Form Without Function: The Prevalence of Ridiculous Riding

When did stupid-bad riding take over the equestrian world? There has always been bad riding, but honest bad riders can get better with help and practice. I want to know why experienced professionals seem more and more to choose to ask horses to use their bodies in ways their structure can’t support? When did “frames” and “headsets” and replace competent riders on soft, light, willing athletes?

Is there soon to be no riding discipline that routinely produces sane, sound, happy horses working into their teens and twenties, getting passed along like cherished heirlooms to ensure successive generations of riders master the skills that will make them real horsemen and -women?

Will we have no type of competitive event where hard-working, ethical, caring riders can take their good, balanced, sound horses to compete? No well-known, financially successful trainers whose methods you’d want your impressionable 4-H kid or pony-clubber to emulate?

I get that the horse business is a business. And that there are many, many temptations to cut corners, most of them rooted in money. But you choose to sell you soul; it’s not inevitable. And you choose to ride and train humanely and compete ethically. Or not.

Anyone who knows me well knows I do not go to horse events. Not to shows. Not to expositions where trainers demonstrate their skills. Not even, very often, to clinics. I just can’t take it. I come home all hunched up and sore, partly in empathy with all the horses crammed and jammed and gadgeted into pain and partly from tying myself up in knots so I  keep my mouth shut when I see a horse or rider that could make a few simple changes to work together in ease and comfort.

I used to go to horse events, though, including a couple of the early reining qualifiers back when USET was considering adding the discipline to the line-up of equestrian events at the Olympics. The first qualifier of the season was part of the National Western Stock Show in Denver in January. I remember sitting and watching horse after horse go on the forehand, falling out of their spins early and sliding crooked, like their backsides were trying to pass their forequarters. I still hold a mental picture of the horse who won one year – he appeared to be unable to lift his head, carrying it so low his nose was at  or below knee level even when the guy got off and led him out of the ring on a draped rein after the awards.

I thought to myself then that if the horses looked that sore and lame at the first event of the season, I would not want to see them by the end (if they made it that far.) It also occurred to me that the lure of international dollars was likely to ruin reining for the people who wouldn’t play the game. Just like the silver-laden, gadget-programmed peanut-rollers drove good folks out of the Quarter Horse ring in the early ‘80s and the crammed-and-jammed, gadget-laden hunters soured thoughtful riders to that discipline in the ‘90s. These days, the hyper-flexed, hyper-extended, dressage-ring tanks ensure many of us won’t heading back to show there, either.

Okay, so the events that are about the horse looking pretty while doing something have gone to the dark side. But surely the events that are more about function than form should be okay? Sadly, not for all the competitors, as evidenced by this video of a $2 million winning reining-horse “trainer.” Let’s see what happens when we combine peanut-rolling with rollkur, then add in a liberal dose of that old stand-by – popping a horse in the mouth over and over. It’s not pretty.

Back in the day, reining was about the things a working stock horse would have to do – stop and turn quickly and adjust from a slow lope to a gallop and back efficiently and quickly enough to sort a cow out of the herd or place a rider in position to rope a calf for doctoring. To work a rope correctly to throw a calf or stretch a steer, the horse had to stop on his hindquarters, though the showring slide was, truth be told, never much more than a little burst of macho: a whole lot of fun and a declaration to other riders that your horse was the best. But it was hard on horses, so you didn’t do it very often.

When I was showing, all the more advanced riders competed in reining. And that was on the same horse we showed at halter, rode Western Pleasure and even took hunt seat. And, in my part of Colorado, most of those horses also spent at least some time earning their keep at home on the ranch – working cattle or checking fencelines.

There was none of this western-pleasure rocking-horse lope nonsense in a reining class – you blew through the gate flat out, set your horse down into a slide and then went to work.

The slower circles and figure eights were ridden at a working lope – the kind you’d alternate with a fast trot to cover ground when looking for strays or checking water tanks in pastures that stretched hundreds of acres. In the faster circles, you hauled ass. Likewise in the straight runs to the rollbacks, the purpose of which is to chase down and turn back a cow before he leads the whole herd the opposite direction from where you want it to go. Your horse is too slow, you lose the herd and the whole bunch has to be rounded up again. Real-life stuff.

Points were earned for balanced rollbacks and pivots – no fancy spins back then. We aimed for clean lead changes in both versions of the gait, with split-second transitions between the speeds cued only off the seat.

No popping the horse in the mouth – in fact, the challenge was to ride the entire pattern without ever moving your hand. No exaggerated leaning the torso back in the stop, because that was a sure way to teach your horse to drop his back, lock his shoulders and stop on his front end in a maneuver that felt like you were riding a jackhammer on concrete. And if anyone at any of the shows – open, 4-H or Quarter Horse – would have stood in the stirrups and hauled a horse to a stop, he or she would at best have been disqualified and invited to leave the grounds. More likely, a rider who abused his horse like that would have been shunned by the rest of the riding community for at least the next few shows, if not forever.

A good rider with a well-trained horse earned the respect of his or her peers, and maybe a ribbon. A really good run stuck in our minds, material for a future “remember when …” conversation and an accomplishment for the rest of us to aspire to beat. Perusing the web, watching random reining videos as well as footage of winning runs by the NRHA’s top earners shows, it does appear that some of these people have kept to the traditional values.

This 2010 WEG run by reining superstar Shawn Flarida is one of the prettiest I have ever seen in any decade. Look how he sits down and rides quietly from his seat. See how he gives as the horse finishes his slide so the horse can rebalance for those beautiful, complete rollbacks? Everything about this run is crisp, clean and correct.

Back when I used to teach a lot of kids, one of the games they loved to play – in lessons and when riding on their own with friends – was “bad equitation.” They’d do all the things they had seen bad riders do – flap their elbows and bounce in the saddle and sit all crooked. The kids did this for very short bursts, interspersed with periods of “good equitation.” (It can be played kinda like “Red Light, Green Light”)

After watching a whole bunch of reining video footage online, I think I’m getting the formula down for the bad equitation game, reining style .

First, you pop your horse in the mouth and flop your legs to get him set to spin. Then, you make a big point of petting your horse enthusiastically after a mediocre spin as if he’s done something really wonderful. Lean waaaaaaay back in the slides so it seems like your horse is really getting down under you, even though you’re preventing him from doing just that. And in the fast circles, you stand up, lean way forward and pump the rein arm so it looks to someone completely clueless about riding as if your horse is really moving fast when, in fact, he is not, because he is working hard to counterbalance you. (Reminds me of the cheesy scenes in old westerns when the hero was miming riding on a stuffed horse.)

Here are some examples of what I found:

Here’s a European top-three Intermediate Open reiner on a horse I would have to call severely lame, and it’s a futurity, so this is just a three-year-old. You gonna tell me this horse hasn’t been hyperflexed and popped in the mouth? What was that jerky halt before the pattern started? That’s not a happy horse. On the forehand throughout, sloppy spins, stops on the front end.  Anticipates. Crooked slides that don’t hold. Is it just my DSL, or does this horse even walk weird? He looks like a refugee from the Western Pleasure ring.

And another of the top European reiners, whose horse would probably stop a whole lot better if it didn’t have its nose between its knees. (Compare this to Flarida’s horse in the run down to the stop.)  This horse’s head is literally on the ground at the end of the run – have we confused this with what a relaxed horse looks like? Or is this some trained-in trick to convince the judges that the horse gave his all in the run and is exhausted?

Look how out of synch this palomino is the right-lead lope. Something is seriously not right in that hind end. And somebody should tell these people when the mare is ridden in a “frame” that puts her withers this much below her croup, she is not working off her hindquarters. Oh, and for goodness sake, when it’s built this downhill, your horse not going to hold up as a reiner.

Update: Olympic Vet: It’s Rollkur
The FEI World Reining Final tapes show rollkur and make top FEI veterinarian and scientist, Professor Leo Jeffcott, feel as if there may be a welfare issue.

7 thoughts on “Form Without Function: The Prevalence of Ridiculous Riding

  1. Great piece on the reining industry. I could not agree more. I have seen way too many reiners, many of them big money earners, who are clinically lame at the end of their runs. There’s also the matter of breeding increasingly small horses for reining. A 14.2-hand horse is not a suitable mount for a 250-pound man plus tack.

    • Thanks Tara! Glad (and also sad) that I’m not the only one seeing how lame these horses are. Interesting about the intentionally small horses – makes you wonder just why these guys want to look like they’re whizzing around on shetland ponies. I once worked on a 14.2-hand horse whose thoracic vertebrae had been displaced so badly by a 300-lb. rider that the chiro at first thought they had been crushed. Awful!

      Hope all is well with you and your massage biz!

  2. You know what I love about Shawn? — he’s a big man epitomizing ‘sthira sukha’ – light and stable in the saddle at the same time, working with his horse who carries him so beautifully.

    I’d seen the one video before, no watching them again for me.

    • Yes, yes, yes! Proof positive that if you have balance and flexibility, any body can move with and help the horse instead of getting in the way. It’s not about having perfect proportions, it’s about leaning to speak the language fluently and thoughtfully.

  3. I’m new in the horse world – have had my mare for 7 years and she was a baby when I got her – I rode tons when I was younger but call myself green anyway due to lots of years between then and now before I rode again. I always pay particular scrutiny to the health of my horse FIRST before I do anything with her. It’s just respectful and the right thing to do as a responsible animal owner….
    I watched the video of Shawn Flarida which was interesting and still wondered why his horses head was so far down when he was just at a walk – couldn’t watch the other videos – I wouldn’t be able to take it – events worry me – because people are just too egotistical to care about the right thing for the animals welfare……..UGHHHHHH – there are always bad people and articles like these really need to get out there to them as well –

    • Nancy, I think a lot of horses’ lives would be better if everyone thought first about the horse like you do and second about all the other stuff. It’s so much nicer to work with your horse than against him or her, and all these people asking the biomechanically impossible of their animals just makes no sense to me.

  4. Pingback: Rollkur at the Olympics Ignites Social Media Protest | Life in the "ManeStream"

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