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Operant Conditioning vs Cognitive Training June 14, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, corrections, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.
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“Operant Conditioning” is to “Cognitive Training” as “horseback riding” is to “Gal on Totillos.”  Actually, that comparison is far too narrow – the concept of conditioning subjects to respond to stimuli with behaviors, is so generic that it applies to every interaction, between every being, every time.   Furthermore, it has no moral value – there is no “good” or “bad.”  The oaf that “conditions” his horse to run off in panic at the sight of a longe whip is every bit as successful as the master that teaches his horse to relax, sit, round, and rise in lofty piaffe at the sight of the very same whip.

In cognitive training, the trainee must be an active and willing participant – not so for operant conditioning.  The victims don’t even need to know they’re part of the plan.   I could “condition” my co-workers to “behave” by leaving the room at the “stimulus” of my entering it, merely by not showering for a week or so.  This is not science – it’s the road kill remnants of common sense run down by pseudoscientific silly speak.

Those of us looking for rules to build a relationship with our horses need look no further than the golden one.  Have a little empathy, imagine how he feels, and treat him with the same common sense and kindness you would want in his place.  Remember to ask often, expect little, reward generously – the rest is really pretty straight forward.  Chances are that on some level, you already know this, do this and feel this – now I’ve said this.



Some Great Dressage Kurs! January 4, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, competition, corrections, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, half-halts, hyperflexion, looseness, Riding, roll kur, The Training Pyramid, training.
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I was poking around youtube and came across these rides from the European Championship 2009 UK Windsor. Please enjoy them and then post your POSITIVE comments about each. In fact, try to post at least several POSITIVE things about each ride. It’s great fun and learning to see what’s right with rides is a necessary part of learning.

Starting with the lowest placed ride that I’ve selected, but still, a very nice ride that I like more each time I see it.

Here we have Laura Bechtolsheimer & Mistral Hojris 81.750% KUR

From that, we go on to Anky getting only a bronze! What’s more surprising is she only got bronze with a score of 87.250%

I hadn’t seen the rider before stumbling onto this ride – she took the silver from Anky by .1%

And finally Edward Gal & Moorlands Totilas Kür 90.750% European Championship 2009 UK Windsor

Remember – just POSITIVE comments….


Opinions December 23, 2009

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, competition, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, hyperflexion, looseness, performance standards, Riding, rules, training.

An important issue for the aspiring dressage rider is to know which opinions are going to assist in his goal of riding and training, and which are going to lead him into an alley with no exit, wasting his and his horses most precious commodity – time. This is a question of separating theoretical riders who have some book knowledge, facts, but lack the real world experience to know how they apply, from those who have the real world experience and knowledge that can only come from actually doing it.

In all my experience with real world riders, I have found that 100% of the time they will ALWAYS talk about the good of another ride before the bad — if they talk about the bad at all. It seems to me that once you’ve personally realized how much knowledge you have to have, seen for yourself how much work, how many hours in the saddle, how many thousands of details that each need to be made right, everything that IS right with a ride just pops out at you. This is why the real rider looks at what is right with such appreciation and admiration.

In complete contrast, the theoretical riders, the rail birds, all puffed up with a few images and formulas but no real knowledge, jump immediately to the bad. How can they appreciate the work required to bring any horse to upper levels if they’ve never done it? How can they appreciate the real hands on knowledge required if they don’t have it or have any way to know that it’s much, much, more than they know? How can they appreciate all the thousands of details that had to be attended to if they don’t know what details I’m even talking about?

So, for the serious student of dressage, your choice is easy. You want to seek out and learn from those whose first reaction is to tell you what is right and correct about the rides of others. They’re the ones that can lead you down the path to success.

As for the theoreticians – I think they deserve your sincere sympathy. Imagine, if you can, how sad it would be to live in a world that didn’t allow you to see the artistry and excellence of Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas even though it was right there, in front of your face, plain as your nose.

Hyperflexion/Rollkur/Blue tongue, Insanity! December 5, 2009

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, competition, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, half-halts, hyperflexion, performance standards, Riding, roll kur, rules, training.

Here are my thoughts about the February 2010 FEI statement on hyperflexion – now known as “Forced Head Position” (FHP)

The Rollkur Cure

Here is a  link to another post about hyperflexion that I wrote months before this one.

Hyperventilating Over Hyperflexion

Also note that  I do not use or recommend any backwards style of riding.  I think pulling a horse’s poll up and back is just as bad as pulling it down and in.  

While I do not like the way this horse is being ridden, I don’t think  this rises to an OBJECTIVE standard of “cruelty”, “abuse”, or harm.  The horse is not lathered in sweat, bucking, rearing, bolting, or carrying on in any way that would be indicative of a horse in panic or pain.  I think this is an important point because giving public voice to the idea that the FEI and individual officials at that or any other CDI  are allowing “cruelty and abuse”  will ultimately harm dressage.

I believe the efforts of the very many sincere people upset about this way of riding would be better directed towards addressing the bottom of the pyramid not the top.  Those who have been following this blog know I have had that position and advocated concrete steps that we could affect through our own national associations.  I favor instituting a two finger rule requiring loose nosebands and the banning of spurs below 2’nd level.  here is the link to that article –  “Real Performance Standards” – it is my sincere hope that it gets as much attention as is  being spent on this other issue.

Since this remains the most visited article on the blog, I’m reopening the comments for a while.


Thousands of indignant dressage riders are up in arms over the so called blue tongue affair in particular and hyperflexion / rollkur in general. There are now efforts to urge the FEI to clarify rules so that stewards can step in whenever they see this (whatever “this” is) in the warm up area.

This is insane – here’s why.

First, there wasn’t any blue tongue. Sorry, I know it’s a drag to have reality intrude on the fantasy, but there was no blue tongue in the video.  The proof is in the uncut youtube video – I’ve provided the “uncut” 10 minute version here so you can watch the entire thing, but the issue at hand comes between the one minute and one minute forty second marks.

Here’s the frame from 1:27 into the video showing the best/closest view of the so called “blue tongue.”  It does seem to have the same whitish, grayish color  as the froth on the horse’s lips

Here’s the next frame – again you can see the tongue does appear to have the same froth on it as the lips.  Yet, while seen in motion the grayish/whitish color could be interpreted as bluish.  The actual color balance of each computer monitor will also have some effect.  Some will have more blue, some more red.  What is fair to compare is the similarity of the lips to the top of the tongue.


Of course, if you wait a second – literally at 1:28 of the video – you’ll come to the view of the horse moving away from the camera instead of towards it and now, blurry as it is, we see pink.  What is this?

Well, you don’t have to wait very long to find out – in the very next frame, a few hundredths of a second latter,  the bottom of the tongue comes into focus.  Guess what?  It’s nice and pink!  How could that happen?

The answer is obvious – “it” couldn’t have happened.  You simply cannot make the top of the tongue blue from lack of circulation while the bottom remains pink.  If you doubt this, tie a string around a finger and see if it doesn’t “blue up” all around and not just on one side or the other.

Another thing you’ll discover if you do try the string on a finger trick is that it will take more than a minute for the finger to turn blue.  Yet, if you watch the video at exactly the 1:00 minute mark,  You’ll see Scantic canters directly in front of the camera and his tongue is not out.  Nothing is apparently amiss until the 1:18 mark when we first see his tongue out.  Then, by 1:39 of the tape the rider has seen the problem, stopped, put things back in place and we don’t see the tongue again for the next 8 minutes.  So, did the tongue  turn blue from a maximum of 40 seconds of constriction from being over or between the bits?  That  doesn’t seem like a rational explanation.  However,  the top of the tongue appearing bluish from being coated with the same froth as the lips does explain why the bottom of the tongue remained pink.

Finally, the entire argument that mere hyperflexion is in and of itself enough to cut off circulation and turn the tongue blue has to be dismissed as totally irrational.  We know this because another complaint with this ride is that the horse was held in a tight frame for more than 90 minutes.  Well, if the tongue was blue from lack of circulation for more than 90 minutes, common sense tells you that he wasn’t going to be able to go out and place 3’rd in competition the next day.

So, now we need to move on and examine how the mob became so enraged by such hysterical nonsense, and figure out the positive lessons that can come from it.

The Role of Epona

The first thing that struck me about this tape was it’s sheer crapiness.  For those of you who have been fortunate enough to see the “Warm up at Achen” tapes that were around some years ago, there is simply no comparison not only in quality but in motive.  The Achen  tapes contained treasures of wisdom and insight on how the best prepared for a test.  Yes, there were moments when things didn’t go right, and seeing a rider deal with that was educational in and of itself.  But by and large, those tapes were being prepared for riders to learn what was correct.

By comparison, this video was shot by someone on a mission.  Whoever shot this was interested only in proving a negative pointt.  The result is a hatchet job that whizzes by anyone riding nicely to  focus only on a few horse’s necks and jaws.   So, Epona got their name in a lot of places and probably sold  a bunch of subscriptions, but don’t fool yourselves into thinking they only did it for the good of the horse – this kind of nonsense always ends up hurting more horses than it could ever help.

What should YOU do?

Those of you concerned about cruelty or harsh practices anywhere should begin by becoming better educated and more skilled  yourselves.  Start  by realizing it is insane for you focus on horses being prepared for international competitions when you can probably improve your own horse’s life.  To begin with:

1.  Learn how to learn.  Start by learning to take the time to analyze and understand what is being said.  In the above example had anyone been willing to take the time to analyze the next second of the video they would have seen the pink tongue and this entire bruhaha would have fallen apart..

2.  Realize that lack of experience and knowledge does not put you in a morally superior position to judge others with more experience, skill, and knowledge than you. .Seeing something that may offend you before you understand it doesn’t mean it has no value and should never be used.  In exactly the same way, seeing an advanced rider using techniques and exercises that you do appreciate does not mean you should take it upon yourself to do it with your horse at his stage of training and your level of riding.

3.   Develop your  seat!  Although I don’t understand why this rider rode his horse as curled up as he did for as long as he did, it is clear that he had the physical riding skills to do it deliberately, using his aids in a coordinated fashion.  So he did it for some purpose and I would like to hear more from him as to what the logic and reasoning of his training method is.

4.  DO NOT write outraged letters to the FEI.  It won’t help.

What the F.E.I. should do

Nothing – anything they FEI tries to do will invariably cause more trouble for the horses.  While the goals of the FEI are admirable, and the individual members are dedicated, knowledgeable, and well intended – as an organization they have not been at their best when trying to write specific rules to prevent the lowest common denominator from doing  harm. They keep trying to fix things by determining one size fits all standards that don’t work.  For example:

In order to prevent the worst riders in the warm up ring from accidentally hitting other riders with their excessively long whips, the FEI issued a rule determining the longest whip that anyone should use.  This is insane!  Now it is perfectly acceptable for a 5 foot rider on a 14.3 hand horse to use a 48″ whip, however it is illegal for a 6 foot two inch rider on an 18.1 hand horse to use a 49″ whip.  How is this fair, rational, or a solution to anything?  It isn’t.   The rule should simply state that riders are not allowed to interfere with others in the warm up area.  Period. Now it is up to the rider to be sure they don’t interfere with others and if that means they have to use a shorter whip, let the rider figure that out or be removed from competition.

A similar argument can be made in regard to spur lengths.  A spur should be long enough to get from the riders foot to the horse’s side.  Period. Standardize that distance before standardizing spur lengths.

A rule more closely related to the matter at hand has to do with the length of shanks on curb bits.  Now it is perfectly acceptable for a small arab mare to be ridden with a 10cm curb shank, however it is illegal to ride the 18hh warmblood with a 10.5cm length shank?  How does this help anyone?  The 10 cm bit is much more than is necessary for the little mare, however, a good argument can be made that the shorter curb bit has dulled the huge warmblood and given rise to practices such as  “hyperflexion” in an attempt to work around the problem.

The most recent FEI debacle came  in response to the problem of quality riders being penalized for having trace amounts of drugs left over in their horses systems.  The correct response to the problem would have been to state that trace amounts of drugs, far below the therapeutic or effective levels, were not to be penalized.  The FEI got it totally backwards and declared that therapeutic levels of certain drugs were to be allowed in competition.  Insanity!

So I have no idea how the FEI wile “solve” this problem, but I’m fairly certain whatever solution they come up with will create more problems. This is why I hope they do nothing – it’s the best we can hope for.

No, wait.  The best we can hope for is the FEI honestly admits error and rescinds the whip length rule, the curb shank rule, and the newest drug rules.  Then they should announce that a two finger rule – a rule that will require loose cavessons will be instituted within a few years.  That will set riders on a path to lightness like nothing else will.

PS – it would also help a great deal if the FEI finally got around to correcting the “Half-halt” rule.

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