Permission to NOT Ride.

WMears, cloudsLast Tuesday I had an 8 a.m. lesson with a boarder and her sweet gelding. He’s had a good summer; they even made it to a couple of schooling shows. This gelding had a checkered past with previous owners and when this pair started with me, he was a wild man. The lunge line doubled as a life line back then. But he’s been a solid citizen for the last couple of years–honest and responsive. My client has done a great job and the judges rewarded their good work together.

The air was fall-crisp as the three of us walked to the arena. He nickered a bit on the way but once inside, the gelding spun, faced the barn, and the real caterwauling began. We thought it would pass and didn’t over-react.  I remember thinking as wide as his mouth was open, the bit could practically fall down his throat. We gave him some time… but he elevated it to haunted-house-worthy screaming–a twitchy-eyed-and-quivering-lip wailing. Who is this guy?

The gelding could have been an anomaly, but he wasn’t. The next day as I drove up to another barn for a lesson, my client and his sensitive, sweet mare were belly-spinning with fear-glazed eyes and a very humped back. Two other horses in my extended herd of clients are lame from “playing too hard”–both cases left over-night manure piles reduced to confetti. At home, my mare and one of my geldings managed to open the two gates between them. By the time I got out there, my mare swaggered toward me, the clear victor, covered with welts and cheese-grater wounds on all sides, while the gelding looked freshly groomed and just out of church.

It was the first week of nights with temperatures in the forties. Winter coats are blooming on every rump and the pasture is dead-brown. There’s been a change in the wind. The mares are all in raging heat cycles and the flies are all in a death-snit. Yes, it’s a huge deal: season change. The barometer rules. Especially if your senses are about 200 times keener than a human’s.

Back in our home arena, my client has the lunge line on her gelding who’s bouncing straight up and down, bucking like rank stock, landing stiff-legged, and not one inch ahead of his last hoof prints. We share dubious glances and expect an alien to spring out of his chest any moment now.

On days like this, a question hangs in the air. “Should I ride?” Are you being a wimp if you don’t? Or a dominating jerk if you do?  Would you cancel a lesson if you had a migraine or a shoulder sprain or another invisible ailment? Would you cancel if he was obviously lame?

What do you do when there is a lesson ticking away and you don’t recognize the horse on the end of the line? What is his problem? Humans ask why; we need to dissect it and find the cause of the demonic possession. I repeat, he is a sweet, kind, and honest horse. Has he swallowed a chain saw? We don’t think he’s hurt or sick… and we can guess all day long. The truth is that it’s probably a perfect storm of a few things. The cause isn’t as important as what we do next.

“You can’t let him win.” We’ve all been told that since our first horse. “You have to climb on and ride him through it. If you let him get away with this it will spoil him forever,” comes some voice from the past. Never mind that he is using everything he has to tell us that he isn’t okay. Never mind that he’s an honest horse who doesn’t evade work normally. Never mind that you planned a lesson.

A reminder: the only way a horse has to communicate with us is by using his body. Your frustration complains that he certainly knows better! We know our gelding does… but today is a unique day and I notice there are days that I can’t find the bottom of a bucket. What if he isn’t being disobedient? Whatever he’s trying to tell us is very real to him–he isn’t faking his anxiety.

Does your ego demand that he behave right now? Is compassion a sign of weakness? What kind of leader are you when he needs you?

After a bit of lunging, our gelding is moving forward halfheartedly, still watching for the apocalypse. Did I mention he’s nineteen this year? In spite of current appearances, their work together is not so fragile. When a horse’s emotions get hot, we have to stay cool.

And there’s a miracle cure. In dressage, we believe that you get a horse’s attention by asking for transitions. So we asked for changes of gait on the line. They weren’t pretty, but he got praised for them anyway. Sure enough, they improved, and he gave us a short blow. Then we began to supple him on the lunge line. Most of us don’t use lunging to its full purpose. In truth, anything we ask for in the saddle is available while lunging. We put his brain to work with a positive conversation and he soon found his way back to his usual self. The other term for this is building trust. He’ll pay us back in the future by showing us grace when we need it.

Your gelding wants you to know that anxiety isn’t soothed by harsh discipline. Your mare wants you to know on your worst PMS day, you aren’t all that compliant either. Take a breath and relax, Human. Ground work is your friend. My advice? If your common sense whispers to stay on the ground, do it with no apology. Ego is never worth an injury, for your horse or yourself.

Besides you’ve got plenty of time. Rome didn’t burn in a day.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

48 thoughts on “Permission to NOT Ride.

  1. Kari

    So true! I choose to do something that requires less brain (like long lining) when I think riding won’t be productive. My horse doesn’t know I had planned on riding and changed my mind. And when we do something “easier,” he can be successful even when he’s silly. We both win.

  2. My over reactive Arabian boy spent so much time with ground work, and we were mocked by the others at that stable. But he learned to channel his energy and abundant brain into mazes and things he could ‘watch’ on the ground. It was a great time for all of us

  3. So glad for this post and I totally agree! I never have understood the line “You can’t let them win these battles.” It is quoted constantly in the horse world and I have always replied – name it something other than a battle and THEN figure out how to respond.

    Or name it what it really is – the battle with your own ego. The way to win THAT one is to listen to your horse and do the right thing for him.

    It doesn’t make sense to me that if a horse is going wild before you get on that somehow it’s better to get on – to win that battle, teach him he can’t get out of work, etc. etc. – and risk something really bad happening. What does that teach the horse except that you’re a pig-headed human who ran through a metaphorical fence? (with apologies to pigs who don’t deserve that comparison)

  4. Paula Romanow

    Thank you, thank you, thank,you!! Despite what my (male) coach always said, when my boy would get like this, I’d just stick him on the lunge and insist he do something. Even if it was only more or less stay on the circle. Then I’d let him do whatever he needed to do. My thought was that we weren’t going to the Olympics, so what was one day? I honestly don’t think humans give their animals enough credence for being in pain or upset.

  5. It’s feeling “fall-ish” here too. Leaves falling, squirrels darting about (read as: sounds like elephants on a rampage) and the kind of gusty wind that puts my Arab on high alert. No surprise then, that two out of six rides this week (two different horses) didn’t go as planned. Tacking up was smooth as silk, but the minute my butt hit leather I knew it was going to be interesting. Lots of spook and giddiness (and a wee bit of ‘tude) that several trips around the ring didn’t improve. So we hit the trail. They were still looking for any excuse to have a rodeo, but I find a ride through the woods seems to settle them better than trying to force ring work down their throat. I pick my battles … if you want to call it that.

  6. Maggie Frazier

    All so true! I just remember that several of the older horses at our barn were more prone to colic when the weather changed. If they dont feel good. sadly people dont always listen. Treating a ride like a “battle”, what does that say about how you treat your horse?

  7. Lynell Abbott

    For this very reason, I stopped riding some years ago. My baby (together since he was 3-now 22!) would tell me when he was not up to having me on his back. But I would listen to the call of my friends and make him go anyway, yet did not feel “fulfilled” upon returning home as I knew he was not enjoying the time with me. Looking back, I now know he was more patient with me than I deserved.
    These days are spent together at our barn. Most of the time, at liberty, he willingly comes to the fence and stands ready for me to get on his back. Some days he either does not come to me or once there does not stay with me, so I don’t push it. All of the time we are connected. I believe that is because he now trusts that I will honor his feelings 100% of the time. This to me is gold!
    Thank you, Anna, for your insights, and all your followers’ insights as well. It is nice to know there are kindred spirits out there who so eloquently put into words what I have felt for a long time!

    1. I so agree with what you said here. Mounting their backs is always a privilege. Especially with mares who can easily be sore at certain times… Thanks for the great comment.

  8. This post is another great example of why you are my favorite horse blogger, and would probably be my favorite trainer if I lived near enough to avail myself of your time and wisdom!

  9. I want to add that I would love to experience your approach to a horse like my Lance, who is cold-blooded rather than hot-blooded. I try to be very subtle in my communication, and it doesn’t always get a response, other than “Say whaaaat?” (Said with a slow Southern drawl. 😉

    1. My Grandfather Horse is cold-blooded. Another word for that is stoic. The strong silent type. I love them. I hate them. and I am patient because of them. 😉

  10. JKS

    I’m presently the “sole survivor” of a group lesson- so now I’ve got private lessons again. And I’m finding that it’s exactly what my boy and I need. We are spending easily half our lesson time on ground work, and we have a much better riding experience because of it. Ground work is just a great way to get that mental check in, and get much better focus from both of us. Why isn’t he paying attention to what I ask of him on the line? Oh- my attention wandered. Let’s try again. You get back what you give, so if you want his best, give him your best.

    1. That has to be the agreement; best for best. Good job, and sounds like you’re working with the right trainer, too. Thanks for the wonderful comment.

  11. You make me breath a sigh of relief! I beat myself up for not always wanting to ride my spooky 5 year old mare. I’m looking at the lunge line so differently than I used to. 😊

  12. I haven’t ridden my soon to be 20 yr old OTTB in nearly 10 years now. Not that I don’t want to. But I “listened” to him, and watched him and I know that it isnt what would be best for him. He has all types of “jewelry” from his racing days. Many mornings he is sore coming out of his stall to walk to the 6 acres of pasture he shares with two, younger retired harness racers.
    He still has his “crazy” moments. Where I stand out side his stall. Or at the gate and listen to him scream at the top of his lungs for his girl friend. A 30 something yr old mare. But he always lets me know. one way or the other. How he is feeling. And I always try and listen, and see what he is telling me.

  13. terrybg

    We humans have very dull senses. A friend was telling me today about her sane mare who always goes bonkers this time of year – she finally linked it to a huge rutting deer that moves into her meadow in the fall. Humans rarely see him, and so don’t realize he’s about, but the mare smells those pheromones that we can’t sense at all. My friend tells her horse it’s okay, they can both hide in the barn. (That deer charged one of the other horses on the farm!)

  14. Melanie Amhowitz

    I had this exact experience today. My gelding, 18 years old, was gelding the breeze, the turning of the season. My trainer and I looked at each other and decided to lunge more, then she rode him, and I rode on the lunge line. We both agreed, there is always another day. And we wanted that next day.

  15. I think I should tattoo this post on the back of my clients’ eyeballs. No, dear client, I am not going to skip riding your horse today because I am chicken/clueless/young/lazy/whatever. I’m going to skip because his brain is not here today; the best thing that can happen if I get on is that he throws unnecessary tantrums, my confidence is stomped into the floor, and we end up fighting and undoing half of what we’ve already done. The worst thing that can happen is that I take my last fall today.

    1. We have to get to a place with training that we all value brains over brawn where horses are concerned. Good call for taking care of both you and the horse.

  16. Judy Shaub

    Thank you so very much for this reminder. Here in PA we seem to have switched to fall over night. I have been quietly riding my 23 year old off the track Arab bareback and in a halter most of the summer. This was an experiment in finding what makes him comfortable and he has been very happy doing this. But all can change in an instant with the change of season and all that has been described, and I am too old to hit the ground, as is he. So I will pay closer attention, and learn more about feel from the ground. I notice he is smelling the air and looking off into the distance more now. I love that about Arabs. He is the guardian horse. Your blog and book have expanded my view of the world in a really wonderful way. Thanks!!!

    1. For me as a trainer, because I travel locally and see horses in all situations, it’s so interesting to feel the ‘temperature’ of a range of horses… And no one lets us know quicker what’s going on than an arabian. Wonderful horses. Thanks for commenting, and thanks for reading my book too!

  17. Beth Weaver

    My mare was like that this weekend. We were trail riding and she was so anxious/excited. Had to be in the front. I tried to take her off the road to walk through the trees so I could get her to focus on me, and she wouldn’t go. The other horses were passing us and she was just getting more excited. So I let her have her way. We rode up at the front for a time, and then she relaxed and settled down. I thought of John Lyons saying,”ride where you can, not where you can’t”. She’s usually obedient and responsive, but this weekend she just couldn’t, at least first thing in the morning. I kept trying to figure out why. Cool fall mornings? Haven’t ridden her enough? I’ll never know.But neither of us was hurt, and I’m glad. Some day maybe she’ll be a perfect horse.

    1. She sounds perfect now, you two had a conversation. She will always be impacted by her surroundings; she is a creature of instinct. The choice you made was to not punish her every stride, and on an off day for her, be a good leader. Partnership.

      Thanks for the comment, and give that good mare a scratch for me.

  18. Susie Morgan

    This one made me laugh out loud. Excellent! It reminded me of the times I didn’t know better and headed out on a horse not ready for the adventure, and then of better choices in my years of improved wisdom. I have had to put a little girl on a different horse so we could proceed with her lesson. More than once. If it is so crucial for the safety of little kids, to pay attention to the mental state of the horse, why should it be any different for us? Can’t count the times I’ve changed my plan for what I was going to do with a horse on a particular day. Love your comment re: being aware that we are not aware. Perfect!

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