Sarah Warne: Right Way, Wrong Way, Good Way, Bad Way...My Way?

Tue, 01/08/2013 - 13:25

One thing that often raises my curiosity is how people describe their training and how others criticize certain methods based on loose definitions. People announce that they train in the classical way and yet if you ask them to define the term, they look at you as if you have asked why the sun rises. It just does!

Each nationality, culture, and indeed individual instructor creates a method based on what works best, or what they themselves are best able to transmit to the rider, but really no method has a true definition as it is applied to an animal that we cannot predict like a science. Some people work the horse low and round, others begin above the bit and gradually ease into a working stretch. Some use subtle flections, and others use more deliberate bendings to create gymnastic activity from front to back. Truth is you cannot define any method in detail and dressage is a sport based on feeling, knowing, and understanding the limits and talents of one's horse!

Neck position is something that I find fascinating and that is of course the root of great debate in the dressage world. Too low, too high, too short seem to be the common criticisms, but doesn't the horse's most comfortable neck position to develop strength in training depend on the horse? There isn't one fitness program designed for every human and each person's muscle development depends entirely in their own physique. So why should horses be any different?

The two things I have learnt on this topic are: Firstly, each horse has a head and neck position, that the rider must learn to feel and search for, every-time they get on that horse. You will know the right position because the horse will suddenly begin to swing through his body and up over his back.

Training with a Portuguese rider with incredible feeling, I learnt gradually by riding different horses, that each one had an optimum point of neck positioning, very unique to that specific horse. It also allows the horse to move comfortably into a soft contact, creating a positive flow of moving energy from front to back, and around again.

"Putting the horse on the bit means:
 feeling that the poll flexes, the back rises, 
the haunches become active"
 N.Oliveira (1998, 42f.).

The second thing I have learnt in this subject is that nothing is wrong, unless you are forcing, holding, hurting, upsetting, jamming, or in any way causing stress on your horse's muscles, anywhere in his body. If so, you are effectively being cruel to the horse, which is why so many people speak out against so called rollkur.

Really it should be termed "anything that forces the horse into a state of discomfort" as there are other ways a rider can cause their horse harm and then, really, what is the point. If you have to use sheer brute force to hold your horse's head in position, where is the art in your training?

Dr Paul McGreevy and his team wrote in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2012 "it seems plausible that if trainers and riders followed the principle of self carriage, where the horse's head and neck posture is a learned response rather than a forced one, overarching and nasal planes behind the vertical would have been prevented. The results of our study into over-flexion of the horse's neck  reflect a tendency for humans to mistakenly assume their horses are educated and "on the bit" because they have their noses tucked in, but equestrian authorities now suggest that increasing the degree of neck flexion actually puts the horse "on the forehand"." Furthermore, the authors were at a loss to understand the practice of hyperflexion, when "any increased curvature of the upper respiratory tract increases turbulence and so is likely to compromise athletic performance".

Regardless of the purpose, some argue that the horse is not being hurt, because otherwise it would react and show pain. However, equine psychology tells us that the horse will in fact become conditioned to pain when it is repeated, so really the horse can be screaming, but he has been suffocated into shutting up!

"Horses (and all other animals as well as humans for that matter) learn to accept pain through the learning process of habituation," says Dr Andrew McLean. Expert at the Australian Equine Behavior centre, Dr McLean has spent years researching our equine partners and he knows that when the horse cannot escape from pain/pressure, it eventually ceases to react.

"It is the same way in which the horse learns not to react to the tightened girth," says Dr McLean. However, McLean stresses that during hyperflexion habituation is not the only process involved.  "Relentless, inescapable pressure is extremely detrimental to the horse, resulting in physiological, immunological and learning deficits," Andrew explained.

The great classical master used to illustrate the horse willingly carrying himself and his master to perform the highest degree of collection. So why then do people find the need to force their horse's head into submission, causing to gradually submit to pain and discomfort.
"Proceed so that the horse finds himself willingly into the exercise, and not by force" 
N.Oliveira (1998, 17).

The master said it then, and we all know it now. "If we are to use horses in sport, we owe it to them to train lightness and self carriage so that they do not have to endure inescapable pressure," Dr Andrew McLean stated in his article.

-- by Sarah Warne
Photos © Astrid Appels

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