Kindness and consideration for Dressage horses

I believe in the use of dressage to help the horse become better balanced physically and therefore mentally, dressage should make the horse look more graceful and magnificent, it should enhance their presence. When it looks harsh and forced something is wrong. It may not be in the training, but in the other aspects of the horse’s life. His environment, his diet, his equipment, his handling. These things are just as important. Writing this article started as self healing to help me process a difficult situation which happened at the end of my recent trip to Portugal, I wasn’t planning to publish it, but decided perhaps, since it turned out relatively coherent, it may even help a horse or two…  If you regularly see the things that I talk about on this page, perhaps through this article you might realise that it is not normal, that there are kinder more considerate ways, that even with small changes you can improve the comfort of the horse you are working with. I’ve written in English because I had such deep emotions boiling inside me it seemed more authentic than to translate into French. If you would rather not read my ramblings about what I didn't like, skip to the positive bit about the amazing Lusitano horse. (pour les francophones, scrollez vers le bas pour les jolis photos et liens)

Where to start…

Am I over sensitive? Is it me? Do you have to abandon consideration for the well-being of horses to ride higher level dressage?

The idea was going to a Portuguese trainer for a lesson on a school master as the pinnacle of my month long working student trip for my very last afternoon, school masters you expect to be nice well trained horses, you give the right aids they do what you ask. To learn to be a better rider, learn to feel the movements so you know what you’re looking for. What should have been a dream ride. Well, I feel like I have learnt what I really want to avoid. It wasn’t the actual training, the movements, the style of the training or any of the things which I had been nervous about. The problem I had was the preparation and consideration of the horse.

For a start I always look at the feet… and immediately the front heels looked high and contracted, poor development of the back of the foot, there was a big event line half way down the hoof, then the toe looked long and one foot had a toe crack, when the foot was lifted for cleaning it was fitted with a backwards shoe. Special orthopaedic shoeing someone else might think - outdated method of dealing with laminitis, which doesn’t solve the issue and most often makes it worse, is what I have learnt… (learn more) However I was in the hands of professionals, I think to myself that surely they wouldn’t give me a horse that wasn't up to the job. Then things got worse.

When the groom approached the horse with the saddle, the mare moved away (though in cross ties), put her ears back and started kicking out backwards with one hind leg. She was sharply told to “stand up”. Or as I would translate it – “stop communicating (screaming) your discomfort to me”. The saddle was placed on the horse in an ok position to my eyes, though I would have liked to feel with my hand to make sure the saddle wasn’t pressing on the back of the scapular, but then it was moved forward a hands width… The Balance Saddling Concept advocates among you are in agony, I know I was. Then the girth tightening, the groom fortunately was only small, but she used all her might to tighten the girth, immediately after putting the saddle on. (In hind sight this is the point that I wish I had stood up for the horse and left.) I had a problem with both aspects. There is no need to tighten the girth with all your force! Did you know some people are taught to ride and jump with a saddle and no girth! While I wouldn’t recommend riding like that, I still prefer to have my saddle attached, but please allow the horse to breathe! The girth can be progressively tightened one hole at a time in between the other tasks like bridling, this is much more acceptable to the horse - especially if the whole thing is started with some gentle TTouch belly lifts using the girth.

Then comes the bridling… the groom attempted for a few minutes to put the two bits of the double bridle in the mouth of the horse, who is smart and puts her head up high to avoid having to open her mouth. (I’m dying inside by this point, so even the sight of the two bits makes me cringe, I’ve been riding in a snaffle bridle all month.) The groom persists for a while, then asks for a mounting block. The situation persists a while longer with the groom on the block and then eventually the groom “succeeds” in bridling the horse and apologises to me for the fact she is bad at bridling but the horses always do that to her because they know she is short and they like to take advantage… (I wouldn’t have wanted all that metal in my mouth either… smart horse I say.)

So I walk the horse into the manège and start walking around the arena in hand, “Where are you going?” the groom asks, “I was going to walk her round a little bit… [silent pause]... do you not do that here?” - “Er, no…” Ok so I head back to the mounting block… The groom who I had been chatting too earlier asks me curiously, why do you do that? So since she had asked…. I told her that when riding strange horses I like to get a feel of them first in hand. Plus since she had tightened the girth far too tightly in my opinion that also made me want to move the horse before getting on. Plus I often ride older horses and I like to know how they are moving and how stiff they might be before I get on.  (she had asked… this was the only time got asked my opinion during the visit).

Then to the riding. I was immediately asked if I had brought spurs, I had been given a pair with small rounded ends to borrow – I don't like to use spurs because I know I don’t have stability in my lower leg and plus I believe they shouldn’t be necessary… the trainer thought they were too small but put them on me anyway. The horse did not go forward from the leg. With the saddle tight on her shoulders and such bad hoof care it is not surprising. She was slightly uneven in the warm up on one rein. I could feel it and for an experienced horse trainer it must have been visible from the ground. Yet I kept riding. She became more even as the session went on.

We had a weird 5 minutes in the middle of the session when my horse freaked out, I thought maybe one of the bandages had come loose and was trailing behind, it was the sort of reaction you might get from a horse fly or a dog attacking the horse’s legs – but it was an indoor walled manège, no beasties. It happened a second time, the trainer to his credit said that it was not normal. I speculated that it might be to do with the patch of sunshine projected on the ground from the sky light since I had seen that the horse’s eyes had been running a lot when I first met her, perhaps she had a vision issue? (Just one more candle for her to manage) We tested the issue by riding at trot through the patch of sunlight and that was definitely the problem. We continued our lesson and I avoided the patches of sunlight.

The lesson itself was interesting and highlighted issues for me to work on, I was amazed at the capacity of the horse to do the work asked. We worked through all of the movements I had been working on during my working student placement.  Lateral movements, counter canter, flying changes… I tuned out a bit when we got to the Spanish Walk and Piaffe at the end, you really need energy in these movements and at this point at the end of the session both me and the horse are soaked in sweat, I would normally have stopped riding half and hour before, I prefer it when my horses are not really sweaty when I finish riding, I would see this as a sign that the horse was too tense or had over exerted…  The trainer was helping the horse by asking for the movements in hand, I felt I didn't have enough knowledge about these movements to know if what I was doing was correct so I was relieved when we finished.

I think he probably has lots of equestrian tourists coming through, so I forgive him for not finding me interesting, for all the days of clinic time and hours of reading and practise time, I am but a debutante when it comes to this dressage business - but with little dialogue between us it wasn’t possible for me to talk about the issues that I saw, you don’t go to someone’s house and criticise the way they keep their animals. You can make suggestions in discussion, but first there must be discussion… I did try and ask what he made of “all this” thinking myself about the horse and I think he thought I was fishing for compliments about my riding and gave me the feedback that I needed the horse in front of my leg, but my spurs were very small(!), then valiantly tried to say my riding was ok while saying that everything needed work – which is probably a fair sum up! But really I wanted to know that he knew that all was not right with his horse!

So I leave, feeling bad for my horse - that was showered, rugged and put back in her stable, where she probably spends most of her life (speculation on my part). When I arrived back at the stables where I was doing my working student placement, my trainer, who had sent me there to top off a month of learning and have a really nice horse to ride didn't get the expected response when she asked how it went...  I had an emotional outpouring caused by disappointment, heartbreak and self-addressed anger for my moral and ethical failings - the failings being not refusing to ride and not saying what I thought there and then…  I was determined to take constructive lessons from the experience, feeling that I owed that to the horse, but there and then I was feeling emotional and had no chocolate!

Such noble, giving creatures… I came to Portugal looking for a riding experience, hoping to ride different horses and experience some of the more advanced dressage movements, which the horses I ride either aren’t trained to do or are not able to do since they are young, old, stiff, in rehab, dodgy hocks, etc. I did manage to do this during my working student placement, but I what I also found is examples of atrociously fitting saddles, abominable farriery and merely whispers of a heritage of classical dressage… These things I can find in France, so watch out France, I am coming home motivated to make change for the better for the horses who have no voice of their own. In my small way I am trying to help to change things in France where similar issues abound, I'm hoping the skills I have learnt riding here in Portugal during this placement will help other horses and people.

Often I question myself about whether riding horses is an ethically correct thing to do, I can have lots of anxiety about the potential discomfort the horse may be suffering, either directly from the equipment and my riding or because of other physical issues.   As an equine bodyworker I know that most horses, as with most people, will have some issue to work on when I go and see them.  I think it is easier to find examples of poor riding and movement than it is to find correct examples and it can get to a point when you wonder if such a thing exists! How many people have truly experienced true roundness and throughness?  What would it be like if everyone had an opportunity to experience this? What would horses' lives be like if they were all ridden in a way that helped their bodies? This whole experience has made me feel better about the horses I ride in France, their lives are infinitely better, whatever their issues may be.  I may not be the best rider in the world, but I shall continue to ride and to strive to learn more that I might continue to improve the working lives of the horses I meet. Incidentally, if you are a classical dressage trainer interested in improving the well-being of the horse and fancy a skills exchange – let me know!

There WERE sparks of sheer delight during my time in Portugal, I will finish with one of them because otherwise I might not sleep…

Introducing the Lusitano prince…

The sheer class of the horse oozes from his very pretty face, this month during my working student placement I had the chance to see him adapt to his new home, he arrived in my second week. A young well-bred 6 year old, he came from a training yard where life may have been similar to in this stable I visited today: in a box most of the time, shod, little opportunity to make choices, high carbohydrate diet. At his new home he has rediscovered the benefits of feeling his feet by the removal of his shoes – instant better balance, stability and co-ordination, he has rediscovered the benefits of being outdoors and having turnout in the presence of other horses, and he will live like a prince he is while being trained to be a king! On my final morning I had the privilege to ride him and it is hard to describe the feeling, he is forward, smooth, super responsive, supple, bendy, light and has amazing lift and rhythm in his movement, really he was a joy to ride. It was for that that I have been looking for.  I hope to retain those sensations and maybe transmit them by osmosis to my future steeds.

Finally before the photos of the Lusitano prince and useful links, I will share a wish for horses everywhere and this quote that strikes a chord in me, the wish is :- that we as humans develop our kindness, consideration and understanding so that horses may find their interactions with us easier.

“Equestrian art, perhaps more than any other, is closely related to the wisdom of life. Many of the same principles may be applied as a line of conduct to follow. The horse teaches us self-control, constancy, and the ability to understand what goes on in the mind and the feelings of another creature, qualities that are important throughout our lives. Moreover, from this relationship with his horse the rider will learn that only kindness and mutual understanding will bring about achievements of highest perfection.” Alois Podhajsky, The Complete Training of Horse and Rider

Photos Portugal January 2019 working student placement

For suggestions on improving the well-being of the dressage horse I highly recommend Linda's book "Dressage for the mind, body and soul" (which is also available in French "Le dressage avec la méthode Tellington : une approche spirituelle et scientifique de l'équitation")

For a more modern and more effective method for dealing with laminitis please look at The Laminitis Site. (blog article in French)

The Ritter Dressage team have a great positive attitude to training.
They currently have a free challenge: The 5-day "Improve and Preserve your Horse’s Soundness Challenge"...
There are lots of educational videos available on their website. You may still be able to sign up for the Mind-Body-Spirit challenge where they will explore the interplay of Mind, Body, and Spirit as they apply to both the horse AND the rider through the process of riding.

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