Last week I posted a photo on social media (that I thought was a non-descript photo of someone far away) and asked if my horse trainer folks could clarify if the horse was being ridden in classical dressage form, or if (as it looked to me) the horse's head was being cranked down. Well, my big mistake there is that no photo on the internet is "non-descript" and that apparently people can figure out who they think the photo is just by the arm and hand in the photo (although as of the end of the fiasco two people were swearing they had proof it was the person they thought - and they both had "proof" it was their person (which if they both had so much proof it literally meant it was two different people).
So, big lesson learned: do not use any photos of anyone or anything that aren't my own with approval from the subject of the photo because someone will "figure out" they know that person (even when in this case they obviously didn't because two people couldn't be right). Because I don't want to make a discussion on the best functional way to train horses turn into belittling individuals.
The other thing I thought was since I'm trying to build my business as an equine massage therapist I really can't afford to be controversial. And I don't have the stomach for it.
But I've been thinking about it a lot from my instructor point of view too. And as a riding instructor it is my responsibility to teach my students how to ethically and fairly handle their horses. Why did I feel such a strong pull in my heart to become an equine massage therapist and a riding instructor? It's because I want to do what is best for the horses and be an advocate for them. That is more important to me than being accepted by the community that uses Rolkur or abuses their horses. Now granted there is a large community of high level folks here in the Pacific Northwest who achieve Grand Prix level without doing that and luckily I've only come across one trainer out of many, many who I felt was abusing his horses. And we are lucky in our arena we have so many qualified judges willing to put their time into Pony Club and schooling shoes and other educational avenues to teach folks you can achieve high levels of training/riding all the way up to Grand Prix champions without abusing your horses. So, it's not like I've found much need to speak out around my area (yet). But I also don't want to fall into that trap that exists in so many communities (be it horses, or other sports, or religions, or whatever common interest has drawn folks together) where we all feel we have to be silent when someone is doing something abusive to a creature who is at their mercy.
So, I've decided that I will continue to pursue my education in how to train horses the correct way - the non-abusive way - the way that empowers them to use their bodies correctly and soundly for years to come. And I will not hold my tongue in public forums if someone asks my opinion. I've been looking at a lot of blogs this last weekend from folks who are trainers and want to stop the abuse that is Rolkur (or the more politically correct term "hyperflexion" or "deep and round") and so far all of them show photos of riders where they either block out the face or blur it. I don't want to do that because if I did stuff early on because I didn't know any better and I can look back at photos from when I was a kid or even eight years ago and critique it. Like "Hey - I'm not wearing a helmet and I'm leaning forward" "I'm totally bracing/standing in the stirrups there and not using my core as balance" "I'm pulling my horse's head too hard with the reins and she's not on the bit, she's bracing against it". I would be humiliated if someone put an obvious photo of me up and started going off about it. I also don't want everything I say about handling horses to be about the negative - don't do this, don't do that, I hate it when people do this or that. Many of the training blogs seem to focus more on what NOT to do, then advocating what they've found *to do*.
But I also am not going to just blindly walk around saying "Everything's fine. We're all on equal footing. We all have places we need to improve." Because the truth is, yes, all us students are always improving (and that includes trainers because all the ones I know still clinic and are still learning). But if a student or trainer is actively hurting a horse, I'm sorry if it rocks the boat, but that is not ok. And if that trainer is teaching his or her students how to actively hurt the horse that is even worse!
How does that work though as an equine massage therapist? Well, my professional title only gives me license to talk about what I feel in the horse's body and what I can do to change that. I have no qualifications to say *why* I feel that stuff in the horse's body or how the horse should be used/trained or any of that. Just "this is what I feel" "this is what I can do to change what I feel to something more comfortable and functional for the horse." That's it. When I've got that hat on that is all I will say.
But if a client who uses Rolkur techniques sees a social media comment or a blog post about my belief as a horse owner and riding instructor on how horses should be trained/treated and they are offended, well, that's too bad. I can find other clients. And if a trainer is that worried that I am not knowledgable enough to tell the difference between using side reins for training a horse properly and using Rolkur then that's not my problem. I'm not going to pretend everything is just rosey and peachy-keen wonderful in the horse community if I run into folks where it is not. And if I am hired by someone who I see abusing the horse in my presence I'm not going to smile and say "it's just their way" I'm going to be blunt and say I am not comfortable with that and excuse myself and say there are many fine equine massage therapists out there but I can't work with that person.
My love for horses (and other animals) comes first over money or prestige. And if that makes me controversial that's fine. I'm not going to pick on individuals or nit-pick them in public or start arguments about it, but I'm damn well going to stand up and say "There IS a proper way to train your horses - one of love and respect and challenges that are appropriate for them. And I can not stand by and be silent if people are cruel to their horses - even if it is just out of ignorance."
I think what really helped me clarify this position for myself was talking to some fellow horse professionals who are confident enough and educated enough to understand the balance. Trainer KL has been an enormous help with me in learning how to choose where my boundaries should be for myself (she hasn't told me what those boundaries should be but given me good information for me to make my own choice where they should be). So, I can rein myself in and not be over the top confrontational (which I tend to want to be) but I don't have to give up my values for a career. No way.
This video also inspired me. I like the way he focuses almost completely on the positive but acknowledges there are some negatives out there. But 90% of what he's showing and saying is positive and really gets the point across well.
I actually found this video to explain to some of my students how we're training Geir. To them, Geir is a sweet horse who is already rideable so what are we training him for? And during my training lessons, to the naked eye I'm just out there mostly walking (or occasionally) trotting in circles talking to Trainer KL. How in the world is just walking around in circles not noticeably doing anything "training him" and what the heck am I talking to her about while I'm doing that? Well, this explains a lot of what we are doing/talking about.