Sunday, January 17, 2010

Freeze, Flood, Rollkur and Riding

Yesterday, for the first time in nearly a month, the arena was not either frozen or flooded and three hairy, unfit horse got exercised by an unfit rider. This is a first for most people in Ireland. We understand wet, all to0 well, but frozen! Accident and Emergency have been clogged with broken bones, meetings cancelled, hunting a distant memory, water shortages because of people leaving their taps on to prevent freezing (again).

Anyway, a month of not riding has left me with time to think and get some of my ideas down on paper. Everyone has a book in their head apparently, and mine from an early age, was one on training horses. The problem is, I always feel I'm only just starting to get the hang of it, and that's after a more than 30 years!

One of the questions I've been pondering since a recent conversation is what is a good rider? With the hoo-ha going on in dressage around Rollkur (see for video), there are clearly very very different opinions out there. To summarise the Rollkur issue, as I see it. Rollkur is the practice of riding the horse with his chin nearly touching his
chest, which is supposed to stretch his back and encourage submission. The Epona site shows an interesting video of riders of both dressage and show jumping horses warming up for competition and initially I could see nothing wrong. This is the way the pros warm up it's not the way I would ride my horses, but what do I know. Then I looked again and saw something I recognised but did not like. That feeling of power you get from putting a big powerful horse in a position of total submission, head arched, moving wherever you choose. I know that feeling of power, and I'm afraid it is called being a bully, and just because it's not only accepted, but encouraged by many in the horse world, does not make it ok.

To be clear what I mean by bullying, it's forcing a person or a horse to do something totally unnecessary just because you can. It's showing no respect for the person/horse and respect, I'm coming to find, is one of the keys to successful training. So coming back to what makes a good rider? First, what makes a competent rider?

The competent rider achieves three things: Firstly, a competent rider has a respectful relationship with their horse - they show respect for their horse and they expect, and get, respect in return. Respect is a bit out of fashion, it's a good deal harder than showing "Who's boss" or showing love and affection for our horses. Respect requires that I ask, not demand, that I listen carefully, not just assume any show of resistance is naughtiness. To my shame only today, I found Fred's reluctance to pick up his foot for the farrier was because he had a stone in the one he was expected to stand on, not a dislike of the farrier. Respect requires that I am consistent in where I draw the line. It's not fair to accept the yearling bouncing around on the end of the headcollar today because she is feeling fresh and I'm tired, only expect her to walk quietly beside me tomorrow. If I want respect I have to set a standard and stick by it.

Secondly, a competent rider does not get in the way of the horse. They stay in balance, not throwing themselves up the horses neck just as he tries to take off, or catching them in the mouth as they land, or hanging on to the reins to help them balance.

Thirdly, a competent rider gives clear aids to their horse, so he knows what is expected of him.

And that's all. The competent rider may not look that great, may not be successful in competition but their horses will be confident, relaxed and a pleasure to handle and ride.

A good rider, goes an extra step. They understand when a horse is having a problem and can help them with a slight shift in weight, increased leg pressure at just the right moment. They know from some kind of natural instinct and/or years of experience, when to put more pressure on a horse and when to easy off. They are like the perfect host at a party who puts everyone at their ease and keeps the conversation going, food and drink flowing all with without apparent effort.

The inexperienced rider does a lot to little effect, the competent rider learns to do less and achieves more, and the good rider does very little, but just the right thing and at just the right time.

1 comment:

jme said...

well said. i have to agree with your definition of a good rider. and i also agree that any rider of conscience tries to approach the horse from an attitude of respect and understanding. a truly great rider, regardless of discipline, level or prizes won, is the one whose horse actually enjoys the work and wants to do what is asked, rather than doing it out of fear, submission or pain. for me, rollkur is one of the most stark examples of the latter approach...