I’m not one of those crazy natural horsemanship bloggers that will stalk people’s blogs and write scathing comments the minute they pick up a martingale.
YOU’RE CREATING A FALSE FRAME!
YOU’RE RUINING YOUR HORSE!
YOU’RE NOT RIDING LEG TO HAND AND YOU SUCK AND YOU’RE PROBABLY GOING TO DIE ALONE WITHOUT ANY PONIES THAT CAN GO PROPERLY ON THE CONTACT!
I don’t like those people, and neither do others. Those people don’t typically get invited to parties, and I like parties.
I also don’t like draw reins or gadgets, and have banned myself from using them. Here’s why:
Once upon a time I had a Quarter Horse I bought out of the newspaper because I thought he was a paint horse (he wasn’t) and was told he had done every discipline under the sun (he hadn’t). Though I loved that dear horse, Elvis, with all my heart, I rode him very very poorly. Get ready to grimace at the following set of pictures, because I’m about to share some of my worst riding with you.
Now Elvis was not the world’s fanciest creature back then, and he certainly isn’t now at the ripe old age of 24. However, he was your typical salt of the earth Quarter Horse that wanted to go trail riding and plod around safely. Given his preference, he would have preferred to always trot like this:
For a few years, that trot was fine with me. He went straight, slowed down when I wanted him and turned the direction I asked. Perfection! All was fine until I went to college, and started horse showing him. With a little bit more education, we turned into this:
And really, that’s not a bad place to start. He’s stepping under his long ass back and moving forward. Yeah, he’s a little on the forehand but his expression is happy and I’m kind of attempting to equitate. Things could be worse, and they quickly got worse when I became obsessed with headset.
See, Elvis and I predominately showed on an open show circuit that ran much like a breed show. We were constantly losing to peanut roller stock horses and really anything that was “on the bit.” Instead of getting formal education about how to properly flat a horse (seemed like a lot of work), I turned to gadgets.
First an elastic attachment to my reins. I’m not sure what I thought this would accomplish, because magically giving me feel overnight since my reins were all of a sudden bouncy bouncy?
Then a German Martingale, which pretty much did nothing for me. It was expensive and strange. I used it for two months before tossing aside.
Finally I hit the motherload – draw reins. Not even your fancy hunter draw reins, but a nylon ghetto western set with big silver clips. The draw reins were magic, or so I thought. All of a sudden my horse started putting his head down! I could yank yank yank and see saw my way to on the bit! Not only that, but he was learning oh so quickly! It only took a few months of riding with draw reins at home to magically get my horse’s head down like I had always dream! It was time for the ribbons to start flying in!
I would warm up for a few laps before touching my horse’s face, because I thought it only fair to let him go naturally before I demand he start “working properly.”
Then I would start my favorite thing, see-sawing with too low hands. That would immediately get him “listening” and we would get to work!
Every now and then, he would even lower his head enough to sort of get the Quarter Horse “peanut roller” look I was originally after. Since he couldn’t keep this up most of the time, I decided it would be better to show him in a “dressage frame” versus the typical stock horse long and low.
I wish I could tell you that judges at our local shows immediately sniffed out this forced headset I had trained my horse to do, and we continued to lose… but I can’t. While we were never flashy enough to be the hack winner, the ribbons I took home started multiplying in great numbers. It was rare that I wasn’t in the ribbons in a flat class, even with larger numbers.
At this time in my life, I had the fortune of a good barn friend who loved taking pictures so I had tons of documentation about my horses “progress” on the flat.
All I saw was his head down. Look at how it was down! His forehead was perpendicular to the ground! After years, we had finally achieved “on the bit!” I was so proud of my training.
I turned away from the stressed expression in his eyes in every picture. The gritted teeth, pinned ears. I wasn’t educated enough to see how heavy he was on the forehand, and how disengaged his hind end was. All I saw was a headset.
All the while, Elvis developed a bit of a stopping problem over fences. Though I don’t remember cranking on his face during courses, I probably did out of sheer habit and muscle memory. I blamed the stopping on him being scared of “new” fences, but I’ve never had a horse with the same problem since. The real reason was how terribly back to front I rode him.
Eventually, I realized how much I had screwed up my horse. I moved barns, and got better instruction with a trainer that yelled out to me the first time she saw me ride Elvis, “Um can you ride him without doing… that?”
I did. Kind of, but whenever I rode Elvis I couldn’t seem to break the ugly pattern I created. It took selling him for a green horse, getting a lot of dressage lessons in the event barn I rode at in Massachusetts before I could kick my see-saw forced frame habit. Honestly, it wasn’t until getting my perfect-to-me Simon before I knew 100% that I could not screw up my new horse in the same way. Instead, I have screwed him up in different ways that I’m sure I’ll write a blog post about in a few years because if you haven’t figured it out by now I’M NOT A VERY GOOD RIDER, OKAY???
Can I blame all of this on draw reins? No, of course not. They’re just a tool, but they’re a tool I abused and they’re a tool that taught me incredibly bad habits. When I started working with Simon, I vowed to never put draw reins or any kind of gadget on him. It’s a promise I’ve kept.
My pictures now are far from perfect. Dressage riders will find 100 things to rightfully critique, but I like what I see. My horse’s expression is soft. I have contact, but I’m not yanking on his face. His butt is working on being tucked up, and his hind end is fairly engaged. My hands are still too low and I’ve also gained about 50 lbs since the Elvis pictures were taken, but hey we’re talking about HORSES here, right?
Oh yeah, his head is down too… but that’s less important.
I hate that it took me screwing up a horse so badly to get here, and I hate that deep down my go to when things aren’t going well is “more hand” versus “more leg.” But I learned, and I am learning still.