Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Philosophy of Gadgets

Gadgets are such a funny thing. To me, a gadget is draw reins or running reins for sure, big bits maybe, a chambon or de gouge occasionally and other things conditionally. I don't consider a correctly adjusted martingale (running, standing, Irish, or German) to be overly gadgety, but I will judge you a little if you're a competent adult in a German martingale more than occasionally.
" Adjustability, adjustability, adjustability. " 

Gadgets do a have a place--as Jimmy Wofford is fond of saying, every horse should be able to go in a plain snaffle, but you have to live through the present to prove him right in the long run. So if you need a giant bit to ride on a daily basis, you're doing it wrong, but if your horse takes more than a loose ring to run xc, well, welcome to reality. Been there.
“What you can’t accomplish in a 30 minute ride is for tomorrow.” 

And to me, lunging aids are a whole different bailiwicks. The horse isn't balancing a rider or compensating for my hands (as much, one might hope). I think of side reins as normal training aids for normal horses, which is great if your horse is normal. (Mine... isn't.) This is where I expect to see the chambon or de gouge or pessoa system. I haven't used any of these aids, but this is their realm and I see their application. Frankly, I think lunging is a rather... pedestrian (? insipid?) way to spend time, but that's another post for another time and it certainly has it applications.
"The rider has to advance as much as the horse. The rider should constantly be seeking education."
Under saddle aids are entirely different. Instead of the horse on it's own figuring something out, we're dealing with the horse (who weights about a thousand pounds) balancing a person (who weights at least another hundred) on top of his back while trying to stay upright and do cool tricks. It's obviously not rocket science, since most of us can do it, but there is an added level of complexity.
“There are 3 evasions of a horse: crookedness, inversion, and speed.”

The other factor to consider here is that those of us who are adult ammies are hard-working, highly-motivated individuals with goals and ideas about how things should be. I realize I'm generalizing, but once mom and dad quit footing the bill, you either WANT IT REAL BAD or quit. Because horses are expensive and time consuming and frustrating and difficult and you're not here if you don't want it.
“Speed is the enemy of impulsion.”

But just because we WANT IT ALL NOW does not mean the horse is ready for that. "I have time" is the mantra of the dressage masters because horses are individuals. They're giant, fragile, vulnerable prey animals and asking them to submit and trust us and change their balance is hard and scary and not done in a day.
“The horse is where his tail is, not where his head is.”

More than that, none of us are perfect riders. When the resistance to an aid is such that a gadget seems called for, it is up to the rider and trainer to ask: 1) Is the horse physically capable of this at this point? 2) Does the horse have the training to understand what I'm asking? 3) Is the horse strong enough to do this even if he does understand it? 4) Am I asking the horse in a way that he can understand?
"My horses are my friends, not my slaves." - Dr. Reiner Klimke

Lest I sound innocent and preachy here: Courage was hardcore struggling going to the right this spring. Our transitions up and down were shit. Our canter was more of a sideways bolt. Heads were flung. Balance was not. Things were bad. I really, really, really wanted to put draw reins on and be like "DAMMIT MOFO YOU WILL OBEY". My trainer (the queen of having time) said no.
“By perfecting the rider, we perfect the horse.”

And instead of gadgeting up, we slowed down. We took things back to the walk. We did hundreds of transitions and rode under the rhythm and broke things down to the tiniest baby steps. We did body work and changed up his feed to get his much-abused racing body back to feeling good. We explained it to him every step of the way.
"A horse "held in shape" by his rider is only posturing in a seemingly correct outline, usually for the benefit of the inexperienced observers." - Walter Zettl

And the horse I have now is not the horse I had then. He trusts me now. He's game to try new things, because he knows I'm not going to ask for what he can't do. He's learning how to express discomfort without galloping sideways into the fence and I'm learning how to spot early warning signs so I don't let things go until he's already in pain.

It's a much stronger collaboration than it ever was before.
 “You can’t do anything without trust – the horse has to want to work for you.” CdK

And I'm not saying I've never used draw reins. I'm certainly not an expert, but I've used them on two different horses on two different occasions, both times under the watchful eyes of a pro. One was retraining a massive Irish horse with an upside-down neck bigger than I am. The other was my own very heavy on the forehand, very weak behind, very open-throatlatched and very broke OTTB, Cuna. Each horse was a single-time-usage. Both horses were definitely old enough (10 & 17) and well-schooled enough that I wasn't introducing a new concept, but just reaffirming one they already knew.
"Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful." - Xenophon
Gadgets are not evil. They exist for a reason. That reason shouldn't be "because I want it now" and their usage should never be at the expense of the horse. It's a bit like taking a shortcut at a scavenger hunt--you may get to obstacle #3 quicker, but it's a much bigger PITA to go back to #2 when you think you're done with #10 than it was to just do it after #1 in the first place.

Notes: 1) Unattributed quotes stolen from the $900 Facebook Pony's Charles de Kunffy write up. 2) I refer to all horses as he because my horse is a gelding and I dislike mares.


  1. LOVE this post! And it is something I have to remind myself from time to time when I feel like were going backwards.

  2. Amen times a couple million.

  3. Totally agree. Gadgets have their place but they definitely should be used in the right times with proper knowledge.

  4. I wasn't a fan of lunging and thought it useless until I was taught how to do it properly and saw the most amazing changes come over my horse both mentally and physically after a 14 day lunging routine. Of course, it was lunging with a modified version of side reins. Not sure what you would call the set-up, but it worked.

  5. Great post. My favorite part was the last line, hahaha. ;)

  6. That's the cool thing about excessive use of gadgets and quick fixes though: eventually they all fail. I don't think some people realize that at some point, there is not going to be a stronger bit available - if you don't actually train your horse to accept your contact and listen to your aids, he'll just keep getting stronger and stronger against you and the whole system will collapse.

    1. Right. But then you sell the horse to some sucker and either they spend years fixing your irresponsibility or the horse gets sold down the line and ends up in a bad place.

  7. Completely agree. And that is another reason we pay the big bucks to trainers - so they can put the kibosh on gadgets, or supervise to ensure proper use.

  8. I'm not anti-gadget, but I am very cautious with them. I think the worst thing you can do it use a gadget (or any piece of equipment) incorrectly. So if I think I need one, I'll ask my trainer first, and usually ask for some lessons or instruction on how to use it properly.

  9. Razors in the hands of monkeys etc. Erring on the side of not using them is better than erring on the side of over-using them. Mo has been lunged in side reins and ridden in draw reins and it's helped him a lot. Wouldn't touch Red with either of those things, and he's harder to put on the bit than Mo is (even before a few rides in draw reins). Different horses need different things. I don't feel one ounce of regret over my using those things on Mo. I also have an OUTSTANDING coach around to keep an eye on things constantly, which not everyone has, and if she wasn't there to supervise I wouldn't have used 'em.

  10. I pretty much feel the same way as you. Except lunging, with my particular horse. He literally cannot lunge. That stubborn bastard will fight any kind of pressure from a gadget until he dies.

    He'll fight me too, but I'm more stubborn and creative than leather or nylon. ;)

    1. Courage can lunge.

      It's really more of a last resort than a good idea for us though. It nearly always includes rearing and running backwards and freaking out and other bad things.

      Since he's so level headed under saddle generally, I tend to forego lunging beyond making sure that I can, if I have to, I guess.

  11. "There are 3 evasions of a horse: crookedness, inversion, and speed.”

    LOVE this.

  12. this post makes a lot of sense to me. objectively (and as a practical person) i think that gadgets have their use and place. as a mere mortal tho, i don't trust myself with most of them. i'll leave that to the professionals, thanks!

  13. This was a great post :)

    I really like Vienna reins, used sparingly (like a couple days a month as needed)... and while I would not choose to buy a horse that needs a running or standing martingale, I am okay with them for rider safety. Anything else, I personally would not use.

  14. How far you have come in word and deed. I am so happy you and Courage found the right trainer. Now that you have finally discovered the magic of dressage and how its training principles translate into your other love--jumping--there's no way to go but better and better. I find gadgets a downer as well, except in the interest of safety or...perhaps...once in a while to give a horse the idea of how correctness feels. The key here is that in my experience, usually, once a horse discovers "round" he starts to choose it on his own as it is a much more comfortable way to carry his rider. Courage looks super.

  15. It won't let me reply to your comment on the actual comment thread, but you wrote: "Right. But then you sell the horse to some sucker and either they spend years fixing your irresponsibility or the horse gets sold down the line and ends up in a bad place."

    And I had to laugh because that's exactly how I ended up with an unrideable $500 bolting red maniac with scars in her mouth!

  16. This post made me love your trainer :) I also laughed really loud at the last sentence.


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