So I’m going to go ahead and start this debate. I’m not a classical dressage trainer, and I’m probably not a traditional one either. I would like to think that I advocate for the horse, but I would also like to think that I am realistic in advocating for the rider. But why stop there? Let’s advocate for good, basic training of horses in all disciplines – no horse can afford to be without rideability, balance, suppleness, and strength, whether it be for top competition or to be a true “pleasure horse”.
Do we use them? Do we burn them at the stake? What is the perfect solution here?
Well, the reality is that they are here to stay. They will always be sold and used, so surely the best response is to make sure that we can find the appropriate time and place to do so, but most importantly would be to make sure that they are used as effectively and sympathetically as possible.
The equine industry exists as a largely amateur market, meaning that this is a hobby for most riders. Hobbies, by definition, are meant to be something we enjoy. At shows it is common to see horses running around with their head in the air, backs dropped, their rider hanging on for less-dear-by-the-second life. NO ONE is having fun there. The horse is working counter-productively, and the uneducated rider has no opportunity to get to learn any better. It becomes an endless negative circle that ends with tears and dealer’s-yards, when there is actually nothing wrong other than a huge lack of knowledge.
Enter the option of a gadget, and for this example let us go with the good old classical side-rein: at its most basic explanation, it gives the horse an opportunity to begin understanding the concept of true connection at its simplest form, that of containment, of there being a boundary at the end of an unemotional rein. The limit doesn’t change, it doesn’t pull back, and as soon as the horse reacts in the correct manner (submission / release) there is immediate reward. They can find the comfort zone very easily without the handicap of an enthusiastic but unathletic rider pulling at the wrong moment!
Very few amateur riders are capable of the consistency, balance, and timing that is required to make these effective adjustments, so the horse is left confused and they are left frustrated. But by using an artificial aid correctly in the interim, the horse learns to work in a correct frame with endless longterm health benefits: they are stronger, more supple, and ultimately sounder.
Please note, I said CORRECT frame; I’m operating my argument under the agreement that this is being used in the right way. I also believe that horses should not walk extensively in side-reins, as it blocks them, and that they should be given frequent breaks where they are unclipped, to stretch. I believe they should be introduced gradually, and that the height where you set them makes a huge difference. Now, anything has potential for abuse – you could use a pressure halter badly. As Monty Roberts likes to say, what are the most important tools in your toolbox? … and he holds up his hands. I could go on and on, but after all of these (and more) steps have been followed, the ultimate outcome of a solid work programme is that you can put a relative novice onto this horse, and when they offer the correct idea of a steady connection, the horse has both the physical ability and the mental understanding to give the correct response, and the rider can have an “ah-ha” moment. Everyone wins.
Of course, I would not be advocating for the horse at all if I did not mention the horrors of using any equipment badly – if there is any doubt, that is the moment to call a trained professional, or rather err on the side of safety and sympathy. Any misused equipment is not only capable of inflicting longterm physical and psychological pain on a horse, but serious injury to both horse and rider. There is no replacement for excellent stable management and sound advice from an experienced qualified coach, I am merely encouraging us to find a middle ground that suits all wallets and levels.
Over the next few months we will be showcasing different artificial aids, explaining the ideal action thereof, the pros and cons of each, common mistakes when using them, with an explanatory video link connected to www.equilife.co.za. There will be a corresponding poll for reader feedback, and out of the discussion we will choose one lucky winner every month to win the equipment on display.