Redefining Work Under Saddle.

I had a blog request, in two parts. First: “[Does] training and working a horse inherently make a horse less “happy.” I know I am happier on vacation, but that doesn’t mean work is bad for me. Balance is key right? When is it too much? When is it too little? I had one trainer tell me “don’t let her (my mare) get away with that! You work 8 hours a day, she can give you 45 minutes.” 

First, is she sound? She can’t give you 45 minutes if her saddle doesn’t fit or if her feet aren’t trimmed properly. It’s too much time if her back is sore or if she has ulcers. Is she in her heat cycle? Here is the tricky part: What if you think it’s all good but she’s still cranky? Who’s right? Of course, she is. Keep looking.

Let’s assume all is well. Does working a horse make them inherently less “happy?” Well, horses are all individuals. That’s what’s fascinating about them. I’ve known many horses who were unhappy under saddle because of harsh training but also from just being misunderstood.

It’s depressing but I think some horses trade that hour under saddle for the rest of their life. Kind of like doing the dishes in exchange for a meal, they make a trade. I’m not critical; I like horses being owned and cared for. Some humans live lives of quiet desperation; I suppose horses could do the same.

It’s humans who make training hard work. We’re perfectionists and we like drama. We approach every new thing like a potential problem. A problem getting him in the trailer. A problem to get him over cross-rails. Early on, I had a client who moaned endlessly about her horse’s problem picking up the canter. (Is it obvious who it was that had the problem?) In the meantime, horses begin to hate arena work.

That doesn’t mean that horses want a life loitering in the pasture, eating treats, and waiting for the next farrier visit.

I think the majority of horses don’t want either extreme; not vacation and not work. They want a relationship with us. It’s a crazy notion. Humans aren’t a very emotionally stable species but perhaps they see some potential in us.

Second: “[My mare] was stopping at the gate every time we walked/trotted by clearly thinking the increase in physical exertion was unnecessary. She was not winded, or sweaty or tired in any way. Just didn’t enjoy my increase in focus and being pushed to work harder. I was new to riding and [my mare] was not new to riding.”

You’re partly right. It doesn’t sound like she’s tired but that doesn’t mean she “clearly” thinks the physical work is unnecessary. It’s easy to misread horses by superimposing human thoughts. Perhaps if you are new to riding, she was being patient. She knows more than you, after all. (Mares always do.) Of course, she doesn’t like being pushed to work harder. Why would she?

I’ve never met a horse or rider who’s benefited from domination. I’m not necessarily talking bloody whips and spurs. It could be the force of nagging passive aggressive legs and marginally repressed frustration or anger.

It’s about now that a rider could feel like giving up on lessons. You could decide that training and competing are cruel and you don’t want to fight. So, you think about just wandering the property or sticking to ground work or even retirement. But I still don’t think that’s what most horses want.

Stopping at the gate is a clear message from your mare. It isn’t a disobedience. You’re doing what your trainer suggests but your horse gets an opinion, too. A better question might be, “How can I have a better partnership with my mare?”

In case it isn’t obvious, beginning to ride is easy enough. Progressing past that entry-level is the hard part. That’s why there are so many long-time novice riders. The reason to hire a trainer and try to push past that point is because horses tolerate us when we ride badly. They routinely save our lives, literally or figuratively, giving us more grace than we deserve. Consider learning better riding skills, like following hands and an independent seat, as a thank-you gift to your horse.

If you are almost overwhelmed, then good. You’re starting to understand how challenging it is to ride kindly and well. It may take the lifetime of a horse to become a better rider for the next horse. You have no time to lose.

First, make sure you are laughing in your lessons, even if you throw your hands up at the same time. Horses like us when we laugh and it’s an antidote to trying too hard. Take riding seriously but do it with a light heart. Remind yourself that you love your horse. Then trust your horse to tell the truth.

Start here: Is your warm-up effective? If not, it’s the deal breaker from the horse’s side. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. If a horse wants out of the arena, we need to improve their experience there. Done properly, the “work” should make your horse feel strong, supple, and balanced.

If work has become a four-letter word to you and your horse, exchange it for another four-letter word –play. Horses taught me the more we blur the line between work and play, the better we all get along. It’s a change in perception.

Defining training as hard work that will only be learned through harsh struggle makes riding feel like a factory job.

Lift the conversation. Training is easier than that. Humans and horses both learn through positive reinforcement. In the end, good training is simply a collection of positive experiences. That’s the goal each ride. Warm-up well, ask for a few steps at a time, and reward your horse generously. Be zealous–even ambitious– but have laughter be your music.

Horses are beings of light. And so are we, remember?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

It’s a Riding Lesson- What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Photo: J.J. Fierro.
Photo: J.J. Fierro.

It starts innocently enough, just like every other thing that happens around horses. A rider might have a problem with their horse, or maybe a goal. It sounds innocent enough.

Then there’s the horse, maybe he’s confused or maybe he’s bored. No blame, no fault. He’s being honest and if you don’t like what he is saying, lessons are a good idea.

The rider might have grown up with horses and worked with lots of trainers or she might be just starting with horses, lessons, and this whole world.

Start here: she loves her horse. No, really, as if I need convincing, she tells me how great her horse is. I never disagree, it’s pretty easy for me to find something to like about an equine, but more than that, no one calls a trainer for help because they hate their horse. Then she probably tells me one more really wonderful thing about how they got together or some big success in the past. She’s getting closer to telling me more about the problem, which might feel almost be like a betrayal. “I love him, but he…” It can be a precarious place for a rider, being critical of the horse who inspires their passion. At the same time that they want me to like him, they want me to see what’s ‘wrong’ with him too.

*Visualize a field of land mines for all concerned.* In this infinite world of horses, there is one thing every single one of us has in common: massive, huge, and over-sized feelings about our horses. What could possibly go wrong?

Insert a trainer: I meet the rider and listen. I meet the horse and listen. They usually tell different versions of the same story. I try to establish a common language. This part is tricky, even if we all speak English, no one seems to define the words the same way. If you don’t believe me, ask two people to define contact. Or forward. Or leadership. See?

Here is where I got into my Building Inspector mode: I check the foundation for loose bricks and cracks. Is the horse sound, does the tack fit? How is the emotional foundation of the horse? Are there any symptoms of a sour stomach or ulcers? This is such a common challenge in riding horses and since the first signs are usually behavioral, a trainer might see them before a vet sometimes. This first step never varies: If the horse is not sound, his behavior is the only way he has to communicate that to you. It would be a huge mistake to train his symptoms away rather than listen and help.

If I am certain that the horse is sound and the tack is not abusive, I try to find a light-hearted and cheerful way to let the rider know the good news: it’s something they are doing. Sometimes the rider translates that to my fault. Harsh words, and a sense of humor is pretty important right about now. But what did you expect? Was I supposed to compliment you and your horse, tell you the problem was imaginary, and ask for my check?

It’s actually good news! If it’s something you are doing, it can change. Communication can improve, balance can become more solid, and confidence can grow. Some of us have herds of retired or lame horses, and we’d be thrilled to think we could change that by just riding better.

Here is the truth: Riding well is hard. Horses are not dirt bikes, if you want to improve your partnership with your horse, it is something you will work on forever. Dressage riders are eternal students of the horse, we never stop learning. There is no stigma about lessons, it is just a matter of course if you are serious about horses. So no guilt, no apologies

There is an old adage and we have all heard it so much it sounds trite. You are training your horse each time you ride. Well, it’s just flat out true.

I hear riders sometimes talk about their lessons as punishment, that their trainers yell and they are constantly corrected. Some of us have trainer horror stories, I certainly do. No trainer can be right for every client and first lessons are always a bit stressful, but shop around and find someone who makes sense to your ears. Let your horse have a vote, too. There are some trainers out there who really don’t like horses much. I know, it shocks me, too.

This is the biggest thing I know: Horses thrive on rhythm. All bad things, like spooking, bucking, or bolting are a loss of that natural calming movement. It’s no coincidence that the foundation of dressage training pyramid is rhythm, and a horse can’t have relaxed and forward gaits with a tense or upset rider, so my first priority is to put the rider at ease. And then get ready to say good boy, this is supposed to be fun.

Am I shamelessly promoting riding lessons to line my pockets with your hard-earned cash? No. Every week I am reminded that there is a very fine line between a well-loved family horse and a horse abandoned to rescue or his lonely pasture. The difference is only a few lessons.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.