A compassionate approach to training and showing

In their new book The Compassionate Equestrian, Allen Schoen, DVM, and Susan Gordon introduce the “25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation,” guidelines for enhancing the rider’s relationship with the horse, the state of the horse industry and the world
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In their new book The Compassionate Equestrian, Allen Schoen, DVM, and Susan Gordon introduce the “25 Principles of Compassionate Equitation,” guidelines for enhancing the rider’s relationship with the horse, the state of the horse industry and the world

Willie frequently prompted the question, “What in the world is going through this horse’s mind?” For a while I remained in denial about his obvious hostility toward dressage.

The 360-degree handstand at “P” near the beginning of a First Level test was one of his more spectacular moves. The required 10-meter circle was actually much easier than the effort he put into his acrobatics. He planted his front feet, flipped his haunches vertically, and spun 180 degrees at the same time.

Then he did it again. He landed precisely on the track of the circle and carried on as though nothing had happened. I did not even know a horse was physically capable of such a movement! I could tell from the saddle how smug he was. Mortified, I was unsure of how much I dared ask him to lengthen, following the circle, as Willie may have considered it an invitation for another surprise.

Willie was schooled to Fourth Level in dressage and had also been an upper-level eventing horse.

As people materialized who were able to help me piece together more of his history, it became apparent that he had a bit of a reputation. That is, a reputation for bucking people off in the show ring. Even taking steps back down to lower levels and schooling shows did not appease Willie’s disdain for the dressage arena.

Eventually I realized the most sensible thing for both of us was to not show him. At some point in his life he must have found that bucking his rider off was an effective way to relieve his discomfort or get out of work. The snippets of information from various sources kept confirming that assessment to be correct. Willie’s very good equine memory, combined with his now reasonable level of soundness, made for some very entertaining moments---for the judge and audience anyway---in our brief competitive career together.

For those of you interested in dressage scores, we were given a “4” for the anomalous 10-meter circle … due to “disobedience.”

The new equestrian economy

The entire equine industry has undergone considerable shifting in recent years. Riding and horse ownership has become too costly for many. Those who do continue to ride often do not invest in regular lessons, and some may simply think they do not need consistent instruction. It seems as though patient training over years and long-term goals have given way to short workshops and clinics, online seminars and video instruction. This conveniently allows online marketing and potentially lucrative opportunities for building a fan-base well beyond the local area instructors and trainers usually tap. High-tech tools for equestrian education are indeed marvelous, but they are meant to be in support of and not a replacement for the amount of time it takes to learn how to ride and train horses well.

This new economy has also given rise to opinions and methods that often pit one person’s version of training against another. Well-known methods are copied, then individualized and branded with a new twist. While not all of these techniques are necessarily bad, it is possible that some have contributed to a contentious and divisive atmosphere for both competitive and recreational riders.

One of our goals is to have riders learn to look carefully at their chosen disciplines and training methods. Decide for yourself if what you are doing to and with your horse is really in his best interest. Be discerning and cautious when exploring trainers and trends that deviate from common sense and classical training and handling. Claims of humane treatment may be made but not necessarily practiced. Some individuals may have little, if any, actual training experience, or training experiences that are not applicable to horses and disciplines outside of their scope of knowledge and ability.

A better way

Compassionate training methods translate to “respectful and humane” in that our techniques do not come from the ego---we are willing to quell our instinctive competitiveness and feelings of “us versus them” in the name of equine welfare, above all else.

Be aware of how a particular training technique may push a horse more quickly than he can comprehend or ask more of him physically than his body can handle. Some training practices can set a young horse up for a short career and early onset lameness due to asking for too much, too soon. The same holds true in human sports training and physiology, where excessive overtraining and improper muscular development can lead to early breakdown in muscles, tendons and ligaments and produce lingering fatigue that removes all enjoyment from an activity, if the activity is possible at all.

Compassionate training and riding encompasses a fundamental understanding of the biomechanics of the horse’s musculoskeletal system. There are limits to the duration and intensity of workouts, given the horse’s stage of development. Even horses used in recreational activities such as trail riding are susceptible to injury if worked especially hard on weekends then left standing around during the week with no additional exercise.

Also, keep in mind that horses have a weight-bearing load tolerance. Riders are cautioned to be aware of exceeding the horse’s comfort zone and ability to carry their weight plus tack without doing spinal damage. It is up to each individual to be truthful regarding his or her own level of competence in approaching any method of riding as it relates to equine development so as to do no harm to the horse.

If we place compassion at the base for our training, whether for competition or recreational purposes, the horse will benefit. When we take our ego out of the equation, at least to the degree that it is not the dominating reason behind our equestrian activity, we expand our field of vision to that of observing---not judging---the industry at large and the welfare of all horses.

For our own well-being, we are positively affected by establishing a calm, clear state of mind with which to approach and interact with horses and other horsepeople. If we strive to maintain that state, we will inevitably inspire and educate others to do so
as well.

Putting the Horse First

Even aged show horses who are semi-retired and relatively pain-free seem to enjoy continuing to show if they have always thrived amid crowds and excitement. If you have ever felt a jumper “pump up” at the in-gate and surge into a gallop at the sound of the starting buzzer, you know what I mean.

If you have a horse who sulks when he’s left at home, he might actually stay in better health if taken to a few shows a season and shown within the limits of his physical capabilities. Each horse is an individual, as we’ve mentioned repeatedly, and the compassionate approach is to recognize places and situations that help your horse feel wanted and needed. He might not be your superstar any longer, but he may be thrilled to pack a young rider around his or her first competition.

Whatever his age, be mindful of your horse at all times when attending a horse show or clinic. Riders like to sit on their horses and chat between rounds, classes or lessons, and the horse’s expression or behavior will begin to indicate signs of distress or boredom. If you had to carry a weight on your back and shoulders all day long, and never set it down, how would you feel?

Adapted by permission from The Compassionate Equestrian: 25 Principles to Live By When Caring for and Working With Horses (published June 2015), by Allen M. Schoen, DVM, MS, and Susan Gordon; Trafalgar Square Books; 800-423-4525; www.equinenetworkstore.com

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #456, September 2015.