By Sue Palmer
Last night on the Ethical Horsemanship Association Study Group Live (basically a members-only online discussion for an hour), we discussed an article titled ‘The Veterinary Basis of Correct Training’ (http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/2017/09/the-veterinary-basis-of-correct-training/). Several members felt that it is quite a complex article, and so I am disseminating what I see as the main points here. If you’d like to see what Ethical Horsemanship Association has to offer, you can get 24hrs free at www.ethicalhorsemanshipassociation.co.uk.
An Overview of ‘The Veterinary Basis of Correct Training’ by Chris Hector
Chris was reporting on a veterinary lecture given by a German equine veterinarian, Professor Stadler. I’ve been unable to find anything significant out about Professer Stadler through Google, and would be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about him. There is no date given as to when the article was posted, although from the comments at the bottom of the article, it seems likely it was August or September 2013.
Professor Stadler discusses how the training of horses has progressed through the ages. He refers regularly to Xenophon, ‘pointing out that his essay had aimed to outline a training regime that inflicted the least damage to the horse that is being used…’. In the Age of Chivalry (dates not given), pictures of medieval knights and their steeds bore similarities to the hyperflexion that some horses are worked in today. The Baroque Age (1575 – 1770) saw an aggressive attitude to horses, until replaced by more civilised values in the Age of Enlightenment (1750 – 1780), where equestrianism was led by the teachings of Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere.
La Gueriniere published Ecole de Cavalerie in 1733, a work that stressed three key points:
1. Knowledge of the horse
2. Adequate training, stabling and grooming
3. Maintenance and promotion of health
Around this time the first vet schools were established. It seems that ‘horses has become valuable so veterinary schools sprung up to keep them sound’.
In the 19th century, there were opposing schools of training, including using ‘maximum flexion and absolute head elevation’. The article includes pictures of various of the equestrian masters. in 1901, Otto de la Croix wrote ‘The time has seldom been more favourable for a detailed evaluation of the natural basics of the art of riding. Almost simultaneously we have hyperflexion and high elevation, and the riding world remains clueless who is right.’ Does that sound familiar?!
In 1912 the military published the Heeres-Dienst-Vorschrift (HDV 12), the Cavalry rule book, which became the basis for the modern German training scale. The aim was ‘Teaching riding must result in a reduction of temporarily unusable horses’. Again, does the concept of that sound familiar?! The HDV 12 was last revised in 1937, with the aim now ‘By preserving and promoting its natural abilities, the horse will be brought into a shape and carriage that allows full development of his strength.’
The scales of training that emerged from HDV 12 are well known in the dressage world: rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection. In 1997 the FN resolution stated ‘Dressage means gymnastic schooling and careful education of the horse to develop its natural talents, to improve its performance, to maintain its health and to achieve harmony between horse and rider’. These seem to me pretty good goals to have, although I’d probably prefer health to come before performance.
Professor Stadler then moves on to explaining why it is so important for the horse to develop slowly, and to be muscled correctly for his workload. However he feels that the ‘modern riding style’ involves ‘a significant deviation from the natural head-neck carriage’, which over time could contribute to lameness since the horse is using its body incorrectly. He reminds us of the FEI code of conduct, which stipulates ‘at all times the welfare of the horse must be paramount and must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences’. That’s quite some goal to work towards!
One of the things I most like about the article is that Professor Stadler talks about psychological and emotional well being of the horse. Jean-Marie Denoix and Jean-Pierre Pailloux in ‘Physical Therapy and Massage for the Horse’ point out that ‘emotional equilibrium is as important for optimum sporting performance as the physiological fitness of the anatomical structure.’ This is something we’ve known in the human field for many years, but is applied less in the horse world – perhaps because we understand less about the psychological and emotional health of horses?
I love the author’s phrase ‘Psychological stress results in dysfunctional muscle tone and tenseness’. He explains that there can be many causes of psychological stress, including environmental, and he discusses how some ways of going can also cause dysfunctional muscle tone.
The article then moves onto some areas that I’m not always in complete agreement with. There is more discussion around the ‘modern riding style’, but I’m not clear what that style is – to me, I don’t think there is just one style of riding dressage. Perhaps I’m just lucky in that I meet so many different people in my job as a horse physio, and that since these people are employing me to treat their horse, they are by nature more likely to be focused on the physical health of the horse in relation to their training techniques. It’s interesting though that La Gueriniere in the 18th Century felt that ‘impatient trainers attempt to school them too quickly and destroy them’ – this impatience to reach a goal is certainly still seen today, not only in the horse world, and it’s something every one of us can be vigilant about.
There is an implication that the military horses stayed sound for longer than todays competition horses, but I’m not sure how the facts would lie on this. The implication is based on the working life of the military horse (including going into civvy street at the end of his career in the military) and the working life of today’s competition horse. I suspect, though, that unsoundness would traditionally have been less recognised and less relevant in the military than it is in the competition world today.
A 2010 study into dressage horses found that lameness was the most common disease or injury in the dressage horse, but is this because we can’t detect other forms of ‘dis-ease’ such as psychological or emotional, or at least we can’t scientifically measure them? This study found that 20% of dressage horses suffered from back pain, but I don’t know how that was assessed – in my experience the numbers would be much greater, but it depends on what’s classed as ‘pain’, and how it’s measured.
Professor Stadler was very clear that much needs to be done to improve the quality of training of horses, in order to promote soundness and health, and I am entirely in support of this belief. We are all continually learning, and we have some great teachers available to us. However, I feel it is unrealistic to expect the average horse owner to develop the muscle tone and training skills required in order for every horse to be trained to it’s optimum level of performance, and I prefer a more holistic approach, including an awareness of the relevance of tack, farriery, dental work, nutrition, environment and more as well as the musculoskeletal health of the horse. I believe that we should all strive to be the best that we can be on any given day, but that we should also be accepting of our weaknesses, and seek help where appropriate, for the benefit of our horse as well as ourselves.
All too often I see a horse being pushed into discomfort because the rider believes it is their own incompetence that’s causing the problem, rather than recognising that the horse is struggling physically or emotionally. Some are very quick to blame their tools (the horse), others are much too quick to blame themselves. We cannot expect to know everything about horses and riding, especially if we have horses as a hobby. The overriding advice from the 27 guest contributors to Brain, Pain or Training was to have the right support team around you and your horse. Prevention of injury and promotion of health can only enhance the enjoyment of your time with your horse, and asking the right people saves time, money and heartache.
For a list of recommended equestrian organisations in the UK, click here: https://www.ethicalhorsemanshipassociation.co.uk/Network/Links/
For a list of contributors to ‘Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training?’, click here: https://www.ethicalhorsemanshipassociation.co.uk/Network/