A Facebook friend recently posed the question as to why so many people enjoy watching today’s competition, and don’t see the ugliness and the damage done by the training methods being used. Why do they not seek the beauty that many of us in the 50-plus age group grew up with? The answer is simply in the eye of the beholder. Sadly, it is not so simple for the horses in the middle of and subject to it.
Different strokes for different folks …
The first thing to acknowledge is that no two people see the world in the same way; nor do any two people create something in exactly the same way. There are many conversations among classical horsemen where everyone agrees on what they are trying to accomplish – and just as many where someone disagrees. Do you follow the French School? The German? Spanish? Portugese? Austro-Hungarian? The list can go on as to nationalities that have their own history of classical horsemanship. Over the centuries they mixed, to a degree – but each kept a unique identity for a long time.
They generally had a common end goal – a light, responsive horse, whose balance, carriage, and strength were developed to make the carrying of a rider easier. However, until the latter decades of the twentieth century, the end utilitarian goal differed. Bullfighting, exhibition, cavalry – all were among the end goals of schools that some now look back on as classical. Then came the development of the International Equestrian Federation, better known as the FEI. Competition was the goal of the FEI, but not necessarily the sole goal of the horsemen who originally participated. Still, the founding of the FEI brought horsemen from many countries together to document the founding principles that should be met by all competing equestrians.
“It is not at all easy to try clearly to analyse and separate the differences in national style. At the top international level, horses performing correctly should conform to the same applied criteria. In other words, whatever methods have been used to train a horse … he will appear to the spectator to perform very much like another horse getting similar marks. And this may be despite the fact that the other horse may have had an entirely different training programme.”
Neil ffrench Blake, The World of Dressage, 1969
Enter confirmation bias …
It is a very human reaction to look for proof that confirms what we believe, and ignore those things that do not.
“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain in tact.”
There are very good, primordial, reasons why our brains are wired this way (if you are interested, there is a nice piece at https://fs.blog/2017/05/confirmation-bias/ that goes into it). It served us well in survival situations – but it serves us poorly in intellectual ones. Still, those who achieve excellence in an intellectual field have overcome their confirmation bias, and approach all situations as potential learning opportunities. For me, quality horsemanship is an intellectual pursuit – and the great horsemen I have met (save for one) have all had the humility to admit that they do not know all of the answers, and that they continued to learn from peers, horses, and even students.
However, for the general population, the methods we learned (especially if they worked) seem to be the ‘right’ methods of riding and training. There is nothing wrong with this belief – provided those methods were ‘right’ and we actually understand whether the result we achieved was the ‘right’ result.
“The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.”
Willard V. Quine and J.S. Ullian, The Web of Belief
Stir in human preference …
Another Facebook friend shared a link to a 2015 study that further helps to explain why some might see beauty where others see ugliness. The study specifically focused on preferences for head, neck, and ear types as well as carriage. The findings were interesting – most prefer concave profiles and slightly longer ears, for example (put me down for the slightly convex profile, thank you). Women were more likely to like a slightly thicker, cresty neck; while men were more likely to prefer a more slender neck. But here is the finding most relevant to my topic – those identified as expert horsemen preferred the carriage with the poll as the highest point, and the nose in front of vertical. Those identified as “novice” or “younger” (aged 18-30) were more likely to prefer the carriage that was behind the vertical. Not one person in the 61 and above age group preferred the carriage behind the vertical.
The authors of the study acknowledge that more study is needed to determine if personal experience affects the respondents’ bias. However, to an equestrian who has been at this for nearly half a century, the tendency of the younger riders to like the behind the vertical posture provides a rather obvious correlation to the path many equestrian sports have taken over the past few decades.
Enter the horse …
So, why does this all matter? The fact is that there are some practices in modern showing that are proven detrimental to the horse – however much they may be favored by modern audiences. The authors of the above mentioned study even acknowledge that factor in their conclusion.
“The current study reveals aesthetic preferences that have no relationship to function and that may even run counter to horse health and rider safety. Outside of the ‘neutral’ outlines, the preferences were for thicker necks, concave facial profiles and longer ears. The apparent appeal of thicker necks is important because some training techniques that make horses’ necks appear convex, particularly hyperflexion, have been shown to compromise horse welfare and may jeopardize rider safety. ”
Human Preferences for Conformation Attributes and Head-And-Neck Positions in Horses
Georgina L. Caspar, Navneet K. Dhand, Paul D. McGreevy
Those 18-30 year olds who tended toward the behind the vertical carriage will argue very vocally that they are right, because this is what they are used to and what has become the norm. But multiple studies continue to show that this posture causes real damage to the horse. The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) has even published a position that use of the behind the vertical position, in all its forms, is to be avoided due to the physical and psychological damage it causes.
There are other attributes of modern riding, Dressage in particular, that are disturbing to those of us who have been at this for the past 40-50 years. Among these are over use of spurs, heavy handed riding, and the tension seen in modern competitive horses. Thirty years ago, Dressage horses were considered the calmest of competitive mounts. They were also known for being the most sound with the longest active careers. All of that has gone. Average useful life for Dressage horses in many parts of the world is about eight years old. Many top Dressage horses are retired by the age of fourteen – that would have been when a horse was hitting their peak when I was first competing. Dressage horses are now also seen as hot and spooky. Podhajsky, who once sat his stallion while a helicopter landed in front of them, with the horse not shifting a foot, would not recognize the modern Dressage horse who often is challenged with a simple ribbon ceremony.
It all adds up …
The reality is that you probably see as beautiful whatever form of riding you learned – why else would you have chosen it? The question that I pose to you is this – do you really see the horse? This, to me, is the key to all of it. I have either pursued or been involved in many equine pursuits. I am not a purist. I do not demand that anyone pursue a classical education – that is my choice, but may not be yours. I have seen skilled horsemen and happy horses in pursuits ranging from roping to jumping – and I have seen abuses in the same arenas. The difference, for me, is always reflected in the horse. Happy horses are alert, focused on their task, calm, and move fluidly at whatever pace is chosen. For me, a tense, unhappy, or shutdown horse is a painful sight.
Are you putting the horse first in determining what type of riding you support? If someone questions a style of riding you support, does your confirmation bias kick in? Or do you take the opportunity to consider whether they might have a point? Are you listening to the words of someone you admire, but not objectively considering whether the picture fits the words?
“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects.”
The remedy …
The thing that I see most lacking in today’s riding is a complete understanding of the horse. There are plenty of people who can give you advice on everything from housing to foot care – but I find a shortage of modern riders who can actually tell you how a horse is feeling. Whether it’s the people who tell me that a horse’s wringing tail is equivalent to a dog wagging its tail for joy, or the people who see a shutdown show horse as ‘calm’, I have too few conversations with people who are truly reading a horse correctly.
A third Facebook friend posted this comment on a video of a famous rider who practices the rollkur training method:
“It boggles the mind that a ‘top trainer’ SAWS on the horse’s mouth, and people accept this. Or don’t see the actual outcome in the competition arena. It is SO obvious. mho”
Sadly, people see the outcome, they just don’t understand what they are seeing. The trainer in question has won many medals, and the winning for many is confirmation of the validity of her training methods. But there are countless videos like the one my friend responded to, and countless images like this one, of that same rider. The argument, of course, is “moment in time” – but is there really justification for this? Are medals really enough to put a horse through even a moment of this? If you have made a “moment in time” argument for someone, whose side were you taking? I can tell you that no great work on horsemanship has ever advocated anything like this. For me, this horse is screaming its pain.
So my advise to all riders is spend more time just learning to read a horse. Watch them from a distance, with no human interaction. What is the body language of a horse contentedly grazing? Or one calmly hanging out with a buddy? Observe muscle tone, eyes, ears, nostrils, tails. Take your horse for a walk, allowing them to nibble yummy stuff along the way – how does their demeanor compare to when you are tacking up or working them? How does your horse react when you come to the barn? Happy? Indifferent? Irritated? Take that knowledge and start to expand it to other horses. If a horse moves fluidly across a meadow, should it not also look fluid in a Dressage arena? If your horse likes to play, watch their movement and expressions. Do you see that joyful energy reflected in top Dressage horses? Or do you see something closer to goosestepping and stilted movement?
Horses are our best teachers – but a teacher is only as good as the attention you give them. Whether you see beauty or ugliness in the current competitive world, make sure you understand what you are actually seeing, and don’t let your confirmation bias limit the beautiful journey that is great horsemanship.
Be good to your horses!