Should We Train Horses To Not ?Be Horses?'

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Our eventing world is currently considering what constitutes an inordinate amount of distraction while competing on the cross-country course, what riders have to be willing to accept and what can or should be done to try to prevent distractions to a horse on the cross-country course'

Since the cross-country phase occurs out in nature, the environment is largely uncontrolled?you can put up roping to control spectators, and you can improve the footing, but the behavior of spectators and the behavior of Mother Nature can still have a large influence on the competition. That means that we competitors have to train our horses? to focus on the jumps and to perform in a wide variety of circumstances.

Sometimes distractions are so obvious that it's easy to figure out whose at fault and what should be done?such as was the case earlier this year, when a horse and rider on course collided with a Land Rover driven by an official. The official was at fault, and so the rider?s score wasn?t penalized. In the case of the more recent discussion, a rider suffered a badly broken ankle when her horse fell at a fence. The fence judge at that particular obstacle had a dog on a leash with them, and the dog leapt in to a barking and leaping frenzy as the horse approach the jump. The rider knew her horse had an aversion to dogs, and the rider, and several spectators, believe the horse was distracted by the barking and leaping dog, didn't focus on the jump and misjudged it before falling.

So, whose fault was the fall (and the rider?s injury)' Was it the rider?s fault, for not ?training? her horse to ignore barking and leaping dogs' Was it her fault for not adjusting her approach to compensate for the dog, perhaps even pulling up' Or was it the jump judge?s fault for having the dog there at all, for having him in a spot where he could potentially influence the competition'

If you believe the fall and the injury were the result of organizational negligence, should the organizers somehow compensate the rider for it' Or is this just the kind of accident that we competitors have to be willing to accept, because the organizers can't control everyone all the time'

This kind of conversation always becomes circular, with no real resolution, but it also always brings out of the woodwork a group of people who hold the opinion that if your horse reacts to any disruption in the environment around him?say anything between a blowing plastic bag and a nuclear test explosion?then he shouldn't be out in public, let alone competing anywhere. And, frankly, this is a viewpoint that has always confused me.

Horses are fundamentally prey animals, albeit ones We've domesticated for thousands of years and shaped to our will. But we haven't eliminated the flight response from their behavior, and we shouldn't want to. The same instinct that imparts a horse's desire to run faster, jump higher, and fight for every cow or every step of piaffe is part and parcel of the fast-twitch muscle response of a reactive prey animal. Remove that from a horse, as some schools of thought want to, and you remove the very essence of the animal itself, replacing the horse with an automaton. (Yes, I know, that's what some people want?they really want a dog they can sit on.)

As with almost anything, there is a lot of gray area here. As trainers, it's our job to ensure that the horse is as prepared as possible for anything he might encounter in competition, be it a kind of jump or a lady with a bright umbrella watching her niece two horses before you. Most of the people I have trained with over the years are very much of the ?no-excuses school??if you had a bad dressage test in the middle of a storm, that was your fault for not teaching your horse to maintain his focus during the storm. But clearly, as the above example of being hit by an official?s car shows, there are some incidents that you simply can't prepare for.

Which is why I've never understood the school of thought that believes there is a way to somehow ?train? a horse to not be horse-like. I think creating a horse who never reacts to anything is impossible. But, more importantly, I'm curious why you would want to do it' Isn?t the joy of what we do in the partnership that creates trust between horse and rider' Aren?t we trying to create a partnership that shapes that fast-twitch behavior of a prey animal into a use, rather than eliminates it'

I think this intention or school of thought comes from a human desire for predictability and emotional comfort, a desire to eliminate a reaction to stimuli that we don't understand. But the reality is that predictability and emotional comfort are two words that can only be applied in a limited fashion to equines.

Just as with humans?indeed, just as with any species of animal?horses come in a wide span of temperaments and personalities. Some are extremely low octane and content to let the world and all its potential dangers revolve around them. These are generally the horses best suited to be pets, to be reliable companions for people with no or extremely limited riding ambitions.

But highly competitive horses are, almost always, not that way. They have heightened senses and are extremely aware of their surroundings and of what you're doing with and to them. Their personality is often unpredictable from a human viewpoint, and their reaction to some stimuli can seem to some people as crazy or even violent. But it's those horses who?ll go the mat for you in any kind of competition, who?ll fight to clear a jump or will gallop to the end of a 100-mile race, to name two examples.

As trainers and horsemen, we do work to create amount who is as tractable and confident as possible. But we should never forget, nor wish to fully eliminate, the soul of the horse.