A Reminder about Horse Memory.

WmClaraSnow Bhim

The temps were mild. No one was shedding but the geldings were sunbathing flat and I was able to chip away at some ice-age muck. I even found a fly in the house. For a moment, it felt possible that winter would end.

It was a fib; just the first part of the annual bait-and-switch scam that Mother Nature pulls to make riders even battier than usual. It starts with a couple of sweatshirt days, just enough to thaw your icy resolve, and then WHACK! Slapped down by a spring storm; this one started slow but in the end we had four days of wind and twenty inches of snow. The local news posted school closings, but for some of us, snow day means the very opposite of reading and sipping hot cocoa. It means game-on. Our farm lost power outside, the well only worked intermittently, and the snow was deep enough that I tripped and fell, dumping a bucket of water in my boot as I landed in a snowdrift. On the high side, I remembered to muffle my howl and saved myself from frozen lungs as well.

Shame on you, Mother Nature. Really. Where’s the challenge in upending old gray mares like me? No one understands the need for comic relief more than us… but it’s an election year, surely there’s someone more deserving of you lousy sense of humor? Instead, we limp and try to find some dry gloves and wonder if we’ve forgotten how to ride.

One more time, horses manage this better. First, they don’t have creative thought, so if they fall, they don’t shake an angry fist at an imaginary character. Even if a snow day means stall rest, once they get out, they barely lose a stride. (See photo: You’d hate to let the goat win.)

This week’s message: Lay down the guilt. No one else is riding much either.

Between holiday residue, erratic weather, and polar darkness, it’s hard to ride consistently. Here’s the crazy thing: we have to go slow because the horses are a bit out of shape from standing around in blizzards eating all day, but at the same time, a huge amount of progress can happen. It’s counter-intuitive; no one suffers and horses actually improve between rides. A horse’s mental superpower is memory and with senses so much sharper than ours, they remember each fine detail. Do you let them show you?

In winter lessons especially, there’s a lower expectation so the ride starts without rushing. Hopefully we pay even more attention to warming up and we may do more work at the walk, so sweating and muscle strain is minimized. Not to mention, the rider isn’t so finely tuned either. It almost feels like being demoted.

Then right in the middle of a seemingly aimless ride, when no one is trying too hard, your horse offers you something. And things are slow enough that you notice it. Wait. Let him engage the idea himself–dang, he’s trying–reward him, and then see what he offers next. It isn’t perfect, but the seed of better contact, or shoulder in, or whatever, has been offered once more. Good boy, and the last thing a horse needs now is soul-killing repetition. If you’re in a lesson with me, I’ll ask you dismount and release him. Nothing impacts a horse more than being rewarded so clearly; he remembers that last thing in equine technicolor. Not to mention it’s my claim for fabulous wealth and fame–I cheat people out of the last eleven minutes of their hour.

Let his good try be enough and leave both of you to simmer on it. Remember the ride as much as he does, expect ease and grace, and then see what he offers you at the next ride. Do your training methods empower your horse or shut him down?

So we excitedly plan for the next lesson…and Mother Nature cracks another bad joke. By the time we meet again, it’s possible you’ve forgotten how the last ride ended. I hope I’ll remember, but know for a fact that your horse does. He remembers every kindness as much as every cruelty. Before you lament lost time, give him time to show you what he remembers.

Some trainers believe that any less than riding six days a week is a fail. That training a horse is like boot camp; aching muscles and blind repetition is the only path to learning for both of you. Suffering = Improvement, and art be damned. If the horse has a break, he’ll somehow de-materialize and all that discipline will be lost, leaving you at square one again. Hogwash. Think about it; the biggest challenge most riders face is retraining some old habit their horse has…that he’s remembered clearly for years.

What if this is the real thing we don’t trust about horses? What if it’s their intellect that we doubt most? Do years of being treated as if they aren’t capable of doing their job wear them down? I notice it does with women.

As a riding instructor, it’s my job to chip away at the things that separate a horse and rider from each other, while keeping an eye on the big picture. In the recent lessons, I’ve been gobsmacked at the effort the horses have all made and the between-lesson learning. At the same time, I’ve gotten a trio of emails letting me know about similar successes. This stuff works. Period.

And as miserable as winter can feel, the real gift in this season to see how much horses retain and progress, even as we are venting about weather and cold bones. Let this time of doing less and getting more remind you how smart horses are. And no worries; go slow and you’ll catch up in no time.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

P.S. If you like this blog, it’s in book form (here). Thanks.

27 thoughts on “A Reminder about Horse Memory.

  1. Great reminder, Anna! Last week we had a small handful of “almost” nice days in a row; warm, but still sloppy, and with just enough snow piled here and there to make me wonder about 10 times a day if maybe I ought to throw a saddle on someone and take a meander down the dirt road? Instead, I decided to work like a lunatic on picking the paddock while I had the chance and could see a little dirt here and there. As I did, I watched my three horses and they were all acting like silly, spring-sick yearlings. Maybe that riding pass wasn’t such a bad idea after all? 😉 Today we’re getting smacked with an intense, heavy ‘Nor’easter. Again. *Sigh* No riding here for awhile!

    1. That’s what I was doing, only I took more photos than work accomplished here! Nothing is lost with horses. That moment of listening is more valuable than drilling a hundred rides. Hooray for silly, spring-sick yearlings!

  2. Sharon

    One of the things I love best about working with you… being able to not feel guilty because I can’t ride six days a week. Then seeing the progress made, yes slow, but steady because we stop when we need to and don’t ride when I’m not up to par… my partner the horse so appreciates it when I can’t be there mentally or physically for my best effort. A great blog once again 🙂

  3. Very wise words! There’s so much more we can do to deepen the relationship with our horse, when the weather isn’t optional for riding; give our horse massage, trick training (that can be done to mutual benefit in the stall.) etc.

    Great post!

  4. Carla P

    Please unsubscribe me from your blog. I keep trying to unsubscribe, but it’s not working because it just tells me to log into my wordpress account, which I don’t have.

    Thank you.

    On Fri, Feb 5, 2016 at 6:06 AM, AnnaBlakeBlog: Relaxed & Forward wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” The temps were mild. No one was shedding but the > geldings were sunbathing flat and I was able to chip away at some ice-age > muck. I even found a fly in the house. For a moment, it felt possible that > winter would end. It was a scam; just the first part o” >

    1. Hi Carla. Sorry this took so long; I had to go thru online help to do it, but they tell me you are now unsubscribed. Sorry for the inconvenience, and best wishes to you and your horse.

  5. I believe in this latent learning stuff. And my heart sank because the last ride I had on Tessie before we put her away was not a good one. She shied and bucked at once, and it felt not so nice. I rode through it, but we put her on the lunge and she kept bolting and running out. My trainer was very quiet with her and said she is unbalanced. This spring I need to do some conditioning work before I ride and keep the rides short. I did get to lunge her at home after that and she was calm. I truly believe in quitting when the horse does what you want. I”ve done that in our field after two good canter circles. I’ve hopped off and thanked her. It also left me unnerved. Thank you for this blog…

  6. I have stopped counting the times when I got off the horse after a session and when I got on again we started at a place far better than we stopped. Waiting, letting it soak for days or even weeks works better than drilling something day in and day out.

  7. I took this to heart during my lunch-time ride today. The sun was shining, my little white mare was relaxed (even sleepy!) and attentive. We did a few little circles on the ground to address her sticky rib cage, and then she cozied up to the mounting block for me. For whatever reason since I started riding bareback she stands like a rock while I wiggle my way onto her back and into a position that’s comfy for both of us. We meandered around some trees, trying to stay on the dry parts and then out onto the lawn. She always rushes a bit in one section, but she seemed less rushy today. A great day for learning, I’m thinking. So, we did a few circles at a walk and I asked for a halt as lightly as I could; starting with my seat… and…melt…down…to…”whoa.” And there it was! She halted on my exhale, and I never touched the reins. WOW. So, I got off, she got a treat, and we went back to the paddock for scratches.

  8. sherryw2015

    So true, I’m finally beyond feeling guilty for not riding, even when I get the “You have horses? Boy you must ride every day.” from people. Don’t get me wrong, I like to ride. Nothing beats the feeling after a good ride, where you were in tune with each other. But I simply LIKE my horses. I like being around them, talking silly to them and scratching their itchy places. I don’t look at them as some tool I paid big bucks for and simply have to use. Sure, come the first true spring day they can be a little goofy but it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s been days or weeks (or even months) since the last ride. As long as I approach it in the same routine they get it. Maybe after you pass 60 you’re relieved from having to prove anything, after all there has to be some advantage to getting old!

    1. It’s a shame it takes this long, but maybe that’s what it takes to learn how to be friends. Your comment made me smile–over half my herd is retired. They are “useless”, and the simple, biggest truth is that I LIKE them. Great comment, thanks.

  9. Lovely reminders everyone should have, especially in these dark days of winter. I’ve often made the best progress when I felt I was most failing at that “6 days a week” mantra so many have!

    And what a fabulous photo! Gave me a great big smile!! 😀

  10. Heather

    I read your blog then head for the barn with your words in my head. I’m full of good intent and it is always a wonderful time. Thank you for your inspiration.

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