Saturday, 15 November 2008



From Kikulli in 1400BC to today the shelves groan with advice on training horses, but the vast majority have been written for the military officer and gentleman's leisure market. Xenophon, writing in 350BC, was a cavalry officer and gentleman, friend of Socrates and Plato, and his writings reflect his background. Kikulli wrote a rather pedantic training manual obsessed with routine and standardisation, the hallmark of military equestrian texts.

There has always been a second type of horsemanship, hardly featuring on the book shelves, yet historically used on well over 90% of the world's horses. Working class, utility, horsemanship. The 1911 Encyclopaedia Brittannica neatly defines the differences as applied to driving.

Driving (from "to drive" i.e. generally to propel, force along or in, a word common in various forms to the Teutonic languages), a word used in a restricted sense for the art of controlling and directing draught animals from a coach or other conveyance or moveable machine to which they are harnessed for the purposes of traction. This has been an occupation practised since domesticated animals were first put to this use. In various parts of the world a number of different animals have been, and still are, so employed; of these the horse, ox, mule and ass are the most common, though their place is taken by the reindeer in northern latitudes, and by the Eskimo dog in Arctic and Antarctic regions. The driving of each of these requires special skill, only to be acquired by practice combined with knowledge of the characteristics peculiar to the several animals employed. The most accomplished driver of spirited horses would probably be in difficulties if called upon to drive sixteen or twenty dogs in an arctic sledge, or a team of oxen or mules drawing the guns of a mountain battery; and the adept in either of these branches of the art might provoke the compassion of a farmer from Lincolnshire or Texas by his attempts to manage a pair of Clydesdale horses in the plough or the reaping machine.
Under all these different conditions driving is a work of utility, of economic value to civilised society. But from very early times driving, especially of horses, has also been regarded as a sport or pastime. This probably arose in the first instance from its association with battle.

The article continues with the start of "Carriage driving". "by the beginning of the 19th Century the improvement in carriage building and road construction alike had greatly diminished the discomfort of travel; and interest in driving for its own sake grew so rapidly that in 1807 the first association of amateur coachmen was formed. This was the Bensington Driving Club, the forerunner of many aristocratic clubs for gentlemen interested in driving as a pastime."

So while "Under all these different conditions driving is a work of utility, of economic value to civilised society." the bookshelves are full of instructions for those wishing to join "aristocratic clubs for gentlemen interested in driving as a pastime."

Why? Are working class skills worthless. If why preserve every vestige of upper class horsemanship and tradition, where have all the working class skills gone?

Working class horsemanship has left few records because working class horsemen were paid to do a job, and not paid enough to pay afford literary self glorification, but a few examples are preserved. "Half a dozen laden waggons" says Sir George Head "are dragged along the railroad to the particular drop then at work, by a stout cob, which is then ridden carelessly back again, barebacked by a small boy, at a shambling trot; notwithstanding that the interstices between the planks below admit, here and there, full two inches of daylight. However the pony proceeeds, clattering on unconcernedly, otherwise than by holding his snout close to the floor, the better and more cautiously to observe where to place his feet at every step.
.............The beast when I witnessed his performance, had only a halter on his head, without winkers, or any harness except collar and light rope traces. As soon as the boy had fastened the lock of the trace to the foremost waggon, the pony invariably turned round his head, as if to enquire whether all was ready,and then, exactly at the proper moment, commenced his march, the load, meanwhile, rumbling after him: arrived at the drop, the carriages being detached, he here stood jammed close to the wall; shewing perfect cognizance as the carriages passed him, of the degree of attention due to the various noises and manoevres going forward, and not only being aware when it was proper to step out of the way, but how long precisely it was safe to stand still."
This was at the Drops at Middlesborough, huge elvated buildings extending over the mud into the Tees where coal from the Stockton and Darlington line could be loaded on ships before the docks were built. So a boy is handling one horse pulling half a dozen waggons, each carrying two and a half tons, in light coming up from the gaps in the floor boards, doing precision work in a cramped and unbelievably noisy environment, with just a halter and the permanent threat of maiming or death.
This is horsemanship at an incredible level to us today, yet in 1839, when T.H. Hair's Sketches of the Coal Mines in Northumberland and Durham was written, such natural horsemanship was obviously commonplace, but only among common people. Hair notes that the boy is only using a halter, no bit, no blinkers, no whip and relying on subtle communication cues and perfect trust between the pony and the boy. Yet only a few years later Anne Sewell would write Black Beauty in an attempt to wean the upper classes from their enthusaiam for bits, whips, bearing reins, blinkers, cruppers and the other devices the upper classes needed to drive an animal in fresh air and safe surroundings, while some underpaid boy could produce brilliant horsemanship in the dark and dust and noise and danger without all that nonsense.

I am reading Stephen Caunce's "Amongst Farm Horses" which has a lovely photograph of an arable field with a man sowing by hand, followed by a pair of horses with harrows and following them, a tractor with a roller. The pair with the harrow are working as a team with nobody at the reins. How do you define that sort of horsemanship? They aren't on the bit, they aren't collected, they are helping out a mate and doing a job as neatly and easily as they can.

The skills of working with horses bear no relationship to dressage and are about working together to achieve an aim. The horse is valued as part of the team and understands the process because it is involved. Nobody tries to control each foot fall of a working horse, working men accept the horse's intelligence and allow them to use it. Tieing cats to poles and sticking them between the horses legs may produce the sort of control that works in "dressage". It has never produced the teamwork that works on the job.

We have to get away from the concepts of training based on a leisured elite demonstrating status. If your actions are designed to enhance your status, (on top of a prancing horse) your mindset willbe above such concepts as teamwork and communication.

This is a work in progress, I lost half of it last night to a powercut, and anything above this text is intended to be part of the finished item, stuff below is dumped there as I am writing, and occasionally mined to see if I have chucked out any good stuff.
Comments are welcome.

always have been three very distinct uses for horses. Military, (officers for the use of), Military (other ranks and baggage) and Working Co

I am going to stick with the analogy of children, and their education, because it is easy, and emotive, and makes shocking reading.

The title is a tribute to Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy fame, and is an attempt to find the answer to Life the Universe and Everything, as applied to ponies. In my book horses are just big ponies, and I tend to lump in donkeys, mules, onagers, zebras and other equids in the same term. Also I want to get away fr

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