Monday, March 12, 2012

Saint or Sinner: Your Horse Life Discovered

The Horse | Rollkur: Facts, Fiction, and Horse Health Implications

t’s Dressage Post Week.   Not that every rider in every discipline won’t be able to relate to at least some of what I’ve learned this time around, but the specifics come directly from the dressage world.  DQ’s, join me in a mass Tibo for the horses we are in the process of riding, enjoying, and confusing the hell out of.  Ready….apologize
  I'm going to steal some very important words from a blurb for a really intriguing book (which I have not read, which is part of its intrigue) titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Dressage.  

 "The Seven Deadly Sins of Dessage- Ignorance, Timidity, Pride, Fear, Impatience, Anger, and Immoderation- are sadly so commonplace within the horse industry as to often fail to capture our attention. Once acknowledged, weakness can indeed be overcome and thus our dream of riding with honesty, truth, and brilliance will not be in vain."  [Horsebooks, Etc catalog]

You may or may not have already clicked the Rollkur article link.  You might want to do that now, because these two items together make for a very quick lesson on two topics:

1.  Everything you know isn't wrong, but a lot of it might be.
2.  What we do with our horses is equally as important as who they are and what they're capable of.

The discussion regarding Rollkur (the hyperflexion of the horse's head downward in that chin-tucked position that looks both elegant and painful) has been rolling along apace for the past few years.  I own several entire books on the subject, in fact, and I can honestly say I've been on the anti-Rollkur train from the get-go.  How in the world can a horse function with its head tied to its chest?  How can it breathe?   How can it extend?  How can it not be embarrassed in front of its herd mates?  
Nothing up her sleeves, nothing mechanical ever:
Jess and Rat demonstrate that some horses
naturally adopt that "GOSH, I'm gorgeous!" headset
on their own.

Here's where Conventional Wisdom comes a-cropper once again of the realities that actual research seems determined to uncover despite us and our hysterical belief systems.  Keeping in mind that "conventional" has the same etymology as "convenient", and it's pretty obvious why we are endlessly startled by the realities of our world.  

I, like so many others, looked at the horse's head position, read the rants by virtual ranters online and in print, and bought the superficial without looking for the underlying basis.  As the article above states, no one is suggesting that we all start Rollkur-ing with abandon.  The research that shows that the position does not impair breathing, and might actually improve movement and the ability of the horse to lift and carry his back in a safe and comfortable position also indicates that the problem with Rollkur is how we get there.  How we get there, in the mind of an amateur, is, like so many other plans, very badly done. 

Poor training methods that put the end before the means are the downfall of every sport, not just horse-related athletics.  Like crash dieting, crash training is harmful and self-defeating no matter the goal.  This is a particularly poignant problem in two realms:  childhood sports and horseback riding.  In both of these, we adult humans have taken responsibility for setting paths for creatures other than ourselves, and we've done so without all our ducks in a row and with almost no information on which to base our decisions.  We set about to possibly do permanent damage to children or animals who have no say in the matter and are depending on us to have all our marbles in play.  Few of us do.  

Which brings us to the deadly sins:  Ignorance, Timidity, Pride, Fear, Impatience, Anger, and Immoderation.  The only quibble I'm going to offer regarding this list is the "timidity" piece.  In my humble opinion, while timidity may lead some of us to be less than successful in reaching our goals, and we know that horses react skeptically to hesitation by their riders, it's the very lack of timidity in training that is at fault in much of the damage done.  Often we are over-confident in our belief that we've got a lock on the best way to achieve our desired end.  Often we are dead wrong, but we go at it with religious zeal anyway.  

Putting this all together dredged up a memory that I truly dislike but feel I need to revisit when I get cocky.  A friend had a horse--a very nice horse overall, with unexpected talent in a whole bunch of areas, but with some minor orthopedic issues that kept him from being the Perfect Mount--and the past tense is key.  I take the blame for starting this friend on the dressage path, as I was headed there myself and sang the praises of safe and sane horsemanship and the pretty floatiness that can be achieved along the way.  I wish I'd left well-enough alone.  

In her passion (and mania) to turn this nice, middle-of-the-road guy into an instant Dressage Star, she adopted some frightening training methods.  The last image burned into my brain is of that beautiful horse on his knees in the middle of a highway, his rider standing alongside beating him with a dressage whip to convince him to get up.  He wasn't arguing with her; he just couldn't get his legs under him because his chin was tied to his chest with a martingale of a type I'd never seen before.  The battle-worn, bloodied,  and bruised animal finally rose and stood shaking but perfectly still while his rider remounted.  He was on the highway because he'd taken a tumble, butt-0ver-ears, down a steep incline onto the roadbed.  The martingale prevented him from using his head and neck to balance himself.  

He won the battle in the long run and wound up with a wonderful new owner in a nice place where he was loved and understood.   I made sure of that.  And his original owner really  had no idea that she was doing wrong because it was her trainer who taught her to do that.  That trainer's Ignorance, the young rider's Pride, Fear, Impatience, Anger and Immoderation, all added up to a very unhappy, potentially lethal situation.  

Whether to Rollkur or not to Rollkur, the issue remains that whenever we make decisions that may threaten the future functionality of another being, we need to be doubly sure that we've at very least done away with the Ignorance part of the formula for disaster.  

As we in the Teaching biz say, it's all about education, education, education!  

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