The Stepford Horses, Dominated to Submission.

Remember the Stepford Wives–a little too submissive, a little too darkly docile? I saw horses just like them last week and I’m still in a snit. They were at a riding facility–a group lesson of fairly novice western riders. Each of the horses had a shank bit, each of the riders used spurs. The horses moved like the zombie-wives who had lost the will to live… altered into submission by their self-important husbands. If one of the horses did lift his head to see where he was going, there was a hard bump on the bit, metal on bone, painful enough to shut down or kill forward movement in any horse. That’s where the spurs came in. (There is also a dressage version of this, of course.)

*If you think domination is good horsemanship, you’re wrong. Seeing your horse cower underneath you is ugly.*

WMdrivelineI’m preaching to the choir. If you read this blog, I doubt you ride this way. My actual clients, who always think I’m talking about them, all know for a fact this isn’t them. I’m not accusing any of you of being this kind of brutal, soul-killing rider. Still, balance and forward can always improve, and in an attempt to relieve the PTSD burned onto my eyeballs, can we talk about balance and willingness?

Let’s compare riding a horse to driving a car. It’s a lousy, demeaning comparison because even though some horses are expected to perform mechanically, in truth, riding is an art involving lightness and partnership with an animal of intellect and emotion. Not like cars at all.

To begin, a horse has a drive-line at the girth area. In other words, where the rider/driver sits in the saddle. All energy to move ahead comes from behind the drive-line, so the hind-end is the engine/gas pedal, and in front of the girth is where the brake is.

Forward movement is the finest virtue a horse can have; the ability to cover ground in a rhythmic and relaxed way. It begins with the horse’s soft, strong hind leg stepping under to push forward, allowing the energy to flow softly over his back, through his withers and his poll, and landing sweetly on his lips. The result of this push from behind is that the horse’s poll is soft and his head on the vertical, like horses moving at liberty. It’s a rider’s goal to recreate that relaxed liberty sort of energy; to let it flow sweetly, passing through the rider in the saddle–at any gait.

That’s the idea, but if the poll is tense everything changes. There’s a delicate front-to-back balance crucial to the horse. To the degree that the rider creates tension in front, or lays on the brake, forward is impeded because forward isn’t defined by the speed the horse is moving, but instead the horse’s effective, flexible use of his body. Just as you wouldn’t drive using the gas and brake simultaneously. Just as you couldn’t run easily in a cinched-up back brace.

Still, we land in the saddle and immediately bump the horse’s nose down, or use a rein to pull his head to the side before the first step. Some trainers do it, but it isn’t any more effective than turning the steering wheel when the car is parked. Using the hand brake, meaning the inside rein, before the horse is even moving, makes a horse lose balance and rhythm–even at the halt. What could have been a dance, ends up in a bar brawl. And I might be ranting about those Stepford horses again.

A good rider always has more energy from behind (gas) than restriction in the front (brakes) but it’s a fine balance. We move off at a walk, engaging our seat and legs and letting the reins rest. In Dressage we want the horse moving forward to the bit, in support of his natural balance, roundness, and flexibility at the poll. It takes finesse, lightness, and sheer will to stay out of his way.

Most of us unbalance our horses when learning. It’s our nature to pull on the reins for control or an impression of the desired outline. So we cue stop and go simultaneously, confusing the horse by grabbing his bit and spurring him forward. Or soft hands can flow with the horse’s movement, creating no resistance and getting none in return. Hands can ride the brake every stride, or rest lightly on the wheel, careful to not over-correct. Hands are the aid we should use least while riding.

How can you tell if you ride the brake, being too restrictive with the reins? That is so simple–your horse tells you. He’s tense and upside down. He flips his head or tries to pull the reins out of your hand. It isn’t disobedience, he’s letting you know by sending your resistance right back to you. It’s what happens when you tap the brake–the ride gets jerky. You can choose to take the cue gratefully and continue the conversation; you can be as responsive as you want your horse to be. Or you can shout him down and punish him when he asks for kindness.

If the excuse/thought crosses your mind that you need a stronger bit, read this (here.) Especially if you think your horse will run off if you let up on the brake.

For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. -Xenophon, b. 430BC

The saddest thing about fearful Stepford horses is that they are silenced, never to waltz, or sing into their rider’s ear. By correcting the horse before he’s had a chance to volunteer, the ride becomes flat and two-dimensional. As hard as it is on the horse, it’s the rider that loses the most.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

30 thoughts on “The Stepford Horses, Dominated to Submission.

  1. Kari

    Amen. I saw something very similar at a local boarding barn. Young girls thinking they were cool like the trainers and in a constant jerk-the-mouth, thump-the-sides-with-spurs cycle. Horses had dead eyes and did nothing to respond to the “cues.” Then they laughed and giggled about how hard they were thumping their mares’ sides. Sickening.

      1. I boarded my horse at one of those places, Kari. So many double twisted wire snaffles and tie downs…on hunters! So many snide remarks about how long I was taking to bring my young horse along. I snuck one of my bits onto one of their horses and ‘forgot’ to snug down the standing martingale. They could not figure out why she was suddenly working so well. And I was able to influence one of the young workers to leave that place in favor of somewhere she could learn more

  2. I’m forwarding this in honor of my pinto/Arab Mulan. She was the most delightful, funny, happy little filly you ever saw. She was a princess and she knew it. She feared nothing. We sent her to a recommended cowboy horseman for training. She came back safe and rideable, but her soul was a shadow, with blank, dead eyes and stilted movement like a robot. In three months she her mind was so changed and so suppressed I could do nothing but cry when I stood next to her. We gave her a year off to recover. Eventually she did wake up, but she was never the same. I’ve never been the same either. Changed everything, It’s why I started searching for people like you, Anna.

    1. Kris, how sad. Mulan had to grow up way too hard and too fast. It isn’t your fault, but it sounds like it doesn’t feel that way. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt comment.

  3. sharon

    Very well said (again) I’m fortunate to have found you for my trainer (and friend) Anna. My horses are so very thankful too. Although, I see less of the brake/gas pedal abuse, than I once did, I’m glad you are there to remind me. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and you have taken before and after pictures of Ebony and I that say so much.
    When people tell me they “sent their horses to training” I pray they have a trainer like you and not like the one Kris had. Kris, your horse is fortunate that you are understanding and gave her time off. Keep talking though :).

  4. I see the same with dogs (surprise!) whether judging or just watching. Too many handlers ‘control’ the dog with a strong hand on the leash (control the head, control the dog, they say) The dog is held in a ‘correct’ frame and often looks quite showy.
    Ask the handler to release that control and let the dog carry himself…most enlightening.

  5. Sue Blount

    I’m a new rider still taking lessons on a school horse and I am working very hard to be centered and use my body to communicate. Thanks for you comments

  6. Cyndi

    I would still be in a snit, too. Can you offer your time and educate them? maybe a free or low cost talk or class on partnering with a horse. Maybe some would see the light and become students of yours.

    1. Sometimes I do that, in the kindest way I can. The two worst offenders work at the facility, one was giving the lesson, so I doubt they would be open… Maybe I’m wrong. Thanks for the comment, I will consider it.

  7. That last part – that it’s the rider who loses out the most – is so true. One can force a horse into obedience, but it’s only when he willingly gives you all of himself as your trusting partner and you give him all of yourself as his empathetic leader that the dance will be perfect.

  8. I’m in the US, and in a very “country” area. I see this a lot! Wester pleasure is not a pleasure! I just look at those horses and gasp. Who ever thought it beautiful for a horse to drag it’s nose on the ground while doing a lope/canter slower than a walk, needs a good butt kicking. The other things I hat seeing are barrel and pole horses with tie-downs and very nasty bits, so brain-jacked that all they do is act crazy, and run a pattern. That’s it. And don’t get me started about the “Big Lick” gaited community.

    This is why I am patient and deliberate with my horses. I praise and give treats. I practice and make their riding experience as fun and natural as possible, and I often get told I “spoil them rotten”. Well not rotten, when my boys follow me around like a mother hen and are willing to attempt anything I ask. I always knew I’m right!

    1. I think humans have been using these two methods, intimidation vs. partnership since the beginning of time. It boils down to what the trainer thinks about horses. Some think there is no way a horse will ‘work’ if not forced. And yet I have seen good WP horses, happy gymkana horses. They are about as happy as we train them to be… except Big Lick. I can find no excuse for that. Thanks for your comment.

    2. I too am disillusioned at what western pleasure has become. The original purpose of the class was to showcase a horse who was calm, comfortable to ride, and NATURAL. Everyone rode with curb bits, but they were used correctly for western. With a good western horse, the goal is for the horse to work almost completely free headed. A good western horse will respond to the slightest difference in the curb chain caused by the rider merely moving their fingers. There is no pulling or jerking involved. Ideally the thought is- if you pull on a horse’s mouth at all, you are using too much hand. I have friends who train barrel horses. One of my pony horses was trained for barrels. I can ride Bear with no bridle at all. While I use a bridle for work, I’ve never used a tie-down. Bear will run a pattern wide open, and you can bring him right back and he will walk the pattern, stop in the middle, jog, or anything else you ask him- all while being as relaxed as he is while standing in the pasture. It is all in the training and not in the event in most cases.

      1. I agree about the training methods. The other thing that has changed is that we all want immediate gratification. The biggest ingredient in good training should be taking the time it takes and trainers get pushed for fast results. Yes, they are pros and can say it takes as long as it takes. And until owners understand that, well, it’s complicated.

  9. Anna, I just LOVE the way you respect horses (animals) AND people. I feel so grateful that I found your blog a year ago and that you are sharing both joy and monstrous deeds like these abused, but compliant horses. I also see this abuse happen so much, here in Sweden, and cringe inside. I would so much love to help the horses, but I seldome dare, because of what I am afraid the humans might do. Also in many forums as different horsegroups on Facebook, this question of “my horse is so strong, I must have a sharper bit” even in groups with shetlandponies and draughthorses. But there I can comment and tip them of getting better communication instead. What saddened me the most lately was that last week the Swedish Riding Association published an ordinary folder with information about the association. The folder had a photo of a horse with an ordinary english bridle but with the mouth angles pulled back 3-4 centimeters, mouth shut tight by Aachen-strings (sorry don’t know the english term) and the eyes like you describe them, absolutely dead… I so wish the text had been about warning people to treat their horses like in the photo but they had it as an illustration of leisure riding. And NO ONE in the Association had reacted!? That gives me the chills and I feel despair and hopelessness. Reading yor blog and all the lovely comments makes me sense a glimps of hope that we soon have reached the hundreth monkey 😉

    1. I recently went to one of the largest agriculture shows in the region and was horrified with the hard handling, while the crowds cheered. Ick.
      It’s depressing, but it seems these two training opinions have existed forever. It boils down to respect for the horse and it’s always hard to see them in that dark light. Thanks for your comment.

  10. It’s about respect for the horse. I went to a Western gymkhana to watch an acquaintance with a kids’ riding program. Kids were yanking their horses’ heads around and pounding their sides with spurs and looking like they were going ninety miles an hour. But this trainer’s kids rode softly, used their line of signt and seat to turn their horses, looked like they were flowing and moving like molasses but had wonderful times in all their events – winning most. Happy kids, happy horses.
    Patti in Vail AZ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s