Knowledge is Better than Equipment

So I’ve just got home from my third ridden clinic with French classical dressage master, Philippe Karl, and as ever I’m inspired.

The title to this blog is in fact, I admit, a rather catchy little phrase that Monsieur came up with during our clinic. The more I think about it, though, the more that simple statement sums up so nicely Monsieur’s approach. He passionately opposes the use of any sort of gadgetry/ draw reins/ side reins, etc, but he doesn’t just say that from the sidelines, he gives clear reasons for his views and what’s more proposes credible alternatives.

One of the plus sides of training with a gentleman who has ridden and trained countless horses up to high school moves is that he’s got a lot of stuff worked out. I have yet to see him sit on a new horse in one of the clinics that doesn’t then look instantly amazing. I have also yet to see Monsieur himself fail to look amazing on a horse – it matters not whether it is a flash warmblood, an ex-racer, an Iberian or a cob – he looks amazing. As does the horse.

So how does he do it? Surely if I can work that out, I’ll have found the keys to the Kingdom of the Holy Grail of Riding? (indeed, I’m very much hoping that over the next few years’ training with Monsieur Karl, I will not just work this out but be able to emulate it!)

Well, first of all, I don’t think it can be denied that the way he sits on a horse is nothing short of poetry. His position is elegant, supple, secure, strong – I could go on – it simply has its own special sort of energy and I for one just never tire of looking at it. Having such an amazing seat must surely help get your message across to a horse, though in fact I have heard Monsieur say a number of times that riders with less than perfect seats can still be highly competent if they are otherwise sufficiently knowledgeable.

I could probably after that go on about the fact that Monsieur has worked out how it is that different horses need to be ridden differently, but all within a set of guidelines he has carefully crafted through his years of high level experience.

Or I could go on about the fact that Monsieur has worked out how to separate out clearly, for horse and rider, different aids for different things – such as the aid for poll flexion being quite a specific hand action, rather than using the more commonly accepted “yank and crank” theory whereby all you need to do to “collect and round” a horse is hold the front end together while pushing the back end forward.

Within minutes Monsieur can have an inverted ex-racer flexing his poll, a contracted warmblood moving freely forward or a common looking riding school horse starting shoulder in. And all of this done through understanding of the need to clearly separate your aids, to respect the balance and nature of the horse and to work with a horse through intelligence rather than force.

Having all of these things at his disposal, it is perhaps, then, no surprise that Monsieur does not require the use of any sort of “gadget” to acquire “proper” posture in the horse. Why would he, he can do it perfectly well without! But what about us mere mortals?

Well, the first thing to be very clear on is that Monseiur’s school of riding absolutely opposes the use of any coercive training aids – no pessoa’s no equi-ami’s and not even any side reins. Indeed, if I or any of his students were to use them, we would be kicked out of his school quicker than you’ll get bucked off a wild stallion.

So what’s so wrong with these training aids anyway? Well, to name but a few points:

  1. Have you actually ever watched a horse’s mouth when its bit is attached to what is effectively a piece of string that is then wrapped around the rest of its body? When the rest of his body moves, this causes the bit to move. What is the horse supposed to do about that? Is it a signal to him? Or must he just learn that it is meaningless?
  2. Such training aids at best put the horse in a particular position. If you are skilled at using the training aids, the position might – if you are very skilled – be a pleasing one. But what about if you then want him to go in a different position? A horse should no more train in one set frame than a bodybuilder should work on his biceps without also doing exercises for his triceps. And simply warming up the horse on the lunge without the gadgetry clipped on to the bit is not the answer, as this does nothing to teach the horse to politely follow the bit, he is merely grateful that he is not yet strapped into position.
  3. What more often happens is that the horse simply learns to duck behind the bit. He learns to overflex. Overflexion is not actually a good thing, despite the number of riders you see still using it. Rollkur is of course an extreme example of overflexion but overflexion is overflexion and is not how the horse is supposed to properly use his body.   When in nature does a horse in motion overflex? Oh, and have you ever then tried to pull on the reins to stop a horse that is overflexing? He just tucks his head in further but he doesn’t necessarily stop!
  4. The horse may alternatively come to the view that the way out of his bondage is to lean on the bit. Then when the rider gets on board the horse will expect to lean on the rider and feel dead mouthed. Not much fun.
  5. In fact, whether the horse leans on the bit or ducks behind it, as a means to try and solve his man-made problem, the point is that the horse isn’t actually learning any sort of a true relationship with the hand. Gadgetry cannot follow the horse’s mouth when he needs it to, it cannot feel if the horse needs to stretch, it cannot allow him to bend laterally…. Basically it cannot replace the timing and feel of a person.
  6. Most (all?) training aids work on the premise that they are tightened equally on the left and right sides. So we send the horse trotting round on circles on the lunge but in a rein position asking him to be straight through his body. Again, back to fixing the horse in a position – but at the expense, then, of lateral suppleness.

I genuinely believe that if any rider took the time to seriously consider all of the above points and then study in depth Philippe Karl’s work and to see how he uses his in-hand bridle training to teach the horse a variety of different head carriages/ ways of going, etc, they would never feel the need to use gadgetry again.

Unfortunately, though, even some vets do advocate the use of some training aids, such as the pessoa. As those of you that follow my blogs will know, in fact the horse that I am working with on the PK programme has kissing spine and so as you may imagine I’ve done my homework on different kissing spine treatment options and for the vast majority of them, the use of the pessoa features heavily. Unfortunately, though, vets are not always good trainers. And by the way I equally know a number of vets and physio’s who won’t touch a pessoa (or similar) with a barge pole.

If you read my last blog, you’ll know that last year I got a young horse with kissing spines, as a project (yes, I know, I’m a little crazy). At the recent clinic I was therefore somewhat biting my nails to know if Monsieur thought she was improving enough to carry on with the course!. Well, over the last nearly 18 months I’ve done stacks of in-hand bridle work, and work on her lateral flexibility (shoulder in, haunches in, half pass, etc, but also bending the neck laterally a lot, while having her body continue to move forward and straight, so that the muscles in the neck can be stretched laterally).   I’ve also worked a lot on riding Buffy in different head carriage positions and using her back in different ways. We have also in fact been able to practice jumping and pole work. Plus we’ve hacked for miles. A pretty good rehab plan by anyone’s standards and backed up by physio treatments but the use of any gadgetry has been notable by its absence.

But has it been enough? Was Monsieur happy that Buffy was improving enough to continue on the course with?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! J J J

Enough said.

“Brutality begins where knowledge ends. Ignorance and compulsion appear simultaneously.” Charles de Kunffy

Poor Fred needs a safe word!
Poor Fred needs a safe word!

Cartoon courtesy of “Fed Up Fred”

6 thoughts on “Knowledge is Better than Equipment

  1. lyndseylewis4 May 21, 2015 / 9:58 am

    Thanks for a great post. I’m so happy I found you (through a facebook share). I live in an area where brutality is the norm so I love to read how others are learning and teaching a better way. Please keep writing and sharing! I know it’s an effort and time consuming but it is very much appreciated by those of us who can not access a real life clinic or real life PK teachers.

    • janetpaterson May 23, 2015 / 10:08 pm

      Thank you Lindsey…… and I know how you feel…. in some places brutality is so much the norm that it is no longer even seen for what it is 😦

  2. Shanie Bosch-Fourie May 21, 2015 / 11:29 am

    i use a saying – and every word is stressed- ” IF YOU LOOSE YOUR TEMPER WITH A HORSE – YOU JUST SHOW YOUR LACK OF KNOWLEDGE”

  3. Emma October 8, 2015 / 1:35 pm

    Wonderful words here, Janet. Get a lot of resistance from fellow riders when I say I won’t do gadgets. Thank you.

    • janetpaterson October 8, 2015 / 8:53 pm

      Thanks Emma 🙂 …. and yes, somehow we ended up being the odd ones for not using gadgets!

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