Riding By Torchlight

Freedom of Expression

By Susannah Cord

Please Note : This article first appeared in Horses For Life in July 2008.

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Lately, I have been ruminating on the word,‘expression’. It started with an article in Dressage Today by Michael Klimke, son of the late Reiner Klimke, and a trainer and successful competitor in his own right. The article is titled ‘A Horse That Goes On His Own’, but on the cover it is represented as ‘Allow the Horse Freedom of Expression’. That got my attention. How often does one hear that? We hear a great deal about expressive movement and expressive gaits, but how often do we hear about allowing the horse the one thing all of us in the free

world take for granted? Freedom of individual expression.


Very early on in the article, Klimke reminds us that the horse needs to find the balance to be ‘on the seat’, and to ‘carry himself and go on his own’. As riders and trainers, we have to develop the horse to move freely ‘without too much pressure from our legs and rein aids’, and that this allows the horse to ‘work more freely in self-carriage’. But most interestingly to me, he states that ‘The most important benefit is the often overlooked development of the horses’ personality.” He goes on to say that ‘...it is easy for trainers to forget about this interior aspect of the horses’ growth, but it pays to concentrate on each horses’ individuality.” Somebody buy this guy a beer. Make it a case. In

a dressage world increasingly in danger of churning out mechanical puppet, cookie cutter dressage horses, in a world still largely concerned with the deadly evils of the anthropomorphizing of animals, he speaks of the individuality of horses. Of learning to ride better from our seats to allow them to develop their own personal expression. And how this relates to their inner growth and development. At the very end of the article, Klimke suggests that “In your daily riding, don’t think the horse must learn your way. Concentrate on riding primarily with your seat, and you will succeed in learning your horses’ way…..”



This reminds me of a tenet in movement therapy that I learned from Feldenkrais practitioner and SENSE Method creator, Mary Debono. When I asked her about the effects of Rollkur on the inner systems and biomechanics of the horse, she simply replied “Movement benefits from choice.” In other words, put a body in a straightjacket and you severely limit that body’s options in how to answer any question asked of it. More often than not, this means that while you may get an apparently acceptable answer, it is rarely, if ever, the correct or most desirable answer for that body, its’ individual biomechanics and conformational eccentricities. I think of this kind of training as drinking grape juice

and calling it wine.


When our aids become a closed prison cell for the horse, we deny him any number of choices that would lead to his optimum means of expression, physical and otherwise. We also deny ourselves the pleasure of surprises and outright miracles in our mounts’ responses.


I often get a good giggle or two out of my training sessions, it’s just plain fun to see what a horse will come up with when given a little ‘wiggle room’ in answering my multiple choice questions. With his inate fear of falling down, a horse will always seek balance, and with his natural pride and playfulness, if you open the door to a response that includes both these answers, chances are, he will take to it like a duck to water.


Torchlight has been a prime example of this philosophy. Initially, his responses arose from a very narrow field, survival techniques gleaned from the racetrack. Though the best he could muster at the time, they were barely acceptable even in my liberal school of dressage.


But by systematically closing doors while always leaving better options open, he progressively made better and better choices for himself under saddle and in groundwork. I never forced anything on him - other than in moments of acute self-preservation of which we thankfully, have had very few, in which I enforced some general principles involving gravity, the correct order of descent between me and the ground, and ‘Earth to Torchlight comunications’. But by setting up avenues leading to correct answers implemented to the best of his ability at the time, he came to ‘own’ his conclusions and as such, it has carried over into everything he does.


Eddo Hoekstra calls this ‘skill building’, using your position and the building blocks of gymnastic exercises to better yourself and the horse, always accepting and praising the best your horse has to offer that day, trusting that tomorrow will build on today.


This has opened a great many doors in Torchlights world of communication. Today, Torchlight exercises his freedom of expression to show off his magnificent physique with a very creative and ever changing gymnastic repertoire, to choose a better way through the creek, to let me know cuddle time is not over, or hasn’t begun, that he remembers what we practiced the day before, and that if I can’t get the left canter, he’ll just do it without me.


At times he practices his freedom of expression to clearly let me know his opinion on absolutely everything, from breakfast to my incompetence at grooming just so, to when he should be let out to when he should be brought in, to how much power should be in the hose that bathes him to how I should towel – or not towel - his face, the order of work, bathing and carrot stretches – as stated - and, if he has not been offered the opportunity to greet a visitor, now would be the time…..to the point of triggering a dear daydream of mine, one in which he is just a little less in need of expressing himself fully and at all times… that said, I wouldn’t trade this extrovert for anything, and certainly not for the mute extremist he used to be.


Speaking of mute, the American Museum of Natural History is currently boasting an exhibit called The Horse – How Nature’s Most Majestic Creature Has Shaped Our World.


This was thrilling to me until I looked at the picture used to represent this exhibition. If ever a picture represented mute resignation, this is it. The head of a perfectly braided gray dressage horse in a badly adjusted, overly tight, crank flash noseband, veins popping, nose behind the vertical, eyes halfshut with a world weary air permeating the photo. It is the picture not of majesty, but of enslavement. How this photo was chosen to represent “..natures most majestic creature…”, is a mystery to me, and begs a few questions. Out of surely thousands of photos available, of spirited, trained or wild, proud and definitely majestic horses, who would chose a picture that exemplifies the very opposite? It makes me wonder if the horse belongs to someone related to the exhibition.


But it gets more interesting, to me anyway. Because, as exemplified by the FEI rule relating to ‘happy horses’, happy and now majestic are in the eyes of the beholder, and as subjective adjectives, leave a great deal of room for interpretation. The July 2008 issue of USDF Connection, mentions not only the exhibit, but in parenthesis, discusses the picture. However, the writer sees not dejection and resignation in the horses’ expression, as I did, but a horse that looks a little sleepy in a noseband that could’ve been fitted better. My only consolation is

that anyone to whom I have shown the picture, horsepeople or not, have mirrored my reaction without my encouragement. My husband is fit to be tied whenever the subject comes up.



So how do we define, encourage and regulate freedom of expression in horses? For starters, a great many people have told me no such thing exists, animals have no consciousness, no personal wishes or ambition – they scoff at people like myself, being non scientific, presenting only anecdotal evidence, being apt to emotionalize issues, and obviously terribly – horrors! - anthropomorphic.


But even science is now taking a closer look and rewriting animal science. These days, science is second guessing the motivation and tenures of the past centuries of horrors in animal experimentation, a period that can be traced to the famous statement “I think, therefore I am” by the French philosopher, Descartes. Somewhere, somehow, it was decided that animals do not think, they are pure instinct, and thus,

without feeling, and fair game for any number of bizarre and unmentionable experiments performed in the name of research.


But perhaps the day is coming when animals are no longer considered dumb if cute machines. A recent National Geographic magazine features a wise looking border collie on it’s cover with the words “Inside Animal Minds” – and inside the publication, they devote 25 pages to the studies that are now confirming what most animal lovers have always known. That animals are not “robots programmed to react to stimuli, but lacking the ability to think or feel.” Research now shows anything from an octopus to a crow exhibiting signs of higher mental abilities –“good memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self-awareness, understanding others’ motives, imitating others, and being creative.” as pr the individual species.



A sheep was proven to recognize individual faces and remember them long term. The border collie on the cover has a vocabulary of over 340

words and counting. Dolphins were taught a sign for ‘create’ and would go off together and come back a few minutes later with a new routine they invented together. A synchronized routine, no less. Crows that invent tools. Monkeys that acquire sign language spontaneously. An octopus displayed playfulness bordering on a sense of humor. Scrub jays that return to move food if another jay watches them stash it – implying “the ability to recall a specific past event.” – something until recently considered a “uniquely human skill”. Yet other scientists continue to insist all animals are stuck in time, devoid of individuality and consciousness.


Torchlight would differ. Like most horses, he has a very acute sense of time and the order of things. Recently I fed him his hay, grain and daily treat of Blackstrap Molasses in a slightly out of order manner. The molasses usually comes last, after all else is in order. This day, due to other concerns, I fed the splash of molasses before the grain. He eagerly licked it up and then ate his grain with his usual attention to detail.


However, as I stood holding a horse for the farrier outside Torchlights’ stall, next to the molasses bucket on the other side of the wall, I felt a soft blowing in my ear. Torchlight was politely campaigning for my attention through the bars, and as soon as he got it, nudged his molasses bucket, then looked at me expectantly. “You already got it, mister.” I said and returned to my horse holding duties. Another soft blow, another nudge. When I reiterated my response, Torchlight stomped to the door opening, hung his head out, looked at me rather pointedly, then returned to his bucket, now giving it a rather harder nudge. As I enjoyed the show, he repeated his request, with increasing fervor, 3 more times before I took pity upon him and gave him another splash. This is the only time Torchlight has ever demanded (and I do mean demanded, Torchlight does not beg) more. My only conclusion can be – the molasses came at the wrong time, he was very much

aware of my disorderly conduct and so the first serving just didn’t count in his estimation. But it’s an uphill battle that animal cognitive

research faces. They speak of goal posts moving as new evidence smacks into the middle of the defense of skeptics and through the posts.


Clive Wynne of the University of Florida says simply “ We’re glimpsing intelligence throughout the animal kingdom, which is what we should expect…” The article goes on to state that some of these discoveries have led to such signs of intelligence that we should blush for ever having thought any animal a mere machine. But it’s not what many want to hear. They do not want to hear the larger lesson of animal cognitive research – because as the article states, it humbles us. ‘It proves we are not alone in our ability to invent or plan.’


One generally held concept that blocks acceptance of such discoveries, is the idea that only verbal beings are capable of feeling and thought. For some reason that continues to elude me, despite my earnest efforts at research, animal ethicists cling to this obscure definition. The idea that only if a creature can talk about its’ ideas and intentions is it capable of self awareness. Well, I have met quite a few people who will talk about themselves, their ideas and intentions ad nauseam, and frankly, they seem no more selfaware than the next creature on the evolutionary scale. Joking aside, though, it makes me wonder – if a person is born mute, and never taught sign language, does that make them any less selfaware than you or I, just because they can’t blab on about themselves? It reminds me of the T-shirt sported by some men that says “If I am talking, and my wife isn’t here to hear me, am I still wrong?” Isn’t it more likely that we find animals mute

and dumb because we haven’t explored their languages? Yet horses have gotten along with us for centuries, carrying out complicated tasks and demands, most of which go against their very nature. Perhaps, they are far more linguistically adept than we are.


Temple Grandin, one of the most accomplished and interesting animal researchers of our time, is severely austistic, yet has become an excellent communicator and author. In her book Animals In Translation, she compares her relationship, and that of autistics, to the world around them as similar to the way animals relate, based upon extensive research in how brains work, human and animal, as well as

research in countless related fields, and plentiful anecdotal evidence. She tells the story of how a professor in her college days stated that animals were not conscious because they did not have words to think in. This was rather shocking to her, since she herself did not think in words, but in pictures! When she is hungry, she sees pictures of food, when she is thirsty, she sees a picture of water, etc.


She also states that animals’ EEG’s - monitoring mental activity – are not that different from ours. She believes they have conscious ‘thoughts’ of smells, touch and taste, and their thought process is probably mostly made up of pictures and even sounds. Jaak Panksepp, touted as a leading American neuroscientist, states that there is no doubt that both animal and human brains are wired for dreaming,

anticipation, the pleasures of eating, anger, fear, love and lust, maternal acceptance, grief, play and joy and – here’s the real kicker – “even those that represent ‘the self’ as a coherent entity within the brain’. Anthropomorphisers, Unite!!


Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think my horse thinks or feels exactly like me, or should be handled the way I ‘handle’ my human cohorts. He is still a horse, and as such I try to respect his inherent traits and instincts that differ from mine. But nor do I think he has no self awareness, desires or dreams, opinions or is devoid of thought.


I remember a story about a horse in the 19th century who became famous for solving math problems and so on. His owner was very proud of his horse, until experiments proved the horse was not solving the equations on his own, but reading extremely fine variations in his owners’ posture and body language to give the answers. The sad thing was, rather than being astounded at the horses’ ability

to focus and read people, and himself in particular, the owner was saddened and disillusioned and the public ridiculed them both.


So who and what defines language and thus, self expression? Maybe we have to meet them halfway, as Klimke suggests when he says to let the horse show us his way.


I am currently working with a very gifted horse named Blue, a 9 or so year old Quarter Horse, who is teaching me a thing or two about expression, its’ freedom or lack thereof. His grandsire was the famous and wonderful Rugged Lark, a horse whose accomplishments in disciplines across the board were truly astounding. Rugged Lark was also famous for his intelligence and willing temperament, his

playfulness and his ability to pass these traits on to his progeny.


But when I first met Blue I thought it had to have skipped a generation. I had rarely met a less expressive, or more dull and uninteresting horse. I appreciated his dutiful show of support in attending his owners’ lessons, but he always appeared to be ‘phoning it in’ as they say in the movie business of a less than inspired performance. His face was blank, his movements robotlike, his head hanging low from the withers. I had to ask myself what had happened to this horse before his owner acquired him. As our lessons progressed and we asked more and more of Blue, his stalwartly dull but obedient behaviour changed, starting with sudden changes of direction, refusal to go forward, until one day he was unruly to the point of being unrideable by his owner and I found it necessary to take over. I almost regretted my decision as a very tough and difficult ride ensued. Blue was no longer phoning it in, but was now exercising all his power to let us know he

was no longer comfortable participating in our weekly sessions. He was screaming, crying and yelling at something, and I had no idea what he was saying. There was nothing we were doing then and there that was in any way insulting or offensive, and I finished the session at the first positive development. I felt like he was shadowboxing and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.


I asked to take him in training for a few months. Initially, he withdrew to that same faraway place and responded to my overtures with a blank stare, going through groundwork and ridden exercises with stiff, jerky motions. It was not so much that I felt he was not paying attention, as that I felt he had no attention - to anything. He was completely withdrawn and introverted, a very dangerous horse.


Indeed, before long, a monster emerged. This one was called ‘extremely herdbound’. His only safe place became the herd. Anything outside of the pasture was a place of terror. But instead of denying him the comfort of the herd, I continued to turn him out and decided they were at least causing some response in Blue. Groundwork would have to make the difference on our side of the fence. After a few sessions, he decided groundwork was fine, and that I was a safe place, too. Untill we added the saddle. It all started over. Then that was allright, until I put foot in the stirrup.


This was worse than starting a horse from scratch. With a young horse, you get a clean slate. With Blue, it had been blacked out with a magic marker, scratched and torn, and attempting to clean it up caused him severe anxiety. Anything that brought him out of his selfimposed mental exile brought on extreme temper tantrums. But day by day, the tantrums subsided and just lately, it feels like he not only shows up, but assists in the sessions. What has emerged over the past few months is a spirited and opinionated, extremely gifted ‘wannabe’

mini warmblood. Rugged Lark is shining through at last, with an attention seeking, demonstrative grandson.


As opposed to his former self, this horse is very forward, with three huge gaits and a desire to be up and engaged in a very proud self carriage. He is easily frightened, selfblocked, prone to overcorrection and extremely sensitive to the rein aids, but also increasingly willing to trust my corrections and requests. In a word, he is fun. All I can surmise, as he opens to me more and more and begins to show affection and ‘try’, is that he was more horse, more expressive than someone bargained for in his past. He must have been crammed and jammed, physically and mentally, denied all self expression and beaten for what little he tried, till he hid away in some dark corner of his mind, which is where we found him. He created a very narrow comfort zone within which he could function, but any challenge to the boundaries of that

zone brought on extreme discomfort witnessed by us as severe temper tantrums and acting out as we unwittingly asked him to step outside in the sunshine. Through allowing positive self expression and as clearly as possible correcting the negative outbursts,

Blue and I continue to navigate the rocky waters of his past, and stretch his boundaries.


Getting over a fear isn’t the same as forgetting a fear. It’s new learning that contradicts old learning. Day by day, I contradict all he thought he knew. Blue is exemplifying what Michael Klimke taught in his article – allowing positive self expression brings about the best the horse can offer. Willingly, and with confidence. And he will be happy, majestic - and expressive.


Torchlight Training Website