Horses in the ‘human’ environment
by Frank Gringeri
We all know what setting or places horses like best: fields of grass and room to roam with tree-lined borders for shade and protection from flies. To train and handle horses safely, we must take them from their natural habitat and teach them what they need to know to be calm and trustworthy servants in “our” world. Practice and training must be suited for the job they are to do for us. In Europe, there are three competition horses: the flat horse or the dressage horse; the driving horse; and the stadium jumper or Grand Prix horse. Each of these is trained specifically for the job at hand and the training for each is very different. Here are some examples of what happens when you train for one job and expect the horse to be just fine doing something else they don’t understand.
The rider/trainer was training a flat horse that was trained to the Prix St. George level. He was a WB gelding and very well mannered. I fitted shoes on him for some time and he was always easy – almost unflappable. He was good at shows as well, doing a lot of winning and the rider spent much time getting him settled. They could almost read each other’s thoughts.
One autumn she decided to take him on a fox hunt. She had done some jumping years ago in the equitation ring so she had some background. She wanted everyone to see how well trained he was and how that would allow him to hunt just fine.
They got to the meet and he was mortified at what he saw and what he heard. Gone was the perfect, flat footing and the serenity of the dressage arena. There were hounds milling all over ready to take off. He was almost uncontrollable but she managed to stay on him. The first stone wall he refused and horses and riders were piling up behind him. It was a real jam and she came off. He was not able to cope with what she wanted him to do, as well trained as he was. He was out of his training habitat. The poor thing was unharmed but she broke her collarbone. Most horses are only the sum total of what they do every day. A fox hunter has to take in a lot of stimulation in the course of a hunt – hounds giving tongue, horses galloping around at top speed and all the time being ready to jump anything that comes in their path.
Another customer had a lovely, tall, gray Thoroughbred he was trying to sell. They jumped beautifully in the jump ring. He was bold and brave to the fences, working well at the three-foot level. He was a five-year-old gelding and had raced prior to being a jumper. He decided one weekend to take him to a two phase: dressage and cross country. It was more of a schooling show and he wanted people to see him and perhaps get some interest in him.
They got through the flat test very easily. The footing was perfect and he had walk, trot and canter down cold. There were other horses around him warming up quietly. It was consoling to him to be with other horses. Next was the cross country. He was in the starting box and didn’t want to leave. He was alone as he headed up the new ground with some concerns; he had no idea where he was and was being pushed on to get ready for the jumps. Halfway through he got even more fearful and started to run in an open field and really got going. He was a runaway at that point. He went off course and got excused. I saw him the week after and he told me he ran him into a tree to stop him. He could not believe his horse had acted so poorly. Out of the comfort of the jump ring, the horse could not cope with the new and strange demands placed on him.
Another time a trainer was hosting a two-day jump clinic for a local horse club. It was to be indoors and she had four or five riders and horses that could jump around and demonstrate. But these horses spent much of the time turned out in five-acre paddocks quite a distance away from the hall. I noticed they were always unsettled when in the stalls because they were so used to being out most of the time. Their comfort zone was the paddocks. The day of the clinic some 40 people piled into one end of the indoor. The horses never saw a crowd this big in the hall. To the horses, it was like they were in New York City. They could barely get over the jumps and when the crowd was all they saw after jumping down the long side, they were spooking to get away from them. These were trained jumpers but they were out of their element with the changes that took place. Day two was no better, as they were traumatized by the day before.
Another customer I had was just getting over an injury and was told no jumping till she healed. She started up with flat lessons so she could continue riding. Her gelding was an Irish sport horse and was a solid 3’6” jumper, getting around courses with ease. She was a seasoned rider in her early seventies but spry and light in the saddle. She had a lifetime of lessons and riding was her first love. They finished up a lesson one afternoon and there was a small crossrail set up at the end of the hall. Her horse had not jumped anything in over a year and he loved to jump. She asked the trainer if she could come down a line to it and she said, “Sure, he can do that with his eyes closed.” But when he saw the “X” in front of him he came to life and over-jumped it by leaps and bounds. She came flying off him, completely surprised! I wonder why people do what they do to horses and expect it will all work out.
I witnessed this over and over and people got hurt or the horse was labeled a bad actor. In all four instances, the riders thought the horses were ready for anything. But horses don’t adapt to changes rapidly. They need time to inspect the environment and consider it safe. Herd animals all act the same – cattle, deer and horses. They are a ball of anxiety till they can make peace with new jobs and new locations. Horses live by their instincts and are just trying to stay alive. They get fearful very easily. They need time and good training along with some consideration as to what they need. Only then will they allow you to do what you want. It’s a work in progress but if you stay the course, you will be rewarded with the joy and pleasure of a faithful servant, happy in his work.