WHAT IS ARTIFICIAL? by Gincy Self Bucklin
You often hear horsemen talking about ‘artificial’ as opposed to ‘natural’ aids, with some groups maintaining that artificial aids are to be avoided if at all possible, as being potentially cruel and abusive. If this is true, and we should indeed avoid the use of anything which is not natural, then we must define the difference.
When I was a young teacher-in-training, one of the questions on a test was “Is it natural for the horse to be ridden?” The correct answer to that question is “No.” What is natural for the horse is the same is what is natural for the zebra—one of the only equines who continues to lead a natural equine life, living in grasslands in herds, with ample food available most of the time, and eventually becoming lunch for a lion. And in fact, the first relationships between equines and humans were food-related—that is, the humans perceived horses solely as food.
Eventually of course, horses were domesticated, bred for specific characteristics and evolved into Grand Prix horses or Tennessee Walkers or kids’ ponies. But they are still the same animals whose natural place is being free on the plains. However, as I said once to a friend who felt that horses shouldn’t be ridden at all, “If we didn’t ride them, most of them would end up in a can.” (which of course happens to a lot of mustangs.)
So, like nearly all our relationships with the environment, compromise is necessary. We do have to do some unnatural things to the horse in order to justify having him at all. We keep him in stables, we separate him from his own kind into stalls and paddocks, we geld him, we do not allow her to be bred and produce foals, we feed him foods that he would not find in those quantities in nature. We put shoes on her feet to protect them from the unnatural terrain and uses we put her to.
Before we have ever started anything so unnatural as riding, we have already done a great many artificial things to the horse, in order to adapt him to our uses. But in most cases we have no choice. If you live in the suburbs of a large city, you can hardly turn your horses loose in a herd to live a natural life foraging in your neighbors’ gardens! And the same logic applies equally to the other examples given above.
Where most people start distinguishing the natural from the artificial is in the definition of devices for controlling and communicating with the horse, also known as aids. (Notice the use of that word. “To aid” means “to help”, so any aid should help the horse in his performance.) The natural aids are considered those that belong to the human body; the hands, the legs, the seat, the weight and the voice are usually considered as the natural aids. Artificial aids are everything else; bits and other devices which work on the horse’s mouth and nose area, whips, spurs, martingales or tie-downs, side reins, draw reins and probably others that I haven’t thought of.
There are those who can train horses to go with no head device whatsoever, and keep the horse under control in all sorts of unusual situations. There is no question that this is a very desirable thing to be able to do, but I do question the practicality of bridleless riding for the average person with limited time and abilities. Therefore, except for these skilled trainers, virtually everybody who rides uses at least one artificial aid—the bit or equivalent device.
Let us examine whether the bit helps or hinders the horse. Certainly, an inexperienced rider, keeping her balance by pulling on the reins, is hindering the horse. Conversely, a skilled rider teaching a young horse how to handle the turns in an arena is helping—aiding—the horse with the bit.
Now let’s examine another artificial device; the saddle. One might think that every one should learn to ride the horse bareback like the ancient Greeks, since the saddle appears to be restrictive and is certainly unnatural. But in actuality, it is much harder on horse to be ridden bareback for long periods. The human seat bones do not distribute the rider’s weight over a very large area, as any one knows who has ever sat on concrete bleachers for very long. So the rider’s weight is concentrated over two small areas on the horse’s back, which quickly become sore. Now contrast that with a properly constructed, fitted and adjusted saddle, which distributes the rider’s weight evenly over a large area of the horse’s back, even more so when she is standing in the stirrups. So, while riding bareback occasionally is a wonderful way to get a real feel of the horse’s body and movement, for the most part the ‘artificial’ way is of more help to the horse.
The whip is another artificial aid which is the subject of much controversy. Occasionally movements are even started to ban whips from competition. Whips, of course, are the obvious tools with which to abuse the horse. But as has been said in another context, whips don’t abuse horses, people abuse horses. The whip is a very easy aid for the horse to understand, and a very easy tool for the rider to learn to use correctly. Use of legs in the beginner rider to ask for movement is often accompanied by rider tension and loss of balance which restrict and confuse the horse. By contrast, the most inexperienced rider who has been taught a modicum of correct position and balance in full seat can learn to reach back and lightly tap the horse with her whip without any other tension. It is also easy to teach a horse (if he has not been previously abused) that the whip is merely a means of communication, and not to be feared. (Abused horses can learn it, too, but it takes more time and skill!)
Without going into further detail then, I think we can say that, since riding itself is artificial, that the use of artificial devices in themselves is not wrong or an indication of improper or unsympathetic training. The key is whether or not the training device helps—aids—the horse to perform in a way that is beneficial to the horse as well as to the rider. Devices and methods that cause pain, whether physical or psychological, should not be used or supported by any caring horseman of any discipline. But equally, artificial devices should not be condemned merely for being artificial if their correct use can be seen to be beneficial.