Monday, 24 March 2008

What's the point?

"What's the point?"
The classic schoolboy (and for all I know, schoolgirl, but I went to a single sex school) lament. Teachers spent hours in a vain attempt to make lessons seem relevant. Get kids out doing a job and the lesson is relevant and they learn. Horses are working animals and always have been. Some of them pulled ploughs, most of them hauled goods and a few hauled the upper classes around.
They were the tragic animals who had to do a days work and look posh at the same time. Barbaric bits and bearing reins enforced "deportment", while the poor animal was forced forward by the whip against the bit so it looked keen. You could always recognise a "blood" horse by the red stuff dripping past the bit.
But hunting or haymaking, the horses were working, they were bred to work. We have been selecting horses for 5,000 years so they will thrive on work and what do we expect them to do today. Stand in a field and do nothing until we can spare half an hour. And then what do we do........ we try to teach them, and they are saying
"What's the point?"

Get out there and do something with them. If you want to be traditionally upper class, mow the bloody lawn with them, or haul the muck from the stables to the vegetable garden. OK the upper classes didn't actually do it, but their ponies and horses did, working with the grooms and the under gardeners, and we know about this because the upper class children came out an "helped" and years later wrote books about their horsemanship and where they had learned it. And although they all remember the name of the first pony, we never get to find out the names of the grooms or undergardeners who did all the teaching.

But the rest of the world, 99% or so, learned their horsemanship on the milkround, or delivering groceries, or collecting rubbish, or on the building site, or the docks, or railway shunting yards, or wherever they could get a job. Where you see white van man today, you would have seen a horse and cart. And those horses were trained, not to react to every pull of the bit, or every touch of a whip, but to do a job. And that is my point on training, train for a purpose, and within reason, let the pony work out exactly how it does it.

Here is a quote from Smiles' Life of George and Robert Stephenson. "The horse drew the train along the level road until on reaching a descending gradient, down which the train ran by its own gravity, the animal was unharnessed, when wheeling round to the other end of the waggons, to which a "dandy cart" was attached, its bottom being only a few inches from the rail, and bringing its step into unison with the speed of the train, he leaped nimbly into his place in the hind car, which was suitably fitted with a well-filled hay rack."................That is training.

Not all of us have railway lines to play with, but before you start thinking, I want a well trained animal, I need to do some dressage training, ask yourself if it is really any more skilled than shifting coal on the Stockton and Darlington line. Skill is skill, don't let issues of class get in the way.

I am full of admiration for lots of things I can't do, singing, ironing, sewing on buttons, carriage driving, name just a few. But I have also watched my pony when he goes out in the field and is feeling frisky. The acceleration, turning ability and sheer beauty of watching Henry move is awe inspiring. Although he is short legged, shaggy and frequently (more accurately, almost always) unbrushed, he can do the floaty paces and the spins and other fancy movements that were given French names 50,000 years after man's earliest relationship with horses.
My point is that the horse or pony knows HOW to do the paces. It doesn't need someone telling it which leg to move and how far. Just watch any pony or horse that is reasonably happy, turned out in a reasonably natural environment and you will see dressage paces to die for.

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