Yesterday I had the opportunity to audit a day at a clinic with a nationally known trainer. I've decided not to name this person (I think) because my intention is not to criticize nor recommend, but simply discuss what I saw. I was there from 9: to 3: and heard afterward that they were just finishing up at 7:30 PM! I left at 3: both because I had to get home to my own chores but also because I reached a point of discomfort in watching this trainer work with one of the participants' horses. Until then, I had actually been reasonably impressed with what I saw and heard.
First off, I was bemused that this poor person had to take the time, on what was the third day of the clinic, to instruct on bridling and mounting! It did make me feel better about the number of times I have needed to do the same thing with students. With beginners, one expects to do this. But it's frustrating with people who have been riding for a while. Unfortunately not many instructors teach their beginners how manage these basics properly, and they proceed through life bumbling along just "getting it done" with no thought to what they are doing or how. They move on to instructors who assume they know these basics so they don't even look at the student until he or she is in the saddle. And so we have hordes of people who call themselves riders when they have to fight the bridle onto their horse and then play ring around the rosy on the mounting block until they finally launch themselves into the saddle, to quote this trainer "like a sack of turds". So, it was nice to see her pay attention to these things and address them, even though you could sense the sigh of frustration when she realized these were issues.
Secondly, there is this topic of trying to figure out what one's horse is feeling. This trainer specializes in this topic. Some people just don't care- the horse is no more than a machine which doesn't have feelings or if it does, it just needs to "get over it" so the rider can do what she wants. It was really nice to see this trainer's responses and hear the explanations as she interacted with the horses. For a while anyway. But I'll get to that. For most of the day, she kept me happy by truly giving the horses choices and accepting it when they chose not to do something. She seemed to get what she wanted from them by just asking again and backing off when they complied. My take is that the horses appreciated her efforts and were not worried about the outcome so they were willing to work for her.
OK, now that last sentence was completely non-scientific in behavioral terms. Words like appreciate, worried and willing are pretty loose and many of the smoke and mirrors trainers on the clinic and demo circuit abuse them. But I'm getting off topic here. Smoke and mirrors will have to be another day.
I also appreciated this woman's understanding of biomechanics. I was a little horrified at the lack of decent muscle development in the horses that were there. But she talked about lateral bend and longitudinal bend, had the horse she was riding stepping under with his hind end and rode easily off the inside rein. Her position was faultless and her seat dead quiet. She stressed the importance of ground work as basics.
What got me back in the car on the way home at 3: was when she started working on the shoulders. She began with the horse she'd been riding and when he didn't get the exercise right off, she got into his face too much for me. Previously she had been rewarding try, but here she seemed to want it all- bingo. When she didn't get it, she got louder. In the morning, she had used the example of how useless it was to scream at deaf people, and yet, that's what it seemed to me she was doing. And at that point, I thought she also stopped giving choices and reading the horse's responses. I saw fear and confusion in the horse (that's smoke and mirrors talk for a high-headed, wide eyed horse whose respiration had gone up rapidly).
She had been trying to demonstrate something to one of the clinic participants so he could do it with his horse. The interesting thing to me was that when she got in the horse's face (literally waving her hand and rope at the horse's head), she not only lost clarity for the horse, she lost clarity for the person observing! He could not see what she was doing and how to mimic it. It became very fuzzy for everyone. When she first began the exercise, I thought, "oh, this is just like Alex's Hip-Shoulder-Shoulder exercise. Instead it was hip scramble scramble. The clinician was unable, in my observation, to explain it to her horse or to the participant. So then she took the participant's horse. And that is when I had to leave. Because she didn't explain it to that horse any better and she started "talking" for the horse...saying this mare thought she was pretty. The mare had the same body language as the other horse- head up, eyes wide, nostrils showing increased rate of respiration. Maybe pretty to some, but I don't think that's what the mare was thinking herself. Instead, her body language said "I want to get out of here" and she avoided the trainer as best as possible.
So to my eyes, it was bad enough to have brought this fear out while at the same time not explaining it to the horse. But then I felt I was being lied to when she was speaking for the horse. So I came home to my own horses, not at all sorry to have observed, certainly giving me plenty to think about, but also hoping those horses figured it out without too much more fear and confusion being involved.