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Training :Selecting a Professional and the Three R's
By Craig P. Stevens
The selection of a trainer or instructor to work with you and your horse is an important but difficult decision to make. There is no absolute advice or rules which can be given to answer the question, "How do I choose a trainer or instructor?". To explore this issue is to explore what horsemanship is. This begins with an examination of the nature of communication between the horse and rider. Observation of how a professional deals with this issue is the begining of understanding what makes a good trainer or instructor. The end result that you are seeking from the training or instruction is also an important consideration.
The simplest answer is that a good trainer or instructor should have as complete an understanding of the horse and of equitation as possible. This is also true for each of us who want to perfect our own skills as a rider. In fact, your trainer or instructor should be someone who has taken the time to really explore equitation, and has walked down this path longer than you have. The trainers and instructors who command the most respect are really the senior students of equitation.
The better the instructor/trainer, the more obvious is the "student" theme.
A master of equitation is someone who is always perfecting the basics, seeking to further understand the nature of the horse. Equitation is the science of harmonizing man to the nature of the horse, and not the other way around. This is the burden of human intelligence. It is more logical for the more intelligent of the ensemble to adapt to the less intelligent, than to expect it the other way around.
As we explore the nature of equitation we begin to see some of the problems. We need to develop a systematic way to communicate with the horse which is as natural for us to use as it is for the horse to understand. This is done through the use of the aids. All riding systems operate through the use of aids.
The aids are how the rider communicates his will to the horse. The aids lend themselves to division into two parts; the natural aids and the artificial aids. The natural aids are the legs, hands, seat, voice and mind of the rider. The artificial aids are spurs, the whip and the hundreds of devices that man has fashioned to control the horse. In this article we will not pursue the details of the use of the various artificial aids.
It is sufficient to say that the artificial aids are not necessary in order to train a horse, but appropriately used can sometimes facilitate the process. In the hands of a novice they often create havoc for the horse. Experienced trainers rarely use artificial aids, with two exceptions. The exception are the whip and spurs. These both of these artificial aids may be used in every training session and so I must mention them in passing. Both are important supplements to the natural aids.
Of these two supplemental aids, the whip is the most important. The whip is the most effective way of sending the horse forward, and supporting the actions of the rider's legs. The spur is the most likely to be misused and is of less importance. The spurs, contrary to popular opinion, are not as effective as the whip for generating forward motion, but are more effective in collecting and stopping the horse. This is one of the reasons why spurs are not seen at the race track, but the whip is always used by jockeys. In some future article we will further explore the use of the spurs and the whip.
The natural aids, unlike the artificial aids, are the fundamental tools for training. When a rider or trainer uses artificial aids, except the whip and the spur, it is usually an indication of a lack of skill in communicating with the natural aids. The foremost natural aid is the mind of the trainer, which is used to direct the progression in the use of the other aids to develop clear communication with the horse.
The mental development of the rider preceeds through a threefold progression. This progression can be called the three "R's". They are: riding, reading, and review. No single element is more important than another. All three complement each other and should be maintained in a balanced fashion to expedite development. The first "R", riding, is the most obvious. To develop your riding, you must spend time practicing it. Equitation is a language, much like English or any other, and we are clumsy with a foreign language until we've practiced it a great deal. Unlike a spoken language it is based on weight and pressures. To know how much, and when; to have tact, is to develop the use of the other natural aids(the hands, legs and seat), again, by practice.
The second "R" is reading. This is the study of equestrian literature, which contains the body of the various systems of riding that have been written about and handed down to us. As we shall see later, there is no one perfect system of riding, but rather there are many systems. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. For the beginner rider this may be confusing. It is generally advisable to work with an instructor who has really studied equitation. An instructor should provide his/her students with a summary of the principles found in the better books on equitation.
The third "R", reviewing, is the synthesis of the other two. Reviewing or reflection is the process of integrating the perceived sensations and thought from riding and reading. It is the formulation of the right system to solve the issues which arise in the training of the individual horse or rider. Without extensive riding and reading, reviewing can lead to faulty conclusions, but with experience and intelligence the process of reviewing leads the rider towards seeing the "big" picture in the day to day work.
One thing we are looking to develop is timing in the use of the natural aids, so that they are in accord with the horse's movement. We also want to insure that the system we are using is in accord with the fundamental nature of the horse. Reflection leads to an understanding that in equitation it is "not the effect of force but the force of properly timed effects" which succeeds.
Any effect that the aids ( the hand, leg and seat) can create can be overdone or underdone. This means that for the aids to be properly used they must have a balanced relationship with the natural movement of the horse, and only deliberately follow the natural movement They must not interfere with the horse's movements.
The meaning of the aids is a relative meaning. This is what is most confusing for the beginner rider and for the green horse. No aid means anything until its meaning is first decided on by the trainer, and then explained and/or illustrated to the horse. This is why two trainers or different books can give seemingly opposite advise, and yet both may be viable advice.
Take for example the young horse, and invent any system that you can choose to imagine in which to ride him. Place the horse in a small corral and begin using your system. By the use of simple reinforcement you will be able to train the horse to go by any set of signals, provided that the signals are reinforced enough. The system that is however most natural for the horse is the one which he will remember best and learn to respond to the fastest. The assembly of a system of aids which corresponds to the deepest nature of the horse, allowing for the maximum freedom and relaxation of the horse, is the foundation for what is called "classical equitation." Please note that I do not call this "dressage." Unfortunately, resulting from the centering of the horses training around competition, modern "dressage" has mostly been removed itself from the realm of classical or artistic equitation. Many competitive horses have neither relaxation or freedom in their movements, important elements in classical training.
For the sake of competitive aspirations or ignorance sometimes corners are cut in training. This is sometimes done by the use of many artificial devices or by forcing the horse with the natural aids to get a particular result in order to show a particular movements, . This always bring unsatisfactory results and will cause psychological or physiological damage. It is better instead to following the horses development needs and to adjust the progression of training to each horse. This progression of the horse's training does not always follow the progression of our competitive dressage tests. What is best for the horse must always be considered above competitive results.
These competitive practices are sometimes in direct contradiction to the inner nature of the horse. When carried out on sensitive horses they often result in the explosions which give the Arabian and the Thoroughbred their undeserved bad reputations, and are the mark of bad training, not a bad horse. They may be the result of aids which are poorly timed, or movements which have been inappropriately forced, and have their roots in legs, hands, and seat aids which are uncoordinated or overplayed.
Trainers, riders, and instructors who suffer from these problems create problems for the horses they train. Force and artificial aids appeal to them as the only way to train the "stupid" horse, because their improper use of their primary aid, their mind, informs them that it is necessary to work by such means. They are focused on some specific result, which is not the next natural thing for the horse to absorb, and so they are at odds with the horse, and prepared to force the issue. Such delusional thinking is supported by the need to always be right and the underlying insecurity of those who are working for a goal, but are undereducated in their field.. Until the mind is led by love, knowledge, and concern for the horse, to a deeper review and a balancing of the three "R's", nothing can be done. It is wise to not place any horse under such a trainer, as they may only confuse the horse that they are trying to train. It is also true that they can only teach what they know, and so to take instruction from such a person may lead you into the same erroneous mind set, if you are not careful. This is why all great riders are self taught, and are always in the process of furthering their educations. It is perhaps more accurate to state that they are taught by the horse. This does not mean that they did not take lessons, but only that they took responsibility for their own education. They ride, read and review.
In choosing a trainer, chose a trainer can give you a clear verbal understanding of the basics and who understands the reasons for a horse's behavior. A trainer must understand that physical conformation and nature of the psychology of the horse as well as the way rider's asks are all factors in resistances. These problems are only resolved by a consistent rational progressive suppling of the horse's body. If the trainer cannot explain it, then he really does not know it. If he cannot tell you, then how can he tell the horse?
Loss of calm is always the first indication that the trainer has exceeded the capabilities of the horse. Horses who habitually lack calm are horse who are conditioned by a trainer who always demands too much or the result of signals(aids) which never make sense to the horse or are inconsistently used.
Our next article will explore the development of the seat, which is the fundamental quality which lends correctness to the aids and places the horse and horseman in balance as one.
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