Big Bad Horses...?

I haven't had the time to write a new post in a while, but when a friend passed this video on to me, and I felt the need to comment on it.

Maybe you've already seen this on YouTube, the Chronicle of the Horse, or other blogs. It's getting a lot of rave reviews from amateurs and professional horsemen alike. And, certainly, at first glance, it would appear impressive to the untrained eye. But I’ve taken a more critical look at the rides presented here, and I’d like to play devil's advocate to all those who offer such glowing praise. As someone who has specialized in training (and retraining) so-called "problem" horses, I know firsthand what a problem horse looks like and how to effectively deal with one. And what I see in this video concerns me. I’d be interested in hearing more from other horsemen about their experiences with problem horses, and the people who claim to train them.

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Some background on my experience: as a junior and young adult rider, I didn’t have the resources for a fancy schoolmaster, and have always had to buy green horses and make them up myself. My first big jumper was a rescue who had been abandoned and sat untouched in a stall for years after nearly killing his previous owner. None of the “top” trainers I brought him to would help me with him because they “couldn’t afford to get hurt” and, I suspect, didn’t want their egos bruised either. Selling him was not an option, so I resolved to train him by myself (when we were done he had 4th level dressage, could jump a 4’6 jumper course and be ridden bareback on trails safely – he’s still with me, and is one of the best horses I’ve ever ridden.)

Consequently, perhaps like the girl in the video, I gained a reputation as someone who would work with ANY horse, no matter how scary. This became my niche – willing crash-test dummy for people’s so-called “problem” horses. And there were plenty of them to keep me busy.

But, with regards to the claim this video seems to be making, I think a little skepticism is well founded. I’ve encountered an unhealthy number of riders who like to put on shows by provoking or exaggerating negative behavior so they could ride these “bucking broncos” like cowboys to the “oohs” and “aahhs” of onlookers. The reaction of viewers to this video is exactly the sort of praise these people crave. People (and sometimes even experienced horsemen) genuinely think the worse your horse behaves the better a rider you must be – so long as you can stay on. The theory goes: the more you punish your horse, the more obvious your aids, the harder you appear to be working, the tougher that horse must be to ride; therefore, you must be a great rider. I’ve even known judges like this, who rewarded equitation riders who looked as if they had to fight with their horses every stride, rather than the riders who rode with tact and had the respect of their horses. And worse, some owners don’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth from a trainer unless they see some theatrics, and trainers are eager to appear indispensable and look like they’re working hard for their fees.

They all fail to appreciate that a good rider employs sensitivity and tact, and rides in such a way that these behaviors don’t generally occur in the first place. For example, in this video, a horse is shown playing up on the longe, and then the girl mounts up and the horse does the same under tack. Big surprise. But, riding a horse that is out of control on the longe isn’t bravery – it’s poor training. It shows you’ve missed an important step in your training; you haven’t got the horse’s cooperation on the ground, and you already know the experience will be negative before you put your foot in the stirrup. It’s just stupid. And worse, it smacks of bravado, not thoughtful horsemanship.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with some extreme horses in my career – not just bucking, sunfishing, rearing (and flipping over), dirty-stopping, bolting, running into walls, etc.. My aforementioned jumper did nearly all of the above and then some; he also had a neat trick of throwing himself on the ground when he got frustrated and couldn’t unseat me otherwise.

But I would hardly consider myself a good rider for staying alive through this; I consider myself a passable trainer because I learned, firstly, how not to frustrate the horse in the first place, and secondly how to work with him so he didn’t feel compelled to eject or crush me whenever I rode him, and could reproduce that cooperation with other “difficult” horses. And yes, I’ve made and will continue to make mistakes like everyone else, but I hope never out of a desire to impress others or seek applause.

The first rule is: don’t give the horses an excuse. Don’t put them in a position where the only option is resistance. I don’t think I’d still be alive if I antagonized every inveterate kung-fu master I came across.

Which is why this rider concerns me. Watch the video again. Notice her often restrictive hand and unfair, punitive use of the spur. Observe her improper corrections. See how she catches the horse in the mouth as it reacts (and often overreacts) to the spur. And especially take note of her inappropriate response to the bay horse’s rearing (a rear which she caused) as her sharp right rein nearly flips him over. This is no way to gain a horse’s trust.

But if that rearing bay horse was truly a recalcitrant animal, it would never have stood quietly while she climbed back into the tack. Rather, it looks an awful lot to me like she’s antagonizing these horses–either for effect because she knows it will “wow” the audience (my cynicism makes me ask, why is all of this on film – and why would you be so eager to have others see it?) or because she actually equates that with training. And she is very lucky that none of these horses are truly dangerous black belts, because I know firsthand that there are horses out there who would not tolerate a rider like this, and she could get herself seriously hurt.

Any rider can make a horse buck or rear on purpose. Any rider can also cause a confrontation that will result in these forms of resistance, which I would remind people, is what this is – not “wild” behavior, but extreme resistance. I’m not saying a fresh or excitable horse won’t throw a buck here and there, or that a frightened horse won’t rear or bolt, but this isn’t what we’re seeing in this video. We’re seeing resistance.

And, if you look closely with a trained eye, those same resistances from the “before” part are still evident in the “after” portion of the video, they’re just less pronounced, which tells me that the problems haven’t been solved, she’s just turned the volume down (or maybe just eased off her spur.) For example, the nappy grey horse is still "stuck" and evading the bridle in the second phase, but we are meant to believe that he has been cured of his “problem” simply because she’s no longer kicking and yanking on him. I could go on. But my point is, this video, impressive as it may be at first glance, deserves more scrutiny before lavishing it with such glowing praise. There are more than enough self-aggrandizing riders out there, that I think we should be a little more sparing with our applause, and suspend our credulity until we’ve had a closer look.

I’d be interested to see these videos without the editing.

Anyway, I’d love to hear everyone else’s take on the subject.

Trainingjm elliott