This morning I finally had the opportunity (meaning that the weather was decently clear and the snow made a good enough footing) to actually RIDE both horses and work them a bit. D had plowed the drive around the barn and the house yesterday and the warmer temperatures (around 25 degrees today) were enough to start to melt the snow a little making it pretty good and grippy on top.
I rode Johnny (english) and then Emmy (western) and both horses really had a blast! Johnny's trots were great and he was so excited to canter that he shoved his nose down to the ground and played on multiple occasions. He never bucks or does anything bad...he just drops his head and rounds his back a bit. It hit me while I was riding, that Emmy does the exact same thing when she's excited. Neither of my horses ever buck, they just play a little and move on. The entire scenario got me thinking as I walked Emmy out and put her away. Is it just coincidence? Or have I done something very correct in never punishing my horses for expressing themselves?
You may recall, that in a previous post I discussed the new USHJA Hunter Derbies which are popping up all over the country at rated shows. The installation of these classes has brought about questioning among judges and competitors within USEF and USHJA...should the ideal show hunter be penalized for showing expression while on course? The winner of this years USHJA International Hunter Derby was Rumba, a gray gelding who shook his head and played after multiple jumps during the finals. Generally speaking though, our hunters go around the ring a little like robots, never allowed to put a foot wrong. No where in the USEF rule book is "self expression" (head shaking etc.) specifically addressed but it's common knowledge that these expressions are often penalized at horse shows. Should the horse really be penalized for shaking its head after a particularly breath-taking jump? Isn't that the basis for which show hunters was founded on?
These principles also trickle down into horse training. I have to say that in my experience with different horses (especially those with "behavior problems") it seems as though the riders who explode into an angry rampage every time their horse steps out of line are the riders whose horses will continue to exhibit the same behavior time and time again.
Here's a senario that I've seen far too often:
A rider is trotting around the ring on her fairly sensitive hunter/jumper/dressage/whatever horse. Yesterday, the ring crew at the barn piled up some new jump poles and standards in the corner of the arena. Said horse, when passing the jumps for the first time, is startled, bends his head to look at the jumps, snorts and side steps away from them. The rider, who is appalled that her horse would even think to spook, whips his head around to face the jumps and starts kicking him for spooking. The fairly sensitive horse stops dead and tucks his chin to his chest, snorting at the (now REALLY) spooky jumps. The more the rider kicks, the more he backs away from the corner, and so finally the rider whips him around again and starts riding him on a tight circle past the jumps. Each time, he passes them the horse still spooks.
How many times have you guys seen that happen? I know I've seen it happen a million times...and (not surprising to me) the rider never really gets anywhere and the horse will continue to spook for the rest of the ride. Now, if the rider would have just corrected the horse laterally off the inside aides the first time he sidestepped, and then released her inside rein to reward him with a pat on the neck after correcting him, couldn't that entire fight have been avoided? I know it could have, because that is how I ride every horse that I sit on...and not to blow hot air, but that's the reason that I always ride spooky horses (refer to my older posts about Cruz)
This does all relate back to my original thought (I promise!) that allowing the horse to have freedom of self expression creates a much happier, trusting and willing animal. I firmly believe that there is a reason that all of my horses (including my pony who I have never really mentioned on this blog before) don't ever misbehave under saddle (misbehaving being clarified as bucking, rearing etc...I know there are a lot of things that people can classify as "misbehaving") None of my horses, for the record, are exceptionally brave animals to begin with. If we, as riders, will just give our horses the freedom to play a bit and ignore (or simply and quietly correct it) it when it happens, I think we will all find that our horses are much more willing to work for us because we haven't trapped them into feeling expressionless. They aren't robots who come out of the stall every day and perform flawlessly and they shouldn't be expected to be like that. They have personalities too which should be embraced by their owners/riders. Isn't that what riding is all about?