Both Sides Now
by Scott Thomson
Thanks to all of you who took the time to contact me about my last two columns on trailers and safety (March, April), obviously topics that are important to many riders out there. I had emails from as far away as Idaho — pretty cool for my operation here in little old Silver City.
As a short addition to my last column, "Safety First," I just read an interesting study of stress levels in horses being used for police work in the Netherlands. The study monitored heart rates, respiration and certain blood characteristics as horses were put through a series of exercises designed to simulate the kinds of challenges police horses would face in their jobs out on the street — smoke, noise, crowds, equipment, etc. I found the results pretty fascinating given my interest in building strong working partnerships with horses that stand up to real-world challenges.
The study found that the horses all adapted pretty well to the exercises regardless of their age, experience or breeding, which the researchers took as a sign that the police force was doing an excellent job of selecting and handling horses well suited for this job. They found that smoke and truly unfamiliar objects, like big red balls, led to the highest stress levels. But overall no horses showed physical or behavioral responses that correlated to significant levels of stress.
The second part of the study is what yielded some results worth noting. A group of experienced horses was monitored as the horses were transported, put through riot training and sent out on night patrols on busy streets. These tests were done in pairs and singly. The researchers found that the level of stress for the horses correlated with the level of skill of the rider, even for the most experienced horses that had done all this work before. The rider's ability to anticipate and manage the fear response in the horse — that is, to quickly give the kind of support, direction and meaningful cues a horse needs when nervous or under stress — is what kept them calm under pressure. A rider's inability to do this, by doing things like pulling too hard on the reins, using too much leg or becoming unbalanced, actually stimulated the fear response in some cases, making a dangerous situation worse for horse, rider and the public.
This for me is more proof that you and your horse need to make defensive riding under real pressure part of your normal riding/training routine. Most of us don't ride horses that would be selected as good candidates for police work. That means your horse is more likely to have much bigger responses to real-life stimuli, so you have the responsibility for helping your horse manage his fear response and his behavior. I suggest what you might extrapolate from this study is that the most stressful thing for a horse is having a rider on his back. So it is up to you to convince him that you know what you're doing, you understand what he needs and you know how to help him.
As the spring winds arrive, the dust starts to swirl and we pray for rain — making this one of the most challenging times of the year for horse owners — I thought a little humor would be good for the soul as you chase that fly mask blowing down the road. During a recent paper purge at our house, I came across a funny email I received years ago — from the last century actually, which still sounds weird to me.
The idea was a comparison of how a horse's "dictionary" defines various words vs. a human's definitions of the same words — a fun way to point out how differently we each see the world. It is a wonder we get along at all! I'm sure there are a million versions of this out there — I hope you enjoy this one:
The Human's Dictionary
Arena — A confined area where you perform competitive exercises to improve riding skills. See also: "money pit" and "constant maintenance."
Bit — A piece of equipment used to control or discipline a horse. You can never have too many.
Bucking — Unacceptable behavior that needs to be punished.
Cross-ties — Equipment to control horses and make them stand in one place.
Dressage — The highest form of horse/human partnership, from French meaning to train. See also: "large cash expenditures for equipment and clothes."
Farrier — Member of your personal equine support team responsible for keeping hooves in good working order. Shares your bank account with your trainer (see).
Fence — Necessary to keep horses confined and on your property. See "constant maintenance."
Grain — Part of daily feed ration that helps with nutrition and energy. See also: "over-grained bolting horse."
Hitching rail — Another piece of equipment used to keep horse in one place.
Horse trailer — Transport for horses so human can indulge various riding interests.
Jump — A riding obstacle that gives you brief sensation of flight, especially if the horse decides at the last second not to jump.
Latch — Another way to confine horse in stall or pen, and something that you can never open with one hand.
Longeing — Training technique used to develop fitness and make you dizzy.
Owner — Loving person responsible for care of horse. See also: "cash machine," "ATM."
Rider — Usually same as "owner." Human who feels this is the return he gets for all the money he spends.
Trainer — Person who does the hard work with your horse. Also, has direct access to your bank account.
Veterinarian — Your horse's healthcare professional. Someone who knows how to do all the real disgusting things that have to be done in the name of good health.
And the human's bumper sticker: Tells people that driver carries no cash because he spent it all on horses.
The Horse's Dictionary
Arena — Place where humans take all the fun out of forward motion.
Bit — Means by which a rider's every motion is transmitted to the extremely sensitive tissues of the mouth. See also: "medieval tools of torture."
Bucking — Counterirritant.
Cross-ties — Gymnastic apparatus.
Dressage — Process by which some riders can eventually be taught to respect the bit. See also: "lighter saddles," "interesting patterns," "nice music."
Farrier — Pedicurist with an attitude. "Hey, who's paying whom here!?"
Fence — Barrier that protects good grazing.
Grain — Sole virtue of domestication.
Hitching rail — Piece of equipment for testing one's strength. See also: "isometric exercise."
Horse trailer — Mobile porta-potty. The only time I actually get to ride. See also: "improving one's rhythm by pawing wall then floor in 4/4 beat."
Jump — An opportunity for self-expression, whether or not your rider stays on.
Latch — A cool puzzle designed just for horses.
Longeing — Procedure for keeping a prospective rider away from you. See also: "alternative method for testing one's strength."
Owner — Human assigned responsibility for one's every need and desire. Always complaining about something called money.
Rider — An owner overstepping his/her bounds. If it's called riding, how come I'm always carrying something?
Trainer — Human with mob connections.
Veterinarian — A flightless albino vulture, but at least he's willing to clean my sheath.
The horse's bumper sticker? "Call the ASPCA! I'm trapped in this tin can and producing large amounts of methane."
Enjoy your horses, listen to their point of view, have fun and be careful out there!
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at email@example.com or (575) 388-1830.