The methods and equipment used to dominate the horse have become more evolved and complex overtime. We still use this equipment today: corals, ropes, halters, bits, bridals, saddles, girths, whips, spurs, hobbles, side reins, draw reins, tie downs, martingales, chain shanks and cross ties. While it is easy to become defensive of the tools and techniques of the equine industry, you have to admit that most of it was designed to be able to control the horse through discomfort and fear to make working with horses easier for the human.
For example, let’s look at a chain shank. Granted, not everyone uses them, but they are fairly common in some circles. They can be used in various ways but they are always run over a sensitive portion of the horse’s face or mouth to control a fractious horse. The only reason the chain shank is effective is to cause the horse pain so that he stops pulling. It is an effective tool that gains results so it has been passed down. However, if the human took the time to train the horse or build relationship with the horse, would that technique be necessary?
Is the only way to handle a stallion or young race horse by running a chain across their sensitive gums and yanking? Even if you throw your hands in the air defensively and exclaim that you never use a chain, you are still not off the hook. Even simple rope halters are designed with thin rope and knots that fall on pressure points to get the horse to yield. We have learned that halters on sensitive faces are advantageous to helping us control a large animal.
Something like a set of spurs can be used responsibly or irresponsibly but you have to admit that, by design, they are an instrument to cause discomfort to make the horse yield to the will of the human. A spur is a piece of metal that jabs into the sensitive ribs. A whip is another item that can be used as a tool or a weapon depending on the hand that holds it and how it is used. While many equestrians now use a whip to help focus energy and intent to guide the horse, the primary function of a whip is discipline. Whether it is a lunge whip, buggy whip, dressage whip or jumping bat it is designed to direct, control and punish the horse. It is designed to take away the horse’s power and free will. Where else in life is a whip ever used in a positive manner?
The bit is another fascinating piece of equipment. The creation of the bit was pivotal in the horse/human relationship as it was the thing that really allowed us to control the wild animal. It just so happens that the horse’s mouth is designed in such a way that there is a space between the teeth that allows humans to place a piece of metal. I refuse to believe that God created this space for humans to utilize for our own benefit to “rein in” the horse.
The bit has, perhaps, caused the horse the greatest amount of distress over the years. We have devised an ever growing arsenal of bits to control even the most unruly horse. If you have a horse that will not stop or turn you put a “stronger” bit on the horse. In other words, a bit that will cause greater pain. I have seen horses in double twisted wire bits – there is no argument that a bit of that severity has no purpose but to cause pain. Think about how harsh people get with their hands on occasion out of frustration or the perceived loss of control.
While it can be said that the bit can be used in a respectful manner to communicate with the horse, there is still a good amount of fallacy to that statement. Good communication should always go both ways. The bit and reins are there for the rider to give signals or commands to the horse. By applying pressure on sensitive parts of the face and mouth the human can get the horse to do what he wants – to submit and follow orders. A good rider is said to have feel, but what the rider is feeling for, through the reins, is often subtle tension and inclinations that the horse is not yielding completely. With that feel the rider can make adjustments in the amount of pressure to encourage the horse to fully submit.
We have a great reliance on the bit in riding. We design bits in different ways to achieve results that naturally come when the rest of the body is moving correctly. For example, we add keys or a copper to a bit to encourage the horse to become supple. The suppleness should come from the movement in the rest of the body. Another example would be an elevator bit used to raise or elevate the head. Elevation should come from the energy flow from the hind end of the horse forward, not from pulling on a “magic” bit to gain quick results.
The act of relying on the bit alone to turn is a fallacy in and of itself. The horse is much more efficient through a turn if taught to turn from the body rather than being pulled around by the face. It’s just easier to rely on the discomfort of the bit to control direction and speed. Equestrians are starting to rethink the importance of bits with the development of bitless bridles.
Saddles are another brilliant invention designed to make it easier for humans to utilize horses. The saddle does little to benefit the horse – it is designed to make riding more comfortable and secure for the rider. Modern saddles are designed with trees to help disperse the weight of the rider. Unfortunately, all saddles involve an inflexible structure placed on moving, living tissue that commonly results in pressure points and discomfort for the horse.
Even a perfectly fitting saddle does not eliminate these pressure points and discomfort. Pressure sensors placed under a saddle indicate that even the best fitting saddle still causes enough pressure to restrict the flow of blood through the horse’s back. This lack of blood flow is akin to the feeling of your leg falling asleep. It causes numbness and severe discomfort – such as pins and needles – as the blood flow returns.
This lack of sensation will still be present with a person sitting on their back for a long period of time, but the benefit of not using a saddle is that the horse is carrying less weight and the weight they are carrying can move with them and shift to new areas to create greater comfort. Furthermore, the stability that the saddle and stirrups provide a rider makes it easier for an individual with no balance to stay on a horse. This makes the horse’s job more difficult as an unbalanced rider lands harshly on the back, leans off to one side, and goes against the rhythm of the horse. Without the saddle such a rider would just fall off – which would be beneficial to the horse but not the human.
The saddle is held on by a fairly innocuous piece of equipment – the girth or cinch. Humans have a tendency to tighten the girth down more than necessary to counteract the human’s poor balance or the ill-fitting saddle. The overly tight girth is a bit like tightening a woman into a corset. It is restrictive of the ribs and rather uncomfortable. Many horses tell us this by becoming cinchy (not that the humans listen to their protest). This restriction is also placed around their heart and lungs – I feel a bit claustrophobic just thinking about it.
The tight girth also allows the rider to use the stirrup to step up into the saddle. If you watch a person pull themselves up onto a horse from the ground you will see how difficult it is for the horse to counter balance the torque put on their spine by the weight and heaving of the human. Yet we expect the horse to stand perfectly still for this process.
The equestrian’s tools of the trade are effective which is why they have been passed down and continue to be refined but not drastically changed. We need to see all of these tools for what they are in order to determine which ones we are comfortable using and in which manner we use them.
Tack is traditionally leather but is it respectful to strap dead animals to a prey animal when other options are available? It is easy to fall back on old wisdom and tradition when working with horses. The equipment we use and the manner in which we use it is often passed down from generation to generation. As a child I was taught to smack a naughty pony with a crop or snatch at his mouth with the bit when he went for grass. These techniques are effective and so they have been shared and promoted within the industry.
It is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that what you are asking of your horse is not causing him pain or fear. At some point, we have to stop and ask ourselves if we really feel okay about what we are doing. We have to use empathy and try to understand how the horse feels. What tools are we using? Do we use these tools to gain results based on our own desires and need for control? What does the horse gain from such items beyond losing their power and control?
We must become aware of how easy it is for humans to ignore the signs of pain from their horses. This is in part due to the silent nature of the horse. Humans are vocal and respond to vocalizations. Horse are silent even when in pain. If your horse were to yelp like a dog when you dug your spurs in, would you react differently? I know when I accidentally step on a dog paw, eliciting a sharp yelp, I jump a mile and then apologize profusely. You know the sound of the unhappy, restrained cat scream? What if your horse did that when you pulled really hard on the bit? What if your horse whimpered with nerves when you placed your ill-fitting saddle on his back? Would you then know that you were causing pain and change your behavior?
Many equestrians do recognize slight soreness in the horse. Unfortunately, it is often common to ignore that information. Perhaps because the horse suffers silently it doesn’t tug on our heart strings enough to modify our behavior. Or perhaps we are just too focused on what we want to accomplish that we don’t give the horse enough credit or notice. All of us, at some point, ignore the signs and do what feels good to us instead of taking into account the horse.
As a massage therapist I see musculoskeletal problems all the time caused by ill-fitting equipment, the manner in which the horse is ridden or due to the management of the horse. Owners will often have a professional come in to adjust or work on their horse because they do recognize pain or discomfort in their horse. They are trying to right by their horse. While I am a big believer in body work, it cannot solve the underlying issue that caused the horse to have a sore back or other musculoskeletal issue. Unless the owner is willing to evaluate the situation and make the necessary changes to fix the problem, the body work simply acts as a temporary Band-Aid. It allows the owner to sweep aside their guilt and continue with training as planned.
It is important to remember that all tools can be used in various ways. The tools of the equine industry can be used to outright abuse horses or they can be used to have a positive effect on the horse. For the most part, there use falls somewhere between the two extremes. Often these items are inadvertently harmful due to a rider who is lacking technical skills and knowledge. It takes years to develop an independent seat, soft hands, impeccable timing and feel with the horse. That means most people are in the phase of working on things. Even riders who are now elite once had rough hands. The tools themselves were designed thousands of years ago for the purpose of control and submission rather than relationship and respect.