Every now and again I feel the need to call the horse world out on something. Mostly I like to promote what I see as good practice, focusing on ethical, welfare friendly methods of management, riding and training. I believe that the best way to create change is, in the words of Gandhi, to ‘be the change’. For me this means that rather than focusing on what I see around me that I don’t like, instead I focus on DOING what I do like and believe to be right.
However, in this day and age, and with the horse world under increasing scrutiny in terms of social license, I do feel the need to ask the question “what do you recognise as ‘good’ riding”?
I ask this because I frequently see people being described as ‘good’ riders and I’m not entirely sure that I agree.
Is a ‘good’ rider someone who can sit tight no matter what the horse does? Someone who has enough confidence that they can get a horse to do whatever they want? Someone who can ride through the bucks, the naps, the spooks? Who can bend the ‘tricky’ horses to their will? Someone who knows exactly when and how to use the whip, a sharp kick or a firm hand to shape the horse’s behaviour?
These are the riders that I hear described as good, whether they are teenagers or adults, but I’m afraid to say that I disagree.
What we are seeing there is someone who has learned to ignore the horse’s emotions. Someone who pays no attention to indicators of fear or stress. Someone who has learned how to use physical strength, determination and force of will to make the horse perform, regardless of how the horse might be feeling.
Over the last twenty years in my profession as a Clinical Equine Behaviourist, I have had countless clients who have been told ‘there’s nothing wrong with that horse, they just need firm riding’. Often the clients have tried sending the horse for schooling. They have improved with the professional rider, but then reverted when coming back to their owner. I’ve heard people say ‘well that’s just because they’re not a good enough rider’. This can be a factor if the issue is to do with timing or balance or consistency, all things that as a Behaviourist, Coach and Trainer I can help clients work through, or guide them to an appropriate rider to help them. However, frequently, those horses have turned out to have a physical issue underlying the problem behaviour, for example intermittent slipping stifles, PSSM, or even kissing spines and degeneration of the hocks.
In fact, I recently had a chat with an old friend who had a horse who had started to ‘misbehave’. After various investigations, the insurance company had tried to dismiss the problem as a behavioural issue. However the owner was adamant that further investigation was required, so they organised bone scintigraphy. It turned out that the horse had had a fractured pelvis.
Imagine if my friend had listened to the advice to put a ‘firmer’ rider on the horse to ‘ride them through it’?
The horse would have either developed a very severe behaviour problem, or else shut down and behaved despite the pain they were in. Neither of which would have been ethical.
Even if the issue had been behavioural, we certainly wouldn’t have dealt with it by telling the horse to ‘shut up’ and get on with things. We would have worked to find the underlying stresses, removed them or changed the management and training in order to help the horse feel happier.
So although I can have respect for a rider who is brave and has excellent balance, strength and suppleness and can stay on, I’m afraid I don’t class as ‘good’ someone who has learned to ignore how the horse feels and learned to effectively bully or force the horse into doing what they want.
For me, a truly ‘good’ rider is someone who has feel, empathy and tact
Someone who recognises what the horse is telling them and responds appropriately to reduce stress. Someone who, instead of relying on physical and mental strength, takes the time to learn about learning theory, behaviour and the emotion/ motivation of the horse and how to recognise and understand body language. Someone who can give the horse confidence, not because they force them, but because the horse trusts them, feels safe with them and is willing to have a go at doing what they ask.
Most importantly, a good rider is an advocate for their horse. Someone who stands up for them, who can say ‘no, they aren’t ready for this’, or ‘there is something else going on here’. Who will call in the Vet and the Behaviourist and work to get to the bottom of a problem.
You can see why it is so important as a Behaviourist for me to have a good working relationship with the vets that refer to me. When a horse doesn’t respond to the kind of behaviour modification that I do (which is based on LIMA principle- least intrusive, minimally aversive), or if there are behavioural indicators of pain, even if the horse has been given the all clear, I will want the owner and the vet to know that the horse isn’t responding as we would expect if there were no pain issues, and that further investigation is required.
The last thing that I will be doing is telling my client that they need to send their horse to a ‘good, strong rider’ to sort them out.
Don’t get me wrong, a well balanced, secure rider is doing to be much nicer for the horse to carry and less likely to trigger some issues. But I want a rider who can listen to the horse and work with me on the behaviour, helping the horse and changing the emotional state to a positive one.
What do you think? Who do you rate as a rider and why?
How can we start to reward the kind of riders that listen to their horses? There are many excellent and successful professionals out there who do exactly that and are at the top of their games. But right from grass roots up, in the riding schools, at Pony Club, and out at shows, we need to be rewarding the riders that are truly ‘good’ and not just the ones that know how to get results.
If you would like to improve your understanding of learning and behaviour, body language and recognising emotional state, you can sign up for some of my online courses at http://www.helenspence.podia.com or subscribe to my blog at http://www.spencehorsesense.com and you’ll be kept up to date with upcoming webinars, workshops and courses!
1 thought on “Recognising good riding”
This is very well said!!! Many “good riders” are not able to recognise good develop posture, muscle work, biomechanics. In many cases, this is a very big problem. More and more training aids are put on horses, which theoretically should help in proper posture, stretching muscles, etc., but they do a completely different job. The horse is restrained (even if all aids are “loose”), they tense. And yet we all know what tense muscles and posture strive for, we all experience lack of relaxation, back pain, shortness of breath. Not to mention the nerves trapped by the luck of proper development. It’s time for the world of TOP RIDERS to start setting an example, a GOOD EXAMPLE!!!!! A question that should be asked by everyone like the mantra is WHY? Unfortunately, the abnormal has become normal 😦