My favorite training mentor had a habit that drove me nuts. She would be working with a horse who spooked or flipped his head or had some other issue that made him a disaster and when she climbed on, if you were close, you could hear her say in a low and quiet voice, “Goody, goody.” She would have a small smile and be cheerful.
The woman was nuts. It was like she couldn’t tell right from wrong. She loved a bad ride. It wasn’t that she wanted the adrenaline thrill of trying to stay on, and she didn’t pick fights. She just thought a conversation with a horse got more interesting once some resistance showed up.
I was a novice rider just beginning to compete a young horse and neither of us was very confident. One of us was trying way too hard. And it was so important that he was perfect. We hated problems. Okay it was me, I hated it when he was bad.
So I was a conditional rider. I did well if my horse was confident and in a good mood, but if something went sideways, I couldn’t cope. I didn’t act out and jerk on his mouth or use a whip. Instead I got quietly resistant. Every cue started with the disciplinary word don’t. Don’t spook, don’t run off, don’t quit. If I could just try to control his every breath, just not allow him to come apart… I was totally focused on resisting my horse’s resistance.
So naturally, my trainer ruined my Zen by celebrating the bad like she did.
Let me be clear: She was right. I was wrong and being a judgmental jerk, the kind of person who discriminates against imperfection. The kind of person that I don’t like much.
There is a tiny moment. It’s wedged right between the point where everything is going well and you love your ride, and that point where both you and your horse start to come apart. This tiny moment is when we stop listening and start ordering. And when a confused or frightened horse gets told that he’s wrong. Understanding gets sacrificed for external appearances. We become bullies, jerking and kicking, or just holding on for dear life. We become part of the problem.
But in that tiny moment, when you just start to feel him tense, you have a choice. You don’t have to flinch and take the bait. In that tiny moment, you could confound nay-sayers and defy common sense and choose to get happy. What possible good can come out of making your horse wrong?
Instead, you can take a breath and discipline yourself. You can do something totally crazy, you can smile and let your hands breathe out some reins. You can embrace the moment, leave the criticizing to others and get on about helping your horse. Less correction, more direction.
Amazingly, in that same tiny moment, he is right there wanting to hear from you. Horses live in the present and because horses don’t get stuck using right or wrong labels, they are more fluid. Their minds are capable of change, at least to the degree their rider’s are. In that instant you can turn things around with a pat. You can change who you are and how your horse responds.
I rode with this genius trainer for five years. I learned some fancy party tricks and by the end, people thought I had a great horse. The truth was even better than that, but first I had to learn to see my horse as perfect and willing, especially when appearances were deceiving. I held to that truth and it made all the difference.
At this time of Thanksgiving, I am so grateful for horses in my life, but even more than that, I am grateful for this bit of knowledge, passed down from my mentor. It’s enough to make you laugh at its simplicity–this awareness that it’s all good, if you approach it that way.
Too Pollyanna-ish for you? It’s true there are some big ugly issues in the horse world, like slaughter and abuse. Things so nasty that it’s easier to look away and ignore them. It can take some strength to look that kind of darkness in the face and not flinch. To take a breath and start to work on a positive solution. My perfect horses taught me that keeping an open mind and expecting the best beats name-calling and whining about what is wrong–every. single. time.
“My horse has a problem with his canter depart.” “You can’t save them all.”
Now I’m the trainer and with a nod to my mentor, I say, “Goody, goody.” Because I know the one the rider thinks has the problem, is not really the one with the problem at all. Because this is a chance for something good to happen.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.