Before you start sharpening the pitchforks, boiling the tar and collecting feathers, perhaps I should explain. It’s a beautiful cool Spring day and I’m going out riding with a very dear friend as soon as I finish writing this. In fact, we’d be long gone by now except for something that came up a little while ago on our FT Facebook list that ‘got me to thinking.’
The topic was about determining the right age to start riding a horse. Thanks to Dr. Deb Bennett, and a few other equine research scientists and ethologists, the discussion drew to a rather quick conclusion, (the answer being very little riding and very carefully — if ANY — until their bone structure matures between six and seven years old).
But it got me to thinking about all we’ve learned in the last few decades from equine research scientists and ethologists. And how that undeniable empirical knowledge seems to directly conflict with our present day conventional management, care and ‘training’ of horses. The more I learned, the more it seemed that our present day methods seemed hell-bent on making it as difficult and chaotic as possible for the horses to fulfill their domestic responsibilities.
Some believe that speciesism, narcissism and abject greed are the source of the present day misaligned care and ‘usage’ of horses. While that may be true in some cases, I think the problem may go much deeper.
Granted, one factor is ignorance. That is, a lack of knowledge. Many horse owners simply aren’t aware of the tremendous advancements that have been made in understanding our horse’s needs, (and how maligning and counterproductive our traditional, present-day practices really are to the horses). Another is the generational stigma of our history with the horses. After all, nearly 6,000 years of dependency on one animal for our survival can’t be shrugged off as simple historic melancholy. That ‘usage’ fell into several general categories, (Agriculture, Transportation and Warfare).
Our present day steel and plastic chariots powered by the internal combustion engine and our computer-enhanced technology makes it difficult to envision and fully appreciate how dependent our survival was on the horses.
What if, in those thousands of years of horse usage, (from the end of the Consumption Era through the end of the Carriage Era) horses had disappeared from the face of the earth? There was a variety of alternatives such as camels, donkeys, elephants, oxen and even reindeer. Each had a special ability that might have challenged the potential of horses.
But we chose the horses because they were the culmination of strength, speed, agility and a spiritual charisma that seems to touch the heart of human beings. Plus, their body conveniently fit the human torso. There is much speculation as to how far our human civilization would be without them. Needless to say, it would not be anywhere near what we have achieved this far in our struggle to dominate the Earth, and the other animals.
Through all those millenniums of eras, horses were regarded as simple ‘beasts of burden.’ Their management, care, training and ‘usage’ was proportionate to maintaining them as usable implements specifically for our species survival. Much of that management, care, training and usage would be regarded as insanely torturous abuse by today’s standards, (at least by most of us). And while it’s certain a small percentage of our ancestors were extremely cruel and abusive, most of the torture and abuse was due to the simple basic need to survive. And to some degree, ignorance, (a simple lack of empirical knowledge).
When domestication led to selective breeding, specific human needs and ‘form to function’ took precedence over the all else. Classifications were commonly divided into light horses, draft horses, and ponies. Selective breeding needs ran the gamut from color, size, temperament, gait and/or specific type of usage.
Yet for all the intense, highly selective breeding needs and practices, none of them have altered the maturity rate of the horse’s bone structure. It is the same as it has been for all horses, (between six and seven years old).
While there is a great deal of ongoing controversy concerning how much weight is permissible for a horse to carry, some seem to follow that a horse should be able to carry 20% of their body weight. Others prefer 10% and still others, 15%. Mitigating factors might include height, age, breed, conditioning, width of loin, duration of daily usage, cannon circumference, number of times per week used and the duration and type of ‘usage.’
Measurements for determining the ‘percentage of body weight ratio’ commonly used to determine excessive stress are heart rate, plasma lactate concentration, creatine kinase and observable/palpable stiffness and/or soreness. To date, no evaluations are made on the potential incremental harm done to the average horse’s bone structure carrying 20% or more of their body weight.
*Note. I’m not referring to those immediate, obvious measurements of excessive stress. I’m taking about the insidious damage done over a period of time that the average horse owner cannot possibly detect. Crippling damage that will show up in later years to shorten the horse’s life span and/or have them live out whatever retirement years they are given in pain. Crippling damage that could have been prevented with just a little patience by either waiting until the horse’s bone structure was matured, (or start a bone modeling program when they are young).
The results of this ‘rush to ride’ are articular facet arthritis, kissing spine and many other painful musculoskeletal ailments.
A few thoughts:
*Mother Nature designed the horse’s body to carry their own weight. That design is a masterful perfection of speed, grace, agility, and strength embodied in a magnificent musculoskeletal structure fortified with exceptional sensory systems far beyond those of any human.
*Our ancestors chose to use the horse for those reasons, (and because the horse’s body conveniently fits our own). Regardless of what tests are made, (or what our personal needs of usage may be) Mother Nature did not design the horse’s body to carry an additional two hundred or three hundred pounds. *We do not need horses for the survival of our species anymore. The door shut on that ‘end justifies the means entitlement’ with the advent of the steam engine and the internal combustion engine. It is OUR choice to ‘own a horse and ride them.’
*John Milton said, “He who overcomes by force, overcomes but half his foe.” Many who still use entrapment and dominance-based methods to train horses may strenuously object to the inference that their horse is a ‘foe.’ But trapping a horse in a small area and forcing them to make specific movements with a rope, whip or stick certainly is not conducive to attaining any degree of interspecies friendship or bonding. As far as the horses are concerned, nothing has really changed in 6,000 years, (despite what marketing ploys may try to deceptively mask). That type of training creates a very adversarial, confrontational relationship.
While it may patter to the human ego by being able to momentarily control and ‘train’ a large and potentially dangerous animal such as a horse, dominance/submission also leads to the many ‘bad horse behavioral problems’ that fill out Internet lists and forums daily. Biting, unpredictability, bucking, kicking, barging, shying at nothing, balking and rearing are only a few aversive behaviors that surface as a result of that adversarial ‘quick fix’ relationship. Yet in the mother of all ironies, the horse is blamed for displaying those behaviors. When you stop and think about it, that’s pretty ridiculous as we control every aspect of their lives. We decide what they will eat, where they will eat, when they will eat, their herdmates, their living environment and their management, care, and type of ‘training.’ How on earth can we in ANY way blame the horses for communicating the only way they have been forced to?? (Especially when the trigger for those behaviors is always fear, pain, or both.)
Instead, some of us have learned it is ‘the other half,’ (winning the heart and mind and spirit of our
horse) that is the key to a truly harmonious relationship.
Of course there is a vast difference between what should be the slight discomfort of carrying a human, and acute or chronic pain associated with that mounted activity. If we want to be the best caretakers possible, (and give our horse the best life possible) that difference entails a need to learn everything we can to make certain that the mounted experience is as pleasant and pain free as possible for our horse. And too, if we want it to take as long as possible for our horse to learn something, what better way than to trap them in a small area and intimidate/harass them? Trapping a prey animal whose primary means of survival is flight is stressful of and by itself. And as we all know, stress hormones inhibit learning.
Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
How very true, and very applicable to the training of horses. Whenever you see any of those aforementioned ‘horse problems’ or experience them yourself remember, in all probability someone five or six thousand years ago, (and countless more humans in the interim) experienced those very same ‘problems’ with their horse.
Not likely? Actually, very likely! Entrapment/restriction has been used for thousands of years to train horses. Today’s marketing ploys describing it as something ‘different’ or unique doesn’t alter the fact that as far as the horses are concerned, nothing has changed.
When we remove entrapment/restriction, and train the horse in an open area where they have complete choice, several things happen.
#1. The horse learns a lot faster because they are not trapped in a stressful situation as escape is quite easy, (they can run away to a distance that satisfies their personal flight zone.
#2. The horse remembers what they have learned longer because we used Positive Reinforcement.
#3. Training a horse in an open area, (NOT a corral, picadero or round pen) gives the horse true choice and a sense of empowerment and control.
This method has proved successful all over the world with horses ranging from completely ‘shut down,’ to horses that were labeled dangerous and untrainable and everything in between.
So, there’s a hard way, and an easy way.
Hard way: Places the horse and the human on opposite sides of the fence. And an adversarial relational based on dominance/submission.
Easy way: Places the horse and the human on the same side of the fence in a mutually cooperative relationship.
Hard way: Needs purchasing or building a round pen or similar enclosure to make certain the horse cannot escape and various training aids such as whips, sticks or gadgets.
Easy way: Needs nothing except an open area where the horse feels they have control and choice.
Hard way: Adversarial relationship often results in various aversive behaviors resurfacing.
Easy way: Horse displays affiliative behavior that prevents their human from getting injured.
Hard way: Safety of the rider is completely dependent upon previous fear of punishment instilled in the horse. When pain or a situation that is more fearful than the expected punishment for disobeying, the probability of rider injury or death is extremely likely. Use of a bit in the horse’s mouth is a needed practice for ‘control.’
Easy way: Horse and rider are equally concerned for each other’s safety and completely trust each other’s judgment. Bits and harsh control devices are not needed. One might say they share a ‘bitless relationship.’
Of course the downside to the ‘easy way’ is that it is akin to somewhere between watching grass grow, and watching paint dry. It takes time for the horse to realize and believe their human truly wants to win their heart, and give them the best life possible. But the rewards are oh so great.
And too, if we want to give our horses the best life possible, it would require more than just not riding our horse until their bone structure is mature. We would want to gain a deeper understanding of nutrition, hoof care, saddle fit, the probability of ulcers, ethology, (their true nature and intrinsic needs) and many other aspects that affect their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
It is time, actually well past time, that we change our thinking to the management, care, and ‘training’ of horses. There are alternatives to our present day dominance-based training formats and the use entrapment, intimidation and fear for some degree of control and supposed absolute submission. Alternatives that can give your horse the most enjoyable, stress-free life possible while carrying out their domestic responsibilities.
It requires a goodly amount of internal fortitude to refute the generational usage, tradition, the peer pressure of well-meaning friends, and intimidation/ridicule of ‘experts’ who refuse to admit that horses are loving, caring, logical sentient beings, (or at least can be if they are given the opportunity). Perhaps that strength and conviction to do our best for our horse is the true measure of how much we really do ‘love them.’
‘The history of mankind is carried on the back of a horse.’
But the needless pain of their present day servitude is still felt in their hearts and minds and bodies. The pathetic irony is that they can fulfill their owners needs and ‘earn their keep’ WITHOUT the needless pain and chaos.