Couples Therapy or Horse Agility?

WMObstacleClaraYou both show up at the appointed hour. One of you is more enthusiastic, the other one is second guessing being there at all. Maybe you avoid each other’s gaze. The extrovert in the couple is moving around charming everyone, while the introvert tries to become invisible. Self-conscious discomfort is the mutual truth. How long till this is over?

Everyone wants a better relationship, but a few things stand in the way. After what he has done, can you trust him? Is her nagging and complaining making you wish you were deaf? Do you wish he would relax and just try to get along? Does she say one thing and mean another?

Are relationships supposed to be this hard? Do you remember what it was like when love was new? Should you break up or live on in quiet desperation? You could spend expensive hours in lavender-colored offices with a box of Kleenex on every table. You each perch on opposite ends of an expensive but unattractive sofa and recount past mistakes. It’s enough to cause an ulcer.

If working with your horse is starting to feel like detention, stop everything! It’s time to play a game.

Horse Agility is perfect. First, it’s done in hand, that means equal footing to start. One of you has a halter and lead on, but since the goal is to work off lead, no one (you know who you are) has to get their face pulled on. In this game of finesse, communication matters more than speed and there are no wrong answers.

Think of Horse Agility as a human/equine game of 20 Questions. You start with an obstacle, like a horse-sized teeter-totter or a kids wading pool. Then you start asking your horse questions. Can you touch it with your nose? Can you put a toe on it? Now the hard part, you wait for an answer, and when you get his answer, you accept it. If your horse answers with I would rather look at that sweet little mare, that’s your first obstacle.

Just like in real life, you can’t force behavior. Some folks think being adversarial is good leadership, but it soon becomes its own punishment. And demonstrating- standing in the pool and pleading- makes no sense to your horse at all. That’s when the instructor reminds you that the horse does the obstacle, you just ask the questions.

So you go back to basics. Ask a simple question politely, reward your horse for volunteering an answer. Be generous, whether he is right or wrong, so you draw him into the game and he finds the confidence to try again. It’s just as easy to train curiosity (in horses or humans) as it is resistance, but one is much easier to live with than the other.

Now get creative with the questions. If your horse already does the tarp, can he stop on it? Back over it? Put only the left rear foot on it? Because this game is not about the tarp at all, don’t let the obstacle distract you from the real goal of training problem solving and responsiveness in you and your horse.

More direction, less correction. And at the end of the day, you and your horse are friends again. Maybe you don’t need therapy after all. Maybe the cure is to find a way to say yes to each other more often.

Why is a dressage instructor like me so wild about Horse Agility? One definition of dressage is the ability to ask any part of your horse to do anything you want. It requires relaxation, communication, and resistance-free partnership; that sounds exactly like Horse Agility. The only real difference between Agility and Dressage is that the obstacles at the letters in a dressage arena are invisible. Start easy and go up the levels, in-hand or mounted, and by the end, your equine partnership transcends games or riding disciplines and becomes that soul connection we all seek.

How does the game of Horse Agility end? That’s the best part. It doesn’t…

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Sign up for HORSEPLAY ALLOWED, our Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue Benefit coming up on June 8th. And more information is on my events page.

And remember, first Saturday of the month is Horse Agility here. Come play with us.

3 thoughts on “Couples Therapy or Horse Agility?

  1. I love this Anna. And I think I needed to hear it. “Be generous, whether right or wrong”. Words to live by. I believe I will be reading this over again, and trying some new things….

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