It happened last Tuesday afternoon. I was finishing up midday chores and I braced as I came around the side of the barn where I usually get slapped by a polar wind. This time the breeze was warm. Just barely, but I don’t think I was hallucinating. In Colorado, it was a bitter December, and January hasn’t been better. There’s a layer of weathered ice in the shady places and nobody remembers green. I miss riding and teaching. I miss being able to muck without a pick ax. I am, however, current on my whining. Thank you.
I’d love to say horses miss us riding as often in winter but I doubt that’s true. For the majority of horses, it’s probably a welcome break from tight saddles and strong bits and sharp spurs. There’s a ranch tradition of tossing horses out to pasture over the winter, as much for their sanity as anything. It has a less-than scientific name; we call it letting them be horses. Because being ridden is something else.
But we’re not like ranchers. We fret that our horses are lonely and worry that they have no life without us. Kind of like the light in the fridge; we think they go into suspended animation, not quite fresh and not quite spoiled, if we aren’t there. Worse yet, we worry that they will forget who we are, or how to wear tack. What if all of their training is lost to too much herd time?
Two reminders: First, horses don’t have creative thought, but they have strong, clear memories. They forget nothing. Second, we humans do have creative thought and the chances of having a runaway in our own minds is better than in the saddle.
Seriously, I’ve had a couple of conversations lately about starting a horse back after time off–whether it was a holiday break, or a season of particularly ill-timed storms. You know what I’ll say: Go slow! Here’s the example:
If you have a pen or arena that he can run in, let him go. If he bucks, cheer him on. He’s got some winter kinks in his spine. If he wants to drop and roll, again, thank him for his self-chiropractic. Remind yourself that what he does at liberty is supposed to be playful.
Then catch him and bring out your wardrobe of curry gear. Long toothed one first; a well-done curry job improves blood flow in his skin and has all kinds of therapeutic value. Not to mention, it warms up your shoulders and back. Be aware of reaching and stretching as you go. In the process, ask your horse to take a step now and then, just to move his feet. Consider grooming a sort of Zen groundwork.
Finally, tack up. Be gentle with the girth. Ask his permission, scratch his face some, and then go extra slow putting on the bridle. Now check your own girth; are you tight in your stomach? Take some slow breaths until your shoulders are soft. Then take a walk in-hand for a few moments.
Check your helmet, adjust the strap. And if that isn’t a part of your usual routine, make it a new habit and respect yourself a little more this year. Pretty please.
When you are both a bit bored with walking around, go to the mounting block (yes, ground mounting is for people who should know better) and climb on. Sit still, take some more breaths. Feel your legs as soft as bird wings on his side. Take a moment to say thank you for your outlandish good fortune to be right where you are. Finally, ask for a quiet step forward.
If your horse is antsy and needs to move right off, no problem. For today, take some breaths but let him walk. Don’t jerk him right back; he might have some anxiety, too. Hold the reins but try not to pull. See if he calms in a few strides, encouraged by your long slow exhales.
The next part is the most important part, whether your horse is young, or a midlife warrior, or a seasoned school master. After walking just a very few moments, ask for a quiet halt. Use your seat and legs, but settle to a halt. It won’t be perfect. Give him a scratch and a kind word, and then dismount. And by that I mean, get off, even though you’ve been only be on five minutes. Loosen the girth and stroll on back to un-tack him.
Celebrate this moment of messing with your horse’s mind, but in a good way. Too many times we ask for too much, too soon, with too much anxiety of our own. Instead, leave your horse rewarded for easy work–happy and hungry for more. And it wouldn’t hurt if you felt the same way. No one’s in Marine boot camp here. Show him who’s boss–in a slow kind way.
Do they really need to carry our weight for an hour, or is engaging their brain enough? If the goal is serious work, invite him to it without harshness–for your horse or yourself.
On the next ride, try this experiment. Don’t be reckless; check in with him and if he’s attentive, then give him the chance to show you what he’s learned since your last ride. Prepare to be surprised.
When horses improve between rides, as they commonly do, it because less really is more to a horse. A short happy ride opens a door that is impossible to find by drilling repetition. There’s less mutual anxiety, the horse/human conversation is polite, and the tendency is positive, whether you are starting back or training something advanced and complicated. In other words, it’s how to train a horse to make it look easy.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm
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