Change is in the air in the equestrian world. It’s not a storm, yet, but there’s definitely enough breeze to fly a kite. Traditionalism, creaking and complaining, is starting to rustle in the wind as science begins to nudge it persistently.
It’s an exciting time, we are uncovering and shedding light on huge gaps in knowledge. Gaps, which to date, have been supported with sticks and stones, subjective experience, anecdotal evidence and a hefty dose of anthropomorphism.
Forward thinking equestrians are coming to terms with what our world looks and feels like for the sentient beings that are our horses. The person on the street (society) is starting to question our equine practices.
Equestrian sport regulators are engaging with low hanging fruit, penalising ‘excessive’ whip use in thoroughbred racing, introducing a ‘Blood Rule’ and banning whisker trimming. There is definite movement – the rocks are being pushed up the hill.
What interests me, as an amateur equestrian and equitation scientist, is how I can be involved in change – from the ground up.
Our world can, at times, be a very lonely place. Cultural belonging is key for equestrians and many of our unquestioned practices are firmly entrenched, some dating back to a military era.
Change can be challenging and hard – in some cases, it might mean admitting that we are wrong – a scary thing indeed for established professionals who have built their authority and a loyal following based on always ‘being right’.
Despite these challenges, I find commentary from change strategists comforting. Whilst change may be supported by regulators and law makers, it’s unlikely to originate there, explain Walker and Soule in the Harvard Business Review. They advise that culture change “can’t be achieved through a top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of ‘how things are done around here.’”
So, whilst creating cultural change is a slow, uphill process, it’s a process that rests with us. We create the habits. We get to say how ‘things are done around here’. And that’s what is so exciting.
I am currently riding at a new yard, in a foreign country, and I am submerged in a completely different culture to that in Australia. ‘Just do it’ is expected when instructors stamp and shout questions like: “You can sit a buck, can’t you?” That sneer was thrown at me after a school horse, usually ridden by many different children at a snail’s pace, was confused by my request for canter and, yes, I may be able to sit a buck, but should I want to?
Kids around here must show progression by jumping, competing and riding ‘anything’. It’s a rite of passage to ride the ‘crazy’ horse and ‘show it who’s boss’.
‘Naughty’ horses dump people all the time as they try and cope with a confusing and stressful environment before going back to spend the rest of the day isolated and confined to their stalls.
This is the backdrop for my study, a Diploma in Equitation Science.
“They think I’m an idiot!” I complained to a friend last week, “No one takes me seriously!”
I used to ride with a group of instructors – they would all be cantering while I was still training my horse to ‘park’ at the mounting block. Grooms would rush over to ask if I wanted their help. Sometimes they openly laughed. I could feel myself trying to be small, trying to make excuses for my ‘lack of grit’.
It’s uncomfortable to be ‘the different one’ in a community, to be considered an outsider, to be a bit ‘strange’. I found myself taking to training when no-one else was around, or to hiding away in the high-walled round yard where no one could see me doing clicker training, or groundwork.
I stopped riding with the instructors because there was a sense of bemused belittlement when I had a productive training session but it was performed entirely in walk.
In a moment of reflection, I thought about my role as an equestrian advocate and realised that I was failing myself, and the horses I came into contact with.
I might not be jumping 1.10m courses and I may not have hundreds of hours of teaching under my belt, but I know a lot about what horses value, how they learn and how to train in an ethical way. Why was I hiding that away?
I can do hard things, I told myself, but that doesn’t have to mean changing everything and everyone all at once. It means changing the way that I think and operate.
To make meaning of my education, I simply need to show up. Perhaps then, a few lights will shine the path for the next ‘strange’ rider who comes along with knowledge of learning theory. Perhaps, at some stage in the future here, there will be a collective meeting of minds and habits that celebrates the privilege of developing a relationship with our horse, with absolute respect for what these amazing animals need to live an enriched life.
And today that small mindset change made a big difference.
Today I went to the yard to meet a new friend. He has a polo pony and, as a scientist himself, is interested in the work that I am doing. I didn’t hide. I stood out in the open with his horse and demonstrated what we had achieved in one session of clicker training the previous week.
His little mare was fully engaged, alive, and present with us as she gave me ‘high fives’ (touching my hand with her muzzle) in exchange for a click, a piece of carrot and a scratch.
My friend tried it and she stretched and gently touched his hand. The warmth and satisfaction that simple act of communication brought to the air was palpable. “It feels like magic” I explained, “and that’s just the start.”
We put her away after our session, talking about what behaviours we could shape next, what it would be possible to achieve, quietly buzzing, when we were interrupted by one of the instructors, “can I ask what course you’re doing?” he enquired, “I’ve been thinking about doing some study myself…”
It reminded me of the quote in the stunning book ‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ by Charlie Mackesy, “I’m so small,” said the mole. “Yes,” said the boy, “but you make a huge difference.”