There are some rider responsibilities that are pretty clear cut: a rider needs to ensure that their horse is clean, healthy, well fed, well watered, and well cared for. Whether you take care of this by doing it yourself or by employing or paying someone to do it, this is indisputably a rider’s responsibility. The Boy Scouts’ campsite rule is a good baseline: you should aspire to leave a horse in better condition than when you found it. Of course, there are different levels of responsibility for different levels of riding — a weekly rider on a lesson pony might only pay attention to their horse’s cleanliness, legs, feet, feed, and water for the hours they are at the barn, but the more you ride the more responsibility you take on. For someone who rides two or more times a week, especially the same horse, you start to have some responsibilities in terms of correctness* of training. But what about a rider’s responsibility to themselves in terms of understanding their training?
* Whatever your definition of “correctness” is, which we can discuss ad infinitum, and probably will later. Correct like desensitizing your horse with a hipster panda scarf.
I’ve always been very interested in the theory behind training, and I know that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. There’s even more than one correct way to skin a cat. And since cat skinning is actually a really gross analogy, let’s just go back to talking about horses, and dressage specifically (though perhaps I will pepper this with some jumping examples as well). I think that anyone who has a basic understanding of the theory and history of dressage understands that we train horses in dressage not only to achieve beautiful, fancy, borderline-ridiculous horsey dance routines, but also to get them to use their bodies more evenly, develop flexibility and strength, and carry themselves well. And there isn’t just one way to train a horse to do those things, there are lots of methods that have successfully trained horses to carry themselves uphill, and become more symmetrical, supple, and strong. All of these training techniques involve a long-term commitment, but there are lots of gimmicks, tricks, and cheats that people can use to make a horse look or feel like they are working correctly even if they are not. We can use tricks or cheats to cover up holes in the short term — for example, I have a show coming up and Murray struggles to stay connected down the long sides, so I put him into a bit of a shoulder-fore to help him stay connected — but in the long term, these things just leave holes in training.
holes like this doggy hellmouth!
So when does it become a rider’s responsibility to understand differences such as these in the way they are being trained and how they are training their horse? As someone who thinks pretty deeply about these things — as do, in my opinion, most bloggers (and therefore most of the people reading this?) — I obviously think that a rider should aspire to understand as much as they possibly can about their riding and training program. Why does your trainer have you ride like that to fences? Why do you want to push your horse up into the bridle, instead of pulling his head down towards his chest? Why did your horse cram an extra stride in before that fence, and what can you do to help him get a better spot? What bit are you using, and why?
As a blogger, and one who is extremely interested in theory and training, I obviously take this responsibility upon my self whenever I’m with any trainer. I ask a lot of questions, I try to get a lot of feedback while I’m riding, and I want to know if what I’m feeling is what I’m supposed to be feeling. Sometimes this makes my lessons pretty chatty, but I’m also good at asking questions while I’m riding* , so I don’t think I lose out on too much riding. I like to know exactly why I am doing things, and whether what I’m doing makes sense or not. I want to understand why pushing like this or holding like that achieves the end goal, and I want my trainer to know what I’m feeling if I’m not getting it right away. If I’m questioned by a trainer or even a fellow rider I want to be able to explain exactly what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, beyond the basic “because it works.” I am all about the rider understanding.
* When I was a kid I used to play piano and have conversations with my mom, so apparently I developed the ability to multitask early on.
But on the other hand, I also think that riders should be able to have a reasonable expectation that they can trust their trainer to do the right thing by both rider and the horse. Trainers should not be teaching gimmicks or tricks as long-term solutions*, and they should be engaging their riders and encouraging them to understand things beyond “I hold the outside rein and flex the inside rein because that’s what I was told to do.” And sometimes trainers teach you to do things that are a little odd or counter-intuitive because that’s what you and your horse need at the time, and as you get stronger/more precise/more knowledgeable/more developed you can transition to something that is more intuitive and precise. For example, grabbing mane is not a release — but it is a good trick that taught me both how to get out of my horse’s way and how to get out of his way quickly if I need to. Plus, now if I get in a sticky spot the muscle memory is already there to just grab some fucking mane, quick.
* This doesn’t mean that there are no trainers who teach gimmicks as a long term strategy, or who are more interested in scores/flashy movement/jumping huge than in long term physical health of the horse. But for the most part, I believe that people are good and at least think that what they are doing has the best interests of their charges in mind.
Obviously horsemanship is a process, but I find myself bothered when I hear riders saying things like “my trainer taught me wrong,” or “well, I was told to hold onto the right rein so I’m hanging on for dear life!” or “I don’t know why I was told to do that, so I just don’t do it*”. Sometimes it makes me want to slap people! Following someone’s instructions completely without understanding why you are supposed to be following those instructions is just as bad as discarding good advice because you don’t know why you’re supposed to be doing that either! They both suggest that the person saying them is not being a responsible student.
* Oh my god, the number of times I’ve heard people tell me they have never grabbed mane when instructed to….
So what is the responsibility of the rider, and to what level should a rider reasonably be able to just totally trust what their trainer is teaching them? A good rule of thumb seems like anything you are willing to school on your own without your trainer you should have a pretty good idea of a) how to do that thing with some semblance of correctness, b) why you’re doing that thing, and b-part-two) why you’re doing it the way you are. Talk to me about it. Tell me your thoughts. GIVE ME YOUR IDEAS! I WANT TO LEARN.