Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jump refusals

This video was passed around the interwebz community awhile ago now, but I still wanted to comment on it myself:

Michael Morrissey on Crelido, USEF WEG Selection Trials #2.

Here is some additional info on the case.

13 times, he hit that horse. I fully understand what he was doing, though I honestly do feel that his attempts at pushing the horse over the water jump a second time - ensuring the horse did not refuse twice, was fueled by frustration and anger. They were not simply a result of 'nerves' and I do not think that one can say 'he did not know what he was doing' (as some of his supporters have claimed). If he lost his temper so bad that he had no idea what he was doing, we've got problems. We all have days or times when we are frustrated with a horse, but that is the time to get off, or to quietly finish what you are doing - with the restraint not to punish the horse for your own emotions. Self-control and self-discipline is paramount and I would expect someone competing in the Grand Prix ring to be the absolute epitome of self-control and discipline. They have to be - they have spent years getting to where they are at so they've had plenty of time to develop themselves as horsemen and riders, and they are in the public eye.

Personally, I do not believe in punishing a horse, barring only some (minor) circumstances. That doesn't mean there are not boundaries and that I do not establish respect (which goes both ways!) between a horse and I, but I do not usually punish specific behaviours - I find it either creates a resentful horse or a scared one, at either extreme ends of the spectrum. Even if it does not incite 'extreme' behaviours in the horse, you at least see the results of punishment in moderation in the horse who is slightly jumpy, or in the horse who isn't quite giving its best. At the GP level, you see the results often - the horse who jumps after a refusal because it thinks it is about to be punished (which it likely is at home!), or in the horse who is bucking or generally fighting its rider. How can a horse concentrate on the jumps if it is busy fighting its rider or if it is worried about its rider's response to something it might do? He cannot possibly give his very best effort.

Punishing a horse after a refusal or runout is definitely a no-no in my books. If it is done judiciously in certain circumstances - fine. The reason I say no to punishment though specifically in regards to jumps? The horse is a prey animal and as such, it has got to have a lot of confidence both in itself and in its rider (in its rider's ability to keep it alive) before it is going to place itself in a situation it thinks could potentially go awry for it. This includes jumps - anything a horse has to go over, under, in between, or through represents a potential 'cave' or 'trap'. To go over a jump, a horse is exposing its belly, and to go between those standards, he has to essentially go through what could become a 'squeeze' that could potentially (in his mind) trap him. As such, he's got to fully trust his rider and have confidence in himself. If he is particularly worried about a certain jump and lacks confidence, or senses something wrong in the ride, or does not have the greatest partnership with his rider - a refusal is going to happen. A horse might be obstinate about a jump, but they are still refusing for reasons relating to their natural instincts - you cannot blame a horse for fear. So, instead, I have always just worked on the root of the problem, whether it be respect, or trust/confidence, or a combination of both. You build the horse's confidence in general, you build the horse's confidence over jumps specifically, and you build up the horse's confidence in your ability to lead. If it IS a respect issue whereby the horse is simply saying 'NO!', the answer is simple: earn the horse's respect.

When I first purchased my Thoroughbred, getting him to go over jumps on the ground was a trial and he was always very reactive about it. I hadn't jumped him either on the ground or under-saddle for months and last week I put him over some barrels (about 2') both on the ground and under-saddle. On the ground, he floated over them beautifully without any hesitation and completely relaxed and calm. Under-saddle, to my surprise, was the same! It was not that we had worked on jumping specifically, but we had worked at developing our partnership, and him in general, and the result was a confident horse and horse/rider team that was calmly jumping.

I think that Morrissey might have simply made a mistake and his methods at home are not necessarily abusive, however it takes a certain mindset to hit a horse that many times, regardless of how you typically work with a horse. You have to regard your horse in a certain manner to feel it is okay to hit him 13 times. This may have simply been a 'bad moment' for Morrissey, but a) it is never ok to have such a 'bad moment' and b) he set a fantastic example for all other riders out there. An example that said: it is okay to hit your horse to get it over a jump. This is NOT okay.

On that note, whip overuse is not restricted to the jumper ring. Just as a short aside, I attended, as a spectator, a schooling show at Amberlea Meadows a few weeks ago. We'll put aside the fact that 95 percent of the riders were see-sawing and forcing their horses into a 'frame' (croup-high, tense necks, behind the vertical - all inclusive) and take particular note of use of whip that was obviously occurring at home. A good 95 percent of the riders we saw that day had very choppy walk-to-canter departs. The horse would frantically 'hop' into a canter. It took me a couple of riders to figure out what was going on, why these horses were reacting and moving in such a way. They are using whips at home. The friend who lives locally and who had accompanied me confirmed my initial thought - "oh yea, they use whips all the time at home". She was referring to the dressage riders at her barn. Rather than getting a clean and smooth walk-canter depart that was natural and flowing, these riders were smacking their horses into the canter, to ensure there were no trot steps between. You guys do realise a correct walk-canter depart can be taught, with no trot steps, without the use of a whip?? It boggles my mind why someone would reach for the whip. It's no wonder the horses are tense and stiff beyond belief. At a hunter show at Rocky Mountain Show Jumping (John Anderson's Farm), I watched a girl pop her mare hard on the nose with her whip for - yup, whinnying. Calling out to another horse. Her parents and trainer stood next to her and continued their conversation with her as if nothing had happened. They were lucky it was just one pop and thus what is considered 'the norm', else I would have been in that ring within seconds. A non-horsey friend was with me and was baffled - "they can do that?" he asked, turning to me. I hadn't even said anything or expressed shock yet. "Yea, that's what happens," was my reply. Because it is. All my life I've grown up with that type of behaviour. To the horse world, it's just punishing a horse for 'bad behaviour'. To the outside world, it's 'hitting a horse on the nose because it whinnied to its herdmates' (who represent to it, its survival). Personally, and this might sound 'harsh' to some, but I do not see too much of a difference between Morrissey's behaviour and that of the dressage riders or the little hunter youth who smacked her mare on the nose, beyond the extreme and obvious, of course. You're operating from a certain mindset to pop a horse for what you deem as 'bad behaviour' - typically, anyways. It's a mindset that, in general, lacks respect for the horse and its dignity. Not okay.


quietann said...

it's odd about "having" to use the whip for walk to canter, because in a lot of ways that's an easier transition than trot to canter. I've never touched my mare with a whip in a walk to canter transition, but trot to canter I have a few times. (I rarely use the whip on her; I carry it, and she knows it's there, and that helps us both. When I use it, I use it *once* and if I'm not getting what I want after one tap, there's something else wrong.)

Equus said...

I agree and it is the oddest thing; I do not understand it either!! If they simply left the whip out of the transition, they'd get a smooth transition, but with the whip they only end up marring it!!