Go the distance.
Do it with grace or do it ugly,
because some days
that’s what your best looks like.
It only matters
that you go the full heart distance.
Go the distance.
Do it with grace or do it ugly,
because some days
that’s what your best looks like.
It only matters
that you go the full heart distance.
If I were to write a training book entitled Less is More, it would be hundreds of pages long. The irony is not lost on me. At the same time, it’s an idea that I defend constantly. Us humans can be like rats on a wheel sometimes.
We’ve all seen the rider. Maybe she starts by lunging her horse in tight side-reins. He can’t breathe and gets a bit panicky. Confirming her opinion that he needs lunging to take the edge off. Most misunderstandings start this way–a simple mistake.
Then it’s like dominoes. She wants to get it right. Her horse tries in the beginning. She’s focused, she pushes too hard, for too long. Then she doesn’t notice that she’s talking to herself, about her horse, but behind his back. Each try, she wants just one more effort a bit better, but by now her horse has lost heart. He’s just getting the same cue again and again and he has no idea what it means anymore. Are you teaching your horse to be stupid or smart?
Wake-up call: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
And by the way, how did things go at work today? (Like your horse even needs to ask.)
Part of the challenge of riding well doesn’t have a thing to do with the barn. It’s just being who we are. That usually means a full-time job. Maybe a couple of kids. That’s enough for a twenty hour day right there. Being retired is just as busy, dealing with health issues, technology, and family. Is that a strange man in the house or do you recognize him as the guy in your wedding photos? Then book club and maybe a random thought about climate change and horse rescue. Balancing responsibilities and obligations with your passions and bank account ends up being a recipe for guilt. At the very least, it’s a lot of extra weight for a horse to carry.
Then some idiot trainer like me climbs on your horse, and with no fanfare or angst, your horse does that illusive movement for a few strides, as I smile and throw down the reins, like it’s no big deal. Ouch, apparently it’s easy for your horse.
And then my client says to me, “Know what your problem is? You don’t want it bad enough.” There’s an instant where the words hang in the air… and then we howl. A sense of humor will always be the very best training aid.
And she’s right. There’s an art to riding as if you don’t care. Sure, it’s an “untruth” and we’re obsessed about our riding technique. But I also hope we find a way to not torment our horses any more than we have to along the way. It’s pretty easy to get that Night of the Living Dead appearance in the saddle from just trying too hard. Your effort shows in your horse’s stilted gait and tense back.
So, your life is busy and you don’t have much time to ride? Good. Ride less. Ride lighter, and trust your horse. He doesn’t forget how to be ridden and he doesn’t need to be drilled. His memory is strong; he remembers his training as clearly as he remembers your frustration.
Since we humans think in hour-sized hunks of time, start when the big hand is on the twelve. Start by currying too long. Use one arm and then the other. Feel his skin warm as his blood flow increases. Then feel your shoulders relax and do the same. Forget the stupid clock; tune in to horse time.
Bridle him with slow hands and lots of deep breaths. Pause on the mounting block and let your guilt and stress drain out into a dark, sticky pool under your boots. Then lightly mount. Once in the saddle, take a moment to feel your sit-bones go soft and the weight of your heels sink low. Acknowledge you have a partner and not an adversary.
Take all the time you need to allow your horse a good warm-up on a long rein without correction. Just rhythm and stride. Never doubt this is the most important part of the ride. Feel his body with your seat and legs. Use time freely because quality matters.
Now is a good time to get off. Yes, so soon. Quit early, while you want more and your horse is happy. Finish by taking too much time brushing him down, give him a snack, and still have time to run an errand on the way home.
If you want to train just a little longer, be serious enough about your riding to remember the best work happens when it feels like play. Successive approximation is that happy path of bread crumbs. We reward that answer that isn’t right, but is closer to right, like calling out, “You’re getting warmer,” in a game of Hide and Seek. If you get one really good effort, quit right there. Jump down immediately. Then trust your horse’s intelligence. Even if you don’t quite trust your own. If your trainer releases you early, or your ride was only thirty minutes long, give yourself chocolate. You deserve a treat!
Current opinions about training have changed. Three days a week of actually schooling is plenty for most competition horses. Keep your horse fit with hacks or arena games or cross-training. Or anything else that doesn’t feel like boot camp. You know the two cardinal rules in training: Be consistent. Change things up.
If you still want to tell me that your horse is that hot kind of horse that needs to be ridden hard every day, well, ask yourself the hard question. “How can I help his anxiety?”
Fall equinox: Days are getting shorter and the world has a way of twisting things sideways. If we don’t pay attention, blessings start to feel like poverty. It isn’t true. What you have to offer is more than enough and your horse is just as magical as he ever was.
Nothing. There isn’t one this week.
When a cloud
has a thought cloud
and even then,
nothing to say.
What if it isn’t a bad thing?
I have a “big picture” thing I want to say and it’s going to take some explaining. Just food for thought, really, but there’s some defining of terms that has to happen first. Just for the purposes of this article, and with full knowledge that making generalizations is always a bad idea. Here goes.
Some riders fall into the category of timid. Or cautious. They may compete or trail ride or whatever, but they are always aware of a certain voice in their heads that’s a bit reluctant, concerned about possible injury, or just not having control. And they ride anyway. My thesaurus adds these synonyms for timid: apprehensive, demure, modest, nervous, browbeaten, yellow, milquetoast, mousy, fainthearted. Is it just me or do the words run to name-calling near the end?
There is a level of fear that runs deeper than timid. It’s a rider who is truly unable to breathe or smile. They are almost pathologically tense and then when something happens, like a horse looking to the side, they react more than respond. They might jerk the reins or grab in some other way. It’s a level of fear that is nearly disabling. The thesaurus seems to respect fear more with these synonyms: angst, despair, dread, horror, panic, terror, abhorrence, phobia.
Then there are riders who demand obedience from their horses; riders who are boss. Domineering riders who appear fearless and strong. They’ll make their horse do anything and many times, crowds cheer them on. Again, interesting words from the thesaurus: arrogant, autocratic, dictatorial, tyrannical, coercive, insolent, iron-handed. (I have to say, seeing that last term made me blink hard; its second meaning, particular to riding, hurts my ears as much as the visual on a horse hurts my eyes.)
So again, these are horrid generalizations and people are individuals. Putting riders into piles is a bad thing and most of us are in the middle of change every day.
In my tiny corner of the horse world, most of the riders I work with would refer to themselves as timid. They apologize for it like it’s a bad thing. They tell me it’s hard to remember to breathe and that they don’t ride like the did when there were younger. They see being timid as a flaw.
I have a confession; I like timid riders.
There’s probably at least one time that every rider has fit into each of these categories. Whatever kind of rider you think you are doesn’t matter anyway. The only thing that matters is what kind of rider your horse thinks you are. They’re truth tellers. A horse will tell you that a domineering rider is afraid or that a fearful rider can get through it. A horse will say, “Enough already!” putting an end to saddle time, or show patience and tolerance to a rider with good intention, or just shut down to a rider’s rude barrage of noise and cues.
True, I’m no fan of domineering riders. I won’t work with them. I consider respect for horses fundamental. Still, these riders do have a certain success because horses will succumb to intimidation. For a while. But their horses rat them out, from their sad eyes and tense poll, all the way to the tip of their clamped tail.
Dang. There I go again, talking about compassion and understanding for horses. It’s the sort of approach that attracts titles like “tree-hugger” and sissy. *Smiles and waves.*
What I love about timid riders is that their willingness to go slow. They’re sensitive and they want to really listen to their horse. Half of the time, I think the anxiety that they feel was a message from their horse in the first place, and they are the kind of partner who will take the blame for a friend. They have the honesty to admit how they feel and it makes their judgment of how their horses feel just a bit more compassionate.
*Disclaimer: now is when I have to say that not everyone who claims to listen to horses actually does. In fact, it’s a pretty rare occurrence when any of us truly put horses first. Once you do that you’re insuring yourself a life of change and learning. You’ll have to give up your ego, but then that never works with horses anyway. Or would it be smarter to give up people? Hard to say.
Finally, the most illusive group of riders… a few who aspire to redefine leadership in a more nuanced way. They’re kind leaders who are irresistible to horses who crave safety over fear. And all horses do. Even sour horses become calm partners. Insecure horses start blowing and never stop, as if they’ve been holding their breath forever. A kind leader doesn’t stand out in a crowd, unless it’s a crowd of horses. I suppose they do something like whisper, but it’s not a joke or a movie title to them.
Maybe the big picture looks like this: There is a long continuum and at one end is violent dominance and the other end is total submission. We all start with horses someplace on this continuum. Some of us started hard-hearted and horses taught us that fighting doesn’t work. Some of us started soft and lost patience and got callus. Some of us look like deer in headlights, confused by the opinions of people clashing with our horses.
And there’s a tiny place on the continuum, a sweep spot, that has balance and respect and safety. If it was easy to find, everyone would be there.
Dear Timid Rider, please don’t apologize for being sensitive. It’s the language of compassion and honesty. It’s an under-rated strength to be proud of.
First, what is fair to expect from a horse? If you think your horse should stand flat on a loose rein while the rest of the horses leave for the barn at a high gallop, well, you’re in for a disappointing and fast ride home. If you think that a halt should hold for an hour without moving, or during a dust-devil attack, again, not really fair. If you believe you should be able to control him totally, then I recommend riding something with an ignition.
We can begin with a horse when you’re willing to negotiate. The other word for that is train. Suppose you are sitting in the saddle and your horse takes a step to the right, so your right foot corrects him. But then he steps forward a stride, so you use your reins to pull him back. Then he tosses his head to one side, so you use the opposite rein to straighten him, and then he backs up. You put enough leg on him to stop him but he continues to jig. You’re too nervous to notice you’re tense, your reins are tight and your cues have an edge of panic to them.
Right about now, some idiot will tell you that you need a stronger bit. It would be fine with me if you tell them they’re an idiot. Thank you.
It’s hard to not accelerate one correction after another if all either of you know is that everything you do is wrong. The more corrections you make, the deeper the hole the two of you are in. If you stop to think about it, he actually is being responsive to the cues you give him. And if it feels like you’re training your horse to be fussy, well, you are.
But dear Rider, thank you for your honesty. Yes, your horse feels your nervousness. If it was easy to snap your fingers and make the fear evaporate, I’m sure you would have done it. So you “struggle with him” to stand. Is it possible to cue him to relax; cue him to come to rest instead?
Take a breath. You’re in a rut of nagging and correcting. Some horses will shut down just to make the barrage of cues stop, and some will get worse, but either way, your horse isn’t learning anything going forward, by having his past behaviors corrected. In other words, can you change the tone of the conversation by asking him to do something, rather than correcting what he has already done.
Here’s where some trainers will tell you to circle your horse, with the idea being that eventually he’ll want to rest. But circling can become a kind emotional evasion for the horse; a way to disconnect. Pretty soon anxiety seems to become part of his personality. Yours, too.
If you are emotionally active in the saddle… he will reflect that.
First, before you address your horse, take an internal inventory. Do a literal scan your body for tension. What do you feel? Is your seat tense in the saddle or are your knees tight on his flanks? Consciously soften your seat and let your knees feel light enough that an egg wouldn’t break under them. Grasping him with your legs is a cue to go forward, so take a moment and breathe looseness all the way to your ankles. Then check your shoulders–do they belong up by your ears? Release them soft with your breath, let your elbows become kind and elastic, and your wrists be free and open. Finally, how’s your jaw? If you can’t do a human version of a lick and chew, neither can your horse.
Become conscious of your own body but don’t judge. Thank yourself for the awareness. When you feel anxiety, train yourself to exhale slowly. Fear is something that gets stronger in the dark, so drag it into broad daylight and invite it along for the ride. Pretty soon fear will behave like a sullen teenager because you’ve ruined its fun.
So now you and your horse are walking together. Pick an easy day because training a new behavior in the middle of a rodeo isn’t the best choice for either of you. Feel your body move in unison with his, and his body move in unison with yours. Say whoa, melt into the saddle and rest your sitbones. Slack your reins and trust him. Then count to one, reward him profusely, and ask him to walk on. Muster a laugh. Horses like us to laugh.
Repeat this simple walk-halt transition. Don’t hang yourselves out to dry; try to walk again before either of you get too anxious. Good Boy! Then notice that your horse likes not being corrected all the time and reward yourself for that. Gradually add trots and canters, and let the halts last longer. Take forever, and say thank you every time.