Am I Talking Gibberish?

Recently I happened upon this little essay about the experiences a riding instructor had with two very different students, and it got me wondering if I’m speaking the right language here on the blog.  The whole point of my Hooves efforts is to help people understand why horses move as they do, why people experience the behavioral and physical problems they do with their horse/s, and why it’s important to pick a horse physically suited to being ridden AND the job it’s being asked.  If I’m not conveying those things in a manner others can understand then it’s all for naught, which means the horses pay the price for human ignorance.

I, therefore, encourage all to speak up.  If it’s not making sense to you, tell me in the comment section that you require I speak/type in a different language.  I’ll do my best to try and explain in a different way.  I assure you, I’m not sitting on this side of the Internet thinking you’re stupid.  There have been plenty of times in life when I’ve been lost before the end of the first sentence and needed my hand held until the light bulb came on.  And if you ever find yourself in a riding/training lesson like the engineer or the artist – unable to connect the dots being laid out by the instructor – say something.


17 thoughts on “Am I Talking Gibberish?

  1. I find this blog in general easy to understand if I give it sustained attention, because I came to it after reading and re-reading Deb Bennett, following the now-defunct “Fugly Horse,” and while being in a training program that re-inforces the same principles, so the concepts were familiar. Also the photos and diagrams make things very clear. However, in general I don’t grasp physical instructions perfectly from print formats, or even DVDs, so I make sure to have my riding lessons in person, rather than try to figure things out from secondary sources. But in regards to actual lessons, the article you linked to made me laugh!

    I’ve had two primary instructors since I started back to riding as an adult eight years (as a teen rider I had no instructors, and tried to figure things out from books; dvds weren’t invented yet). My first instructor imparted knowledge on a “need to know” basis, with no speculation or theory. Yet every once in a while I would miss the point and persist in doing something backwards, or keep doing something wrong, and she’d get frustrated. She was more likely to keep giving the same instruction, rather than to think of new ways to explain something. I also had to learn to concentrate on both the instructor and the horse, which was totally new for me and felt often like it interrupted my relationship with the horse.

    My current instructor is much more speculative and theoretical, and we have become friends as well, so the communication is much more open. But I’ve had to ask her several times to quit with the images and metaphors, a la Sally Swift. For instance, trotting around the ring getting into two point, and she’ll say: “imagine your thighs are cannons shooting out oranges at the ground,” or “imagine your are kneeling in a pew.” I cannot ride and imagine these things at the same time. I say: just tell me to get my leg under myself. Or “imagine what you would do if you were heading for a five foot fence.” The honest answer to that one is: I would do an emergency halt and leap off!

    I think what neither of my instructors could fully grasp is the situation of someone who can intellectually know the theory, can demonstrate the correct position in a controlled situation (like while the horse is standing still), but can still not always feel that the body part is in the right place when things get more complex. I have actually made a lot of progress since I’ve started riding again, and I’m not at all hopeless. But I also know that I need to practice any skill more than most people, whether it is a dance step or a stretch or how to paddle a kayak.

    From my end, I teach college English, and I am constantly reminded that aspects of reading and writing that seem effortless to me, that indeed have been effortless my whole life, don’t come naturally or at least haven’t been developed in most people.

    It’s also occurred to me that horseback riding is really the only high-skill, high-risk, high-expense sport that attracts a sizable population of participants who have very little athletic skill. Often, the good competitive riders I’ve met are drawn to multiple high-skill high risk sports (like skiing). But a lot of the amateur riders, adults and teens alike, do no other exercise or sport at all, and are riding because they love horses or animals generally. They have very little proprioception, very little ability to know where their body is in space (the kind of people who, in exercise class, stick their hands out to the sides when they’re told to put them out in front, etc). So by and large, the instructors are going to be naturally good athletes. But a certain percentage of the students are going to be naturally horrible athletes. And these students may indeed be the most dedicated, because they have no other sport to distract them. Yet they are taking on the one sport that really is the most complex, nuanced, ever-changing, that exists. This is different from other high-skill, high-risk, sports where generally participants self-select for basic ability: skiing, white-water kayaking, racing sailboats, rock-climbing, etc.

      • I agree completely Paintmare and I think I’m in a very similar situation. I started reading Fugly with very, very little knowledge of conformation or really the horse world at large – I’d never heard of Rolkur or Big Lick, never thought about overbreeding or considered that some horses were just made to fall apart. But since then I’ve read lots of blogs, articles and information on these subjects and I think I have a decent, if not thorough understanding of what Merc’s blog is on about. Sometimes I have to read things a couple of times to get the gist, especially when we get to the technical nitty-gritty of LS placements and angulation and things like that.

        But at the same time, as jrga pointed out in the comments on the topline post, while I think I’m riding fairly well and have decent position, it turns out my body isn’t quite doing what I thought it was. It’s hard to concentrate on the horse and what it’s doing as well as what you’re doing with your hands and your head and your seat and your feet and your legs. I am an athlete and I struggle with it, I can’t even imagine how people who don’t play a sport manage. Kudos to them for all their hard work.

        The diagrams are the most helpful think, I find. It makes a big difference to me to be able to read the comments/post and compare it to the pictures. In the topline thread I opened a new window with the pictures in it and had it side by side with the comments so I could compare what people were saying with the images and see if I could see what they were seeing.

    • I can identify with that, while not absolutely hopeless as an athlete, I am hardly the most coordinated person in the world, find playing musical instruments nearly impossible as it requires my mind to do one thing and my hands to do two different things, fall off flat sidewalks, misjudge corners on furniture and doors and frequently have the bruises to show for it. I will never be a naturally gifted rider, or the most coordinated person. Add to that, out of a total height of 5′ 3″, my inseam is 26″, I am horribly proportioned to sit on a horse, no leg, too high a center of gravity. For most children past the age of ten who sit in one of my saddles I have to let the stirrups down.

      How do I manage not to be a total failure, mental and physical practice that makes sense to change how I move in fundamental ways. Yoga, if you aren’t proficient at it and the simpler positions, start. Use an instructor at first to get you to feel what your body is doing and adjust the positions. The increase in flexibility and balance, not to mention the ‘remember to breathe’ thing, will help in riding, as well as improve you overall health. Yoga will help you isolate body parts so they may move independently. You don’t need to learn to do anything particularly difficult or become a guru. Any basic eastern martial arts training can help as well as balance, flow, and controlled movement are all necessary. Recognize that while you may not be an athlete, you have taken up an athletic endeavor, and some training and conditioning is necessary. It still doesn’t make me good, or a great talent, etc., but it does allow me to do sufficiently well that most of the time my horse doesn’t have to hunt the spot where I won’t fall off versus balancing himself.

      Practice at a walk. Any great horseman will tell you that is where most of your training could and should occur. There are stories of a great dressage trainer that started a young horse while working with his students. Day after day the riding master walked quietly around or sat still on his horse, when the class reached the point after a few months of training that they had mastered most upper level moves on the schoolmasters, he had a student ride the test on the young horse that had walked around with him. The horse was able to do all the necessary moves of the upper level test. So work at the walk on your balance, your legs, your hands and every step is a self check of you, for a portion of each ride. You can practice straight lines, serpentines, circles, leg yields, shoulder in, turns on haunches, turns of forehand, bending and halts, all at a walk, It will increase your horses’ balance too, it will teach him to isolate and move one part at a time, just as you are doing. It will make more complicated movements later, easier. People want to go from getting on to final performance too quickly, they are impatient with the tiny steps that build to performance. Learn patience. If you have a friend who will help (or an instructor worthy of the title) learn the footfalls, learn to feel where the horses’ feet are, because that is where cueing really begins. If you don’t know what foot is doing what, you can’t ask the correct foot to do something else, ie, respond to a cue.

      Practice off the horse. How many sit on a hard stool or corner of a hard chair and work on their position? Get a cheap stool and do some of your tv watching or computer time on the stool and ‘assume the riding position’, keep your legs stretched, knees pointing down (oranges optional !), back upright not hunched, etc. let your upper arms swing back. You are what you live, so live like you mean to ride.

      And that brings me back, your horse is what he lives as well. If most of his time while under saddle or doing ground work is with a hollow back, stiff inverted neck, nose poked out and feet dragging, he will move like that no matter what you ask. This blog is about you understanding weight bearing posture, and then aiding your horse to find that posture all the time when he is working for you.

      Mercedes has some pictures of how quickly an expert can turn a horse around, and once the horse understands the power and comfort of that posture, even a far from perfect owner can continue that work and improvement. Once you finally start asking for correct movement, and get it to happen, the horse will love it and trust you enough to find it with minimal help from you. You don’t need to be a great athlete, be a great communicator and a sympathetic and helpful partner.

      At some point I am sure Mercedes will have a blog with those pictures, so you can see the transformation and how much it means to how a horse looks and moves and ultimately how it feels. I may be pushing her hand a little here, she’ll be ready when she’s ready, but I think most people think this work is about Olympic caliber riding. It is not, far from it, almost the opposite in fact of what you’ll see any top level ‘pro’ do. And yet we have the photographic evidence that what top level pros do is in fact not good for their horses. Stop following the other lemmings over the cliff. Stop looking for greatness and start looking for what your horse is really doing and thinking. Get in tune with how your horse wants to feel and move and you’ll get control and power and movement out of very ordinary horses that will put to shame what is happening with the pros.

  2. I get the gist of it. This whole internet thing has vastly expanded my knowledge and understanding of my horse. I look back at the vets and farriers I depended on as a kid, and boy do I have a different take on things. Keep the good stuff coming, it doesn’t matter how many are put up. Just look at the comments you get. Pretty good stuff!

  3. I have often wished I had more time to digest the articles. My internet time budget is quite limited 🙂 I really enjoy how you write and I enjoy the markup on the photos. The two go together nicely. One thing I’ve noticed is that I guess I expect captions/info about a photo to be below it (for some reason) and it doesn’t always seem clear here what info is going with which photo. Other than that, I LOVE it here. I often recommend your articles to my clients. I really enjoy the comments, too. You have some very smart, very well written commentary.

  4. I have always found this blog to be my favourite (tied with Bad Eventer). I like it because it is very educational, but doesn’t feel like I am reading a textbook (I do plenty of that as a university student!).

    I really appreciate the photos with lines drawn to indicate the point trying to be put across. I find that after studying the photos and reading the blog posts, I am much more confident in my own ability to watch a horse and decide whether it is moving well and correctly, and its strong and weak conformation points.

    I too find the blog entries relatively easy to understand. I have never been in the situation where something made absolutely no sense to me, as though it was in another language. At the same time, I don’t find the articles written in such a casual, easy-to-understand tone that they lose some of the information. I spend most of my time reading scientific journals, so maybe I am just used to this “gibberish”!

    Yet another thing I really enjoy about this blog, is the crowd it seems to attract. I can usually learn a lot in both the original article as well as the comment section. I really enjoy reading people discuss their opinions on each of the horses and which ever conformation point is the main focus. Maybe one day I will be brave enough to add something to the conversation.

    In short, I think the blog is perfect! Thank you very much for writing these articles.


  5. As Annie (above) has pointed out: I think you have acheived a good balance between understandable/digestible and simplifying to the point of allowing inaccuracies to creep in. That is a very difficult line to walk and I do believe you have managed it quite well – and consistently. It is a rare talent. Well done!

  6. Hi,
    I agree with what others have said in that the blog is written in a relatively easy to follow manner. Sometimes the anatomy is tough to follow as I’m not as well versed on that as I should be (although I’ve learned more thanks to this blog!).
    I find pictures and markups really helpful. It also helps if you have comparison pictures e.g. in pic 1 this QH’s shoulder is great in pic 2 this TBs shoulder is upright. The fact that you go on to explain how you got to that conclusion sets you apart from other blogs.

    Thanks for your effort! Keep up the great work!

    Lastly, I just thought I’d give credit to the instructor that wrote the little essay. Since I don’t ride with her I don’t know if she’s a great instructor or not but I do think it’s great that she recognized that she had to change her teaching style and has done so. In my opinion, it not only shows that she still has passion to teach others, it also shows that she is in tune with her students and genuinely cares about teaching them correctly via becoming a better instructor.

  7. We had a mutual friend that once said something I personally found very enlightening about horsemanship (and life). People have to believe it before they can see it. I think they have to have some belief before they can hear it or learn it, too.

    The article addressed difference in learning style, which is much talked about these days for all forms of education. Clearly instruction should appeal to the different ways in which people learn, being able to read it, get a full, linear explanation from start to finish first then start breaking it down into pieces, people who are visual, to whom shooting oranges out their knees clicks instantaneously, to people who must physically experience the movements, actions, process. The internet can do some of each of the first, but can’t actually let someone feel. And riding is very much about feel.

    How can you explain on the internet the texture and response of muscles as you run your hand over a horse’s body that immediately tell you of every muscle strain, painful spot, etc. And that after you’ve felt it a few times, you know how to walk up to the sore spot from ten feet away and know it will feel a certain way and is sore. And that you know from the pattern that it is a habitual problem from the way of riding and not just a random accident or one off. That the way that the feet wear, and the horse stands and the muscles look, even in a photograph, tell you all these things.

    Most people wouldn’t believe you could see this much, so you can’t reach them, you can’t teach them to see it, too, because they don’t believe. Clearly, when you can get them to touch the horse, you can guide their hands, they can see the horse flinch, you can do some massage and the muscle changes and the horse relaxes and starts to stand and move differently, then maybe you can get them to believe and they will start to see it then, and it goes much more quickly.

    As horse people we need to learn to let go quickly of what we believe because some person said it, and we need to learn to accpet what the horse tells us. How its muscles feel, how it stands, how it moves, those are the truths in which we need to beleive. Nothing else is based in reality, and we need to let it go. Then maybe so much of this, that controverts conventional wisdom will be easier to see.

    I’ve said it lots of times, this information is the keys to the kingdom, you don’t need to be a great athlete, you don’t need a lot of fancy stuff, less is more, and the only being that you will ultimately believe is the horse.

  8. This blog has been an incredible resource. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve went back and read an article for the third or fourth time. I stumbled onto Hooves when i was already questioning what i was being taught, but i feel like all of the information and help you’ve provided me, and all the commentary, have really pushed me in the right direction.

    You’ve given me the information but i still struggle with putting it into practice at home. After some chiropractic, a new and better fitting saddle, changing from stall to pasture board and moving stables, implementing stretches, and giving him some time off this winter, I can tell that Snow has improved, both physically and mentally. Particularly his back muscling . . . he’s filling back in in areas that had atrophied under his previous, poor fitting saddle.

    The thing for me though is that you’ve helped my eyes improve a ton and now i’m better able to recognize poor riding/training. It’s a good thing! But i haven’t been able to find another instructor to help me with lessons because I’m more picky now. If I can see that the way they ride is damaging to their horse or their students are encouraged to ride in a damaging way then i’d rather keep trying to go it alone. I did recently buy a video camera so at least i can see myself ride and attempt to improve that way. I’ve considered taking some video to see if i could get some feedback from the blog as well, that is, if i’m brave enough!

    • That’s wonderful to hear. I’m happy to view video privately, but I do charge for that service. If you do get brave enough, I’m happy to post video on the blog for discussion. That can be immensely helpful not just for yourself, but for others as well. So think about it. I wouldn’t allow anyone to post anything cruel.

  9. Part of what I love about this blog is that I get more out of it, the more I read it. Goping back is never a waste of time. A lot of the technical information surpasses my understanding at this moment in time, it’s later after I’ve digested the concepts I easily understand, that I start to think about the information I didn’t grasp the first time around. Sometimes, I have to mull on the basics a fair deal before I can think about the things I didn’t understand.

    If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the importance of an educated eye in a horse person cannot be overstated. Often times it seems to be that this where you must be both Engineer and Artist, to see both the construction of the movement and the aesthetic of the result.

    I must admit I tend more towards artist – As a child I loved to watch the gaited shows they put on locally – no one was “big name” enough to bother with the openly cruel practices, and the horses had so much movement! It took me a while to learn to look behind the flash and misdirection.

    I get the most of this blog not just when I read it, or think about it, but when I get to the barn and watch the horses go! I have to see some of specifics in horses that I know well, before I can finally get that “light bulb” moment. Then of course, I’m back on the blog reading the article again!

  10. Another perspective on learning technique, that for a physical activity, there is really only one way to learn, by doing:

    I don’t think it contradicts the points made in the original essay, that the teacher has to be able to present concepts differently to different people.

    But how many of us had teachers who would help us feel the release at the poll, and how that release felt throughout the horse’s body? How many teachers could put us on the lunge and ask the horse to achieve a modicum of collection, or as I have been referring to it here, the ‘weight bearing posture’? How many teachers will let us go around on hollow horses for a year without making something change?

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