Thursday, May 20, 2010

Roundpens & Trainer's Competitions

Alright, bear with me as I get into the rhythm of things and get into a proper posting schedule! I had a number of blogs I would like to do over the following weeks, including some that relate to some of Cathy Atkinson's blogs.

The following is a response to Even the Lord Did Not Try to do it in 3 Hours! It is actually a very good topic and one I can definitely speak on, having done a Trainer's Challenge myself (whereby I had 4 hours to train a colt) and being a horse trainer myself as well. Below is the video Cathy specifically comments on:

Some highlights of the video, so we are all on the same page:

0:00 we can see the trainer push the horse to seek comfort in him (the trainer), by pushing the horse away whenever it goes to leave, and by removing pressure when the horse shows signs of wanting to come in and 'join up' with the trainer
0:20 the trainer teaches the horse to follow the feel of the rope and to give to pressure
1:10 general desensitization
1:21 the horse is following the trainer of its own accord, at liberty (no rope)
-> more desensitization, particularly to the rope around the pastern
1:56 the horse's leg is caught in a rope so that the ground person maintains control

"God wants us to scare the living shit out of unhandled horses and exhaust them into submission!" - Cathy Atkinson

I don't know what video Cathy is watching, but in the one I saw, the one above, the one Cathy is supposedly commenting on, I don't see any horses 'scared to shit' or exhausted into submission! I fail to see the sweat streaks, severely lowered head, stumbling steps, etc of an exhausted horse, and while the horse reacts occasionally (as to be expected), the horse calms quickly as well and is never scared to an extreme. The Arabian mare I am currently working with shows more fear than those horses, and that is if her shadow moves or her tail blows (in the wind) unexpectedly! Oh, the horror! It is not rocket science and it does not take an animal behaviorist to see that these horses are not excessively stressed. Is it the way I train at home? No. Does that in itself make it horrid? No. I honestly think that how the horses were worked with in this video (at least what was shown) was not outside the horses' best interests. The result was a calm, relaxed horse who was willingly following people on the ground and who was quietly moving out under-saddle. Due to the prior and proper preparation (given the time constraints), the horse is not even excessively worried and relaxes considerably and visibly throughout the session and particularly after a few moments under-saddle. This is not how a person would work with a horse at home, but in this case working with a horse in such a short time frame where auditors can see and better understand the overall process of starting a horse under-saddle (albeit condensed), can be beneficial.

When Cathy mentioned the horse's back leg was pulled up, I admit I was worried. I imagined the horse's front or hind leg tied up so that it was immobile. Common practise in some circles and obviously not my (training) cup of tea. That definitely can be traumatizing to a horse. That was not the case here, however. The horse was desensitized to ropes from the start and in particular was desensitized to ropes around the pastern, beforehand. The horse was also taught to release to pressure. Then, as part of due process, the trainer mounted the horse. The horse's leg was not pulled up at all. The rope around the pastern was simply used as control by the ground person - to ensure the horse did not buck (which could potentially encourage a habit of such a response). Viewers can see the horse consider bucking, then realise it has a hind leg trapped - and re-consider. No fight, no drama, no traumatizing of the horse. The horse knew to release to the pressure due to prior and proper preparation, was comfortable with the rope in general, and it realised it did not have the power to buck with one leg snared. No issue.

As far as Cathy's apparent dislike of roundpenning, she can be right on certain accounts. When an individual either longes or roundpens a horse 'to death' and then gets on, with the sole purpose of wearing the horse out so that they can work with it - no, you're not accomplishing much. Can Grandma still ride said exhausted horse though? No. Because even a tired horse can still blow (uh, trust me!). While you might not be accomplishing much, you are nonetheless creating a horse tired enough to perhaps re-think bucking or such other reactive activity, and to think things through and work with you instead. However, ultimately, it is a band-aid solution if done in such a way. Real roundpenning (and correct longeing), as shown in this video (or at least as apparent in the clip provided), works the horse's mind. It's what trainers such as John Lyons do - it's what I was taught and it is what I use when need be. You're moving the horse out and making 'out there' uncomfortable by increasing the pressure whenever the horse is away from you. The minute they start showing signs of submission and focus on you (lowered head, licking lips, eyes/ears focused on you), you are releasing the pressure and seeing if they come in. If they come in, they are rewarded with rest - you are making the right answer (working in partnership with you, 'join-up') easy (rest and pets) and the wrong answer (working independently) hard (running). If they choose to leave or to keep running, you push them forward. Changes in direction encourage submission (by asking the horse to move his feet more than yours and by your directing his movement) as well and cause the horse to have to think, rather than run blindly forwards. Roundpenning done in such a fashion can actually be a very useful tool because it works the horse's mind moreso than the body. A horse might still become sweated up, but they are rarely truly tired by the finish of a session. Honestly though, I have worked the odd horse pretty hard in the roundpen and have never come back to an injured or sore horse the next day, as Cathy claims will happen. That is not to say it can't happen, just that horses are not as fragile as Cathy seems to think. Granted, one must always be careful with any activity that is repetitious, such as longeing or roundpenning. Over time, excessive use of such activities could promote unsoundness. This does not occur with a sound horse over even a few sessions however, and not when the activity is done judiciously.

"As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Training takes time and patience. Anybody trying to sell you on a shortcut is selling you snake oil – EVERY time. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS. You will never develop a solid, enjoyable, rideable horse with shortcuts and they have a nasty way of backfiring. A horse who isn’t trained in a slow, patient manner is like a piece of swiss cheese — he’s full of holes, and you’re going to fall through one when you least expect it." - Atkinson

Cathy is correct here. Good training takes time. On the other hand, clinics/competitions in which the trainer only has say 4 hours to train a young unhandled colt to accept working under-saddle, I do not feel are particularly detrimental to anyone. No trainer - or none that I have met, who has competed in such challenges or put on such demo's actually trains client horses in '4 hours' (as done in the trainer's challenge/clinic). They recommend 30-90 days minimum. Including myself. Why are they done over such a short time span then? Convenience to the public. I think such short clinics and challenges can be beneficial to the public because it does showcase how training can be accomplished, albeit in a condensed manner. Real training is done in a very similar manner, simply with more emphasis and time spent on each step. Spectators get a quick synopsis of how to train a colt and may even pick up a few tips and trainers usually even mention throughout their demo/competition the extras they would throw in given time (I know I do and have heard others do the same). Trainers get the chance to show the public how it can be done - the poor trainers, under such time constraints and with the challenge increased due to such a short time-span allowed, will really demonstrate a terrible job on their horses, and the solid trainers' impeccable techniques will hold still under the increased challenge. On the other hand, the reason I am not particularly fond of such competitions/demo's is that Cathy is right - you're creating a horse akin to a brick of swiss cheese. You leave a ton of holes in the horse's training in your quest to 'get by', and you end up rushing the horse. Some auditors (the ones missing the point) might be misled into thinking this is how a person can train their horse at home. Yet on the other hand, it presents more of a challenge to the trainer - to accomplish what would normally take weeks, in a few hours, and see how much of it they can get done, with a quiet and relaxed horse at the end. Judges do not reward uptight, exhausted, and scared horses in the finals at trainer competitions and will in fact reward a trainer for not pushing the horse and failing to accomplish certain 'tasks' in the best interests of the horse. Furthermore, most individuals watching do understand though that the horse is yet essentially green and will require loads more training for the average individual to work with it. On that note, if the horse is uptight and unsafe due to poor training over such a short time span, most individuals would have the presence of mind to recognise the poor training as well and not follow it! In conclusion, while there are certainly some 'cons' to such trainer's challenges, I feel there are many more 'pros'.

Hopefully that explains my thoughts on the matter...for additional information concerning roundpenning, definitely check out John Lyons or even Pat Parelli or Jonathan Field (liberty work, for the latter two). All three trainers have great ideas and tips in regards to working with horses at liberty and all three, to my knowledge, have also worked with horses under very short time constraints, to demonstrate what is possible and why their techniques work.


Valerie said...

You know at times I enjoy reading the fugly blog. At other times they take it WAY to far (yesterdays blog for instance) and her whole thing that if you are for slaugher in ANY way you are uneducated.

Anyways. My "boss" and i practice what would technically be called natural horsemanship. (even though I have started to shy away from using that term due to the stigma that goes with it. Tend to move towards "practical" horsemanship).

What I am getting at is that I agree with you. When I watched that video I saw no fear in the end. I saw the adrenaline start to go up and then go straight back down. Clear signs of a horse that has been properly desensitized. He thinks "oh my gosh its going to kill me!" and the immediately moves to " oh never mind I remember this.. its safe"

There are times I use liberty work to get some energy out, but mainly to get the horse thinking and paying attention to me.

But trying convincing Cathy of that :)

Equus said...

Ah, I couldn't agree with you more. And I have to admit I've been shying a bit from the term NH as well, unfortunately. It's too bad people cannot simply open their minds a little.