The Automaton Horse

“However, the art of riding must not raise a slave. The means of dressage must not become a chain that the horse tries to break, wasting all of his energy. On the other hand, dressage should not put the horse to sleep and make it into a machine. What can the rider expect from such a monkey-grinder, other than that it plays the tunes that are on the cylinder? He must not be surprised if the monkey-grinder falls silent as soon as he stops turning the cylinder, and if the whole harmony changes into discord, if one cog is missing. Again, the rider must always try to form a companion through the dressage training, and must not degrade the noblest animal of creation either to a slave or to a machine!”

F.v.Krane, 1856

Note: In the quote above Krane uses the word Dressage in the classical sense to simply mean Training.

robot

“But we must keep control of our horses and repeatedly expose them to anything we want them to not be distracted or scared by, right?”

It has been my experience, that a horse trained from the outset to a light, flexible, consistent connection with a rider who stays ‘present’ throughout the ride, WILL be more confident, willing, and in tune with its rider.

If we train ourselves and our horses to a relationship in which the communication through the aids, in both directions, never falters and is never abandoned, the horse gains confidence and is able to express itself without resorting to resistance or in extreme occasions, defiance.  Additionally, this confidence extends to new situations and changing surroundings as the horse derives its sense of well being from the rider’s calm and constant presence.

I should be clear, what I am talking about here is the ‘classical’ riding concept of using the Hand, Seat and Leg aids to influence the natural movement of the horse, instead only using what I call action/reaction training. The leg applied gently in time with the step of the horse to move a particular leg over as it is in motion, instead of a constant press with the leg meant to mean ‘move over’ or the closing of the hands gradually to slightly impede the motion of the horse’s head and thus cause the horse to stop, versus pulling back on the reins until the horse figures out that pull back means stop. The difference is difficult for some to grasp. The former achieves the classical intent of allowing the horse to move as naturally as possible, the later does not. Both are valid ways of training, but one fosters the connection to the horse I am talking about and the other created a more robotic reaction.

If we train the horse ‘mechanically’, relying on it ‘learning’ the routine of the activity for which they are intended, instead of properly forming this connection/bond, they may indeed perform that one activity very well, as long as the environment stays the same, but then this learning by rote very often falls apart when new factors are introduced.

We have all heard “She is just fine in the arena, but is is too spooking to trail ride.” or “He is a awesome kids horse, but adults make him nervous.” or “I only trail ride him because the confines of the arena scare him.” or how about “She knows the barrel pattern so well I just kick when they open the gate and she tears off like a champ. Now if I could just get her to load in the trailer quietly.” Some of this can be attributed to lack of experience in different environments, but I maintain it actually has more to do with a lack of confidence/trust in the rider. Yes, a horse that has never been on a trail before will react to the new challenge, but a horse facing a new situation when it hasbeen ridden its whole career with the ‘connection’ I refer to above, will react less and adapt faster.

So what I believe we come down to here is this… The ‘robotically’ trained horse, drilled to react to rein or spur mindlessly, out of repetition alone, is more likely to respond incorrectly when the ride goes somewhere they are unfamiliar with, or it will respond dully, without life, showing little personal investment in the activity. The horse ridden with a ‘true connection’ between it and the rider are more adaptable and versatile and will rely on that trust in the rider more and their own instincts of self-preservation less and will respond with more expression and life.

One disadvantage to riding “in presence” is that once trained that way, a horse will expect it from every ride and every rider. This means such a horse is not for every rider, in ever activity. Put a novice rider on a horse like this and they will likely either hold the horse stiffly in hand or abandon it to its own devices; in neither case is the result a good one. A horse trained to respond to every clear and fair cue from the rider will usually balk badly at a rider who is not clear or not fair.  Depending on the nature of the horse, you might find a horse that seems completely obedient with its owner/trainer seems willful or scared with a rider who is not as ‘tuned in’. Other times you find a horse that moves out willingly and precisely for an advanced rider, suddenly plods dully along under the heavier hands or dead seat of the novice.

Another issue that must be considered is that a horse shared with riders of less skill CANNOT be trained to its highest level. I know this is a bold statement and might seem a bit extreme, but I believe it to be true. The horse can only reach a level that the rider’s skill allows. A horse trained to a high level and then turned over to a rider who is not as good as the trainer will draw the horse down from that level in short order; maybe not in the first ride, but in subsequent rides over time. Every time I allow someone up on my horse who is not trained to ride the way I ride, I must expect to have to ‘tune’ him up when I climb back up on him. If I send a horse to a trainer who is much better than I am, they might well achieve things with it that have eluded me, but unless I am also taught how to maintain that improvement, it will fade soon after the horse returns.

A horse trained to mechanically react when put in a familiar setting makes for a good baby sitter, but can hardly be called a classically trained horse. Yes, with the Masters of old used, and in fact places like the Spanish Riding School still use today, retired haute école horses to train new riders, but only under the close supervision and hands-on direction of master riders.

So we see there may be situations where too well trained a horse, expecting too much skill from its rider are not more desirable than a less trained horse that just repeats what it has been done over and over again, regardless of the rider.

There are even drawbacks that must be considered when the rider is as well trained as the horse. What happens when the two are put into a situation where the rider is distracted from the state of ‘true connection’ with the horse? For instance, taking a horse out into a competition where the activity is familiar enough, but the pressures of the clock or the judge, or the audience start to eat up the focus normally allotted to riding properly. I have had to take myself out of the competitive arena when I found the pressures were causing me to neglect the essence of the ride and in turn, the horse.

Riding a horse in complete partnership is every riders dream and something I will keep striving for the rest of my life, but it does not come easily, for anyone. I believe I have achieved a realistic view of what is required to attain this goal and have accepted the challenges. I suggest anyone with a desire to follow the classical horsemanship path do the same.

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