Within the small corner of horse riding which could be described as ‘not mainstream’ there are some heated battles raging. You might call it classical dressage or classical equitation , but that in itself is liable to open up a massive can of worms and this blog is not about the definition of classical. This is about infighting and bullying and ‘us vs them’ among a group of people who are all essentially on the same side.
I just don’t understand it. There are so many terrible things going on in the horse world which we should be putting our energy into railing against. There are horses being ridden beyond the point of exhaustion for endurance sports. There are dressage horses being trained and kept in a way which has nothing to do with respect for the horse and everything to do with money and power. There are people and horses living in parts of the world with no access to veterinary care or medical care, or food or shelter. There are horses in America being shipped to Mexico in horrific conditions to be horribly slaughtered.
And then there are a whole bunch of us who are trying to do the best by our horses, who, ostensibly, are not working with them for prestige, or rosettes, or power. There are a large swathe of people trying to train their horses in a way which makes the horse feel better and which brings out the best in them. On the whole, we are not relying on restraining gadgets or large amounts of force. In the main we are trying to keep our horses in ways which are as beneficial as possible for them within the constraints of a human environment. Collectively we could have a huge amount of sway in terms of improving things for horses in the modern world. And yet, there seems to be so little solidarity that any power or influence is lost. In-fighting divides us and keeps our eyes and influence away from the real issues.
I recently witnessed an on-line debate comparing the way some people were sitting on their horses vs. the way some other people were sitting on their horses. Both sets of people are clearly trying to do the best thing by their horses. They are trying to look after their horse’s minds and bodies. They are not using pain inflicting devices. They are giving horses time to develop. However, they do sit differently on their horses, that is clear and you either like it or you don’t I guess. But, honestly, some of the comments would make you think that the devil incarnate was riding. While other comments were just horrible childish, playground taunts, ‘Well, she just said that because I said that’...I honestly could not believe it.
Why does this happen? I understand that as humans we have a real desire to belong, hence the appeal of street gangs and the Brownies. I was also reminded by Louise Thayer’s excellent blog that many of us have not entirely managed to shed our ‘baby behaviour’ - the behaviours that we used as an infant which helped us get attention to survive and with which we learned how to interact with others. Some of those behaviours, for instance bullying to ensure your own status and mitigate your own securities, or behaving in unhelpful ways in response to your need to be liked (Oh, hello old friend!) are actually not that useful or necessary for adults. And I wonder if baby behaviour is actually what we see when people tear strips off others who are doing nothing more than being a little different in their approach. Does someone doing something differently from you mean you might not ‘be right’ and this is unbearable? Does that threaten the validity of your approach and poke some of your personal demons into action? Why aren’t our shared principles and beliefs enough for us to all hold hands and agree that we aren’t actually the enemy?
And here is the thing which it has taken me a long time to get my head around. Some of this is really just down to personal taste, and my personal taste being different from your personal taste doesn’t make either of us terrible people. It just makes us different. When I watch Philippe Karl riding a horse it makes my heart sing - it’s as simple as that. There is something about the blend of lightness and balance and expression in his horses which I want. For whatever reason it floats my boat. My choosing to train with him is no reflection on anyone else’s ability or goodness/badness as a human. In the same way that fancying Eddie Vedder over Antony Keidis was just a matter of taste, it really wasn’t worth falling out over as neither of them were selling arms or torturing small children as far as I am aware.
There are plenty of other wonderful, amazing trainers and riders out there. There are a couple of Portuguese blokes doing some pretty amazing things on Lusitanos that I enjoy watching videos of. There are some well known American clinicians who have their horses moving in a way which looks pretty lovely to me. Just because Mr Karl’s style appeals to me a bit more, that doesn’t mean that I don’t rate those guys. Within these schools of riding and training we are talking about nuances of difference – the balance is a little different, the contact isn’t quite the same, the way they train a particular movement has different ingredients. In the grander scheme of things they are all doing some pretty lovely stuff with horses and why would anyone waste their precious, short lives being vile to each other about these small (but oh so important! ) differences when there are horses breaking both their front legs half way round an endurance race?
I try my best to do the right things by my horses and the people I teach. I am not an expert in everything by any, any stretch of the imagination. I do some things better than some other people. I do not do some things as well as some other people. As long as those people aren’t being abusive to their horses, then if they do things differently from me (which they almost certainly will be) then what a rich tapestry together we could weave, if only we could stop calling each other horrible names and spitting across the classroom at each other. If someone can teach you about the seat, and someone else can help you with your horse’s crookedness issues, and someone else can help you deal with your horse’s anxiety and you like the sum of those parts then all the better (as long as they don’t conflict or confuse your horse...).
I know humans will always love to pick holes in each other. I also know that we do learn by constructively regarding ‘difference’ and deciding what we like and what we don’t like. I do like the principles of Legerete better than most other classical schools. But that doesn’t mean that I find it necessary to be vile to people who are also training with the horse’s welfare in mind, even if it looks and feels a bit different from what I am doing. I would rather save my anger and outrage for people who are putting acid and chains on horses legs so that they will fling them higher. I want to have interesting , challenging, technical debates with people who are ‘on the same side as me’, but I do not want to be involved in name calling and back stabbing. What a waste of energy and the potential we have to bring about change.
To begin to side with each other, in all the richness of our difference we need to put aside our own insecurities, our desire to be ‘right’, our need to be liked (which might mean we try to side with a bully rather than challenge them), our need to be always in control, or pass personal judgement when we do not know that person or horse, or their situation. Maybe it’s time to extend our approach to horsemanship to humans...