Friday, January 29, 2010

It's Always The Rider's Fault

One of the things I love about the blog atmosphere is that it offers me the opportunity to see into other people's brains. In this medium, I can see other's opinions and reactions to training philosophies. This often leads me to sit down and really think about my own philosophies.

Jean, of the blog "Horses of Follywoods" wrote a post about the need to be empathetic towards our equine partners. In it, the phrase "It's always the rider's fault" came up. I must admit, I use this phrase all the time. When I encounter a problem, it is the first thing I say to myself. But what do I really mean by this statement?

There are always things that are outside of my control. Working with animals has taught me that lesson several times. It is a lesson I hold central to my philosophy: I can never control another animal, I can only control my response to them. In any interaction with another living thing, be it horse, dog or human, we are never more than an outsider. We can never truly know what is going on in their bodies or minds. This is particularly true of non-humans, they are speaking a completely foreign language. It is our responsibility to learn to communicate with them as best we can. When my horse is having a problem or refusing my cues, he is trying to tell me something. If I am not listening or not understanding the miscommunication is my fault, not his. I need to step back and consider the problem to try to get to the root of it. To do this, I need an in-depth understanding of his natural behavior, his anatomy and his physiology. He is never going to break out a textbook on human anatomy and behavior to try to figure me out, I have to bridge the gap myself.

There are times when I have stepped back and realized that the problem was indeed rider error. Either my position was off or my timing was poor, resulting in my horse being unable to understand what I was asking. There are other times when I realized it was a physical problem with the horse. When that was the case, I addressed the problem by treating it medically or adjusting my training to accommodate that particular horse's issue. There are a few horses that I have known who had actual behavioral problems that did not stem from physical problems, usually ring-sourness from stress and poor management. Again, I adjusted my training and management of these horses to accommodate their issues. I could have easily written off these horses with physical and mental problems as wastes of time. I could say, "Well, his stifles are weak, he's no good" or "He's crazy, there's no working with him". But, because I believe that problems with the horse are always our fault as their stewards, I take it upon myself to try to work with them. I have not always been successful, there have been many animals that I couldn't do anything with. But I learned something important from every one of them. And every one of them cemented my position that their failures are our failures. It doesn't matter if it was a failure of my cues or of my understanding of his individual behavior or physical problems, it was always my fault that the horse failed.

From now on I will be much more careful saying "It's always the rider's fault". That phrase is far too general. How can I condense everything I just wrote into one snappy little phrase?


  1. Good comments. The key is to analyze the source of the problem and then find the solution...the goal of every good teacher. Horses can very deliberately resist us, or respond in the wrong way to very correct aids. There are a lot of people who would just get rid of the horse or write him off as useless. I've never had that "luxury" nor have I wanted it. Whatever horse I own is mine and my responsibility. It's up to me to figure out what I need to do to correct whatever's wrong.

    Sometimes it seems as if it's going to take forever, though. *G*

  2. Being a trainer assistant, I see plenty horses with "problems". Either from bad riding, or their own biomechanics or lack of training. My boss (trainer) has to fix them. He gets very frustrated when the horse's owner does not step UP, and meets the horse's demands. Because he can train the horse as hard as he can, if the owner/rider does NOT learn to ride his/her horse correctly the training/problem solving is useless.
    That is why it is important to train the horse AND educate the rider, or nothing will be solved!

    Dressage used to be my passion, but I realise that they make things MORE complicated that they really are, plus with the latest polemic of Rolkhur etc ... it really disgusted me of Dressage.
    I have since turned to "reining", it is simple, but very hard to achieve, BUT Cowboys are humbler that the Dressage Queens who all think to hold the truth about horse's training!

    Jean is my hero as she combines good non non-sense basic western riding and the advance Dressage techniques.
    I wish I were closer to have lessons!!!

  3. Muriel- Thanks for your comment. I always love comments, it lets me know that I'm not just talking to myself!

    I used to be a professional, until an injury took me out of that world. I miss the horses, but am glad I don't have to deal with the clients anymore! It was very frustrating to spend a week working with a horse, only to have the owner show up on Saturday to undo it all. I'm very passionate about people being educated in behavior and biomechanics. But, since I'm a biologist, I might be a little biased. *G*

    I went the opposite route you did, I started out western and switched to dressage. I like the simplicity of it. To me, dressage is nothing more than me and the horse. No tricks, no fancy gadgets....just a saddle and bridle. I know many people try to make it a lot more complicated than it really is, but that happens in every discipline. I think it is simply in our human nature....we like to believe that we are very complicated and important. *L*

    I try very hard through my philosophies and actions to be a good representative of what I believe my sport should be. I follow Jean's work because I believe she is doing the same. If enough of us are putting ourselves out there eventually someone will take notice and think "Hmmm, maybe they're on to something!" Or maybe I'm just yelling into the wind......

  4. I am a biologist too, in fact I used to be a rsearch assistant in molecular biology at Biochemistry department. Now I am re-training in therapeutic riding, for the human side and "natural horsemanship" for starting young unbroken horses. We are doing the reverse route LOL!


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