The thing about trying to find my own personal Holy Grail of horse riding is that I have had to somehow filter through a lot of information and experiences and decide if they are leading me towards my goal or away from it. I’ve spent a lot of time doing this. I don’t pretend to have found my Holy Grail yet but for sure I’ve come across a lot of false leads along the way.
The problem, of course, is how to decide whether the path you are on is taking you towards your Holy Grail, or away from it? (especially when you’re still not even entirely sure what your Holy Grail looks like….).
If you’ve been following my blog so far, you’ll have noticed that I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s belief systems and how these affect what information people will and won’t accept into their learning. But what happens when we come to question our beliefs? What if everything you thought you knew about horse riding was a lie?
Such a breaking down and rebuilding of belief systems seems to have happened to me now so many times that my belief system is that I don’t even have a fixed belief system about most things – I see what I think I know at any given moment as a working hypothesis, nothing more and nothing less.
For example, years ago I used to think that side reins were necessary for a horse to find his balance and a “good” way of going/ teach acceptance of the bit. This is what I was taught and it was how things were done and who would I be to question that? As my learning progressed, I started to see how side reins in fact often taught the horse to either tuck behind the bit or to lean on it, I saw how they taught the horse to offer a fixed head carriage, I saw how in fact it was easy for a horse to catch himself in the mouth with the side reins (worse in a pessoa, when almost every movement of the hind legs caught the horse in the mouth)… and so on – I saw things that I simply never saw before because I was taught not to see them. More importantly, I started to also see, and search for, viable alternatives to side reins, so that I felt able to train without them.
Having then later done a lot of natural horsemanship style training, I also thought that “bending a horse to a stop” was a good idea and that young horses ought to be taught this so that you have emergency brakes available to you from day one of ridden work. This worked well for me for quite some time, so the belief got quite engrained. However, I then came across a young horse whose balance was so very important to her that she couldn’t tolerate this, and she let me know that in quite an explosive way. Well perhaps I just hadn’t used the technique properly? Maybe…. But then maybe that technique just wasn’t right for her? Fortunately I decided to accept the young mare’s feedback and she was perfectly happy to stop for me if I just asked her to while allowing her to maintain her balance.
Being the tenacious sort of a person that I am, I also thought it was pretty imperative to always make your point and get what you want from your horse when you wanted it (not necessarily by being rough, but I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that you shouldn’t quit on a bad note?). Well, OK, but does that mean that 2 hours later you should still be in the school trying to make your point when the horse has long since mentally left? Or, do you persevere with a young horse until he is accepting what you are doing up there? Do you know what, nowadays I tend to think that sometimes it is just better to get out while you’re all alive and tomorrow is another day. In particular, that same young mare taught me that some days are just not your day ….. if things are just getting worse, well, better to stop before they get worse still and start afresh tomorrow. Then, the real test becomes whether – on a longer timescale – things are overall getting better…. If they are, then so what if a few days in between really don’t go your way?
Shoes are another very good example. For years, like most people, I shod my horses. Well, that’s just what you do, isn’t it? Then one day I ended up using a farrier who told me my horses actually have good feet and perhaps I might like to see if they would be OK without shoes? I was somewhat taken aback. Was he mad? I pay him to shoe my horses! How can I hack on the roads without shoes on?! Roll on 7 years or so and all my horses are barefoot and indeed I event barefoot. I’m not part of the barefoot taliban and if I have a horse that struggles too much without shoes, they get shod, but if I can manage them barefoot, that is my preference.
I could go on…. There are just so many examples of things that I “thought” I knew that turned out to be not necessarily right – or at least not right for every horse.
The result of all this has been that I now have an ongoing dialogue in my mind to analyse and assess whether what I am doing with my horses at any given point in time is in fact the best way of doing things – or at least the best way available to me at that particular time. I have to be very careful not to let this creep over into overwhelming self doubt or some sort of paralysis by analysis and I temper this self analysis with the knowledge that learning comes from getting things wrong as much as it comes from getting things right.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) this need to analyse then spills over into my raising questions of any trainer that I then work with. This probably quite substantially limits the number of trainers that can tolerate working with me. It is not enough for them to tell me to do something, I want to understand why I am doing it, and if the answer I get is lacking in depth then I’m just not interested. You might say I have trust issues with trainers and I suppose really I do, though I don’t mean it in a personal way, it’s just that over the years I’ve believed so many things that I then started to “unbelieve”, how do I ever know that the thing I am asked to believe now won’t be “unbelieved” in time to come? Conversely, when I give lessons, I fully expect my student to want to understand what I am asking them to do and why.
Some of my friends who knew that I had applied for the Philippe Karl teacher training course did, therefore, rather wonder how he – or I – would get on! To my delight, though, Monsieur Karl is quite happy to take questions, and indeed he has many theory evenings throughout the course where questions are invited. It seems to me that Monsieur has a similarly enquiring mind, and while I’d be surprised if he lives in the same state of borderline overpowering self doubt that I do, he has certainly taken all the training he has ever had and questioned it, researched the work of the Old Masters and, through working with countless horses, then come to his own conclusions. To be fair, though, Monsieur has a few years on me – hopefully by the time I get to his age, I’ll have a few more things figured out – though equally I hope I never lose quite so much self doubt that I stop looking for better answers.
It seems, though, that all too often in our society – and particularly in the horse world – questions that should be asked are not asked. Riders are taught that their horse is being naughty if he isn’t giving the rider what he wants; the rider must “win” and “show the horse who is boss”. Crank nosebands/ strong bits/ draw reins are now so common that they are barely thought of as even being remedial, they are just standard practice. Tail swishing, grinding teeth, tight backs and hind legs failing to move well are just par for the course, nothing to be concerned about.
I saw a young rider post a picture on Facebook the other day, of her trotting a lovely young horse. The picture got lots of comments about how nice the pair looked. All I could see was a horse that was over-bent, in a heavy contact, it’s mouth trying to open even despite the tight flash noseband, its hind legs desperately under-tracking, the front leg landing before the hind leg, spurs dug in to the horse’s sides and the tail in mid-swish. But, just as I have in the past been blind to so many things, this young rider was blind to all these things – and why wouldn’t she be, her trainers are telling her that she is making a nice picture. The young rider is a sweet girl and loves her horse.
Perhaps one day, too, that young rider will go looking for some different answers? But what makes a person do that? Does a horse lover know at some level that using stronger bits and bigger spurs just doesn’t really “feel” right? Or when the horse stops wanting to go down to the school with them, or he starts “playing up” as soon as he is mounted, does the rider think that perhaps they might have had a part in that, or is the horse just being “naughty”? Or will the horse just quietly endure his lot while the rider goes and wins some rosettes, until the horse’s body breaks down and he is eventually signed off lame?
Something that always inspires me at the Philippe Karl clinics is when a new rider comes for a lesson with one of the trainee instructors and often the first thing that happens is that the rider is shown a new way of using his hands and given clear instruction that the hands and the legs are never to be used in opposition. The new rider had probably never before considered that they were, in fact, using their hands and their legs in opposition – after all, aren’t you supposed to “push the horse up into the bridle”? They would have never before thought that by using the hand and the leg at the same time, in effect you are asking the horse to disobey one or the other (even though maybe at best they might have wondered why they were having to use more hand and then more leg, in ever increasing quantities). You see the rider at that point become a bit internally troubled – has everything their prior training system taught them been a lie? Can they really accept that, and have to change their belief systems and consider a new way of training? Or is PK some sort of dangerous minority cult extremist to be avoided in the future?
I don’t know all the answers. I’m not sure I’d even trust anyone that ever claimed to have all the answers. But I have a lot of questions, and that’s a good start.
“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
– George Bernard Shaw