Monday, November 28, 2011

Alien Crop Circles, Tie Downs, and Other Urban Legends

I love a good mystery.  Not an episode of Murder She Wrote type of mystery but, more of the Alien Crop Circles, Lochness Monster, missing sock in the laundry types of mysteries.  Not because I believe the theories proposed would make some of them even remotely believable, but because I enjoy the pure speculation that there may be something out there that is still yet undiscovered (like my tube socks with the toes in them)...still just a itty bit scary.  Heck, lots of people really believe these phenomenon exist.  While I am emphatic that most of the people who believe in these things just need to made aware of the current science, I can appreciate their fervor for what they don't know. Everyone loves a good scary movie for the same reason.   The adrenaline rush.

Perhaps that's what draws some of us to equestrian sports.  Let's face it, there's a small element of danger involved.  (And if you've read my previous blog entries, you know how I feel about minimizing risk as much as possible.)  Horseback riding remains on the top of the most dangerous activities you can do list and I'll leave it at that..for today.

"1200 pounds of raw muscle, power, grace, and sweat between your legs - it's something you just can't get from a pet hamster.." ~Unknown

Which brings me to this next point.  Training/education is the single most important element in minimizing risk.  We've briefly discussed helmets and the importance of buying a steed for your level of riding.  But, if you're like me, once you've reached a certain mastery of your existing skills and are at a point when you want to do more, you might find yourself purchasing a horse that you think is appropriate for your next adventure.  Unless you've gotten yourself a "finished" horse, you'll certainly discover where irregularities have occurred in their training, let's call them mysteries, in which it takes tremendous thought, trial and error, and some shrewdness on your part to figure out.

Today, we'll be discussing one short fall in learning and development that when left unattended can be detrimental to both their and your safety--control--and one of the most common so called fixes--the tie-down.

Without getting into the plethora of questions that need to be asked prior to purchase, or trying out your prospective steed, we'll focus on the more common complaints of lack of whoa and bad headset.  These are the two single issues that when discussing training on a intermediate rider level, can become a chronic source of trouble.   Usually, the first "urban legend" to come to mind for these riders is the addition of mechanical training aids, specifically the tie-down.   The tie-down is a very misunderstood piece of equipment.  At first glance, it would "seem" that the tie down would serve the rider well.  Restricting the head from being thrown.  It would also offer the rider more leverage in which to pull back on the reins to get the horse to stop.  In both instances, this is simply not the case.

I've heard arguments in favor of using tie-downs.  One camp suggests that horses can "brace for balance" with their usage.  Ever see a horse galloping at full speed in a pasture and then quickly roll back, change directions, and run some more without one?  Of course you have.  Balance is simply something that the horse does not lack.  Nature provided them with all the balance necessary to turn on a dime. In fact, put a tie-down on a horse that rears and you will see exactly the opposite effect.  You'll see a horse that looses her or her balance almost immediately.  In this case, not only is a tie-down ill recommended, but it's down right dangerous. Poor riding skills can also be attributed to lack of balance but, when it comes to agility, a horse is born with sufficient balance to turn a barrel, stop a steer, etc., etc.

Another camp suggests that they are necessary because a horse may throw his or her head when ridden.  The question would be does the same horse throw his or her head when there isn't a harsh bit or uncertain hands behind it?  Not usually.  Not unless there is a pain issue unrelated to riding going on.  There are a wealth of explanations for these behaviors that don't include the use of a tie down. What about a poor fitting saddle?  Chiropractic pain issues? Conformational issues?  Etc.  If a horse is high headed, generally speaking, there is something else going on and the use of a tie-down will simply compound the problem and not solve it.  Imagine a poorly conformed horse that has high head carriage naturally being forced to run in a tie-down.  Worse yet, imagine an ill fitting saddle causing excruciating pain, the horse lifts it's head and neck to compensate and then we "tie-down" their head?  Again, down right dangerous.

What about a poorly trained horse that is high headed due to fear?  Think a tie-down will help? Probably not, would be my guess. What about a horse that has had countless harsh bits placed in his mouth with heavy handed riders at the helm?  Certainly that learned behavior of head tossing would be warranted.  Undoing it would require a mild bit or bosal, very quiet  hands, time and more time, and not something to make him or her feel more restricted.  Horses that are not properly desensitized will feel trapped as well and the fear is doubled, tripled, etc. And then you've got behaviors that are problematic.

So, when can a tie-down be used in my opinion?  Rarely, if at all.  I do find them marginally effective when used intermittently as a "check" for the horse, even if its purpose is so the owner can continue to focus on other aspects of his or her training.  But, only for VERY short periods of time.  Personally, when used in this manner there are other pieces of equipment that are way better suited for the same effect, for example, the running martingale.

A horse that has run for years in a tie-down may also need to use them for some extra time as you are retraining them simply because they have developed their way of going with them.  They have learned to rely on the tie-down for comfort.  Their muscles are over developed in some areas and underdeveloped in others. Weaning them off will take some time.  People have been riding with tie-downs for years.  However, I do feel there is a better way most of the time.  Proper training and retraining.  Teaching the horse to whoa first from the ground, then from the seat.  Desensitizing the horse to overhead movement.  Flinging ropes, bags, etc. Switching to a bosal or snaffle and working on circles, figure 8s, transitions.  Teaching the horse to drive from it's hind end rather than carry all the weight on the forehand.  Achieving collection, etc, ground work, ad nauseum.

Ropers and barrel racers are going to disagree with me on this one.  Tie-downs are extremely prevalent in these disciplines. In their case, and this particular horse task performance they appear to have benefit. However, with that said, I don't tend to agree with the majority on this all the time.  I also am not sold on a something simply because "everybody's doing it"or because a good number of people believe in it.  Like the alien crop circles, I'm leery when it comes to accepting the quickest answers or jumping on too many bandwagons.  I prefer to do my own research.  I solve my own mysteries.


You should see the socks in my lint filter!