Dismounting: How the Ride Ends

 

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.

Just stop.

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.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro
Planning our 2019 clinic schedule now. Email me at ambfarm@gmail.com for details.

41 comments

  1. So good, Anna! Thnx for writing this. I feel blessed to have finally found the perfect horse at this later stage of my life. He will be my last horse and I plan to retire us both at the same time-to live out our lives together. But, I also know how many horses I had through the years, some good, some truly terrible!

  2. I was at a clinic last weekend and halfway through the morning Tango had had enough. Truth be told, so had I. When he stopped backing up I got off of him. People were saying but the session isn’t over. I had no problem saying it was for Tango and me. We walked quietly back to the trailer and as I took off everything I told him what a good boy he was, gave him some yummies, brushed him out, walked around casually, and took him back to his pen. He and I agreed, we ended on a good note!

  3. Yet another oh-so-special post. I’ll be sharing for sure with a few specific folks in mind. Thank you, Anna, for your amazing perception and eloquence!

  4. Anna, thank you, thank you – I am so grateful there are people out there like you, advocating for the horse. Your words reflect everything in my heart – I wish I could be so eloquent.

  5. Wow Anna, that is some blog today…awesome , powerful , thought provoking stuff …Thankyou
    ❤️

  6. Hi Anna,

    I am blessed to have a group of horsey friends who all put the horse first and continually try to become better horseman for our horses. One of the most revealing things we ever did was to undertake a number of simulations. Two of us played the horse and we took turns in being the handler. Wow what an eye opener. No one was allowed to speak just use body language, tools and energy to get the message over to the “horse” what was being asked for. The times we didn’t have a clue as to what was being asked . We would try different things to see if that was what was wanted and most times got it completely wrong because the handler was not clear, consistent or quiet enough to get the message over to us. We became more and more frustrated. It brought home massively how clever and willing the horse is to try and get what we want. If human to human struggle to get the message our poor horses as a different species have got a monumental job. They never cease to amaze me I have so much respect for them. I would recommend any caring horse person to try simulations if they haven’t as it really exposes our poor lack of communication and hugely increases empathy and understanding toward the horse.

  7. Yes, this is the environment of partnership. So sweet. On accident I am so grateful that I have experienced this moment of bliss, where we both could go on, but it was so sweet to stop and dismount. To linger with grooming and sweet talk. Breathing in the smell of contentment. A few times it was on purpose, I wish more rides had gone this way. But it does not diminish how wildly lucky I am to have experienced this at all. I will share this one in hope that your wonderful words can find hearts ready to try peace. Thank you.

  8. I simply don’t know where to start in saying thank you for this blog and this post in particular. Made my eyes misty because it gets to my heart as a perfect description of what I aspire to do, what I want. It is so easy to go back to the rough and tough, being the boss, we learned so long ago. I’m so glad to have found you!

  9. My former broodmare now trail horse knows what’s good for me. I’m finally learning to listen. Her warm breath in my nostrils is intoxicating.
    I shared this with a new rider, also blessed with a mare. Here’s hoping your words penetrate her fear, osmotically if necessary.
    Thank you.

  10. Many years ago a wise trainer told me that the moment you get angry at your horse you have two choices: to get off and put your horse away or to drop your reins and go for a hack. I still hear her voice in my head whenever I’ve come to a ride a bit distracted or irritated with life and remember that it’s not my horse that I’m angry with.

  11. I love this one!! What a good reminder and thank you! I have a question about calming signals. For the longest time my horse Sophia would come to the stall door and greet me; Id ask her if I can come in; and then she’d move forward,I’d put the halter on, and off we go. The past week she picks at imaginary hay on her stall floor and will not turn and look at me. Because I have limited time I would end up picking up her neck and haltering her. But I don’t understand what that was all about.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    • It was a calming signal that she wanted more time, and without seeing more, I won’t venture a guess as to why. Every day is different for horses and for us. Keep breathing, Faith. And keep listening.

  12. As usual , an eloquently thought inspiring piece. I love the wisdom and passion in your words!! My horses and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts 💞

  13. EXCELLENT! So well written, from the heart and soul of the horse, excellent advice. I wanted to hug you when I read these two words, JUST STOP. If only I could have said this to so many I’ve seen…. I’ve had to just stop many times over the years, maybe not knowing that is what we should do but definitely have learned it works. Your writings and teachings are WONDERFUL! So thankful I found you, thank you for sharing your knowledge! ❤️ – Diana

    • Thanks, Diana. I think it’s one of the hardest things to learn, we love horses and never want it to end. Putting a horse first isn’t as easy as it sounds…

  14. As always, your understanding of horse and human nature takes my breath away. But the first thing I remember to do is breathe. And, as much as I love mares and what you say about them is so true, my last horse is a gelding and I’m learning how different they are. Thank you, as always, for your extraordinary insights.

  15. You are amazing! Thank for for sharing with me the perspective of the horse(s) – again and again – as a result they are so willing! So beautiful to experience and share this mutual fun relationship with them 😀

  16. Once again, truly seeing it from the horses point of view….thank you Anna! You are right of course, when we learned to ride we were never encouraged to consider that horses even had a point of view.To short rides and long relationships!!

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