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Is It Best To Walk Like A Horse, Talk Like A Horse?

Hubbie and my daughter with our young mare

I recently showed a young mare to a prospective buyer who brought along her daughter who was also her trainer. The couple were searching for a dressage horse that they could also use in their lesson program as a therapy horse. Against my better judgement and wealth of experience I agreed to allow the trainer to work directly with the young mare from the ground. Well, at least. I agreed to allow her to longe it when she made the request on the phone.

The mare was bridled with a bit in place, and the longe line attached to the bit as is our usual practice. The horse was home-produced at our farm and kept for our breeding program and to date had received perhaps 24 or so longe lessons and been sat on just a few times in preparation for sale as we are retiring from horse breeding. She had never put a foot wrong in all those sessions.

Our training involves much patience to achieve relaxation and the voice is an important tool

After I had shown the horse on the longe line, I offered the trainer, a nice young lady that was very polite, the opportunity to longe the horse. Bear in mind this is a horse with little experience with the bit, but who longed well. As our farm is a private establishment, the horse has led a quiet life and is not used to lots of different people handling her. She was calm about the introduction to the new trainer and behaved well on the longe line i.e. was as presented (and shown in the 20 odd videos we had already shared of her daily work sessions to date with the buyer).

Fast forward nearly two hours later...

The trainer had worked the horse in a tiny circle around her person for the entire time. Little voice was used and if it was used I only heard it as a rebuke for the horse not listening or adhering to the myriad of new requests being thrown at it. Meantime we train very much to the voice and certainly it is used as a reward. Additionally we do pet the horse and extend good energy to the horse when it tries hard to do what we ask of it, regardless if the horse is entirely successful in its attempt. Believing with over 30 years experience training horses to GP dressage level that an effort and try on the part of a horse or rider should be rewarded. 

So our mare was a little overwhelmed to say the least about this 'new' method of horse whispering. Apparently the idea was for the trainer to behave as the horse would behave in herd to establish dominance. A gentle tug on the bit, repeated and never ending taps behind with the longe whip or dressage whip seemed to go on for eternity. The trainer was quiet and patient, and the horse did its best to understand. 

As the horse was not used to work, and indeed hadn't had as much as a longe lesson in the past year, this was a lot of input. The mare had not been used to this much focus. She would do her best to follow the lead, and then occasionally in frustration because she had completed the task and wanted to move on, she would lift her head or shake her head gently. There was a lot of activity on her mouth which she was very unused to and the repetitive nature of the whip disturbed her but she tolerated it all. We teach that the reward is the release of the rein to the bit and we never engage in pulling. It is a quick, gentle ask to yield to the pressure of the bit and then it is released. There is no holding.

During this time the trainer, on the direction of her mother, asked for a surcingle which was duly provided. The horse stood peacefully for it to be girthed up. Then the mother directed she'd like to see the horse in a Vienna rein. However the bits we use are all loose snaffles which are not ideal for this work as the trainer knew and admitted beforehand. Once the longe line was threaded to the outside of the surcingle and to the horse's bit, the tugging on the inside of the bit caused the entire bit including ring to be pulled into the horse's mouth from the outside. The trainer did not notice so I had to draw attention to the wardrobe malfunction and stop the proceeding and had the Vienna rein removed. 

And still on and on it went. 

So the idea was to act like a horse, walk like a horse and talk like a horse. Did it work. Kind of - but is it the best way to train? Perhaps it is. Perhaps when a horse is difficult or unruly doing something completely new can work this way. Or if the horse has never been worked with before I can see it might be useful. 
This mare however, had been handled by us daily from birth in a different method. She had been taught to work from the voice more than the hand. Rewards were given both in occasional sugar cube treats, release of rein pressure which we believe is very important, and soft scratch of the neck.

At the conclusion of this 'trial' of the horse the buyer said they would call the next morning to let us know whether they wanted to buy the mare. During a phone call the next day, the buyer asked if they could take the horse home for training for a month, so they could see if she would succumb to their training methods for their program. Something I had already told them we didn't do - sending a horse out on trial might work for some, but you have no idea what will come back to you if it doesn't work out.

So naturally I said no, and in fact when the buyer said she would like to think about the horse purchase and had much to chat about, I decided that I did not actually think the horse would be a good fit for their program and communicated this to the buyer.

For any horse a lifetime of walking on small circles, with reins attached to each side of her bit with two people walking with her, one on each side, did not seem a great life especially for a young, sound horse with so much gait and promise. 

As my husband pointed out, the trouble with having two different people, one on each side of the horse leading it on the bit is that they cannot possibly properly coordinate their actions on the horse's vulnerable mouth. I had decided to listen to my horse. She evidently found the work boring and as an alpha horse and a mare and not a gelding, she would not be a good fit for them. 

Interestingly the buyers had mentioned during their visit the fact they had never owned a mare. That was troubling. Mares, stallions and geldings all respond differently and as a trainer you do need to adjust your requests accordingly. I had told them before they visited that we considered the horse an alpha mare, which delighted them. The lady explained that they wanted their rambunctious gelding herd kept in check. I don't believe there was any understanding on the part of either of these visitors that a mare, especially an alpha mare, has a slightly different POV than a gelding and needs to be handled differently.

It was interesting to see the horse training method employed and I wish the young trainer well in her career. She was caring and trying hard to work with the horse and was patient. It was just she hadn't learned the horse's language before she began. As the horse had already had training it might have been wise to start with the horse doing what it understood to meet its education in the middle, before attempting the new 'walk like a horse, talk like a horse' method that confounded the horse. Although the horse had been extremely tolerant in my opinion.

It is always interesting to see that these folks thought they were bringing new training techniques to the table, when in fact it was just a repeat of methods tried and tested before. Lawrence, Lyons, Tellington-Jones etc. etc. to name but a few. Many of us have tried their methods in our search for better training and understanding of our horses. The work done by this young trainer was nothing new. 

In fact the mother was very excited when she directed her daughter to work on having the mare move her feet in a certain order about 1 1/2 hours into the lesson and the horse obliged and relaxed her neck.

 " Oh that's what works for her. I am just learning that. It took me several hours to master it but I got my horse to do it in the end," she exclaimed. I was horrified at the notion of working a young horse at almost a standstill for hours and hours on end, but did not mention that. 

"Well of course," I said, " Tellington-Jones taught us that many years ago." 

I thought back to those days of Tellington-Jones working with the German team, Klaus Balkenhol and his Goldstern in particular. Mr. Balkenhol is a gentleman with whom I have worked in my dressage career and someone I very much respect.

There really isn't any re-inventing the wheel or in this case horse training. It has all been done before. 

For us we follow the 51% leadership rule. For dressage we want our horse to be obedient, relaxed and trust our hand and indeed us. All good effort is rewarded. We like to have the horse work respond to our voice and believe this is an important aid. If a sugar cube relaxes the jaw of the horse and increases saliva production to lubricate the bit, then that is a fine reward. It does not have to be excessively given, but it is a handy treat and one that serves two purposes. 

Funny enough whenever I walked up to the mare when she was being worked, handed the trainer a different whip or whatever had been requested, the mare did expect me to follow my usual protocol and give her a sugar cube. Her way of displaying her annoyance when I walked away not giving her the new trainer's 'forbidden reward', was to shake her head. Couldn't really blame her! I had trained her to expect it.

When I reflected on the entire session afterward and chatted with my husband, who is also a GP rider/trainer, I felt bad that I had allowed the session to go on so long and that it tired the horse both mentally and physically. Tiny circles in one direction for two hours straight are not good for any horse. You know how you feel when you are riding and a coach overworks you on the circle in one direction. Everything starts to cramp up after too much use without suppling breaks to the other side. I should never have allowed the Vienna rein. Thank goodness I wouldn't let them shortcut and start ground lining when the horse had not been properly prepared. 

I won't make the same mistake again and allow someone to work excessively with my horse when they are simply visiting to view it as a purchase. I broke the trust of this mare and now I shall have to take some time and rebuild it.


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