Archive for March, 2011
It’s the end of March, and here, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, Mother Nature is playing one of her seldom seen, much less heard, compositions: thunder-snow pelting flowering trees and blooming spring perennials. The horses have already shed much of their winter coats, so they are snugged into insulated rugs, windows open, and resigned to indoor games. We’ve had only two days of agreeable outdoor footing all month, which we celebrated, modestly. But today, as big dry flakes rapidly changed to heavy wet glop, accompanied by drum rolls, I thought better of trekking, tacked, from stable block to the disquiet indoor gym. Instead, I gave each of the boys a twenty minute hand walk straightway the 50 meter asphalt paved stable aisle, with half-pirouettes at each end, and a few halt/step-back/walk exercises at about the 15 minute marker. Followed by grooming and strategic massages, before re-rugging.
Boring though this could be for me, the horses swing into it and lull themselves into stretching forward and down on a long cotton lead, encouraged by my voice. Therapized by the half-pirouettes, they voluntarily lengthen their walks into straight balanced over-strides, and seem to listen to the rhythms of their hoofbeats on the pavement.
To break the monotony for myself, I sing songs that synch with the rhythms of the hoofbeats, and let the horses play games with me. Today, the clown I fondly call “The Jack Russel Terrier model of the American Thoroughbred” nipped at me between songs, and also when my footfalls were out of synch with his front feet. And he nips like he means it, so I have to be fairly alert.
Walking, my mind wandered to the book with which I slept last night. I truly admire Charles deKunffy’s 1992 The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse, Manege Patterns, refer to it often, and re-read it cyclically. I had reached for it to review deKunffy’s suggestions for canter development patterns, but decided to read again his first chapters, which so succinctly crystallize the essence of classical horsemanship.The first sentence of the first chapter is “Dressage goals, simply stated, include all training activities that prolong the working life and serviceability of the majority of horses”.
Soon enough he states “…the logical goal of all classical equitation: to explore and unfold the nature-given potentialities of each horse to its fullest….our ideals are not fully attainable, only approachable. Horsemanship is not an art for those who wish to ‘arrive.’ It is rather an art in which the process of creating is fulfilling….one merely strives, never arrives.”
Every horse with whom I have had the long-term relationship has validated deK’s points, and such horses, my schoolmasters, heighten my awareness that for each horse, with whom I have a short-term relationship, I can only facilitate progress, rather than to achieve “the goal.”
Walking, currying, and massaging the ‘boys’ as the snow fell, I continued to reflect on dressage ethics. I recalled that in one of deKunffy’s books he states that the priorities of dressage are rehabilitation, therapy and training. In Athletic Development, deK implies that the priorities of dressage are conservation of natural abilities resulting from hereditary conformation and temperament, rehabilitation of abilities and temperament when they have been compromised by injury or environment, therapy including exercises that promote ‘ambidexterity’ and ‘straightness’ and athletic training for the amplification of authentically natural equine motion.
So, I consoled myself, while hand walking and massaging the day away did not make progress, it did conserve the horses’ health and temperaments, and did promote their soundness (walking on pavement strengthens their tendons and ligaments, we know).
All things considered, I’d have rather gone for trail rides. Those days will come, and we will be ready to enjoy them. Meanwhile, during the puddlewonderful days of April, I’ll read deKunffy again, and resist practicing those oh-so sophisticated amplification exercises until the rehab and therapy processes are complete.
Several years ago, I began handling and then stabilizing a former flat racer for I knew not then what other sports. I noticed the very first day I put my hands on The Saint that he reacted to many of my motions, and often to my voice, with a snort. These snorts were not the snorts of a horse startled from grazing by a child passing in the lane on a bicycle, or the defiant snorts of a herd leader to the newcomer, or the snort of a fit horse who, upon being turned out on a chipper morning, throws up his head and exclaims before moving off to inspect the far of the field. These were low, soft, kindly snorts.
At the time I thought that the horse was telling me of his curiosity, surprise, bemusement, or disdain. But then horses don’t talk to people, only to each other, right? As his new surroundings, my motions, his tack, and clothing became familiar and then routine, the snorts subsided, and I forgot them.
As he progressed to lungeing on voice commands in the indoor hall, and I realized that, as he would go to the limits of the line to loosen up before I attached long reins, he was snorting again. These were not look over the shoulder, snort, buckup and snort sort of snorts that celebrated a modicum of freedom, or the kick out and snort sort of snorts of a prankster. This horse would walk calmly away from the chambriere, increase the diameter of his path, bend his neck inward, make eye contact with me, and snort a few or several times while remaining entirely calm at walk and trot.
With the indoor hall otherwise silent, I would hear him snorting while he watched me prepare a grid for free jumping. Of course I thought he was just blowing dust out his nasal passages, or that he had a minor allergy to winter mold. Or… was this horse saying “Ah, time to get on with playing our games, eh?” It did seem so, but then horses only talk to each other, not to people, right?
Soon I noticed that upon my first carrying tack to his stall front racks, but before I opened his stall door, The Saint would leave his hay, turn about his hindquarters toward me, lower his head, and snort. sometimes he did this before I said anything to him, and sometimes soon after I greeted him with, “Hi, Snort!”
So, I was in my library one evening, ruminating about all this snorting. I was fascinated. Knowing that they would at least not laugh (out loud) at me if this was beyond the cutting edge, I considered faxing Equus to ask whether they knew of research on horses trying to talk to people (without being prompted by a pin prick.)
But I became distracted by the need to complete an assignment. So I looked over drawings on the drafting table, and then reached for A.L. d’Endrody’s Give Your Horse A Chance to verify the formula for the distance between two elements with ditches in a combination on a cross-country course to be ridden at preliminary speed. Opening to the index to find that table, my eyes became riveted upon “Snorting…147”. SNORTING! What was d’ Endrody’s concern with snorting? Could I resist?
Actually beginning on page 146. I read:
“Creating of suppleness in the horses behaviour
The secret or producing suppleness is to obtain the horse’s understanding and willingness to obey, since the state of its body depends mainly upon the quality of its mental apprehensions. The more successfully the suppleness of the animal’s mentality is attained, the more readily does it offer the suppleness of its body.
There is an interesting and convincing proof offered by the horse itself of the validity of this statement. Horses often give an audible sign when they are changing from opposition into submission by starting to snort kindly. The rider can best recognize this phenomenon during loosening exercises or regulating procedures at the moment when the change in the horse’s general behaviour [sic] sets in. It is evident that this ‘talking’ is the expression of a mental function, thus the relaxation of the body, which the rider can perceive simultaneously with the snorting, must also be a direct result of the animal’s mental function.”
Of course I read further and with heightened respect for this authority who wrote about horses ‘talking’ in 1959.
Next day, I arrived at The Saint’s stall as he was sipping his water bucket. Without waiting for him to finish his drink, I greeted him with “Hi, Snort!” Then before my very eyes, he raised his chin from the lip of the goblet, stepped (or maybe only leaned) back, flexed his poll, and snorted. Upon my saying softly to him “Well aren’t you somebody?” he resumed drinking. He snorted to me a few more times while we prepared to go to the indoor to play our games.
I don’t know whether this horse was really talking to me, d’Endrody wrote that some of them do. But I’m sure going to keep talking to horses… and listening.