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.




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.

19 comments:

  1. Now that I've looked at the video more closely, I've got to agree with you wholeheartedly. It is a shame the way some people actually ride and promote themselves. I hope this isn't the case here, but I'm afraid it might be. I can only say a little more groundwork and compassion is in order for these horses to be trained properly. Unless of course they are being trained for an upcoming rodeo.

    p.s. where have you been? write something more often.

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  2. I agree 10000%. I was no timpressed when I saw the video the first time, and can not bring myself to watch it a second. It is not out of concern for the rider, as I feel she is the root cause of the resistance and issues encountered within- it is for the horses. The negative impactt hat is being left in their minds. What is going to happen down the line when someone else gets up there....?

    Have to agree with Arlene too--- write more often, please! ;)

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  3. I think your right about her causing the problem or, at least, compounding the problem. Her hands are harsh and she needs some work on hand and arm position as well as developing giving hands. If she’s working on these types of problems then the spurs and whip have to go.

    The grey horse is resisting the leg aids by backing. Most of this should be handled on the ground so the horse is comfortable with the concept before you ride. If she’s going retrain from the saddle she needs to get the horse to feel calm so that it can feel secure about trying. Then follow this by being patient until the horse tries stepping forward.

    One horse was really tossing its head which leads me to think that there is pain involved. The problem could be the bit, the teeth, etc..

    The horses are then ridden behind the vertical which could be problem to begin with. Who would want to work when you’re in pain?

    In my opinion she is lacking an understanding of what riding through a buck means. It requires a rider to have soft giving hands, set the pace, set a calm feel, and move on. There is too much commotion for a horse to be trained or retrained. If she’d tone it down the horse would relax.

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  4. GHM - thanks for your comment. 'compassion' should be the foundation of any training program, and should become a mantra for every rider, recited every time we feel ourselves becoming frustrated, losing our patience, or bullying our horses.

    mrs. mom- the more i watch it, the more disturbing i find it too. and i agree, these horses are likely to carry these experiences with them for a long time to come - something riders should consider each time they know a negative experience is coming - the effects of a single traumatic experience, heightened by the instinctual reactions to pain or fear, can last a lifetime.

    and thanks! things are hectic here, but i'll try to post something more often :-)

    bhm - beautifully said. i sometimes feel i'm overly critical of trainers, but i am glad to hear i am not the only one who spotted these rider errors and their effects. you're analysis is dead on.

    her hands are a big part of her problem, and i agree that until she has herself and her horses in order, she doesn't need to be wearing spurs or carrying a whip, particularly since she doesn't seem to understand their correct application.

    i agree that the grey is acting in defiance of her leg, and i have yet to see a nappy horse respond well to kicking and spurring (and yanking the rein is the exact wrong thing to do!) then, when he grudgingly goes 'forward,' he does so without engagement and without accepting the bit. between her spur and her restrictive hand, she forces him to drop behind the vertical, further confirming his original belief that going forward is bad (particularly when there is a harsh hand waiting for him when he does!)

    many - if not all - of the resistances seen in this video are legitimate responses to excessive, painful or clashed aids - or, as you suggested, an underlying physical issue.

    correct work on the ground would do wonders for these horses. i wish more riders would do their homework on the ground before mounting up.

    if all riders and trainers had your eye for the causes of resistance, and your patient, sympathetic approach, there probably wouldn't be any 'problem' horses left :-)

    thanks for stopping by!

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  5. Has anyone found any interesting posts on The Chronicle of the Horse about the video? I find this discussion very insightful. Wonderful articles please keep them coming.

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  6. i can't find the discussion thread on the chronicle's website. maybe someone else can?

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  7. I just came across this and was happy to read such a thoughtful and I believe on target analysis of this video. I saw it awhile back, and was disturbed but not really able to articulate why as well as you've done here.

    I've absolutely seen what can happen when you escalate the aids to the point that they are unclear and obnoxious, and IF one does that to a kind and generally willing horse, it's possible to "ride through it" but the result is a tense, resistant ride. I suppose in the moment it's a "success" of sorts, but it doesn't in any way progress the training or allow for fluidity and partnership.

    As you said, the groundwork is the key. One of my favorite dressage trainers here says "every problem under saddle is solved by going back to the longe line" and she also advocates when dealing with issues under saddle going back to the BOTTOM of the training scale.

    Interestingly, rhythm and relaxation is where it all begins - and falls apart.

    Thanks for the chance to do my own little rant here! I too would love to see more posts from you! (and congrats on the award!)

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  8. Billie - you're always welcome to stop in and rant! that's what we're here for! especially when you have such insightful comments to add to the discussion :-)

    people always do seem to overlook the 'calm' portion of the horseman's mantra 'calm, forward and straight.' you won't get the second two right unless you have the first!

    i'm always heartened to hear of others who appreciate the merits of ground work and good longing. i've gotten some strange looks and comments from other trainers for the amount of training (and retraining) i do from the ground, but the results speak for themselves in the horse's development, preparedness and willingness to move to the next stage once ridden.

    some trainers seem to think of it as an admission of defeat to take a step back or go to the longe to work out an issue, but for me it's just common sense...

    thanks for reading :-)

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  9. I know I'm late to this subject, but I just found you bc you commented on my blog...:-) Thanks for the words of support, I'd like to hear more about what you're going throuh with your horse...did you happen to see my horse's lunging video?

    But back to this post, I can't agree more now. When I fist saw the video last year I WAS impressed, but maybe it was just the good music- love Nikleback and Daughtry:-) But I have come to realize horses are "bad" because they are hurting or confused not because they just don't want to do it.

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  10. Hi Denise - thanks for stopping in. your post was passed along to me by my mom because your horse's issue sounded similar to my horse.

    i agree the video was well done, and i liked the music too! it's just the content that bothered me... :-\ it's easy to kick on through a problem without much consideration for the horse and what may be causing the issue. i agree, most times it's fear, pain or confusion that prevents the horse from doing what we ask.

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  11. "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."
    AMEN.
    Also, what if those horses are HURT? Horses in pain resist. Not to mention that the bucks and rears and running sideways crap isn't really that BAD... Western horses are WAY more athletic in general when it comes to ejecting you, lol!

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  12. I think it is easy to announce that this rider must be aggravating the horses current issues by her riding. What one may not know is that this rider may not be the one who caused the horses to have these problems in the first place. The horses may be reacting to her aids the way they have become accustomed to act for other riders. I never saw her do more than squeeze or nudge with her legs, I never saw her use her whip and the only harshness I saw from her hands was with the rearing horse at the show. I do think it was unnecessary to ride these horses with a whip and spurs, but I do not think she used excessive force. She never overreacted when a horse kicked out or bucked. She kept the horse between her hands and legs, rode it out and showed the horse where she expected him to be. With the gray Arabian I saw her release all pressure from her legs, keeping them well off of him. She also gave him as much head as she could, having slack in the rein most of the time. She allowed the horse to move forward on his own and while the remainder of the ride was still shaky, he was moving forward. Training horses comes in small steps. Of course it would be nice to know that the gray's next lesson was in long lines or on the longe, but we can not know that. What I do know is that her ride ended moving forward, not backwards.

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  13. Heather – thanks for your comment and for stopping by!
    Riding, like other arts I suppose, has no consensus on right and wrong, good and bad. Sometimes it’s a matter of taste. We all see different things when we watch a ride, and evaluate them according to our own experiences, preferences and even prejudices. I admit I am prejudiced against any method that involves fixing the hand and driving the horse into it (for example, the action that produced the rearing incident and most of the bucking,) and I am a bit manic about not having horses go above and behind the bit/vertical for any reason, but I realize I am part of a minority these days. After all, Anky won a gold medal, so someone must think it’s alright...

    I agree that these horses probably CAME with the issues they display, and that this rider has her best intentions in getting them past said issues. My point was, if they are overreacting to her aids due to some prior abuse, couldn’t she soften her aids or apply them differently so as to not upset the horses? Or go back to basics and re-teach the aids as one would a totally green horse? What’s the rush?

    But, you are right; we are only getting a snapshot of the worst moments juxtaposed with the ‘best,’ and from this it is impossible to know just what kind of work took place before, between and after the scenes in the video. I guess it is a good point for me to reserve some judgment and give people the benefit of the doubt. I appreciate your comment and your different perspective :-)

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  14. Could you please, please, please, please do an article about training a resistant and resentful horse? It would so great if you

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  15. hi kippen - thanks for your comment. i'd love to do a post about training resistant horses - is there any particular resistance or type of behavior you'd like to see focused on?

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  16. Well, I've looked at her videos repeatedly and I do not see her over using a spur or whip. If you watch all of the videos of her working with the Arab you'll see how over time it moves forward willingly. It was brought to her with problems but through consistency the horse 'gave'.

    As to the horse that reared in the dressage arena - I am amazed that she had the presence of mind to use the very strong rein correction to keep the horse from potentially going over backwards. A horse possibly falling sideways is far less hazardous to the horse and the rider as opposed to one that rears up and falls backward.

    I'll admit she is not a professional at this point in her life, but she does have professional instruction.

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  17. I thought she has areas she can improve her riding in - however I doubt that she is the only cause of the issues. I have also worked with and seen horses that are fine when you are on the ground and you could longe them from now until christmas - however they have managed to get out of being ridden and back to the "easy" ground work by pulling such stunts as you see performed by the horses on that video.

    Sometimes there is no substitute to riding it out, and if a horse is not responding to the leg having the spurs on is smart - you can't go getting off to put them on in the middle of a tantrum from your horse.

    Also it is often overlooked that horses aren't in pain if they are behind the vertical - they are not engaging the haunches and therefore not having to work - it is eaiser for them. It's not as if that video is looking like rolkur - it's just a simple evasion.
    I hate to seeing how many horses are allowed to be behind the vertical because it means the hindquarterrs aren't engaged so the horse isn't carrying itself correctly - however I have been through times when if I wanted forward it was going to be either behind or infront of the vertical until we got some of the other issues sorted.

    Oh and i've never ridden in an indoor area and I expected and trained my horses to do what ever was needed from eventing, to herding sheep to trail riding.

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  18. Hi my name is Veronica, and i am from Sweden. You have too excuse my english.
    I work with horses, with problem, and as a bodyworker fro horses with training and massage..

    I get very sad when i see the video...
    The horses are telling something, and i think that in the most cases its pain. Horses there change and get agressive, often got pain, by something, often the saddle.
    Otherwise the horses dont understand what the human wants on top of them..
    I find your blog its interesting to read, greetings Veronica

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  19. hi veronica - thanks so much for stopping by! your english is very impressive (and i don't know any swedish :-\

    i agree that pain (especially from saddle fit) is very often a cause of so-called 'bad' behavior in horses, and is always the first thing i check when working with a 'problem' horse. if pain can be ruled out, the only other causes are fear, misunderstanding, or both.

    which is why this video makes me sad too. not only because the horses were upset by something, but because i get the feeling that whatever was bothering them hasn't really stopped...

    it's good to know that there are people like you out there doing work to help horses like this so they don't have to suffer.

    thanks again for stopping in :-)

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