Thursday, 23 February 2012

Is the horse's personality changed through training? part 3

In this blog I continue with my philosophical pondering on the influence on horse's personality through interactions with humans.

I have previously written that I believe I can see a change in my horse's personality as a result of the way I train and interact with him.

I think that these changes can be positive but where is the line between using and abusing a horse?

Animal Rights Sweden have a visions for a future where horses are not used as tools in competition. They say “it is neither the nature nor the interest of the horse to push it self to the limit during a competition so that humans can be entertained or make money”. This vision currently concern racing and trotting horses, but I think it is important that all of us who chose to ride and train horses discuss the impact we have on our horses too. What is OK, what is not and what might even be desired? Where do we draw the line?

So the ethical discussion should not only be about competition or nor, or what kind of management practice that is used, it should also include what it means to see and treat horses as horses and not as humans. I do believe horses have feelings, a soul if you wish, and it seems that when we interact with horses we affect the horse's self image, it's sense of self. There are no easy answerers here, but this only makes the question more important. What can, and should I ask of my horse and how should I go about explaining to my horse what I want from him or her?

In my job as a riding instructor I sometimes hear my students say things like “my horse don't think this is fun”, or “I don't want to get into a fight with my horse”, or “I don't want to take the life out of my horse”. Under certain circumstances I would agree with all these statements but not when it comes to teaching the horse basic cues as move forward when asked to, to soften it's neck or to not push on me with any part of his/her body.

Maybe part of the answer is in the how I ask my horse to do something. I believe that as the rider it is my responsibility to give my horse everything I can in order for the horse to figure out what I ask. In short this included being mentally present and focused on the horse, choosing the right tools (no side reins or draw reins) and break down any new task into understandable pieces for the horse.

There is also the important aspect of safety for humans that interact with horses. Like one of the comments said “Horses are big animals that more or less do everything we ask of them. Our horses are amazing!”. Yes, this is true, but horses are also horses and one aspect of that is that are hard wired to flee from danger and they react 6-7 times faster than humans. So when out on the trails yesterday in the company with my mother who is a very experienced rider but now approaching the respectable age of 75 and her horse was starting to take of with her I didn't hesitated for one second but quit harshly stopped my horse even though he wanted to go for a fast canter in the snow. If there is a choice of protecting my mother by helping her gain control over her horse, and being light in my aids, for me there is no choice. I will do whatever it takes to stop my horse. And boy was I glad in that instance that I done my home work so we both reacted as we should: my horse by listening to me (even though he wanted to do something else), my horse softening his neck (even though I had to get much firmer than I would have preferred), me by turning my wrist and raising my hand (instead of pulling back) and me by staying calm (instead of getting all emotional and scared that something bad might have happened).

I don't want to give up riding so I will continue to do so but I will also continue to question what I can and should ask of my horse and how I should ask it. I will continue to search for the balance between letting my horse be a horse and having a good time but at the same time a safe horse to ride as well as my partner in search for the highest levels of collection. Will I sometimes stumble and loose this balance? You bet, but my horse will forgive me because horses are truly amazing!

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for checking my spelling and grammar! All other errors are my own.

Friday, 17 February 2012

A conscious horse owner

Natural horse keeping is a theme for many horse owners.I would say that it's an aim to strive for but almost utopic. I would like to see more horse owners looking for a more conscious horse ownership. And with consciousness, I think we actually have to acknowledge that any form of horse keeping is a matter of compromises and that we compromise with the horse's needs and our desires.

Something we must never forget is that the horse never compromises! The horse lives in the consequences of our decisions, our compromises. This means that we as responsible horse owners need to acquire enough knowledge to make as intelligent compromises as possible.

For me, the concept of horse keeping includes feeding, hoof care, equipment, training (choice of trainers and training methods) - basically all that I do that involves and affects the horse.

When I bought my first horse after 18 years as a riding school pupil, I believed I was well prepared. It was an illusion. I have now owned horses for 20 years and I am far from finished with my training and is still learning and thereby always willing to change the compromises I've made so far.

At the beginning of my horse ownership the horses were stabled in the traditional way, pasture during the day - stall at night. In 2003 I moved to my own farm. That was they way I started. Until one winter day in 2005 when the horses took down the gate to the pasture and went into the barn. They made sure to crack a post that made it impossible to mend the gate and from that moment my horses have had free access to both pasture and barn. I now know that I'd never switch back to the traditional way of keeping horses!

Keeping the horses in an open stable is not a lazy way of keeping horses, it also requires work, but of a different nature. My barn is insolated but the only heat source is the horses, and the barn only get as warm as the heat the horses generate if they are inside with with the doors are closed. So, as a way to meet my needs (and the vet and farriers) a heated management area to get a descent working environment during the chilly part of the year is on my "want list".

The way I feed the horses have also changed over the years. In the early years I fed concentrates (oats and sometimes barley) and four times a day the got hey. For a couple of years they had free and unlimited access to forage, but even if I have a relatively large pasture it is far from the size a horse needs to have the opportunity to roam around the kilometers they do in the wild. Free access is still free access but not unlimited access. I give the horses plenty of hay in slow feeding net which both prolongs the eating time and keeps the amount of forage in check. The period with free and unlimited access turned out to be a health concern for the horses, they became too fat.

For the majority of horse owners keeping the horse in a boarding stable is the only available option. That doesn't nescessarily has to be bad, it only accuires different demands on the compromises.

As far as shoeing, I know of two stories of why horses were shod (just as there are two creation stories in the Bible). One is that the horses' hooves were subjected to more wear and tear when they became "vehicles of war", another is that when they became a vehicle of war they were kept in stables, often spent too many hours in wet bedding and the health of the hooves were affected. The shoe became a way to keep the fleet running in spite of bad health in the hooves.

The methods of barefoot trim which I think is most usual is the wild horse model, Equine Podiatry and the Strasser method. Among both farriers and barefoot trimmers there are both good and poor performers, but also better and worse methods.

As a horse owner, you do not need to train as a farrier or barefoot trimmer but I think we have an obligation to educate ourselves in the hoof mechanics, if for no other reason than to be an informed consumer who can protect the horse. Whatever you choose - have the hooves cared for on a regular basis. Select a farrier/trimmer that comes to you based on the interval your horse needs. By being a knowledgeable and informed consumer, you are also a good customer.

Bit or bitless. Early in the history of riding we acquired control of the horse's head, we needed means to manage steering and adjust the speed. It still applies today and whether you choose to ride with or without a bit, you should keep in mind that NEVER let your hands go backwards. Your balance is best maintained through a vertical seat and not by hanging on to the reins and thereby the horse's mouth. The horse's mouth has no place for the bit, it must learn to deal with the bit with its tongue and a bad fitting bit can really hurt the horse. I suggest you do this experiment: Take a pen and put the pin header (pin inside the pen) against your gums (corresponding to the horse's bars). How does it feel? How much pressure can you stand?

Whether you ride with a bit or bitless, it's the quality of your hands that determines the quality of the communication, school your hands - establish touch. If the horse feels heavy in your hand, difficult to regulate with regard to both speed and turning, it is you who created the resistance! To make use of draw reins or sharper bit says more about the rider (or trainer who recommended it) than it does about the horse if you ask me.

It can be recommended to vary between riding with or without a bit, and please try to ride in rope halter (or neck strap) at some point. If nothing else it'll give you an opportunity to exercise your own humbleness as a rider. (I recommend that you try this in an enclosed area.)

Remember that the horse has silence as its survival strategy, it reveals no pain with the slightest sound. This means that we as horse owners need to be more observant of the horse so that we "hear" their silent invitation to communication.

"Everyone wants to be right, but few question if their perception of right is right." FM Alexander

(Recited from my memory, might be a different wording)

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Is the horse's personality changed through training? Part 2

Hi Lena, humans are also influenced by their surroundings. ---Is it then a bad thing that I change? I rather think it should be called development, I develop self esteem/confidence. That is a good thing, yes?”

What I take with me from reading your blog is the overall question of whether or not to even keep horses as domesticated animals at all. Do we offer them an acceptable environment with traditional management? Are we capable of treating horses as horses and not compare them to humans with our needs and behaviour?”

Sometimes I too get these thoughts, 'what am I doing to my horse', but I believe it is good to think about these questions. Horses are big animals that more or less do everything we ask of them. Our horses are amazing!”

These are some of the comments about my blog two weeks ago, “Is the horse's personality changed through schooling?” 

Whether or not I make the choice to keep my horse traditionally (in a stall overnight and out in the pasture during the day), in an Active Stable, shod or barefoot etc, I still have to think about what I ask my horse to do and how I ask it of him when I train, groom, ride etc.

Yes, I completely agree that change can be positive, for instance the development of self esteem and confidence to handle day-to-day life, but does this apply to both humans and horses? I have a choice, I have chosen to work with horses, but have the horses chosen to interact with humans? I have also chosen to work with horses in such a way that I do change, maybe not their personality, but definitely their self image. After all, my goal is not only to teach the horse how to be calm and at peace in his everyday life, but also to create communication between me and my horse, and in doing so I teach my horse the new skill of interacting with humans. 

There is an old saying that a horse without a rider is still a horse, but a rider without a horse is just a man, but maybe a horse with a rider can be more than just a horse?

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for checking my spelling and grammar! All other errors are my own.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A connected leg - the bottom line

The pelvic floor, or the pelvic diaphragm as it alsa can be called, is the bottom of the abdominal cavity. The "true diaphragm" parts the abdominal cavity from the ribcage/chest. The chest is the place for heart and lungs (which I shall return to in a post about breathing, I'm soooo sick of all the talk about breathing with the belly!), in the abdomen we have all the organs that take care of everything we eat, the organs that cleanses the body and for us women, the uterus.

The pelvic floor consists of three muscles, the levator ani, coccygeus and piriformis muscle.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Pelvic floor muscles are not actively involved in movement, nevertheless tension in these muscles reduces the freedom of mobility in the hip joint.

The English have a wonderful expression for a person with stiff lips - "a thight assed person." How can it be possible to judge the thightness of someones ass with what you see around the mouth? The answer is to be found in the uterus, at a certain stage in our development we might be described as having a "worm like shape" with an opening for intake and an opening for outlet. (An embryo during pregnancy, 21 days, from Lennart Nilsson's book Life)

This means that if we go around with a tensed gluteus and pelvic floor muscles, it affects the muscles around the mouth. Try it yourself!

This also works the other way around and it may be important for women to know before giving birth. A mouth that gets tensed by groaning leads to a thightening of the pelvic floor and this in turn leads to a baby having to push its way through muscles that are resisting. For a rider clenched lips leads to tension in the pelvic region and suppleness is lost.

Now I have focused on a limited part of the body, the part where the trunk and legs meet. There is much more to say about how this area of ​​the body influences the body, both higher up and below - it is an intricate weave ...

I want you to give a conscious thought to the fact that it is important to remember that the body is more than just its individual parts, each body part is working in the space it is given/provided by other body parts and the mind set we let it work in. Stress, anger, frustration, anxiety, worry and fatigue are moods that affect the functionality in a negative direction. While serenity, joy, confidence and security makes it easier for the body to function well.

"The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly."~~ Buddha

Here you find the first and the second posting on this subject.