By Morag Higgins WESI MRPCH BHSAI HNCES
There has been a lot of press recently about the misuse of nosebands and debates as to how tight they should or should not be. I personally do not like to see a noseband on any horse however I would be the first one to put a noseband on if I thought it would assist in the schooling of a horse, not, however, a quick fix or patch over a problem of braking!!! The noseband would disappear as quickly as possible as would the pressure.
This seems to be the biggest issue today, quick fixes and patches. It applies not only to nosebands but to bits, gadgets and training aids. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just sit on our horses and ride without force or pressure or the need to restrain through pain. For many riders this would be the ultimate in horsemanship and more and more riders are achieving this goal. However, for many horses there is not the opportunity to keep that innocence and willingness they had as babies and youngsters. The lucky ones find their way to trainers who are experienced and patient and who will work with the horse with minimum restrictions, striving always to keep the light sensitivity that is innate in the equine spirit. If their luck holds then they will be owned by riders who also strive to maintain the softness in their horses and who endlessly seek to improve their abilities and minimise their aids and cues. It is these riders who aim towards little or no restrictions with the addict of less is more.
Unfortunately many horses never get that chance. They are thrown into the world of commercialism where they become a product, an ends to a means. For the trainer they are a meal ticket, an income. They have to produce a product suitable for the riders needs as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. The more the product can do then the more money will be made. It is commonsense for this environment that time is of the essence, the longer the horse is in training the less profit can be made through a re-sale. Some trainers would love to spend the time to bring on a promising youngster slowly and carefully but are put under pressure by the riders who are demanding an animal that can win prizes as quickly as possible. It is in these scenarios that more often than not a quick fix is put into place. Instead of giving the horse time to get used to the bit for example and to learn how to relax and listen to the hand they simply strap their mouths shut so that they cannot escape the pain and pressure of the bit. The horse learns nothing except that bits are to be evaded whenever possible and so the vicious cycle of resistance and forced submission continues.
What worries me more than anything else is the lack of understanding of the damage certain “fashionable” tack or equipment can do to the horse both physically and mentally and how it can ruin the riders feel and ability in the long run. If you are used to hanging onto a horse’s mouth because that is the only way you can keep control how can you ever learn to be light and soft with your hands. So even if you sat on a horse with a light mouth you would inadvertently put so much pressure on the reins that the horse would become fractious and maybe even lean into the pressure thus continuing the cycle.
It saddens me greatly to see so much gadgetry and extreme equipment available for general sale. When we visit castles and go into the dungeons and marvel at the ignorance of our ancestors who used instruments of torture and pain to subdue their subjects, we are often smug at how advanced we are that we would never use such barbaric devices on people. Then we climb aboard our horses with bars of steel in their mouth, perhaps nicely ribbed or twisted, with pressure that can be applied to the bars of the mouth, the corners, the tongue, the roof of the mouth, the cheeks, the poll, the nasal bones, curb groove, we tie their mouths shut so they cannot evade the pain and hold their heads down so the cannot protests, dig metal bars into their ribs and sides (sometimes drawing blood, but always bruising) and beat them with sticks in order to bid our will. Who is the barbarian now?
For many horses the application of pressure and pain is just par for the course and they have become deadened to pressure and insensitive in order to cope. Horses that have had excessive use of spurs will develop scar tissue under the skin on their sides making them even more desensitised. Many horses learn to cope in order to just get along, but give them the opportunity to escape from the pressure and they will take it therefore justifying in the riders eyes the need for the painful restraints. In these cases it may be necessary to use some form of restraint for safety of both horse, rider or handler, but it would be nice to try to ask the horse to remember how to be soft and giving, this takes time and to be honest it can be a very fragile balance because a horse who has learned for instance to run off with a rider may always have that ability within him and under stress situations, with the best will in the world, they may resort to that default.
The first thing that people must do is have an understanding of what they are doing. Education is the secret. People are afraid to admit that they don’t know (especially in the horse world) you will all have heard the “I’ve been riding for x number of years” as if this should automatically transport them to the higher echelons of knowledge and wisdom. For some that is the case, but for others the saying “it’s the quality not the quantity that count” should be applied. The rider who thinks they know it all are often the cases that are most needing to learn. We can never know enough, we can never learn enough, try using the phrase “I’m not really sure about this, I don’t really know much about it”. It is amazing what knowledge will travel your way when you admit that you are willing to learn.
It is also the responsibility of the top riders to set a good example because it is you that the younger generation will emulate. If you show good practise and humane horsemanship with the comfort and softness of your horse is worth more than a coloured ribbon then perhaps changes can be made. This is the 21st century, we should be beyond the barbaric torture and force of history, we should be able to move forwards to a more enlightened approach. If you are considering a piece of equipment please look carefully at what it actually does. Anything that is designed to get the job done quickly or force a result must be looked on with suspicion. Take the time to read up on the subject, understand the anatomy and physiology of the animals you claim to love and see what this equipment does to that structure. Choose carefully as this will have a profound affect on your horse.
There are many of you who quite simply don’t mind if you use a severe bit, noseband, gadget. What is more important is the result or even (and believe it or not this actually happens) how impressed everyone will be with the amount of hardware your horse needs to control him because this shows how wild he is and how good a rider you must be to sit on his back. If you fall into this group then that is fine, no one will judge you except your horse. There is room for everyone and not everyone wants the same relationship with their horses, I do not judge but equally I do not respect riders with severe equipment and severe riding skills. I have more respect for the minimalist rider who sits quietly on a relaxed horse willing to obey their every command. That is a rider and quite frankly I have seen some novice children who are better riders than some adults in competition.
It is very disturbing to see how easy it is to purchase severe equipment without any true understanding of what it does (believe it or not some of the sales assistants in the shop do not really understand the implications of what they are selling). Would it not perhaps be better to start things off correctly from the word go with education both for the horse and the rider geared towards minimal force?
Whatever your feelings on the matter I think everyone agrees that we ride horses because we love them. I personally would rather not cause pain and distress to something I love, the choice though is up to the individual and it is up to each and everyone of you to think carefully about what you ask your horse to wear.