There are always people, in any competitive pursuit, who are willing to do “whatever it takes” to win.
And if they’re making those choices only for themselves, then that’s probably okay. Best case scenario, it’ll be admirable and they win an Olympic medal. Worst case, they get disqualified for drug use. 😉
But when animals are involved, there is another being to consider, and one that didn’t choose to be there, that doesn’t have your competitive drive.
Your horse might love the excitement of the show ring and really “turn it on” and show off – but he would still be just as happy (probably happier!) at home in the pasture, eating grass with his buddy. Horses want to have food, friends and space to run. They don’t want championships.
So when we’re talking about doing “whatever it takes” to win, we really need to make sure we’ve looked at the consequences for our horse.
There are people who feel that anytime we compete with a horse we’re doing them a disservice. I’m not there – I think horses like to have a job, they like to work with a human partner, and showing is just one of a lot of fun activities that you and your horse can participate in together. Provided, of course, that their basic needs are carefully considered and everything is done as stress free as possible.
There are lots of things that people do in the name of winning that I’m not comfortable with, so I choose not to do them. I don’t sweat necks, razor faces, or shave off eyelashes … but if that’s something you feel is worth it, and you’re managing it carefully for your horse’s well-being, then great, that’s your choice and you might win more ribbons than me because of your choice. I can live with that.
If “whatever it takes” involves using pain or force to “train” your horse, then you’re doing it wrong.
Recently I saw a “training halter” for sale, specifically for Miniature Horses and Shetland Ponies, that had a length of chain in place of the crownpiece, over the horse’s poll. The sales pitch claimed that it was ideal if you needed “more control” over your young stallions.
Like anything, I guess in educated hands it wouldn’t necessarily be harmful. But most hands aren’t educated.
When I was in college, our horsemanship instructor taught us how to apply and use a “nerve line.” He was very specific that we had to learn the right way to use it, the dangers involved, and made us promise not to teach anyone how to put it on if we weren’t also going to a) teach them everything he’d taught us, and b) supervise them.
A nerve line is a sort of halter fashioned from a lariat. The loops go around the muzzle and over the poll, and tighten with pressure. It needs to be done correctly, or it won’t release and can easily cause nerve damage due to the sensitivity of the poll of the horse. We were cautioned to never use it with anything narrower than the rope or the risk of damage would be too great.
The idea is that if the horse pulled back or resists, the pressure on the nerves of the head causes pain and they chose to move forward to release the pressure. It definitely works. The horses would jump almost like an electric shock.
In careful, knowledgeable hands, you can bet it’s an effective tool. In uneducated or uncaring hands? A torture device.
Close to twenty years later, I know that using avoidance of pain as a training tool is not something I choose to use, but I am grateful that I have the knowledge of it, so I can make educated decisions about so called “Quick Fixes.”
If my instructor cautioned us (put the fear of God into us, more like) about never using anything harsher than a rope over their poll, never using force, never allowing it into uneducated hands – and this was a man who also taught us that “fear and respect are only spelled different” – then what do you think a chain, being marketed for “control” is going to be capable of doing?
Think I’m overstating the sensitivity of the poll of the horse? I have personally seen two horses die due to strikes to their poll, neither one of which seemed that significant of a blow.
I would strongly suggest spending the time to actually train your horse, allow him to understand what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, without fear or pain. Don’t go for The Quick Fix without properly understanding the consequences for your horse.
Lest anyone think I’m picking on this particular device, it is far from the only Quick Fix that sees regular use.
Another one that has become disturbingly mainstream in the world of Miniature Horse shows is draw reins.
Draw reins are a device that uses a pulley system to apply leverage to the bit and force the horse to bring his nose in.
Really, that simple description should make most people steer clear, but they’ve become so common in use that no one bats an eye to see photos and videos of miniature driving horses being worked in draw reins, and even horses with mouths open and noses to chests, with their heads additionally restrained by a tight overcheck, are greeted with a chorus of positive comments.
In riding horses, draw reins – and the head and neck position they force the horse into – are at the centre of the Rollkur controversy. Studies have proven the detrimental affects as a result of being forced into this posture – ranging from breathing difficulties to nearly irreparable soft tissue damage to circulation issues to arthritic changes in the neck – not to mention the effects on their whole body, as they’re not able to move correctly with their head pulled down.
Even those who use draw reins in their riding horses as the tool they were intended to be, strongly recommend caution, educated hands, and a second set of reins so you aren’t relying on the harsh draw reins for every communication.
And that is with riding reins. With leverage of a couple feet of length, and a rider that moves with the horse.
Driving reins are much longer, and more length equals more leverage. And I often see them used as long lines, which means that they can tighten with no release at all, as the handler stays still rather than moving with the horse.
Draw reins simply aren’t an appropriate tool for use with a driving horse. When there is serious welfare concerns regarding their use in a 1500 pound Warmblood with two or three feet of leverage, and they’re being used with six or eight or twenty feet of leverage with a 250 pound Miniature Horse … I think the math speaks for itself.
Draw reins are not a Quick Fix to bring your horse’s nose in to get the frame you want in the show ring. Draw reins are going to teach your horse to avoid contact, inhibit their ability to move to their best advantage and have the potential to cause all sorts of pain and damage.
When it comes to horses The Quick Fix doesn’t exist. And if someone tells you it does, really take the time to understand how the device works, and educate yourself as to all the effects, not just the one that you’re looking for.
Horses can’t speak for themselves, so it’s up to us to be their advocates, and make sure we make educated decisions on their behalf.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.