A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Feel of Riding

I have been riding horses regularly for about 13 years now.  I bought my first horse in 1999, and my second horse a few weeks later.  That lovely bay gelding there, is the first one.  He was 4 months old, and I knew nothing.

My second horse was an older (almost 9) Thoroughbred mare, who was sold to me as "spawn of Satan" and "unbreakable".  With 3 trainers having been paid to get her under saddle, she still refused to carry a rider, and so had been a broodie all her life.  I bought her, and broke her out within a month.

How? I asked nicely.

So, lately there's this theme going around about training horses, and lightness, and the feel of it all.  A Year with Horses recently did a post on this, and she linked to Mugwup's post on a similar topic.  For those of us lucky enough to ride as children, with little formal training, you know what I mean.  How is it, that when we are so young, lack the physical strength, the muscular coordination, and the knowledge of the techniques needed, we can still get such amazing responses from a horse?

Is it that the horse is mystical?  I don't think so.  I've tried to explain this over and over again to people here, and words always seem to fail me.  But, I want to delve into this a bit today.

A huge part of it is the nostalgia, and the rose colored glasses we have on when remembering our pasts.  Things always seemed simpler back then, when ever "then" is, and that colors our memories.  The horses really weren't always perfect.  Sometimes we just didn't know they weren't being perfect, and most times we just didn't care.  Youth allows us this lack of fear, especially of serious harm.  Some how, the young always believe they will survive it, and that lack of fear really does make a huge difference.

But that doesn't mean we can't have that same synergy now.  Lately, I have been trying to teach people to ride by feel, not ride by the numbers.  I mean, for those of us who have taken lessons for years, and had the technique drilled into our heads, you will know what I mean.  To canter, you shift your weight slightly, move one heel back, touch softly, release tension on the reins, and so on.  Those are the "numbers" I am referring to.

Last weekend, I brought my old girl out to ride again.  She's semi retired, and both the weather, her weight (she fluctuates badly due to bad teeth), and the status of her cancer affect if and when she can be ridden.  Well, she's in high spirits now, and I was given the privilege of riding her.  I walked her around the arena to get a feel of how she was doing, and for some reason went to head back to the gate to talk to someone.  I didn't give a command, there were no aids considered, I just thought "I need to be there, and don't want to wait" and Ash picked up a slow collected canter, and headed right there.

Ash is the horse that was sold to me as unrideable, untrainable, and the "spawn of Satan".

That feeling, that freedom, that ease of working together is why we take all the lessons and work so hard to be perfect.  And yet, so often all that work fails us, because we are, after all, human.

The problem is, that no one ever told the horses that they should do X when Y happens.  Through repetition they might figure it out, but they never got the memo on how it works.  We have to remember here that the horse is the largest part of the partnership, an individual in itself, and a sentient being.

So, pause for a moment, and think about what YOU would do if someone pushed on you here, or tapped on you there, or forced your head to turn or duck this way or that way.  You might try to guess what they want, but it's unlikely that you'll be right 100% of the time.  Of course, the more you work with that silent pusher, the more likely you are to guess right.

On the flip side, think about your spouse, your children/parents, or a close friend.  Even if that friend doesn't say anything, you can tell when he or she is mad.  How?  What is it that makes the difference between not talking, and sulking?  Even if the person is trying to hide it, usually it will show through - maybe as detachment and not anger, but you can always tell that something is just not right.

And that, my friends, is the feel part of it all.

You can't just work all week, and expect to ride on the weekends with perfect synergy with the horse.  You must learn the horse just as the horse must learn you.  My friend Leah does this through her grooming.  She spends hours just "prettying" her horse - on the surface.  In reality, she's learning the nuances of the horse's language.  How he shows what he likes, and what he doesn't.  How much pressure it takes to make him shift over, and how little it takes to get any reaction.  She explores his body, in a way he loves (the brush) and he responds to that kindness with love and affection of his own.  (Yes, horses do love, just not the same way humans do, but that's another post!)  It's really not about the pretty part, but more about the bonding part.

And that bond is real.  It isn't necessarily a bond of love always, it's more that 2 "people" who spend a lot of time together learn each others habits. 

This came clear to me when playing a video game with Jae last night.  We were both tired, finishing up for the night, and thinking about bed.  Neither of us was talking, and yet, with out fail, we would line up, prep, and attack the "baddies" in perfect unison with out a word spoken.  Sitting 6 feet apart, where we can't see each other's monitors, there's no way for me to know he was about to execute this move, or that one, but I always did... because we always play together (it's our evening wind down.  Some people watch TV, we play games together).

So how does this translate to the horses?  Well, that's the part that's hard to put into words.  I can tell you though, that when you ride, you give subtle body signals.  Get nervous, and your muscles tense up.  If I - a mere human - can SEE this from the ground, you know the horse - who can feel a fly on a single hair - can feel it from his back.  When you look left, the muscles in your neck move, your shoulders adjust, your center of balance shifts to hold the miniscule change of weight off center, and the horse can feel all of that.  When you are confused, you of course give mixed signals.  A part of you might say "walk straight" while you're thinking about that good looking man over by the barn, and so your horse follows the more subtle aids that matter more to your brain.

No different then a parent listening to their child say "For Christmas I don't want anything" while his body language says "but that bigwheel ROCKS!".  Momma will buy that big wheel even if it's not what the kid "said".

Because of this, I think that everyone needs to understand the technique of riding, as well as the feel of it.  Just for one ride, STOP THINKING about it, and look around you.  If your horse does what you want, don't be shy and proper.  Lay on his neck, cheer him on, and show your love for him.  Horses do thrive on emotions.  Their entire language is made up of body language, and they can understand yours.

Riding is as much about the feel of it, as the "how" parts.  Stop worrying about getting it done by X day, and start worrying about the path you're traveling.  Stop and smell the roses - and feed one to the pony while you're at it.


  1. I know what feel feels like - I've felt it before - but just being able to unclutter my mind and emotions enough to let it come through again is a big challenge . . .

  2. Ain't that the truth!