2nd Guessing

(“Bash him in the ribs!” is not a term of art .)          

Do you ever have second thoughts or doubts about what you are doing with your horse? That’s actually a good thing. It’s wrong to have them in the midst of schooling if it paralyzes you into inactivity. As I say to riders occasionally, “If you don’t have the courage of your convictions, at least have the courage of mine.”

That said, after the fact or when you debrief yourself from your ride, you are allowed to ask yourself some questions. How long should things take? How strong should I have been? The obvious but meaningless answers are “as long as it takes” and “the least possible strength.” The answers are a little more straightforward if you are starting with a blank slate, but if the horse you’re working with has a history of resistance or evasion or just total indifference, it gets more complicated.

“Bash him in the ribs!” is not a term of art, but honestly there are occasions where that is what you have to do. You can make 1000 transitions but if each of them is listless and perfunctory, they don’t help the cause! An FBHS who coached me many years ago warned, “If you are going to ride a vulgar horse, you must use vulgar aids!”
Contrast that to the famous caution “Where Art ends violence begins.” I guess that makes the ultimate question: while we aspire to art, can everything we do with horses be artful?

We speak piously of not forcing horses to do things, but isn’t the whole nature of conditioned responses based on creating circumstances where a slightly unpleasant stimulus is removed when the horse responds in a way that we wish? Does it just come down to how unpleasant? You can really get in trouble here. I recently read a paper claiming that making frequent transitions “gets on a horse’s nerves” because it is contrary to their nature. Therefore, riders should not do them. To me this argument is even more obtuse than “you should not jump a horse because it’s bad for his fetlock joints.” I can only conclude that sometimes we claim to know too much for our own good.

It makes you feel good to say that your training methods are “classical.” It beats saying “circusy,” or worse yet “crude” or “butcher-like.” It takes me back, though, to a conversation I had with Dr. H. L. M. Van Schaik. I had the temerity to propose that what he was teaching wouldn’t help someone in an open field get their three-year-old ex-racehorse under control. He agreed, saying he didn’t care about horses like that. To perform a baroque art required a baroque horse in a closed and predictable setting that never changed. To stray from those circumstances invited being unfaithful to classical principles.

If you believe what he says, it means you have to choose. If you live in the real world and you wish to compete— or even ride your horse on the trail—when you deviate a bit from the classical dictum, don’t feel too bad. If what you do “feels nice” and “seems right,” it’s probably OK to keep doing it.