Monday, 25 July 2011

Heads up! Heels down!

Beautifully turned out and positioned, long legged equitation riders head up the placings at top shows this summer. Lessons spent without stirrups and in two point position pay dividends in the show ring. But have you ever considered the line between poise and pose? Dignity, calm and confidence stemming from an unmistakable wisdom describe a rider with poise. There’s an air of assurance that marks an informed horse person.

But the emphasis put on equitation “hows” and not the “whys” can amount to pose. A rider who poses has a veneer of correct position, without the underlying foundation of horsemanship.

I wonder if riders were educated earlier about the science of how horses think and learn as the priority to correct diagonals and straight backs, we might see fewer temper tantrums at the shows. It’s natural to lose it when we think of the horse as a machine that’s come pre-programmed with all the buttons in place. Perhaps if riders were taught to think like a horse and to consider carefully every signal or aid they send to that horse, there would be more harmony and less hassle. More sympathy and less stiffness. What do I intend to say when I use this cue? What does it feel like to my horse?

Maybe it’s the overestimating of our horses’ ability to reason and comprehend as we do that leads to used up and confused competition horses…

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Unflattering Snapshots

Recently, dressage and reining have joined the ranks of western pleasure and saddlebred competition as the subject of Facebook and discussion boards with accusations of abuse from the informed and uninformed alike. This week there was a video circulating, depicting snapshots of hyperflexion, accompanied by stirring music and close ups of sad equine eyes. Elsewhere, commentaries paint with a wide brush all western pleasure horses as being miserable peanut rollers. Generalizations include disgusting head sets in the show world and anyone who uses draw reins is taking an unethical shortcut to proper training.

I’ve had plenty of unflattering snapshots taken of me – in some of the funniest I’m in the middle of an animated explanation of a riding concept while teaching a clinic. My face is just doing something weird. I’d hate for folks to think I’m weird in general. I see snapshots of Hollywood actors on the gossip mags as I’m waiting in the checkout line, purposely taken in a bad moment. Today, a photo taken on an angle of Angelina Jolie made one believe the headline that she was a ninety pound anorexic.

Any snapshot of horsemanship doesn’t tell the whole picture. A video clip of a four beating western pleasure horse doesn’t mean that is that is what the judges are looking for. A shot of a horse behind the bit may only reflect a temporary state which was resolved on the next lap of the ring.

A judge’s update I received from FEI and Equine Canada cautioned officials not to mistake permitted stretching techniques for illegal practice. Longitudinal and lateral stretching may look unpleasant in a snapshot, but these associations maintain it is permitted and beneficial as long as it is not sustained or aggressive– interrupted by periods of lengthening and relaxation. (But these periods are rarely captured on video).

When horses are genuinely abused or confused by people it breaks my heart. But I want to consider the whole story before I pass judgment on the cover photo.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Contiguous Reinforcement

Joining or touching. In horse training, when the outcome quickly follows the behaviour. It’s key that a horse associates “this” with “that”. So the speed and skill of the rider to identify the choice moment to reward a horse for his response is key. A horse learns to link a behaviour to an outcome. For instance, when asking for a rein back, he gets no relief from bit pressure by tossing his head up, but gets immediate release when he steps back. Hmmm…can work the other way, can’t it? What if a rider is unaware that she’s hanging on her horse’s mouth while standing at the centre of the arena. The horse roots his nose forward and finds quick and easy freedom by pulling on her arms. Habits are formed unintentionally when riders are oblivious to the signals they’re sending but intentionally by thinking riders!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Negative Reinforcement

Taking away something that the horse dislikes in order to reward a desired response. Giving the horse relief or escape when he makes the correct choice.

For example, removing leg pressure as soon as the horse yields sideways. Softening the pressure on the lead rope for a forward step when teaching a foal to lead. Quieting a clucking noise as a horse lengthens his stride on the lunge.

Can you see how timing is critical? When teaching riders I help them capture the exact moment their horse answers correctly so he connects the dots and is more likely to repeat that response. Having an eye on the ground helps until they develop a feel for it themselves.