If you stay around the horse world for any length of time you will probably hear generalizations about other areas of the horse world. “All Dressage riders have hard hands.” “Western pleasure riders can’t sit anything past a jog.” “Event riders all hate Dressage.” The phrases you’ve heard may differ, but it’s likely that you can remember hearing such generalizations – maybe even had one aimed at you. I’ve spent significant parts of my life in and around many different equestrian pursuits, and each has their own generalizations about the other equestrian pursuits. It’s human nature – we all look out at other groups from within our own and see the other as strange. Without inside knowledge, we make our judgements based upon the aspects we can see. However, as I retrain our two former Western Pleasure horses, I’m reminded regularly of the folly in such generalizations.
Coffee and Roxie make an interesting comparison. Both came from Western Pleasure barns – one specializing in Appaloosas, the other in Paints, but the discipline has generally followed the same path with both breeds. Both stables can also brag about training National Champions in the discipline. Both horses came to us at age 6, with approximately the same length of time in training. Both have similar movement affects, based upon the style preferred in Western Pleasure. Yet, the experience of each horse was very different – and so is my approach to each.
The environments – The barn Coffee came from was highly regimented. Every movement the horse made was under cue. The horses couldn’t even have a hoof back after picking out – they had to allow the handler to place it on the ground, exactly where they wanted it … every single time. The result was that Coffee was shut down around people. He was obedient, but completely non-interactive. Around other horses his “schoolyard punk” attitude came out – but he showed no emotion or interest around humans.
Roxie, by contrast, came from a more laid back barn, occupied by a lot of younger riders. Grooming and tacking up was much more casual and inattentive. The result was that she was polite but not particularly mannerly. Grooming led to as much exercise from following her around as from currying. Bridling was a bit of a wrestling match – first to get the bit in, then to get the crown over her ears.
Riding styles – Both horses were started late, by Western riding standards (where horses are typically under saddle by two), but the way they were started was very different. Coffee was started by immediately riding in the slow gaits and low profile typical of modern Western Pleasure. Contact was something to be avoided. In fact, when I did my trial ride I kept the contact light by any English standard, with a small droop in the reins. Yet, I was admonished that I was riding with more contact than Coffee was used to.
By contrast, when I used the same contact on my trial ride of Roxie, the trainer told me that Roxie was looking for me to provide more contact. Although Roxie was ridden in the same frame as Coffee, it was not how she was started. Her trainer believed in getting forward movement first – not just in early training, but also in her daily warm-up. Not only did she warm Roxie up in a forward gait, but she rode her in an open and forward frame. Only when she was fully warmed up was she then asked to drop her nose and slow her gait.
The training challenges – The result of Coffee’s start was that he had lost all concept of moving forward, even when loose. He could do short sprints when playing with other horses, but without that stimulus he was stuck in jog and lope. While chasing is not what I would consider a thoughtful training approach, it turned out to be the first approach needed with Coffee. Whether habit, or actual shortening of his musculature, taking a long or forward step was just not in his vocabulary. Nothing in his gait or structure indicated this was natural, so I persisted. It took far longer than I imagined, but today he has lovely, easy, forward, swinging gaits.
Forward is certainly no problem for Roxie. Instead, we’ve had to work on slowing her tempo just slightly, to achieve more swinging steps. Where Roxie’s trainer succeeded in giving her a better all around start under saddle, she did little for a groundwork foundation. Coffee came with solid lunging skills, while the lunge for Roxie is simply an excuse to blow off steam. Since groundwork is the foundation of my communication with my horses, most of my time with Roxie has been spent building this foundation, knowing that her under saddle challenges are far fewer than Coffee’s.
Although so much of their backgrounds are so different, Coffee and Roxie did come to us with some highly notable similarities.
Leading – Both horses came with the rather Western-centric habit of walking directly behind you. I have heard this characterized as being a way a subordinate shows respect for an alpha. Although it can be quite dangerous (my vet has seen many bad injuries from this leading style), the argument is that if you are alpha they will not bump into you. After all, the argument goes, you never see a herd mate bump into the rear of an alpha. Though actually not true, even if you grant it possible it’s only because the horse in the lead has some quick heels to fend off another – not to mention rather equal weight and size!
Round-pen artifacts – Both horses have clearly spent a lot of time in a round-pen. Both were hyper-sensitive to even the slightest step toward their front. This is problematic for me, since I lunge in straight lines as well as circles. Both also had the drop-and-spin movement perfected. Born out of cow work, the effect is a lowered front end moving, cat-like, around a static hind end. Although valuable if trying to turn a steer, it’s the opposite of the goals of Dressage.
Gait anomalies – In light of the vast differences in training approach, and resulting affect on trot, it is notable that both horses came with the same anomalies in walk and canter. Both horses had shortened, lateral strides at both walk and canter. It is common wisdom in the Dressage world that you pick a horse for the canter and walk – the trot can be enhanced, but there is little you can do to fix a faulty walk or canter. That is true, if you are looking at an untouched young horse. The short-sightedness of the wisdom is if the issues with those gaits are man-made, rather than nature-made. You see, the walk and canter are also the easiest gaits to ruin. Such is the case for Coffee and Roxie. Through careful work, Coffee now has a fluid walk, with overstep, and a lovely rocking canter. Roxie is on her way, on both counts.
My point in all of this is not to shoot down Western Pleasure trainers. It is not my pursuit, but clearly trainers in it can be successful using different approaches. Therein lies the point. Not only do riders often use generalizations to characterize another discipline, but they often also make assumptions about how others approach their own sport. Of course each discipline has its common goals and styles – but that does not automatically mean that there is only one path to achieve them.
In the stories of Coffee and Roxie we have two different trainers with clearly different approaches to training, yet both have proven success in their pursuit. Each of the Dressage masters that I read have similar stated goals – yet most are not lockstep in their approaches. The Spanish Riding School and the National Riding School at Saumur have very different traditions and approaches – yet they both were long held as the epitomes of classical horsemanship.
The takeaway should be that if your method does not match another’s, that alone does not make either method wrong. The proof of validity for a method is in its affect on the horse. Does it cause undue stress? Or does it lead to the results you are seeking, with no negative impact to the horse’s physical or mental well being? (Of course, this requires that you understand the goals and can recognize what your horse is trying to tell you – but those are topics for later posts!)
In recognizing that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain, we also open our minds to realizing that there may be other methods to add to our toolbox. That approach has certainly helped me as I endeavor to retrain my former Western Pleasure horses!
Be good to your horses!