For those of you who have been involved in the horse world for any length of time, you may have stumbled across some opinions on what the "best" discipline" or "best breed" is! The western versus English, the dressage verses eventing, hunter versus jumper...that sort of thing. If you haven't encountered it yet, you will at some point, it is out there!
Where Do I Stand?
I don't have a favorite discipline. I competed in dressage and evening and enjoyed it. Though I'm not competitive by nature and don't have any interest in competing anymore, all three of my personal horses happen to be thoroughbreds off the race track, but it just happened that way. I had a warmblood before the thoroughbreds and have ridden everything from draft crosses to morgans.
I ride in an English saddle, in a balanced seat position. If you had to compare my style of riding and training to that of training for a certain discipline I would have to say the closest thing is eventing. I think we are all after the same things basically. The disciplines just come down to the fine tuning and specific skills needed for the chosen sport. Basically, the way I see it, we all are working towards the same things with our horses, and aren't so different after all. Call me crazy if you'd like. I'm going to explain myself and I think it will be easier to see where I'm coming from.
Respect on the Ground
We all want our horses to respect us and our space on the ground, to not come into our personal bubble unless invited to. Just as importantly, to back out of our space if necessary. We want them to respond to our cues on the ground to move over or back.
We want them to be easy to lead and tie. To follow us where we ask them without hesitation. To not drag us around to get to the greener grass or other horses.
No matter what direction you chose to go in specifically, you are going to need respect from your horse. You need to be able to understand his nature, how he thinks and how that effects what we do. We want to have them well trained enough that we can move them around our space with our body language and subtle cues.
Respect on the ground keeps us safe and builds a foundation. Everyone wants that, no matter what the discipline.
Accepting the Contact
We want our horses to accept our contact on the reins. This basic skill has to come first. They understand to keep their mouth soft and not fight pressure on the reins. Once they learn to accept the contact and stay in front of the leg, you are building more of the tools you need. We are slowly filling our toolbox with all the skills we need to move onto more advanced exercises later.
Even a pleasure horse or trail horse needs to accept the contact. You won't have very pleasurable rides on your pleasure horse if he throws his head up and fights the bit everytime you touch the reins.
Staying in Front of the Leg
In other words, the horse needs to be responsive to our leg and move forward when we tell them. We don't want to have to kick them non stop to keep them moving.
Most undesirable behaviors under saddle begin due to lack of the horse respecting the leg and moving forward. For example, it is a lot harder for a horse that is moving forward to buck, than for one that is standing still.
The horses motor is the hind end. If you can control the motor you can control the horse. We want them to go forward when we put our leg on. No questions asked.
Moving Away From Pressure
Going along with staying in front of the leg is moving away from pressure. This isn't in a horses nature. In fact, it's the opposite of their nature, which makes it something we have to work on extra hard in the early stages to teach them.
Whether it be doing ground work and tapping the horse's shoulder away from you with a whip. Maybe practicing riding and being able to put your leg on, and having the horse bend or do a lateral movement. Moving away from pressure is necessary for all disciplines.
Everyone wants their horse to be balanced, to keep their shoulders from falling in around turns and to not feel like the horse needs your help to hold them up on a circle.
We want our horses to learn to keep their weight over their backend and keep the front end light. A balanced horse is much easier to ride. A balanced horse is also better equipped to do whatever job we ask of it, whether it be negotiating hills on trails rides, fancy dressage moves or jumping.
We all want our horses to be balanced.
Self Carriage goes along with balance and literally means just that, the horse carries himself instead of leaning on or relying on the rider for balance.
As we said before, the motor is producing the energy in the hind end. We want them to take that energy lift their back up and keep their front end light. We want them to do this on their own, without us holding and pushing or constantly correcting.
Self-carriage is what makes upper-level dressage horses look like they are floating on air. They have the motor running and are balancing all on their own.
Self-carriage is also necessary for horses who jump, no matter how big the jump. Think about it, when you ask a horse to jump you ask it to lift it's self up and over something. If he doesn't have the self-carriage he needs to keep his hind end working, then his front end is going to be heavy in your hands, making it extra hard for the horse to get over the jump. We want them to approach with their weight on their hind end. Keeping their shoulders straight and front end light. The back end propels the horse forward over the jump, but the front end still has to make it! If he is heavy on the front end (doesn't have self-carriage) you are setting yourself up for a hard time jumping.
Collection/Going in a Frame
Going along with self-carriage, we want our horse to be able to hold himself lightly and shorten (or lengthen his stride). We want to be able to take all that energy that we are able to produce by putting our leg on and shape the way the horse holds his body.
We want the hind end under the back end pushing. The shoulders and withers up, lifted, and light. We want to be able to close the front door, meaning riding with contact and being able to have a soft gentle hold of the horse's mouth. When he feels the door closing (pressure on the bit), he responds by softening his mouth and lowering his head.
To what extent he lowers it and how much contact you use varies within the disciplines. The basic skills it requires, though, are necessary across disciplines. Whether you want a collected frame like a dressage horse or a long and low contact like a western pleasure or hunter under saddle type horse, it all begins with the horses back legs pushing. The back legs pushing lifts the back. Then if he is trained to accept contact, he lowers his head.
We all want to have horses with a good work ethic. Horses that go out and do what we ask of them to the best of their ability. They do it willingly, each time we swing a leg over the saddle.
Some horses have a natural work ethic, others have to learn to have one. One way or another, a good rideable horse (which we all want) has a good work ethic.
One thing to keep in mind is work ethic sometimes correlates with the horse's aptitude to do the job you are asking of them. This is where appropriate breed choice comes into play. Picking a horse that is physically suited to do the job you intend on it doing, will make the job easier for the horse. Hopefully, making him a more willing participant
Horses good work ethic is also on you somewhat. As riders and trainers, we need to use exercises with our horses that keep them engaged and stimulated. If they are totally bored every time you tack them up, the work ethic is going to go out the window. Sometimes keeping that good work ethic in your horse requires a change of pace. A day off, a trail ride, something to break the monotony.
So, See What I Mean?
We all have different end goals for our horses but without certain basic skills solidified first, you can't put on the fine tuning you need to get discipline specific.
Despite the fact that we all like doing different things with our horses, we should all respect each other. There are many things that we share across disciplines if you sit and think about it. Whether the saddle is English or Western, you can train any of those skills I mentioned above in either saddle.
For the basics that we all want, the saddle is just a hunk of leather between you and your horse. The style of saddle you choose doesn't matter. Your horse doesn't know the difference!
Stop the Discipline Drama
So next time you hear discipline drama going down, just smile and walk away. You know the secret: a horse is a horse. They need basic skills and once they have them, you can train for whatever specific discipline your heart desires!
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