Fairy Gold, Fool’s Gold, and Walking the Walk

Fairy gold is gift that shines brightly, looks and feels real, but when the spell wears off (usually at midnight, sometimes at dawn), turns to ashes and dead leaves. Fool’s gold is the non-magical-world equivalent: looks like gold, glitters like gold, but is cheap and common iron pyrite. It’s kind of pretty, but it’s not worth much.

So what does that have to do with horse training, or writing about horses and training? There’s another phrase that comes into the mix that might explain further: “He talks the talk, but he sure doesn’t walk the walk.” The words are all shiny and pretty and alluring, but there’s no substance behind them.

The trouble for the client or horse owner or writer is, how can she tell what’s the real deal and what’s a big flashy horse-destroying or book-destroying show? Sometimes, even for the experienced and well-educated, it can be really difficult to tell the difference.

There’s a saying that I believe in: The horse doesn’t lie. You can’t placebo or flimflam or fake out a horse when it comes to training. The results show in how he reacts to it.

If he’s reluctant to come out for today’s session and he’s not sick or hurt (horses can do amazing things to themselves on their own time, from hanging themselves from the barn rafters to rolling over and getting caught against the pasture fence to having too much fun riproaring around and popping a tendon to…), that’s one signal. If he’s nervous or shies off from his trainer or handler, that’s another. If he acts up when bridled or saddled–won’t stand still, kicks at the girth, champs the bit, throws his head around–something’s definitely wrong with the equipment (or with the parts the equipment is pressing on), and there may also be something wrong with the progression of training in that equipment: sore back, girth or saddle galls, bit pain, tongue or palate pain.

But it’s not always that obvious. Some horses have amazingly high pain tolerance, or develop a sort of equine Stockholm syndrome. They’ll put up with an amazing amount of abuse without seeming to react. In some cases they’ll internalize, get ulcers, colic, become lame. A few may explode suddenly and without apparent warning. Others will become dull and unresponsive: hard-mouthed, horsemen say when the horse stops paying attention to the bit, or dull-sided from too much kicking and spurring.

Sometimes you can spot scars: whip or spur marks, scarring inside or at the corners of the mouth, sores under the tail or on the legs from devices intended to “make him move fancier.” He might have scars on the nose from being shanked with a lead chain.

But the really clever purveyors of fairy gold know not to do any of this. It’s too blatant and can get them in trouble with show or racing authorities. They may be well-intentioned, even, but poorly or ineptly taught, so that the horses are mistrained but neither the trainers nor the clients realize there’s a problem. It takes an educated observer to see the evidence in the horses’ bodies.

Because bad training can do obvious damage–make the horse lame, break his wind, even kill him if pushed too far–but garden-variety mistraining is not so easy to spot. You have to know what to look for.

Do the horses in the barn all go with their backs hollowed out and their heads in the air with mouths open? That’s bad training. Creates sore backs, sore necks, sore mouths. Over time, you get a horse with a permanently dropped back and no loin muscling, and a neck that bulges at the base.

Such horses may also sweat much more than the temperature or the level of work calls for, and be covered with white foam, which is a sign of serious stress. Their mouths may foam profusely, which indicates that the bit is causing them discomfort. (A little foam, called “lipstick” for its effect and quantity, is a positive sign: means the horse is comfortably working the bit in a relaxed mouth; this small amount of light-colored foamy substance acts as a lubricant for the metal or plastic of the bit. But a whole lot of white foam is a warning signal.)

In another barn, all the horses may move in this rigid frame, with noses exactly on the vertical. That’s a winning outline for such disciplines as dressage, but look for a rock-hard bulge around the midpoint of the neck, poorly muscled loin (possibly even with a separation from the point of the croup–known as a “hunter’s bump” because it happens  also with horses that jump over fences incorrectly or excessively), and inability to stretch out the neck when the reins are loosened. Or if the horse does stretch, he pulls out stiff and hard and unbalances onto his front end. Over time, his hocks will give out–this kind of positioning, drilled for hours a day, several days a week, for years, breaks them down quite reliably. He may also have neck problems from having his chin cranked in to his chest, and very probably has back problems.

Then there are the horses–these will show up in Western barns–who shuffle along lifelessly with their noses barely above their knees. Their canter (called lope) is four beats instead of three, and looks as if the horse is lame. Their tails may hang motionless–there’s a good chance the tail has been either injected or surgically altered in order to keep it from moving. They’ll be winning in shows, but they’ll also be breaking down early and often. All that dropping on the front end does a nice job of messing up the front feet, and arthritis in the knees is sadly common.

One reason for immobilizing the tail is to silence one of the horse’s ways of registering an objection. A lashing tail, as with cats, is a sign that something is wrong. The tail that swings gently with the movement is good. “The horse should look like Marilyn Monroe as she sashays away from you,” the old horsemen say. But lashing, spinning, and flipping the tail indicate stress. The horse may be expressing an opinion of a specific request, but if the lashing is persistent and habitual, that’s not good.

The really sad part is that the trainers who perpetrate these and many other offenses against the welfare of the horse will tell you that they “have” to do this because it wins. Or else what “it’s just what you need to do in order to get the horse to perform the way we want him to perform.” Or that “you have to push him if he’s going to make any progress.” Or that “it’s not hurting him, it’s just making it clear to him what he needs to do.”

But even worse than these are the trainers who say all the “right” things. “I’m a gentle trainer, I’m all about the good of the horse, everything I do is all about him and is wonderful for him.” There’s a whole vocabulary taken from the self-help industry and the motivational speakers, which is sprayed around liberally, interspersed with quotations from (preferably long dead) equestrian masters.

And if the customer is wise to this, the really savvy con artist quotes the masters directly, claims to have studied with those who are alive or recently deceased, and trots out sets of exercises pioneered or championed by these masters.

Warning signals here can be hard to spot, but they are there. A really big one is the “Master” who claims, or more subtly implies, that he is the conduit for a single received truth. Other trainers are ignorant or misguided, and only he conveys the true message, either his own or from the famous predecessor. If something doesn’t work, it must be a failure on the student’s part, not on the part of the teacher. And if it can’t be duplicated outside of classes with the teacher, that’s the student’s fault. Or the horse’s fault. Though there’s more inclination to blame the student, as this kind of faux Master makes a big deal about “it’s all for the horse.”

One should beware of the Master who sells “special” equipment for large prices, too. Special halters or headstalls, sticks, toys, saddles, even pens or arenas that are trademarked and logoed and advertised as “the only correct equipment for My Method.” And of course there are books and videos, and clinics that charge large fees, and if the Master is especially successful, there may be levels of subordinate mastery and “approvals” and “certifications” so that devotees can pass on the wisdom.

It can really be difficult to weed out the gold from all the pyrite, and spot the real thing in the crowd of not-quites and not-reallys and the outright scammers. But if you keep your eye on the horses, see how they react and how they develop over time–mentally and physically–it does come clear. The horses don’t lie. And that’s the truth.

Special thanks to the commenters on previous Horseblogs who provided some of the examples and most of the inspiration.


Want to know more about horses and writing and how they intersect? Here’s where to begin. Questions answered, terms defined, and links, many links, to further investigations. With copious illustrations.

Just $4.99 in all the popular formats (including Kindle, Nook, and Sony e-reader) from the Book View Cafe e-bookstore.

Or if fictional horses are more to your taste, try A Wind in Cairo, the magical story of a prince, a Turk, and an Arabian stallion. And for further historical delights, try The Dagger and the Cross: A Novel of the Crusades and its prequel, Alamut.




Fairy Gold, Fool’s Gold, and Walking the Walk — 7 Comments

  1. This is fascinating stuff. I wonder if many beginner horse owners can’t see the signs at first because they are still learning horse language, and meanwhile Evil Trainer is pouring into their ears blandishments meant to actually keep them from understanding the horse, and focusing on the Trainer instead.

  2. Lovely post. Nothing to add–you’ve said it all.

    I might add that some of the abusive trainers also carry over the abusive from the horses to the students. Not the yelling piece, because at some point most instructors and trainers will holler if at least to get your attention. But watch out for a trainer if the students seem incapable of doing anything on their own initiative, if they seem paralyzed, if they can’t do something without citing The Trainer as an expert and The Only Source. Granted, rank beginners will do that. But when you get someone who’s been around for a while and rides/handles well, but can’t think for themself? Danger sign.

  3. Bingo, Sherwood and Joyce.

    Plus, for the beginner or for anybody lacking in confidence, even if the little voice in the back of the mind wonders about the lame horses and the riders who never make any real progress, the trainer’s voice drowns it out. They’ll find themselves dinking in tiny little circles forever, because they can’t possibly do anything else until those circles are absolutely perfect.

    Trouble is, these teachings are based on the real thing. You do have to strive for a correct bend, a correct rhythm, a correct posture, not for pretty but because it optimizes the horse’s balance and ability to do the work, which preserves his soundness and prolongs his working life. But small distortions and misinterpretations multiply over time, until all the words may be the same, but the actions and the results bear no resemblance to the original. Like bad clones of great books–the more they clone each other, the worse they get.

    If you add money into it, attach racing purses or show wins, the distortion can reach seriously toxic levels. Google, for example, Rollkur. Or Big-Lick Walkers. Or “Impressive Syndrome” in connection with AQHA halter classes.

    Then you have a whole lucrative industry of abusive trainers teaching owners and students that the abuses are a good thing–and rewarding each other with more money and more show wins (because in many of these areas, the judges are also trainers). It becomes a self-perpetuating system. There’s no way to convince those who profit from it that there might be something wrong with it, because they’re rewarded more, the more abusive they are. Rollkur is a classic example of this–it’s poisoned international dressage from the top all the way to the bottom, despite strong opposition. And of course, it’s the horses who pay the price.

  4. Rollkur is now poisoning reining.

    And reining now has a Doc O’Lena syndrome. Can’t knock it too much because I own a Doc O’Lena line-bred top and bottom…but if I do breed her, it’s going to be a complementary outcross, which is getting harder to find.

    That’s why I need to seriously get into the new Western Dressage movement…

  5. The money factor in this is indeed SIGNIFICANT. Big Lick Walkers (and in fact, some classes that are not Big Lick but still tainted) are an area that you know well that I can rant on about for a good long while. And in fact, the terribly sick idea of what a showy walking horse should look like has actually led to much of the breed facing challenges in being able to move in balance even when given the opportunity to do so, because they have been bred for a money making show “look.”

    But it also comes to play in the merchandising, because while merchandise can indicate that someone is trying to lock students into a single way, other sound trainers/approaches can find gear that works, and make it available at a reasonable price so that others can use it. of course, the difference is saying “hey, it’s nice to use a stiff dressage whip of 3-4 feet of length for these reasons, and if you don’t have one, here is one that works” and saying ” you must have my “carrot stick” for the technique to work.” Making it available and saying this is the only piece of equipment that will work are two very different things. But I also understand that the retail side can be profitable, and that people need to make a living.

    So as with it all, you need to look at what is being done in context, and be prepared to continuously learn and change your alliances as and when necessary.

    I was doing an aikido seminar (japanese martial art) and the instructor said “I am showing you what I have found works for me. I would recommend/appreciate that you try what I am showing for this weekend. that way you can tell if it is something that might work for you. But if you want to go back to an old way of doing it after the weekend, or if you forget what I show, or find another way, that is ok by me.”

    I think it is the same with horses — if you think a trainer might have something to offer, and on first review, it seems that the horses s/he works with are happy (see Judy’s excellent list of what to look for, above), then try out the trainer, and see how your horse responds (and you, too). But always be assessing, and listen to your horse. And hardest of all, be prepared to speak up for the horse (and yourself) as soon as things take a negative turn. Which isn’t always as easy as it seems in theory.

  6. Whoops – hit post one paragraph early. Because I meant to add that this last place, the place where a horseperson needs to advocate for a horse, perhaps saying to a friend, or someone that they used to respect, that they need to stop what they are doing, can create a neat moment of dramatic tension and possibly the start of character development (for the one doing the asking or for the one being asked, or both) in a novel or short story.

  7. Joyce: Wessage! Fascinating to see it going mainstream.

    Raithen: Indeed. With further conflict as friend denies, gets defensive, argues that “it must be right if all the big names are doing it,” etc.