First do no harm… You may not know, but I am a surgeon in my other life, so “first do no harm…” is the mantra that I live by, day to day, and try to apply in every interaction in life, human to human and human to horse. Above is another doctor, who I am sure shared the same mantra.
Now I know we all love our horses and we work really hard for them and with them, and nobody that got into horses ever did so with the intention of causing harm. But here is an awkward truth:
“The intention to harm need not be present for a horse in fact to be harmed”
So how might we harm our horses?
The first most obvious example is blood. Now we all may have different standards but one of my basic principles is that nothing I do to my horse should make him bleed.
I’m not saying I have never caused a horse to bleed- when Paddy was in work, I rubbed his side raw in a jumping lesson, not with a spur but with a spur rest. Yes, he does have incredibly thin skin. But that wasn’t an excuse. I rubbed his side raw because my leg position wasn’t good enough in those days and I was gripping with my calves, in that “knees out, heels in” stable, secure and incorrect position that jumping trainers encourage because it decreases the number of ground slaps that might occur in any one lesson.
It wouldn’t happen now. Four years and hundreds of pounds of seat focussed lessons later my leg position has changed entirely, my seat is now secure and I aid with the inside of my foot not the back of my calf.
When Cal was young I rubbed his mouth raw with the bit. The well meaning livery yard owner gave me some crystals to mix with water to harden up his mouth. I was an idiot and uneducated and I used the solution and carried on schooling. No one suggested I should learn to use the bit better or learn to keep my hands still (independent seat again); it was the young horse’s soft mouth that was the problem and there was a caustic solution for that.
First do no harm…
Rocky has not had a sore mouth. Now we have learned that the bit should only act up or out, never down on the bars, that the length of rein is dictated by the horse, that the frame dictates the length of rein and the horse’s level of balance and schooling dictates the frame. And I have a more secure seat that allows me to think forwards with my hands without losing balance.
So obviously I’m still not perfect, but I’m learning and trying to be better all the time. And if I caused one of my horses to bleed in a competition I would eliminate myself and kick myself and run for home to train and improve myself so it could never happen again.
First do no harm…
There are other more insidious ways of causing harm to a horse. The modern fashion of riding Low Deep and Round, also known as deep stretching, well behind the vertical, has been shown by more than 50 scientific studies to be physically and mentally damaging for the horse. Modern science is proving what the Old Dead Guys knew by keen observation- closed postures and curling the front of the horse rather than riding from the haunches leads to problems with kissing spines, suspensory ligament pathology, SI joint damage, hock arthritis, and also to stress and gastric ulcers first from having their vision limited and then from learned helplessness.
First do no harm…
This horse is behind the vertical- red vertical line included for reference.
Please don’t take my word for it: read the research for yourselves
And then make your own minds up. But please remember
“To know and not to do is not to know”
So we are naturally too quick to criticise others, and all of us are just doing our best. How will we know if the work we are doing is correct?
Luckily horses are very clear once we have learned to look and listen.
I’ve altered the quote below (from Maya Angelou)
“I have learned that horses will forget what you said, horses will forget what you do, but horses will never forget how you made them feel”
So how do we know that our work is good? In a world where so much teaching is against the horse rather than for the good of the horse, how do we tell the difference? How do we know whether the work made his body feel better? Which after all is the whole point of Dressage- from the French verb ‘dresser’ which actually means to train, to sculpt our horse into a thing of beauty that is empowered rather than diminished by our interventions.
Did it make the horse feel good?
What signs do we look for to know it made them feel good?
My favourite sign is helicopter ears- they go soft and floppy and assume all sorts of funny angles. Rocky has huge ears, as do all his family, so this one is pretty obvious, as well as being visible from on top! No good photos of Rocky but this photo of Beat makes the point.
Another sign is soft liquid eyes, with relaxed ‘eyebrows” and slow blinking. When the work is good, the horse is calm, because horses are kinaesthetic and they find it frightening to be out of balance. When their balance is aided to improve, they relax and chill out. They almost look stoned after good work. Stoned, not exhausted.
Breathing slows and calms: soft hurrumphs or gentle chuntering are signs of a relaxed mouth , tongue and larynx as well as relaxed brain. Harsh sharp breathing, breath holding, or sharp snorting, teeth grinding or calling out are all sure signs of a horse either stressed or on full alert.
More on the mouth from James Dunlop:
“In the French Tradition, it is the state of the mouth that governs everything. There are three mouths possible. A dry mouth, a soaking wet one with gobs of foam on the chest and legs, and a moist one in which the lips are just moist and the lower jaw relaxed. The third mouth is described as being ‘fraiche’ and offers a gentle murmur (L’Hotte) as if to be ‘smiling’ ( Beudant) . It is to this third mouth that we should aspire.”
I always get off the horse after a work session and look critically at the muscles. Is the neck soft and inflated, are the under neck muscles soft, does the neck come nicely out of the shoulder girdle. Does it look wider at the base than the middle of the top? A good neck should be an even triangle from withers to poll, and from shoulder girdle to poll. The LDR horses have this weird tube of muscle that runs up from the middle of their necks, with no splenius or trapezius; in layman’s terms they have a hollow missing triangle just in front of the withers and also under the pommel. This photo below is an example of a horse showing aberrant muscle development from excessive flexion.
Is the lumbar back full? Does the hors’s skin shine and glisten and move smoothly over his frame or does it look dry and tight and stuck to the bones? Is the tail carried, not clamped, does it swing softly as he moves? If the tail swings, the back can’t be braced.
And finally, does he look proud after work? Does he go strutting back to the field to tell his mates how cool he was? Does he look better and stronger and bigger each time? Does he offer the improved posture next ride without having to do the prep work?
If he offers the new posture or the new body usage next time, you know it felt good and he’s choosing to seek that posture. If you have to do all the work all over again, every time, it didn’t feel better. And that means it probably wasn’t right. So don’t repeat it…because if you aren’t improving your horse you are breaking him down (Charles de Kunffy).
and first do no harm…