By Meredith Hodges
In Part 1 of Equine Behavior: Look Who’s Talking, we discussed the evolution of man’s self-discovery and how he applied this to his approach to equines. If we want to manage our equines in a healthy way and accomplish even the most basic performance with them, there is much to consider during the training process. In Part 2 of Look Who’s Talking, we learned that equines are honest in nature and produce quick and honest reactions to a stimulus. Therapeutic Riding provides an exemplary teaching experience for both human and equine, and those of us with our own equines can now derive much more from the relationship than we ever thought possible.
During centuries of use, equines have been asked to perform many tasks, as they have always been essential tools in agriculture, for transportation in cities and as a fighting partner in the military. People who worked regularly with these animals had an appreciation for their general health and longevity. Although people were limited by their own experience, they would generally provide the best possible care because the equine was an integral part of their economy. Many horses and most mules and donkeys worked hard to build this world and support people in their endeavors. It is always amazing when one realizes just how much these animals have contributed to our wealth and welfare.
Original dressage training was concerned with the systematic conditioning of the body of the horse in a way that would make him a durable and viable war partner for soldiers. The horse was revered and allowed time for his body to mature and grow slowly. The training followed suit, yielding a healthy and formidable opponent in any competition. This goal was achieved only when the animal was trained in correct posture, and given adequate time to complete each stage of training as his own potential dictated.
When attention is given to the development of core muscle strength from the very beginning, the equine develops strength evenly throughout his body as he grows. Muscles are stressed and rested at critical intervals, allowing for healthy mental, physical and emotional growth. When the equine feels good in his body, it clears his mind to concentrate on his performance, and the result is an equine that is happy in his work and his world.
Colonel Alois Podhajsky (1898–1973), former head of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, said, “I’ve got time!…We only can achieve the highest goals in the art of riding only when we increase our demands on the horse in a systematic manner.”1
The same holds true with any athlete. No animal can perform at their highest level and remain healthy without building up the body correctly over a significant period of time. Forcing and moving too fast through training levels does not allow healthy athletic conditioning to take place. This conditioning art is becoming lost in the economic world of today, as equines are no longer used for necessity. They have become a hobby or a sport in more developed countries, and are an economic necessity only in Third World countries that are not equipped to provide the extensive care that a healthy equine demands.
Dressage training has evolved from a useful tool to strengthen a useful horse to just another name in big business. Today, animals are thought of as economic “material” or a “breeding investment,” and are used in events such as Reining, Cutting, Stadium Jumping, racing, Steeple Chases, Eventing, hunting, Dressage and just-for-pleasure riding. Monetary investment is high, and never was the old adage “horse poor” more prevalent than now.
Owners can expect to spend thousands of dollars in a year for no more than a pleasure-riding equine, and the cost increases with the status of activities. The cost of supporting an equine provides economic success to a multitude of businesses, such as feed, tack and equipment, truck and trailer sales, drug companies, motels, gas stations, county fairgrounds, breed registrars, brand inspectors, clothing stores, veterinarians, farriers, and the list goes on.
In any business, moving product faster is always better because it decreases overhead costs. Anything long lasting takes more expense to produce and does not afford repeat customers as often for the same product and is, therefore, less valued. But good business sense is in direct opposition to what is actually good and healthy for the equine. Good business sense is what drives people to train equines faster, and why people ask young equines to perform way beyond their level of capability to promote a faster sale of the equine, which ultimately results in the untimely demise of that equine.
Breeding for bigger, better and faster equines has given people the false idea that these horses perform almost solely from their heredity. This has changed how they are being trained and judged. Today, many equine competitions are no longer judged by an expert who knows the definition of correct movement. We are inundated with terminology from the masters that is most often misunderstood and distorted.
For instance, “collection” is defined by the United States Equestrian Federation as, “a. to further develop and improve the balance and equilibrium of the horse which has been more or less displaced by the additional weight of the rider, b. to develop and increase the horse’s ability to lower and engage his hindquarters for the benefit of lightness and mobility of his forehand, and c. to add the ‘ease and carriage’ of the horse and to make him more pleasurable to ride.” To those who are not schooled in Dressage, collection can mean a lot of things that are contrary to the actual definition, including the belief that it means to merely break at the poll and arc the head and neck.
People also believe that an equine is “on the bit” if he arcs the head and neck and “flexes” at the poll, when this actually means that the equine has taken contact with the bit and can feel the hands of the rider through the reins and responds lightly and obediently whether his head and neck are arched or not. “Vertical flexion” is the result of correct “collection,” where the equine is flexible from head to tail with the hindquarters properly engaged. It is not the act of bringing the equine’s chin to his chest. “Lateral flexion” is when the equine bends his body, including his rib cage, to the arc of a circle, and is not just bending his head and neck to your knee.
All of these movements take many years to cultivate if they are to be done correctly, and there are specific exercises to do at every stage to make sure the equine is developing properly and executing these movements on his own, with only the most subliminal support from the rider. Most equines that are shown today are not engaged sufficiently behind and are doing “high school” movements out of good posture. They are clearly on the forehand and unbalanced.
If one is to develop the equine in a sound manner, then one must learn to appreciate the smaller victories at each stage of training and during each new lesson. One needs to learn to appreciate the incredible ways one can affect balance and movement during leading training. Leading training can teach the equine good balance, proprioception (body awareness) and regularity of the footfall patterns. The equine will become strong and balanced in his core muscles using these simple tasks and, when led over obstacles, coordination will be added to the mix. Only after your equine is able to take responsibility for his own balance and negotiation of these movements should he be asked to go to a round pen to learn to balance on the circle.
Only after he is able to sustain his own balance on the circle through all three gaits (walk, trot, canter)— stop, back and reverse— and has been ground driven long enough to submit to the bit through these same movements, should he be mounted and asked to carry a rider. Even lunging on a lunge line should first be taught in the round pen, so when you do take him in the open, he knows how to balance himself and can physically balance on the circle without tugging on the lunge line at all. The equine that has had the benefit of this core training will be safer on the trail and flawless at the shows. If you take the time to develop your equine properly—during all of these seemingly boring tasks—you might very well discover a healthier and happier you!
It is difficult for judges without roots in agriculture to have a conflict with the roar of the audience, as they see pretty equines with fancy moves. But if the judges do not hold true to what is correct and allow themselves to be swayed by the audience, the integrity of the equine industry is lost. Our equines will continue to be used and abused for profit and gain, and many equines will continue to suffer at the hands of the ignorant because there are no clear standards to educate people. The equine that is properly trained should appear to be performing by his volition. If he does not appear this way and is constrained or forced, he is not in correct posture or balance and cannot perform correctly. The integrity of his movement is lost and the longevity of his life is compromised.
When you take the time to feed, care for and train your equine as he should be trained as an athlete, his personality will begin to emerge. You will be surprised at the relationship you will have with him and the wondrous sensations you can feel when you are in real harmony with him. You will no longer be an observer but, rather, a friend and a partner in performance and in life. You will have laid the foundation for your personality and the personality of your equine to grow in the most positive way and meld with each other. The conversations you now have with your equine become a two-way street that will continue to inspire for all time, and will produce a “high” like no other!
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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1Tug of War: Classical vs. Modern Dressage by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, pg. 38, Copyright © 2006 Wu Wei Verlag, Schondorf, Germany, English translation Published by Trafalgar Square Books, North Pomfret, Vermont, 05053, USA 2007 (Footnote: Podhasky, Alois, ibid: Mossdorf, Carl Friedrich (1989), p. 142)