Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Ol' Yank N' Spur - Part One

Tally's story has plunked me smack into a "True Confessions" mode, like it or not. It has made me reflective and really placing the bits and pieces of what trainers do, what works and doesn't work, and how it all shakes down for the horses so firmly clamped between leg and hand.

When I left horse training I was fed up. I was tired of people, not horses. Horses still held an endless fascination for me, a never ending opportunity to learn, and a way to be immersed in a field where I felt competent and had value. I loved entering their minds, becoming a permanent part of who they were and what they became. I was addicted to the puzzle of what makes a horse tick. My innermost sense of self was gratified and proud as I learned to teach them and become their friend at the same time.

The people? Not so much. Not everyone, I made some amazing friends during my years as a trainer, from the trainers I worked with and for, to many of my clients, but the crap definitely outweighed the shinola.

I lived in a world of conundrums. I witnessed, envied and strove to achieve amazing and complex levels of horsemanship I didn't know was possible. I also watched horses subjected to practices as routine daily life that I thought were incredibly cruel.

Because I wanted to learn, and because I didn't trust my own knowledge, experience or perceptions, I developed the habit of shutting up, sorting things out and watching the results of the world around me.
I asked questions, but carefully.

"How does that get up work?"

This was a standard question for me, it gave me an explanation for:
 a. German Martingale/draw reins/poll pressure cable tie-downs
 b. Chin strap on a ring snaffle
 c. Shoofly tassels
 d. McCarty, mecate reins
 e. Tying a pleasure horse's head up in his stall for hours before a class.
 f. Tying a three-year-old colts head to a hock hobble for hours.
 g. bits made from bicycle chain

You get my drift. I would get my answer, think about it, often times try it and just as often, decide, no effing way.

The answers, in case you're wondering, were:
a.  Restrain, control or force placement
b. stop the bit from getting pulled through the horse's mouth
c. swing around and keep the flies off
d. have the security of a single roping type rein and still have the convenience of a lead rope/horse whapper
e. make the horse too tired to raise his head above the withers
f. "He won't give his rib that direction."
g. when worn for 24 hours before a show, it softens the mouth of a snaffle bitter -- without leaving marks -- that isn't responding to the bit

These are just examples, I watched, listened and waded through lots of this stuff.

I started to think about ways to work my way around methods that seemed crazy cruel to me. How can I get a rib moved over by teaching, what does it take to get a horse to give the correct head position voluntarily?

I wouldn't announce my intention, or denounce the person or persons using the techniques that were freaking me out, I would simply try to find another way. While I was taking lessons from one barn and working at another it was easy. I just took the concept given to me home, worked out another solution that I could live with and went back when I thought I had it.

Have you guessed that in the real world I'm not big on confrontation? That's me all over. The methods I was watching were done by people I respected, people I wanted to learn from. None of them were barbarians, or sadists, although I met a few, and probably a psychopath or two. I have long held that sociopaths are drawn to the horse world because horses don't tell tales and it's filled with people who will close their eyes as long as they get results. I didn't work for those folks, but I met sure as hell met them along the way.

The thing is, these horses were trained so far beyond my capabilities I couldn't fathom it. Their lives were not ones of daily horror. They were not dripping with sores, terrified of people, dangerous from fear, or unwilling to try their hearts out for their people. Their manners were incredible. Stallions stood net to mares in a crowded arena without so much as an eye roll. Accidents happened, but I rarely saw a horse kick, bite, lean, refuse or bolt.

Many of them seemed depressed or shut down. I wanted to know exactly why. Was it the training? Life in a show barn? Were they all just exhausted?

I wanted, not to simply ride horses like this, but have the knowledge to train them too. I wanted to know if I could succeed with fair, kind training methods. I wanted to understand what was truly fair and what wasn't. I didn't know a single, solitary, loudly opinionated, self-appointed horse advocate that could ride at this level, train at this level, or understand what makes a horse tick like the professionals in this world. So I stayed quiet, watched, waited, tried to decipher what was right and what was wrong and did my damnedest to become competitive at the same time.

To this day, I haven't decided if I was right or wrong in what I did. I did, however, absorb and learn a lot, so that's what I live with. Sharing it can be rough sometimes, it certainly opens me up to criticism, and I still find myself questioning the right and wrong of how horses are trained.

I'll have more on this tomorrow. Just talking about it makes me want to go ride.

Here you go Evensong

It can happen, believe me.


  1. Okay, this is not a major point from your post, but I have always been irked by the statement that a chin strap keeps a snaffle bit from pulling through a horse's mouth. As an English rider, I know that none of our snaffles have a curb strap (though most have a caveson or other noseband, which can be abused in many ways--but you know that, Mugs).
    But if a properly fitted headstall, preferably with browband and throat latch, isn't snug enough to keep the bit in place, those silly, sloppy loose chinstraps are not going to make a difference--they'll just pull right through after the bit! A ring snaffle really shouldn't have this problem, if handled correctly in the rider's hands (I think that's your point), or one could go find a D-ring or full check snaffle.
    I've written to individual trainers who espouse this and Horse and Rider magazine when they have repeated it, but it's so ingrained in the western snaffle bit culture that I have never gotten a response.

  2. Evensong. We don't use properly fitted bridles -- at least not to your standards. Our bits are loose, so the bridle is too. The idea is for the horse to carry his own bit. Yes, there are browbands, and throat latches, BUT we don't ride with steady contact, loose reins are the norm, so it's an entirely different approach.
    Believe me please, our snaffle bits can, and do, get pulled through.The curb strap can, and does stop the bit from sliding through.If you keep pulling, it will certainly pull the chin strap with it, but the idea is that you will stop before that happens.
    D-rings will pull through every bit as easily as an O-ring and full cheek snaffles aren't considered "feely" enough.

    And no, we are not riding correctly when this happens.

  3. I think I'm a lot like you. I've rode with many trainers over the years. Some I truly honestely respected, some I went to one lesson and never went back. And trainers that produce high level competition horses sometimes do things that make horse people and non horse people alike say what the heck? I'm no longer at the same leve I was 10 years ago and will probably never be a top level rider again. Why? One it take more money now than it ever has. Say what you want but barrel racing just like anything takes major moolah. Two, I don't have it in me to do whatever it takes to win. Never have. There's some stuff going on in the sport I love so much that makes me sick. Three, as long as I can take my out of shape, fat, happy pasture puffs (all four of them together won't buy half of a top quality barrel horse) and run two seconds behind a $20,000 horse, place, and win money I'm happy. I get to do something I love and not participate in all the foolishness.

  4. I am a fairly new rider who likes to gain as much knowledge as I can. I ask alot of questions, listen to everyones answers and opinions and make my own judgement on how to teach and learn from my particular horse. I believe that not all horses are the same in the respect that just beacuse one thing works for them it may not work for me and my horse.

    I don't expect to compete at any level higher than a back yard show. But I want to enjoy my horse as we learn new things.

    My barn owner recently chewed me out because I disagreed with her method: she got on my new horse (I only had her 2 weeks) and said because the horse couldn't bend to the left very well, she needed to have her head tied to her girth for a few hours a day. (I have seen her do this with another boarders horse before, so I knew she has done it before) I was polite in my response when I told her I'd rather work on getting her loosened up by doing some stretching and bending exercises with her and see how that goes. As a note this horse is 11 years old and had been barely ridden in the past two years, she had been left out to pasture. I am going to be moving barns shortly.

  5. Gooddog - Yes, yes and yes. Don't let anybody, no matter who they are use a method you are not comfortable with.

  6. BTW, this is actually fodder for a later post. I recently switched Odin from a snaffle to the hackamore (bosal). What an eye-opener. He is very stiff to the left. Why?
    Since I went through this with Madonna (snaffle to hackamore, then hackamore to two-rein) I know darn well it is me.
    I carry my horses on the left side, compensating for my crooked hips.
    Madonna stayed in the hackamore for a very long time while I sorted it out. There were still remnants in the two-rein, but I finally, finally have it under control.
    Now here it is again with Odin.
    Since his stiffness is obviously caused by rider error, I will NOT be correcting the problem by tying his head around.
    This is where quick fixes get us in trouble.
    Even if we choose to disregard the fact that this method can get a horse killed.

  7. I use the filter of "all horse people are crazy" and go from there. I have told this to several people who are learning. Then tell them to take everything in from whoever gives them advice and first run it through the crazy filter then ask does this make sense. Then look at their horse. Does it behave? is it correct weight? etc. I have also told them don't say I wouldn't do that or anything negative; as I have gotten lectured because it WORKS FOR ME! attitude. If I'd known this when I started riding as a teen it would have saved a lot of stress.

  8. Went to an Olympic dressage riders clinic on the weekend. After he finished telling me all QH are beat into submission (but then wouldn't watch the video of my 'submissive' horse and me loping around with her ears up and no bridle). He went on to explain how when a horse won't give to the bit he puts it in side reins and "lets him figure it out". When a horse wouldn't give in one direction he suggested using just one side rein. I know most side reins have the rubber donuts but how is that better than a qh trainer tying one around?

    It just baffled me and opened my already wide open eyes even more. What someone might say in a magazine or in an interview can be very different than what goes on at home.

  9. Justaplainsam:

    In my opinion, the proper use of side reins is drastically different than tieing a horse's head around.

    Sidereins are used on a horse while it is being longed (how on earth do you spell that? lounged, lunged?) by a handler, always under supervision. I have seen a very reputable cutting horse trainer tie a horse's head cranked around to the stirrup and leave it alone in a walled roundpen for hours where nobody can see it.

    Sidereins should be adjusted so that they just make contact with the bit (the horses head is just a little ahead of vertical), so the horse can get relief by flexing its neck a little bit and carrying it vertically. The horse that is tied around, there is no relief to be found. They literally just stagger around in a little circle, until they give up and stand there (or wreck).

    Anyway, I don't have any problem with what the Olympic trainer said to you. You should research the use of sidereins some more, but you always have to do what ever it is you feel is right for you and your horse.

  10. Mugs, I have a question for you - completely off-topic since I seem to have ADD today and can't stay ON topic!

    Can you define the purpose and use for the "spur stop"? Is it a technique that you use? I'm honestly not sure I really know what it is, but it's a question I've had for awhile (and since you're defining things for us, thought I'd throw that in).

  11. Half Dozen Farms - I don't use a spur stop and never I don't know much about them.
    But here is the most comprehensive article I've ever read on a spur stop.Lyn Palm is a trainer I admire and pay attention to. Her input makes the most sense to me.
    I don't use my spurs as a forward cue. I use them for direction and lift. My horses speed up by my seat, or from steady bumps from my calves

  12. I have read Lynn's article on the spur stop before and I think she's a tad bit harsh. Both my show horses are spur slow trained, the paint used to be spur stop trained but that was so long ago that button isn't really there anymore. I don't use "spur stop" per say. I just sit deep and say Whoa softly while adding leg. I've always had pretty good luck with them stopping on their hind nicely this way. I think a lot of the confusion is in "spur trained" or "spur slow" which is how both of mine are trained. My filly that I trained you only need to squueze your legs and she will slow. When you add spur to that she will drop her head and lift through her back. I would probably venture to say 90% atleast of horses that show on the breed circuit in pleasure are spur trained in some form. I definitely did not need/use violence on my filly while training her. I also definitely do NOT crab her sideways down the rail. This is my beef with Lynn's article. It's not the spur training that causes too low heads, canting sideways at the lope, and unhappy horses. It's the trainers abusing their spurs. I guess I just dislike when everyone is painted with the same brush.

  13. So many good things that you share Mugs!

    I have met MANY Sociopaths in the horse industry and I completely agree with your assessment of why they are there.

    Agree with Anon's All Horse People Are Crazy concept. You just gotta pick the Crazy you can live with.

  14. Okay.. I am a hypocrite :)

    I want to own that stallion who stands in a crowd without lifting a nostril.. but I don't want to put my horses through what it took to get (the majority)of them there. I have ridden some "good" horses but most (not all) had very little personality.. or at least didn't show it.

    I want my horses to be rock solid citizens.. but I enjoy it when they are individuals as well.

    So, right now, I own some brats with manners. Stuck in the middle...

  15. Mugs - I so appreciate your honesty. I could probably type a novel about the way I was taught to ride, and how to condition a show horse and such. A large part of the reason I backed away from showing was regarding how I was taught and the realization that a bulk majority of HOW I was "training" from all that I had learned, was in fact, not how I wanted to train. Something about it felt wrong. Essentially, I'm searching for someone to train me again, how to train and ride in the best way possible for me (and my horse). I have that show bug, so I do want to jump back in to the showing world, but for now, I'm content (ish) just trail riding!

  16. By the way, my comment is kind of off topic, I'm sorry - just got me to thinking!

  17. Francis:
    I'm right there with you. I enjoy a horse that can use its brain to keep us out of trouble, especially out on the trail. I'm in the minority, I think, but my preference is a boss mare because they are thinkers (you might say, schemers!). They stand up for their individual rights as citizens! :)

    My conundrum is how to be successful in low-level dressage with such a horse. I'm not 100% positive you can have it both ways. In dressage the horse patiently waits for you, always ready to react to your next cue. But a good trail horse, to me, makes some of their own decisions without waiting.

    In my mind, the successful dressage horses aren't comfortable thinking for themselves and are always waiting to be told what to do. This type could kill you out on the trail (and they do routinely try to kill themselves just out in the pasture!).

    So, I have a hard time reconciling how to teach my mare that it's ok to wait, while I still respect her brain, individuality, and opinion. :) Geez, that sounds super mushy...

  18. I agree that there are a lot of sociopaths in the horse world! It's really quite scary. They can be as abusive and cruel as they want to be and the next day be fine and the horses just have to endure it.

  19. HalfDozen, you may have hit on something there with the Boss Mare.. I prefer a thinking horse.. and typically ride mares..

    I never thought about a dressage horse not thinking, but waiting.. same situation in a reining pattern.. anticipation of the pattern will lose points.. so you want a horse who waits for your cues..

    Makes me think of trail riding young horses.. on their first few rides you typically have to tell them where and how to go..

    So many avenues to think about!

  20. I don't comment much anymore, mostly due to time, but also because I am finding that I learn more when I shut up and listen. But I will say that I am interested to see where you go with this.

    There are a lot of different "accepted" training practices, which I feel are harsh. It means they are wrong for me and my horse, which is really all I have to concern myself

  21. Look what I found:

    "It's not the only way to do it, but it's a good way to do it, and it works well for me."

    No noseband, he's got a ring snaffle and curb strap, no draw-reins or martingale or anything. Love the explanation of position and how it works!!!!

    He mentions that the horse is opening his mouth and talks about getting the horse supple and relaxed in the jaw and then he won't open his mouth. Hmmmm... must find another video....

    (Also - I don't want to sidetrack this discussion but - I'm completely weirded out by the spur stop. I think I get why it's useful in the show pen but it contradicts everything I've been taught. And Mugwump - I fear that my crookedness is affecting my horses too!!)

    Anyways. I've always avoided using too much gear when riding mostly because I'm a klutz and I don't think I have enough finesse to use all that stuff without confusing my horses. Also I'm cheap. I don't want to be at the tack shop every month spending money. If I can't get it done with simple tack I maybe shouldn't be doing it.

  22. "If I can't get it done with simple tack I maybe shouldn't be doing it."

    I like that.

  23. Half a Dozen- He specifically said he leaves them in their stalls/arena bitted up in side reins. He also said that the horse he was using a single side rein on was "left in the arena to figure it out"

    I'm sorry that is not the proper use of the side reins, and when you add a flash and a crank nose band into the mix you have a wreck waiting to happen.

    However neither in the tying around that you saw the cutting trainer do for hours, However both of them are doing someing that they saw or learned from someone else and it "worked". They didn't take the longer way to figure it out they took the easy way for the human.

    FYI - I know how to use side reins.

  24. So, when you see a trainer or horse owner using a method that you find abusive and/or unacceptable, what do you do? I'm asking you personally, Mugs. Of course, anyone can answer :)