Riding By Torchlight
Go Ye Forth and Educate Thyself!
Please Note: This article first appeared in Horses For Life in March 2009, Volume 42 as "Educate Yourself"
I think I can get away with saying I owe my life to horses without having overstated it too drastically. For starters, my parents met at a local stable where my mother boarded her horse, Attila. She definitely had ‘the bug’, which explains why she was there, but why my dad was there is another story, a bit of a mystery, that I tend to believe has more to do with meeting girls than it does with a deep and undying
passion for horses….whatever the reason, it worked out for my brothers and I. Really it was quite the compliment to my father. Attila was acquired by my mother at the expense of her previous engagement. One day she realized if she was ever to have her own horse, the fiancee would have to go. As a child I found it hard to fathom that she subsequently gave up this same horse to marry my father and settle down to motherhood - I mean, she had her VERY OWN horse! And she SOLD it, because of a BOY!! Yuckyuckyuck - but I did eventually come to realize that lucky for us, she did, or I wouldn’t be out there pursuing my own equestrian fantasy or sitting here today tapping away at my keyboard.
Like so many children, horses were my most cherished desire since I can remember having fantasies. It’s still a joke in the family. We can’t pass a pasture with horses without my brothers mimicking a little girl crying “Oh, look at all the sweet horsies!” On long drives I kept a white or black horse prancing alongside the car to keep me from boredom. And I needed little encouragement for a trip to the stables with my equally horsemad mother, who by then had found a way to return to her first love. My fondest and earliest memories are of rides on an old icelandic pony, Stjaertni, on a lead line with my mother through the magical goldengreen gloom of a danish forest. Later it was on Sooty through Kenyan coffee plantations alongside my mother on Bhatian or Muishu, both ex-polo ponies. Sooty, a pitchblack and typically wicked Shetland pony that unseated me repeatedly and in every configuration known to horse, or rather ponies, since they’ve famously cornered the market on pitching riders, was introduced to me by my mother as The Black Mare. As in The Black Mare of the Black Stallion series, a book I had just read and which apparently remained the main topic of scintillating conversation for my 7 year old self for days on end. I can still remember the thrill of the promise of a surprise after school, the mystery of the drive to the barn with my mother refusing to divulge anything at all, and the pure wonder and delight when my mother said “Here she is, the Black Mare!” Out came not a refined smoldering arabian beauty, prancing on graceful stilts, but a shaggy black pony on stubby legs with a big head hidden beneath copious amounts of filthy, tangled mane. A classic Thelwell pony, with a gleam in her wicked eye, tugging on the rope for the nearest patch of grass. But no matter, my love was alighted and burning brightly. And I could borrow her whenever I wanted. Happiness, thy name is horse.
Later on, the barn and horses became my refuge from teenage angst, agony and heartbreaks. It is no wonder that so many parents will go to great lengths to keep their teenage child riding and spending time at the barn. It’s sanity in a fur coat. Or at the very least a healthy brand of madness. There is no better alternative to the mall and chatrooms, no better place to forget your sorrows than in the presence of a
warmly beating horse heart, in the rhythm of the grooming ritual and the tempo of a trot, the cadence of the canter, the exhilaration of a jump. A horse won’t care that your face broke out in pimples - again – that you aren’t wearing the latest fashion in jeans (because the money seemed better spent on horsestuff, anyway. At least untill you got to school and the ridicule. No matter. Back at the barn, you know you were right.) or that you don’t have a date on prom night. Again.
The horse by its’ very presence grounds and centers a young and flighty spirit, and gives a fresh perspective from the throne of his back, leaving all cutting remarks and acutely shamefull embarrassments in the wake of his jauntily flowing tail. Not to mention awakening lofty goals and burning desires, that distract well from a desire of another kind, a secret and painfull crush that dropped your grades from A’s to well, less. Allot less. Your horse understands, or at the very least, does not judge, as long as you still love him and bring carrots, it’s all the same to him. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience, of course. Of course.
Ahem. So. Moving on.
Horses. Fascination with their mystery, and a need to feel a part of their power and beauty, a sense of freedom and a direct line to something other, something indefinable and larger than ourselves, yet somehow to be found inside ourselves. Isn’t that what brings so many of us into their lives? Whether they asked for it or not. And once there, we find them loveable and funny, and soon maybe challenging and frustrating, but we just can’t walk away now. There is always that next corner to turn, the one thing to accomplish, a new mystery beckoning. Where am I going with this? Well, since last months articles on the use of nosebands, and the steadily growing list of supporters on the petition, I have been doing a great deal of thinking about the responses and the questions they raise. The question for me boils down to motivation. What motivates us to ride, and then to do what we do and defend it unquestioningly? I can’t imagine anyone showing up at a barn and learning to ride because they want to consciously participate in abusing horses. It’s love that brings them there, love of horses and everything that they represent. Yet more or less subtle abuse happens all the time, in various degrees of transgression,
accompanied by a certainty that the horse is well loved. It’s my experience, yes this time absolutely personal and first person, that it’s mainly ignorance and blind following of uneducated leadership, and sometimes it’s just plain ego gratification. It’s lack of confidence in ourselves and a need to believe in our chosen mentor. It can be frightening to feel out of the know, or to question a trusted leader. Happens to all
It seems to me the important thing is not so much to deny OR judge too harshly that this is happening - so easy to do, I’m a wonderful back seat rider if I do say so myself - but to keep educating ourselves, each other and asking questions. And yet, we also have to be willing to make a judgement call that it needs changing and then stand up and ask for change, or if possible, make the change yourself, of course. But
first one has to be willing to acknowledge the possibility of another view, another reality. This requires curiousity and a desire to learn, and a confidence that allows for the shedding of old beliefs. In other words, a confidence rooted in the heart and not the ego. A case in point was a debate on The Chronicle of the Horse regarding this petition. It brought a varied range of responses, ranging from support of the
petition in any form, to ridicule and derisiveness and on to defensiveness.
Ask most people and they would tell you they follow something like a two finger rule on the fitting of their noseband, cavesson and/or flash. Yet use your eyes and – according to the judge who asked our editor to address the issue and another judge and clinician who signed the petition – a very different picture emerges. Some in the debate denied tight nosebands had any ill effect at all. Another group thought it already very well regulated at horseshows. Some thought there was no way to fairly and consistently monitor the fit, what with different horses, different fingers and so on. It could be dangerous to loosen nosebands leaving horses running away left and right. Which rather leaves a question mark as to the horse and riders’ training, does it not? It was impossible for nosebands to inflict as cruel damage as
quoted in our magazine and elsewhere. Horses would never put up with it. Wouldn’t they? Considering what else they will put up with, that is just one more thing, isn’t it?
But none seemed educated about or interested in the REASONING, as in the biomechanical reasons that brought us to call for this rule. It was a debate of emotion and anecdotes, opinion and espousing, as debates often are. There was no factual evidence presented what-so-ever. Noone seemed to realize there was more to this petition than some do gooders feeling sorry for horses with their mouth strapped shut. I found that a little depressing. Are we all such a bunch of know it all’s that we don’t even feel the need to ask ‘why’? And if it is such a non issue, what problem is there really with having the rule anyway? Just in case…Ultimately, the petition was blown off as unneccessary. Based purely on a complete lack of information.
Call it naivite or know-it-all-ness, it could be dangerous. I find myself resenting the complacency in our community that believes and indeed relies on, the status quo. If issues such as this one are blown off by the majority, we not only risk the increase of abuse within our ranks, but a subsequently negative reputation that could bleed over into the public eye and catch the attention of animal welfare organizations like PETA, not exactly known for a measured and balanced approach – or agenda. If we are not seen to actively address the problems within our community ourselves, we could find ourselves hung by a jury of outsiders who care little for the ins and outs of training and equipment, while zealously minding the use of horses for sport at all. Think I am paranoid? Tell that to the outlawed foxhunters of Great Britain.
We can’t afford complacency anymore. We are all too accessible for the public eye, stories spread like wildfire on the internet jungle and with the use of video on Youtube, it is easier than ever to provide incendiary proof of abuse to a worldwide,non ‘horsey’ audience. The movement for protection of farm animals is a worthy, growing and successful one, and not only does it show that the general public do care about animals when motivated and when given half a chance, will act upon this feeling, but also it is worth considering that it would not be a far leap from farm animals to the horse industry – and we may not feel fairly treated by such a movement however fine their intentions.
Hardcore dressage used to involve a small enclave of enthusiasts who mostly learned from traditionalists who knew and understood the benefits of serious training and the pitfalls of shortcuts. You took dressage lessons to learn to ride, and continued with them because the work was fascinating to you, not because it was less scary than jumping or you wanted to ride in a tophat on a super fancy warmblood. Not many of those around back then. That’s not to say it didn’t happen – but the pool today is much bigger, and with very deep ends. Now it’s a huge sport for all kinds of riders with very differing motivations, opening the door to trainers and teachers of varying backgrounds who take the core principles and run them through their own database for their own purposes and spit them out, at times, a very different animal than how it entered.
It’s just not enough anymore to simply take our trainers word for it, especially if we are in doubt as to the righteousness of the application. We all have to ask why and if the answer has no depth, start digging ourselves. Owners have to stand up and take on more responsibility for the welfare of their mounts and their own education, however ignorant and powerless they may feel. Moreover, owners have a
responsibility in how they justify their expectations of their horse and trainer, and whether it is fair, timely and within reason to expect of either. Many trainers feel under immense pressure to perform and more importantly, for the horse to perform as expected. They have bills to pay and a reputation to uphold and improve upon. Allot of principles and good intentions get bent and rules broken under that pressure.
Owners play a much bigger part in the training of their horses than often they realize. It is imperative to the future of dressage as a sport that they begin to question the manner in which their horse is trained, the speed at which the horse is brought along, and the equipment used and how it is applied. If owners don’t ask questions, and raise positive and reasonable expectations of know how and education, then there is little incentive for trainers inclined to rest on their laurels to further their own education or deepen their understanding of the principles. And I say that as someone who’s been there, kind of, and I say kind of only because I was never accomplished enough to rest too easily.
For a long time, I didn’t even realize there were some heavy duty biomechanical guidelines for riding a horse. Sure, I understood the basic argument about why a horse needs to use his hind end and why you want to lighten the forehand. In very generic terms, this all made sense to me. I didn’t even realize I needed to educate myself further. That came much later, when I found I had allot of gutfeelings and
opinions the reasons about which I actually knew nothing at all. People would ask why this was so and I’d be stumped. ‘It just is’ did not satisfy even myself. And it certainly did not satisfy Torchlight! ‘Because I said so’ only ever got me so far with that kid. After he entered my life, there was no more cruising on automatic and getting by on ‘feel’. Serious intent and dedicated learning were officially required to pass this course. And like the Energizer bunny, we are stiiiiiiiillllll going….or rather, stiiiiiillllll learning.
I was lucky to meet a few people that opened my eyes to the wealth of information out there buried in old books and new articles, videos and now DVD’s – and this very magazine, lucky for us. The hunt was on and I’ve been hungry ever since. And increasingly ignorant, the great paradox of learning. Oh Lord, it’s true, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Still, I get lazy. I love ordering books on Amazon and have great books lying around that keep losing to a good movie or an early night. Hey, at least my ‘library’ looks really cool and I can appear learned in a pinch. Oh yes, I have that book. (Haven’t read it, but I HAVE it.) Just look at all those books I have. Don’t they look nice piled kind of artistically helterskelter on my bookshelf? That’s for effect, looks like I really go through them allot. ( Can’t I learn
by osmosis? I sit at my desk next to those shelves allot?) OK, I do go through them allot. I like looking at the pictures of all the pretty horsies. I just don’t read them all the way through. Yet.
I’ll get there. Not only Torchlight but a new generation of horses make it so. Require it, in fact. If Torchlight taught me to feel to new depths and introduced awareness that I needed to work more on technique, all these wonderful new horses in my barn coupled with frequent clinics with Eddo Hoekstra, are now allowing me to work full out on technique, that which the upper levels require in extreme
amounts. But before practice comes knowledge, and that means education. That means delving into the why and wherefores of the teachings we take for granted, seeing which hold water and which do not. It means reading, attending seminars and clinics, watching DVD’s (not movies) and doing some independent thinking.
And here I skipped college and thought I got clean away.