Sitting on the back of a horse is a very sacred space of honor. Often, we forget just what a feet this act is – two very different animals coming together to ride and be ridden. For both the horse and rider, this is a huge act of faith and trust in the other. For the horse to accept and willingly carry a predator on his back is one of the greatest examples of the horse’s kind and forgiving heart. We sit in a space where a mountain lion might grab hold to take the horse down. It is one of the most unnatural things that we could ask a horse to do, and yet he has willingly carried mankind through history. While sitting perched atop a horse fills us with awe and wonderment it is a different story for the horse.
On his back, we are sitting in his blind spot. He can no longer see us. This means that he must learn to communicate through an entirely different system than ever before. Horses do not embrace. The only time horses spend touching for prolonged periods of time is during grooming sessions or while breeding. They are very adept at reading energy but must of their communication and perception is based on reading visual cues. Without the ability to make visual contact with us, the horse must learn to feel what we want. The horse always senses energy but this is a physical feel which is totally foreign. Much of the ground work you did to prepare for this was through body language and that ceases once in the saddle creating a very large learning curve for the horse.
In addition, they must learn a whole new way of moving and carrying their body with the added weight of the rider. We sit just behind the shoulders on the portion of the back that has the least support. The horse’s spine articulates with the pelvis in the hind end and then is suspended by muscles and ligaments all the way up to the head. The entire weight of the body, and now your weight as well, is held up in a muscular sling between the front legs. Think about the added strain that must cause the horse. Think about the added concussion in his limbs. He must compensate by finding a new center of gravity and changing his movement to accommodate us.
Once we are in the saddle we often do not give the horse the horse a full translation dictionary from the language of “see” to “feel”. The extra support that he needs to learn how to properly balance himself with this new cargo is also missed by a lot of riders. Often attempts to provide that translation and support are done in a manner that can be harmful. For example, in an effort to get the horse to understand what we want, we rely too heavily on the bit. Pulling the horse off balance with the reins is not the best way to teach them to turn but it takes a lot of feel to turn the horse’s body off leg and seat aids. The quick answer, and the one that is easiest to teach to students, is “pull on the rein”.
Another example is the misunderstanding surrounding the issue of working in a frame. A lot of riders come to understand that the correct way of going, which will provide the support needed to carry the rider, is when the horse is a proper frame. Unfortunately, a lot of people get fixated on the head and neck carriage and forget the rest of the horse. Rather than working to get the horse to engage his hind end, lift his back and elevate through the shoulders, they only work on lowering the head.
The head and neck come as a result of the rest of the body working efficiently and in a manner that supports the rider’s weight. Numerous devices have been created – side reins, draw reins, martingales, tie downs – to force the head into the “correct” position. This does not help the horse and can cause more damage. These devices force the horse to move in a restricted manner and to submit to discomfort. Meanwhile the true benefit of working in a frame has been overlooked entirely. When the horse protests with an open mouth we just tie it shut with various types of nosebands. Rather than respecting the horse we find ways to exert our will onto them through quick-fix solutions.
When riding, the aids are designed as a form of communication. Whether they are natural or artificial aids, the idea is to be able to influence the horse to move in a certain manner. Good communication is about speaking and listening. Unfortunately, when it comes to riding we often forget to listen which means the aids turn into one sided orders designed to maintain control, compliance, and perfection. The only listening we do is when the horse has done the wrong thing and we then use the aids to punish or correct the horse. As long as the aids are used in this manner, they serve as a series of demands and ultimatums regardless of how unperceivable or subtle the cues are.
Aids are taught as a form of either negative reinforcement or positive punishment. There seems to be a fair amount of confusion over these terms. Negative reinforcement means that you are trying to increase the frequency of a behavior by removing a negative stimulus. We apply an aid, or pressure, through the leg, seat, or hands which creates discomfort. When the horse responds correctly, the stimulus is released as a reward for performing the desired action.
For example, you pull on the reins to slow down and when the horse slows you stop pulling. This is different than positive reinforcement which involves giving the horse something good such as praise, a treat, or a break in return for an effort. The other way that aids are used is through positive punishment which involves trying to decrease the frequency of a behavior by adding a negative consequence. When the horse misbehaves, it results in a smack with the whip, a jab with the spur, or a sharp pull on the reins.
Essentially, our system of reward when riding is based on first creating discomfort to influence the horse’s movement and behavior. We must first apply pressure for it to be released and the horse to gain a reward for the effort. Part of the flaw in this type of pressure and release training when we are riding is this: as long as you are sitting on the horse the pressure is never truly released. Even when walking on a loose rein your body weight and movement is still creating pressure that cannot be released until you get off. We teach the horse to look for the release in pressure as his primary reward yet while under saddle it is impossible to be neutral.
As riders, we tend to restrict he horses movement even while the horse is in motion. We are constantly nagging and nitpicking every step and action the horse takes. We drive the horse forward and hold him back. We determine the speed and direction. We ask them to place their feet very specifically for various movements. We control the movement of their neck. All of these demands serve to shut the horse down as we deny who they really are and we control their form of expression and being. There is no freedom of choice for the horse. When the horse tries to express himself, we view it as disobedience and react with more pressure and aggression rather than listening to their message. Riders have a need to be right, be in charge, make the horse listen and obey. The horse is not a machine, he is a sentient being – does he not have the right to an opinion?
This attitude and approach from riders often results in horses either exploding in defiance or completely shutting down. Many horses that are viewed as obedient, trustworthy partners are actually hollow, empty shells who have given up the fight. They are resigned to their place and their job. Even some top-level horses, that perform all of the correct moves, seem to have an emptiness and dullness to their performance because they are not inspired to move with greatness. Their movements do not have the same magnificence as horses that developed the movement authentically through their own empowerment.