Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Wrong Way to 'Get Loose'

For the past several months, I have been using the services of an equine massage therapist for one of my training horses.  This mare is doing very well, and her physical issues are very subtle, but the owner and I agree that in order to get the best possible performance out of her, and to preserve her soundness, massage therapy is a fantastic tool.  Basically, the mare is slightly crooked, and while I have done lots of stretching and bending, the crookedness persists, so we decided to call in a professional.  Massage therapy of this type is more than just rubbing the muscles; it is a form of physical therapy in which the muscles, tendons and ligaments are re-trained into a new frame, taught to lengthen and body symmetry is encouraged.  It has made a huge difference for this mare!  She is now taking both leads with more ease, is able to lengthen her neck and round her back, and moves in a much more soft and even manner.  The owner is thrilled with the process.

The massage sessions generally take an hour and a half to complete, and were scheduled every 2 weeks at first, and are now monthly.  While the therapist is doing her work, I am there to hold and assist, as well as observe, and of course, as anyone would when they meet a fellow horse person with whom they have a lot in common, we share stories and observations about the horse industry.  This person has worked in the reining world for many years, and knows many of the same people that I know.  We recently had a discussion that brought to light that we also share a pet peeve: the widespread and inappropriate use of 'tying around.'    Tying around is when a rider will tie a horse's head to either its saddle or its tail with a short rein in order to force the horse to bend in a small circle.  Perhaps the horse is resistant on one side or the other, or perhaps the horse is giving attitude; they believe that tying around will solve that problem by giving the horse no choice but to conform.  They mistakenly believe that the horse will 'learn' to give because the only way they can get relief on their mouths is to give to the pressure. 

The problem with this is that there is no release.  Even if the horse gives, they are not able to straighten their body, their neck must stay bent, and eventually the muscles get tired and they are forced to lean on the rein, causing pain in their mouths (and everywhere else).  It is commonplace in the performance horse industry for horses to be left in this position FOR HOURS.  Can you imagine the pain and the anxiety of a horse being trapped in this position while the rider leaves the premises to go have lunch?  And if the reason for the horse's initial resistance in bending was pain in their neck, poll, or shoulders, can you imagine how this would cause unbearable agony for an animal unable to free itself?

My first exposure to this practice was in the Arabian industry when I was a young teenager, when my family began using a 'big name' trainer who used this method to get more flexibility in our horses.  This trainer was very judicious with the practice though; we never used a rein to tie around, instead, we made a rubber 'bending rein' out of surgical tubing that had snaps on either end to go from the saddle to the bit.  Surgical tubing is not very strong, and the idea was that it would break if too much pressure was put on it.  This trainer was also adamant that we time the horses as they were bending, only doing it 10 or 15 minutes on each side.  And we were not allowed to leave the area; it was important to be nearby in case the horse got in trouble.  As I grew up (and we changed trainers), I realized that while this method was indeed safer than what many put their horses through, it was still intrinsically a shortcut.  And most real horsemen know - in good horse training, there are no shortcuts.

It wasn't until I started riding Quarter Horses at a reining barn in Arizona that I observed someone tying around with a leather rein to the horse's tail, and walking away to leave the horse for long stretches of time.  I saw the agony in the horse's eyes, and eventually, the defeat in its demeanor, and I knew that I would never allow that trainer to put my horses through that.  Amazingly, that reining trainer is still there, working for a big, fancy barn in Scottsdale, and over and over, throughout my years in the reining world, I have seen this same 'method' employed by many well-known reining trainers. It is accepted, by many, as part of training a reiner, despite the fact that, in the best case scenario, they are making their animals more sore and resistant than before they were tied around and in the worst case scenario, are risking their horses lives, as so many animals will just snap when put in this position, resulting in them falling down or flipping over, breaking their necks in the process.  Many good horses have been ruined or killed in this manner - though you aren't going to see it written about in a major industry publication.  That would just be attracting unwanted attention to a dirty little secret, wouldn't it?

What is especially sad is that it is not at all necessary to tie horses around.  If the trainer is doing their job correctly, they would be bending the horse from the saddle, where it is possible to FEEL the horse's mouth and body orientation, and respond with counter pressure, applying release when the horse responds correctly.  If the trainer is doing their job, then they would respond to resistance as an opportunity to discover that animal's areas of pain, from injury or abnormal physiology, and would then have that horse seen by a vet or massage therapist.  If the trainer is doing their job, they would understand that force will never beget a willing partner, and that shortcuts create more problems than taking the long (and correct) route to partnership.  If the trainer is doing their job, they would be safeguarding the horse's well-being and sanity over their own inconvenience.

The massage therapist that has now become my friend shared with me the story of her gelding, who is out of some outstanding reining bloodlines but is now a reining 'reject.'  Why?  Because a well-known trainer had him, tied him around for 'having attitude' and the horse ended up freaking out, and nearly cut his tongue completely off.  He is healed now and she uses him for dressage, where they have been quite successful.  Success in this case is relative to the fact that this horse was not only physically damaged, but also mentally fragile, and so finding him a job that he can do happily and comfortably is a triumph in itself.

What is terribly sad for me, and extremely disappointing, is that the trainer who did this to this gelding is someone I know quite well, someone who has had horses I've bred and someone who I thought I might want to send my own horses to in the future.  But now I cannot un-know what I know.  I have considered that if I put a horse in training in the reining industry, would it be possible to have a trainer sign a 'no tie around' contract, to attempt to save my horses from this fate?  I have a feeling that such a request would be met with arrogance and defensiveness, so my only hope is to find a trainer who is against such methods already.  I encourage everyone to do the same.  Ask your trainer if they tie around.  If they do, expect to hear a lot of justifications and excuses.  Just remember that they are consciously using a short cut, and this represents a hole in their methodology and a very real threat to your horse's well-being.  Then take your horse and head the other direction.