Much to my delight and unsurprise, Equine Behaviourist Andrew McLean gave me the go ahead to post the response he sent to David Stickland’s ‘beg to differ’ message that I posted a couple of days ago.  Without further delay, here it is:

“Dear David,

“I understand where everyone is coming from but I think it’s  just the descriptors for the various behaviours that are different.  Personally, I don’t see any value or real sense in emotive terms such as ‘riding as domination’ because you might argue that all riding is exploitative and not (as you point out) what the horse might prefer to be doing. However I do see the importance of discriminating between the use of continuously strong rein/spur pressure (contact) versus real lightness and self-carriage.

“I think it is very difficult to rid our equestrian culture of the benevolent mindset, the idea that the horse is ‘willing to please’ (us). In fact we are conditioning him through the processes of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and habituation and shaping. If we understand the real implications and manifestation of these terms, we would be seeing things more clearly.

“So my take on what I’m seeing now at the Olympics is that there was more self-carriage in the 2 English horses in that you can imagine if the reins (or legs) were released for a couple of steps, the horses wouldn’t have accelerated or decelerated, lose their straightness or outline. In other words we are getting closer (returning to??) what dressage and training should really be about – it is the art and science of training horses to do something and to keep on doing it until told otherwise. I think in Adelinde’s horse there was less self-carriage. Self-carriage is the holy grail as far as I can see it as it’s a way of safeguarding the horse’s welfare;  it’s the expression and proof of lightness (and therefore better welfare).  It is unlikely that horses behind the vertical can be in self-carriage since that position isn’t easily maintained for long periods and since his vision is restricted and there may be some airway obstruction. However, I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I think in the future we will see (for many reasons, not the least of which includes the public’s desire for good animal care and kindness) more lightness. I hope Judges are heading (as they seem to be) in this direction. I would really like to emphasize to judges that lightness from rein AND leg is paramount to welfare.

“The Dutch system of training includes terms such as speed control and I quite like these operational terms as they are part of the shaping process that builds the dressage horse. In English we usually describe it as rhythm. From my point of view in training horses we begin the training of any response or movement with a basic attempt, then we shape it to occur immediately from a light aid, then we train the rhythm (the horse continues to do what has been asked as well as training variations of tempo and stride length), then we train the horse to go on our line (straightness); then we arrange finer details of contact and connection, and then we make the behaviours more generalised (i.e. horse responds anywhere and everywhere).”

I have little to say in response to Andrew, because like always he makes so much sense. Horse sense, that is. I would like to thank both D-Stick and Andrew for their willingness to let me publish their comments here. Nothing makes me happier than provoking thoughtful, intelligent discussion of the issues that matter.