eternity to the doctrines of their chosen religion; but everyone can’t be right. How do you decide which of mutually exclusive ideologies is right?
If no one religion satisfies, the person is totally confused.
Horse religion is the same. If you study working with horses, you probably attend various clinics and take lessons from different instructors. Most people become a true believer of one program (religion) or are totally confused.
My suggestion is this, find horse people who share the same beliefs you do, stick with them, and give everyone else religious freedom.
Complaints of abuse stopped.
The Only Perspective that Matters
The gauge of what is right and wrong with your horse is the condition of the relationship you share.
- Are you happy with one another?
- No matter the speed, are you making progress?
- Is your horse calm, content, and happy to see you?
- Do lessons end with a net positive every time?
The only perspective that matters is the one that makes sense to your horse. Period. Choose horse experts who help you enhance the relationship you have with your horse.