You’re riding a horse who has taken care of you for years. You’re riding a young, greener-than-green horse. You’re strolling in your own pasture. You’re far from your home barn, riding at championships with heartfelt pride in your partner. You’re talking with quiet cues to build a foundation of trust. You’re teaching an “old dog” new tricks. It’s the day that everything falls into place. It’s your last ride, not that any of us want to know that day. You’re trying out a new horse for the first time. You’re riding the horse you’ve dreamed of all your life.
You’ve laughed, you’ve cried. You’ve had a ride.
Most of us were taught that a horse must sweat; must work so hard, as you show him who’s boss, that by the end of the ride, he feels beaten physically and mentally. Ride hard, push hard, more leg! Trot lap after lap, then canter lap after lap. Then trot some more. We were taught to not be sissies, like the worst thing would be to ride like a girl.
You are miserable, your horse is resistant, but you can’t stop now… you need to find a good place and there aren’t any left anymore, so the fight continues. Maybe your horse is shut down from loud cues; he’s stoic and pretending to play deadat the canter, hoping you’ll stop. He’s given up on ever being rewarded, he has no idea what you want, so he tries crazy things that are even more wrong. He’s frustrated and getting desperate; he doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong, just that he is. Even a stoic horse will build a grudge eventually.
Maybe you’re on a young horse and his exhaustion is more mental than physical. Remember that time at kid’s birthday parties, usually right after the cake, when all the kids start crying and moms don’t even try to salvage the party. They just pick up spare shoes, carry the kids out, and buckle them in car seats. Before the end of the driveway, the kids are sleeping. Young horses are okay until they aren’t and riding on past that point of exhaustion creates a foundation memory that will take a very long time to walk back, something they will not forget soon.
Maybe you’re on a mare. Mares are not quitters. I’ll stop here and hope you’re wearing a helmet. Even if you accidentally win a fight with a mare, you won’t win the war. I’ll add one more statistic: Sixty-five percent of the horses in rescue are mares for a reason. Mares require a rider to listen a bit better and if that doesn’t happen… well, she’ll let you know.
Then there is our human nature. Even at the worst, our ego kicks in. We must have the last word. We must be right, no matter how wrong we are in the process. We’re frustrated, thinking too much, listening too little. Maybe a poor trainer is pushing you. Maybe your friends are egging you on. Shame on them. Shame on you. How will we ever have any level of even imaginary control over our horses when we have so little control over ourselves.
For whatever you imagined, or wanted, or actually achieved, it all comes down to this. You dismount.
Is your horse sweating, panting, his breath shallow? Keep walking him out on foot. Put the reins over his neck, the buckle up by his poll, and hold them, your hand in his throat latch. So the reins by the bit are slack and he doesn’t feel the bit as you lead him to cool out. Breathe. Watch your horse’s calming signals, is there stress around his eyes? Anxiety wrinkles around his muzzle? Walk to soften both of you. Walk until his breathing comes back to normal.
Then stop, standing out of his space and give the moment to him. Maybe he rubs his nose on his knee, releasing tension. A head shake, maybe some chewing followed by hooded eyes. He’s giving calming signals to remind you that he is no threat and you don’t have to be so loud.
Fear-based training is Neanderthal thinking. Brain science tells us that a horse can’t learn when he’s afraid. Neither can a rider. When both partners are in their flight response, anxiety rules. You’re both throat breathing, those shallow breaths, just a whisper of an inhale, more of a slow leak than an actual exhale. We make a small gasp again, instead of taking that deep cleansing breath that cues a horse to do the same.
Most of us have been taught to pick a fight with our horses. The most common thing I hear training is the rider who confesses that they never felt good about it. Most of us carry some guilt still, as we walk a kinder, more informed training path… a path as old as domesticated horses. Yes, affirmative training has existed forever but we’re too quiet about it.
We warm our horses up slowly, giving the synovial fluid time to supple joints. We ask our horses to be responsive to small cues and we are aware of each movement our bodies make. We understand that conflicting cues confuse horses. In short, we hope to inspire the best in our horses by example.
Once the horse is warmed up, about twenty minutes, and he’s feeling strong and confident, we begin to ask for light forward transitions. We’re still on a long rein because we want that sweet feeling of freedom to his gait. It goes against our nature, but a soft poll is crucial to any work to come. We keep our expectations low so we get to reward him frequently. We get to happily say, “Good boy!” all the time and mean it.
Finally, we ask for a tidy little package of work: Sweet transitions, powerful strides, relaxed-and-forward gaits. A warmth of feeling as your horse is confidently working. It’s like skating on ice, almost effortless for both of you. Your mind is so calm that you feel the cool air glide past your face. It isn’t imagination. A feeling of oneness, that you and your horse are softly invincible, rises up, addictive in its joy. So, you half-halt and stop.
Dismount. Do it before you want to, before your horse is spent. Leave him hungry for more praise, hungry for this kind of movement that leaves him feeling strong in his body, confident in his mind. It’s time to stop when your horse doesn’t want to stop any more than you do.
You’ve given your horse a release, now wait for him to accept it. Hold your tongue, it’s time to give him the last word; the small peaceful calming signals that tell you that you’ve done a good job. Your horse’s opinion is the only one that matters.