We were playing around after a lesson, laughing about the curse of being spokesmodels for my blog photos. She leans forward and “gets” his ear for the photo. Another laugh for the less-than-professional technique, but later we remember when she first got this horse. He was terribly head shy and worse. Things have changed.
Some of my clients compete and some do not, but when I ask each client about their goals, there’s just one answer. They all want a better relationship with their horse. Period.
We chose a few specific concrete things they’d like to improve. If you want a responsive horse, change things up. The same dull repetition gets boring and a bored horse is a dangerous horse. It’s not to say that everyone needs to become wildly ambitious, but it’s smart to keep the conversation interesting.
Start here: A horse with a history and a personality. Maybe the horse is a scraggly PMU baby with a halter grown into his head. Or maybe he’s a well-trained, bomb-proof dream horse that you spent a fortune on. It’s all the same.
Add a human with a history and a personality. It might be their first horse ever or they might be a lifetime horseperson. It’s all the same.
Day One: Something happens to the human. It could be watching a video clip or glance into a pen, but intellect and emotions collide. Money changes hands; a horse trailer abduction follows. Horses are not the sort who fall in love at first sight, especially if it means leaving their herd. As much as we wish they’d love us the way we love them, they’re prey animals. They put survival first.
Now, it’s the two of you, beginning a relationship. You each have a past, not that it matters. It’s about the present, with hopes for a future. Let’s call the relationship a bubble. In the beginning, it breaks as easily as a gust of wind or a bump on the bit. It’s fragile when you’re figuring each other out.
Horse training can feel complicated, but this is the simple secret. The more positive experiences you share, the more trust between you, and the stronger the bubble. So, you stay positive, say please and thank you, and let the trust grow. Focus on the relationship; less correction and more direction.
Then later, on the day that the helicopter lands or the fireworks explode or the bear waddles into the barn, life inside the bubble has become so safe and pleasant, that your horse ignores such silly distractions. The real question is how does real drama become a silly distraction?
Universal Law: Life is change. Nothing stays the same. A sweet ride one day turns into a rodeo the next. The perfect horse comes apart or the rescue finds a way to trust. In my experience, horses are always on a tendency of getting better or getting worse.
We dance between complacency and possibility because both horses and humans struggle with change and trust.
Strengthening the bubble is necessary because maintaining status quo isn’t enough. Our job is to provide small challenges that grow confidence. Not being distracted by the random baby stroller or hot air balloon but staying true to each other. During a challenge, a horse knows the bubble is the safe place because you only allow good things to happen there.
How many of us mentally abandon our horses when we feel anxiety? And if we doubt them, why shouldn’t they doubt us? Now we’re getting to the heart of what relationship with a prey animal means. We have to focus on them, no matter what is happening outside the bubble. Outside the bubble is none of your business. Riders must keep the connection inside, regardless of external distractions.
If you’re a trail rider and there’s a difficult bridge ahead, you stay connected with your horse, giving him confidence and not fear. If you shift priorities and think the bridge is more important than your relationship, things will go badly. A good leader holds their own focus and always puts the horse first, while also pushing the edges to keep the conversation fresh. It’s testing the bubble.
Consider competitions the equivalent of a weekend horse camping trip. It’s a way to leave home, have adventures that test your bubble in a safe environment, and it’s totally legal to love your horse and bring friends. There’s even a “bear” in the arena –a scary judge.
Disclaimer: Movies like National Velvet, where there’s a miraculous win by an unknown pair? That’s fiction. In real life, showing is usually a bigger challenge for humans than horses. It’s easy to get distracted by a judge or other competitors but they’re none of your business. How you can tell is they’re NOT inside your bubble. If you let those silly distractions cause you to mentally abandon your horse, it’s on you. If you allow your emotions to overcome your relationship, whether at a bridge on a trail ride or at a show, you have work to do on your half of the relationship. Sorry.
It’s the judge’s job to score five minutes of your lifelong relationship. Five lousy minutes. And if their opinion hurts your feelings, that’s an opportunity to work on your bubble. Excuse your ego, proud or frail, from the bubble. Showing isn’t personal; it’s simply a training aid like a bit or saddle.
Agreed, there are bad riders and bad judging. In Dressage, we report abuse to the technical delegate and the show management has judge evaluation sheets. Judges are not ordained by God; they’re our employees. Please do rant about abuse and bad judging. It exists in all riding disciplines; it takes no skill to recognize it.
It does take skill to hold to your ethics and ride your own ride. To look past the haters and lighten up. The majority of the competition world are amateur riders trying to do their best for their horse. We aren’t the minority. We just act that way.
Showing can threaten our sensibilities; we don’t like judgment. Even as we judge others. Even though our horses make that call about us every ride. Competition feels like a dirty word for many. Let’s petition the USEF to change that word to something more truthful. Like Bubble Challenge.