What’s Wrong With Covering Up the Symptoms?
Usually after a clinic, I feel energized, encouraged and excited. The energy from a group of people making changes, learning, and discovering gives me a feeling of hope that carries me forward despite the junk that prevails in the horse industry. Having people help each other, help their horses and themselves is extremely rewarding, and I feel honored to be a part of people’s experiences. The fact that these people are here at all tells me that even though a large part of the horse industry disregards the horse in the pursuit of money, fashion, or a quick fix, there is a flickering light of good horsemanship growing.
Sometimes, though, after a clinic I feel drained. There are times where a situation calls for my all – the moment asks me to reach deep inside myself and give everything I have physically and emotionally. It can be very personal and I may need to give a lot of myself to prove a point or help someone in their particular part of their journey. There have been times I have cried with people, listening to stories that may seem to have nothing to do with horses at all, but it does – this journey toward working with the horse in lightness is really about changing our lives. I’ve had to pull up things inside myself that weren’t pretty or enjoyable to look at as people go through theirs. This is all part of it, pulling up the undesirable pieces of ourselves to become better people. The horses in our lives are limited by what we have to offer inside ourselves, and to me, being a better person means being a better horsewoman as well.
From time to time I meet someone who doesn’t understand the value in this type of journey. I don’t have any interest in getting followers or fans, or people learning “my” method, or even really trying to change the way people think. I’m interested in presenting things in a way that makes sense to the horse to the best of my knowledge. What people do from there is their choice – those who hunger for a better deal with their horse will take it and build on it. If that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I can’t change that and wouldn’t want to force my opinions on anyone. What I’m offering in a lesson or a clinic doesn’t come from me – I can’t take credit for it. It comes from the horse, and my human interpretation of it, which of course leaves room for human error. But what I’m talking about is my best understanding of the horse and what they need.
My mare was once ridden in a “B.O.B” (Big Ole’ Bit) which she began gaping at the mouth to avoid. She was then put in a flash noseband to keep her mouth shut. After she couldn’t avoid the bit by opening her mouth, she began tossing her head up, and was equipped with a nice, short martingale to prevent that behavior. What this created was a racing, forehand-heavy, pissed off horse who had the most overdeveloped under neck i’ve ever seen, and one that was about ready to kill the entire world. She was upset, frustrated ,scared and not interested in listening to anything anyone had to say. She’d been argued with, shut down and disregarded as an intelligent being with a high sense of self preservation. Not only is this sad, but you take all that gear off and you have one dangerous animal (I truly believe she was dangerous in that gear too). So in comes “horsemanship to the rescue” and I put on a snaffle bit. She goes from a ton of pressure to a nice little snaffle bit that makes me feel better. Does she run through that bit? you bet, but she was running through the rest of her old gear too, to a lesser extent. So the problem is there in both sets of equipment. What needs fixing is not the bit, but her idea of how to operate in relation to the equipment and the humans working it. I had to teach her I wasn’t going to argue with her, but I would wait patiently until she made the correct choices. Yes, it took years. It’s better if you don’t start them that way. And she’ll probably never feel as nice or light as a horse that was started in a way that they could understand to begin with. But it was worth it to me, and she’s an incredible horse.
I was recently asked, after a conversation about bits and why I chose not to depend on a “stronger” one to prevent unwanted behaviors, “what’s wrong with covering up the symptoms?” I had explained that the bigger bit would not solve the root problem, only mask the symptoms, maybe for a while. So why is this all worth it? What’s wrong with covering up the symptoms, as opposed to fixing the root problem? Well, first the ethical reasons –
- It treats the horse as a disposable “thing” instead of a creature with thoughts and feelings and needs. It’s like saying, If this doesn’t work out, I can always put bandaids on it for a while, and eventually just get another one.
- It often puts the horse in physical pain which can lead to physical problems in the future – my mare has limited range of motion in her back, fetlocks and neck and fused hocks. She had this starting at a very young age. Physical issues can range from anything as simple as mouth pain to pain throughout its body.
- The horse can never develop to its fullest potential in terms of physical ability. It can never work in balance in its body, develop correctly as an athlete (keep in mind bracing against equipment creates imbalanced musculature), or develop a relationship with the rider. What an unhappy life for the horse who can never develop his talents and feel in harmony with his life with people.
For some people, these reasons may be enough. But the biggest reason is safety.
A horse who is trained through pressure and pain response will never be truly safe. One who is avoiding pain or pressure, or responding out of fear can’t be reliable. Fear is all-encompassing, as anyone with anxiety or panic attacks is familiar with – that fear is your only focus. The rest of the world becomes drowned out. The only horse that is truly safe is one that is mentally relaxed and taught to connect with the rider or handler, because he feels safe. I have not only had horses relax and move and work better, but I’ve had horses (including my mare I mentioned before) save my life. If you’re working toward creating a partner who isn’t in fear, the possibilities go beyond a light, enjoyable ride. You can create a friend and partner, and the things the horse is willing to give back can be truly humbling and incredible.