I’ve done some things I’m not proud of early in my career as a horse trainer. I made those mistakes because I wanted quicker results, and because I was too young to know better. Twenty-plus years later, I’m still human and therefore not immune to making mistakes, but I now keep a couple of sacred cows in my training philosophy.
My understanding of Hindu religion is rudimentary, but I’ve heard that sacred cows are strictly off-limits. A sacred cow can lie down in the middle of a city street and take a nap whenever it wants to. Traffic has to go around it, or stop altogether, which must be inconvenient for commuters during rush hour. But no matter how much of a nuisance no matter how much of an obstacle the cow is, disturbing it is not an option because leads to bad karma. I’m not sure of the exact consequences, but imagine that, if you kick a sacred cow out of the way, you are destined to spend your next life as a jellyfish or a fruitfly. If you kill it, you may have to start over as toenail fungus. Not recommended.
I know horses a lot better than Hinduism, but I navigate around three sacred cows in my work with horses. No matter how much time I think I could save by slaughtering them or just shoving them out of the way, the consequences are not worth it. I won’t be toenail fungus in my next life, but I might ruin a horse’s way of moving, or a horse’s trust in people. Really, I’d rather be toenail fungus.
1. Three Clear Gaits
There’s a reason why “rhythm and regularity” form the base of the training scale. Without these qualities, the more advanced movements of any riding discipline become just a collection of circus tricks. Unless your horse is gaited, a walk has four beats, a trot two, a canter three. Always. Disciplines like Western pleasure are notorious for sacrificing this sacred cow at the altar of Slow. A four-beat canter, even if it’s almost in place, never deserves to be called “collected.” A jog is still a trot, not a trot with the front legs while the back legs are walking. Most of the time, the remedy for horses who have learned to muddle their clarity of the gaits is simple: ride forward. Don’t worry too much about contact, lateral movements, or collection until your sacred cow is nursed back to health. And remember that correct training improves the quality of the gaits. A well-trained horse moves with more expression, more elasticity, more cadence. If the horse’s gaits become more rushed, more mechanical, more tense, or more sluggish instead, it’s time to take a look at your program and to figure out what isn’t working.
2. Calm and Forward
These two sacred cows are inseparable. One can never be without the other. A calm horse without forward energy may be pleasant to be around, but won’t develop into an athlete mentally or physically. On the other end of the spectrum, a tense, rushing horse won’t either – and can be dangerous to ride in some cases. Neither just forward or just calm is what we want, but together, they create magic. The direction of good riding is always back to front, in a relaxed frame of mind and body. A hurried, scurrying, or fear-based kind of forward is counterproductive. So is a sluggish, lazy kind of calm. Only the combination of both makes horses into happy athletes. I focus on whichever element is less developed in any horse I work with on any given day. Larger circles and riding in a larger space like an open field instead of a small arena will improve forward energy; so will many quick transitions between gaits. Smaller circles, lots of leg yielding, work in a smaller arena, and fewer transitions tend to improve relaxation. Trail rides can work like a miracle drug for both.
3.The Horse’s Head
A very long time ago, when I was eight years old and learning to put a bridle on a huge warmblood who was not too convinced of my authority, I became frustrated and started tapping the horse’s forehead with my hand in a futile attempt to lower his head. My strict German riding instructor’s normally booming voice became slow and quiet. She then said something I have never forgotten: “Treat the horse’s head like a raw egg.” She was not otherwise prone to using metaphoric language, so this picture really stuck in my brain. It’s good advice that has held up well for all those years.
Insist on personal space from your horse, by all means. Insist on good ground manners. But don’t try to get it by waving your hand, or worse, a whip, or a lead rope, or a flag, into the horse’s face. Instead, target the horse’s chin or chest to make him back off. Those places can handle an elbow whack, or a tap. But anytime you touch the horse’s head, especially around the eyes and ears, do it slowly. Do it gently.
A raw egg is fragile. Once it breaks, it’s almost impossible to put back together. Making a horse head-shy takes minutes, or seconds. Getting a head-shy horse to trust the human hand again takes a lot longer. Sometimes, the damage is permanent. You want your horse to respect you, but don’t kill the sacred cow of trust.
There are very few absolutes in working with horses. 99 percent of the time, I agree with the “never say never” philosophy – there’s an exception to almost every rule. The sacred cows take up the other 1 percent. Ride back to front. Stay calm, especially around the horse’s head. Don’t mess with the clarity of the gaits. No exceptions.
Which sacred cows did I forget? Please let me know what you think, and ride happy,