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Competition & The Autonomous Horse

"I’m curious how do you transfer this liberty training into the world of riding and competing? I know I’m not there yet but just wondering how do you then ride/compete for fun in a way that +R can work with something like eventing for example?? It’s puzzling to me as a newbie"

Liberty *should be* about giving the horse autonomy. Giving them choice. If they don't have choice, they are not actually at liberty. Tack-less riding and training is very different from true liberty, or how liberty should be defined, since a horse can be "so well trained" it performs the same with or without tack because it doesn't know it has a choice.. the horse's mind has become skillfully conditioned to respond *as if* it has tack on, even if it doesn't.

So, taking this into consideration, if the horse can *know* they do or do not have a choice without tack, they can also *know* the same with tack on. A horse can be fully tacked up and have more choice and control over themselves and the outcome of the situation than a horse that's completely tack-less can has.

Tack doesn't have to equal the horse having no choice.

Lack of tack doesn't automatically equal horse has choice.

It's all about how the horse perceives the training and what the tack represents to the horse.

What this means for riding and competition is that it's up to the human to continue to stick to their training *morals* regardless of whether they are on the ground or in the saddle, regardless of whether there is tack on or off, regardless of whether they are at a competition or at home in the back pasture. It should be THE EXACT SAME. If your horse walks into the show ring and says "no", then the human must respect that or the human negates the horse's autonomy and takes over control; giving the horse no choice.

Clearly there are situations where this may be necessary for emergencies, but a competition is not an emergency. It's something the human *wants* but doesn't *need*. It's something we've chosen for ourselves, that we would like to do with our horses, but if we have not spent the time and effort into making that situation as enjoyable as possible for the horse and making sure the horse is well suited to the things we ask of them, then we will not be able to give the horse a choice in the matter. We will be forced to continue to *make* the horse perform the test, jump the jumps, race the race.. whatever it is. And under this set up with that kind of preparation and that kind of training, of course the horse, when given the choice, will say no.

To be able to give a horse autonomy during riding and competition we have to better prepare them for what it is we would like for them to do, so that they WANT to do what's asked of them and are rarely inclined to say otherwise. AND, we need to be better prepared ourselves to accept that there are going to be some days where the horse says no regardless of the preparations we've made.

What's more is that... in general, horses are NOT a high drive competitive species, which makes the idea of giving them a choice of whether or not to compete in a high energy sport... challenging. They are really a very peaceful and laid back animal that occasionally runs and plays, but they do not hunt and chase like other species that we compete with.. like dogs... or even humans. We are just built different.

There has of course been selective breeding happening over the years to create higher energy more driven horses, and some horses really do appear to do well in competition; though this is a bit subjective and hard to tell exactly as the horses at the end of the day don't have a choice to be there or not.. are they just "coping" well? or actually enjoying it. But these are the horses that you will want to focus on working with if you want to compete. Trying to make a low energy horse do something they just don't care to do, and hoping to give them autonomy, is just going to set you both up for failure. They will never say yes, and you will always be frustrated. So knowing the horse you are working with is important.

The other part of this is... the way competition with horses is currently set up is not conducive to training with autonomy or even making it enjoyable for the horse. In fact, we are punished with penalties and being excused/eliminated for giving our horses choice and respecting their "no". We also are punished for verbally or physically praising our horses during competition, and forget ever trying to give your horse a food reward.

What's more is that typically the environment is high stress, fast paced, a lot of hurry up and waiting, and other competitors do not look kindly on those using "alternative" training approaches. Again.. more punishing or maybe even aversive pressure for the human.

Equipment is another issue too! We are commonly forced to use bits, even very strong bits, and carry whips and spurs. No joke, I've tried doing dressage tests without spurs and a dressage whip, and I was informed by everyone around me (including the judges) that I should carry a whip and hve on spurs.. it's expected; aversive pressure from others towards me.

Now of course, we can't have horses just wandering all over the place freely, and people taking thirty minutes to give their horse the option to take the jump or not.. and we can't give blue ribbons to horses that don't finish a round.. but we can start making improvements.

We can.....

  • Start preparing our horses better, making the show ring a more positive experience for them.

  • Stop pressuring and punishing riders for treating their horses fairly and kindly.

  • Have competitions where trainers are encouraged to take time to educate their horses before hand.. maybe setting up courses before hand and allowing a day of individual"training" runs before the "competition" began..(something that's common in dog agility. There's a "pre" day where you pay to have "x" amount of time to practice over all the obstacles in the arena all to yourself.)

  • Clap for people who chose to dismiss themselves rather than pressure and punish their horses.

  • Allow physical and verbal praise during competition as long as it's brief and calm.

  • Start working to reduce stress by having smaller limits on group class sizes and less horses in warm up rings.

  • Maybe even allowing for food rewards (that one is sticky, because even in dog competitions they don't allow food in the ring as often food gets dropped and it will hinder the next competitor).

  • Allow bridless and bitless equipment during competition.

  • Prioritize skillful and patient horsemanship over appearance, style, bloodlines, etc.

  • Offer "overall best horsemanship" awards kind of ribbons to those who clearly put the needs of the horse first before the rider. This might include awarding someone who scratches a class or excuses themselves.

  • Allow for training time on course even once the horse and rider are no longer eligible for placing. Perhaps a "buzzer" to begin the start of an allotted amount of time if the rider wishes to take it to practice before leaving.

  • And I'm sure this list could keep going...

BUT, you get my point... there is soooo much that needs to be done to improve the competition world to allow for willing equine competitors. Which leads us to... "what about now? Can we compete with horses trained with autonomy and R+ even without these changes?"

Yes... and no.

Yes, because I do believe it's possible if the human is VERY conscious of the horse and their needs, and does a LOT of preparation with the horse. Doing things like, traveling to play days, competitions, clinics, etc a lot, and just training there but not competing. Being prepared to walk away and not compete. Not letting the pressure of outsiders, the judges and such get to you. Ignore the punishment of hearing that stupid buzzer go off when you go over time or excuse yourself. You're there for you and your horse, THAT'S IT. Nobody else.

I don't care how expensive your horse is, how fancy your tack is... or how inexpensive it all is... it's alllllll about you and your horse. The only pressure we feel to compete is pressure we put on ourselves and the pressure we allow others to put onto us. It's absolutely okay to WANT to compete, but don't feel obligated and don't put your own wants before your horse's needs.

No, because... it's going to be very hard for some people to do that and for some horses to be able to offer you what it is that's expected of them. My guy Cash is a prime example.. there is no way on this earth that horse would ever enjoy competition. He chews slow, moves slow, is happy to do nothing.. and that's his love language; doing nothing, and being fed for it.

River on the other hand LIVES for adventure. The arena is too boring to her, and being out in the open is thrilling for that horse. She would probably REALLY enjoy a cross country course or extreme trail riding. For her, I think we can achieve competition without having to compromise much, if anything at all.

No, also, because... it's going to be impossible to give your horse FULL autonomy when traveling and around other horses and in situations where the horse can not just leave. This is the nature of it and there's nothing to be done about it; your horse can not just leave the building if it feels like it, that would be dangerous. BUT, we can do everything within our power to listen to subtle signs the horse is giving us so that they don't have to make big gestures to tell us "no"; in which case I would consider the horse to still have choice.

If I ask my horse to step up to the mounting block and I have a hold of the reins so that they can't completely leave me, and they swing away from the block even just a step.. this is my horse telling me "no" and I will accept; that's the horse having a voice/choice. By choosing to listen to their quiet voice, and not waiting for them to say "goodbye", and by not forcing the horse to stand still.. we've given them choice, without ever letting go of the reins.

If my horse is approaching a fence and starts lagging behind and really sucking back, and I'm tempted to kick harder or use a crop... to give that horse a voice I would have to accept that they are not ready for that jump and stop myself from pressuring them or punishing them for telling me they are uncertain. Instead, I could give them a nice wither scratch, do a circle, use my voice to soothe them, and ask one more time.. and if they still say no.. then that's that. Back to the drawing board and more preparation work for whatever kind of jump that was that the horse said no to.

Though, that's really where I think competition rules limit us and are preventing a kinder training approach. I *might* be allowed to spend some time training with the horse at that jump after the "refusal", but it's not the kind of training I would want to do or a long enough period of time to allow the horse to be truly successful and complete the jump (if I felt that was appropriate) without the use of pressure. I wouldn't be allowed to suddenly whip out a treat bag and work in successive approximations with positive reinforcement to build the horse's confidence towards the jump, but I would be allowed to kick harder and use the crop a few times to pressure them on. That's not to say we couldn't achieve this another time or at another location, but it would be ideal to be able to do that in the current situation with the current jump.

We have a long way to go before we reach that point and also that's not very realistic for the rest of the line up of competitors, the competition would go on forever, we would have to work on a time limit of some kind like mentioned above... when it comes to competition we are not longer "training", but trying to show what we know... it's just that when things get messy, can we make change that to allow for other approaches to resolving the mess?

All that to say.. I believe that it is possible, but not quite how we want it to be just yet.. and maybe not with every horse. We will get there though, baby steps and time are needed. Right now I just encourage all competitive riders to really do the best they can to prepare their horses in a positive way and try and reduce the outside pressure they get from other riders, trainers, judges... listen to your horse and give them as much of a voice as you possibly can. Avoid punishing them for being scared, avoid pressuring them through fear, avoid putting your needs before their needs... and you're going to be WELL ahead of the game.

- Adele

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