It’s an obstacle course, by golly. And there’s a pedestal, by golly. We both see it, but one of us acts like it’s a meteor from Krypton. The lead gets tight, the handler doesn’t notice because the world has fallen away. Now the handler is nothing but pedestal, pedestal, pedestal.
Horse thought balloon: (what’s wrong. why do you have pedestal anxiety? we’ve done this five times already, can you calm down?)
One of us has a problem with a canter depart. There’s head tossing, counter-bend, and a wrong lead. The first eight departures were pretty good, but now it’s come apart and we need a good place to stop, like five or six perfect departs in a row. Damn, he knows how to do this, he’s just being bad.
Horse thought balloon: (you make me tired. can’t even tell what you want when you lean out of the saddle that far. are you falling? it can’t be a canter, been doin’ that since birth. what? you’re mad? done.)
Day’s end and time to go home. One of us has a lunge line, a long stick with a flag, and a shorter whip. The human starts getting loud anxiety in her body, hand tighter, shoulders tense, throat-breathing every step closer to the trailer and then…
Horse thought balloon: (we are standing at the back of the trailer. really. could you possibly think I don’t know what to do?)
The thing that drives me craziest about humans is our arrogant belief that we are the super-species, the only intelligent animals on the planet. Our scientists are just now getting smart enough to figure out what other species have known forever.
We admit that horses seem to read our minds about emotions, but then when it comes to training, suddenly we’re like Wile E. Coyote strangling Roadrunner. Maybe horses and dogs tolerate it because of our good intentions, even if we aren’t very bright. Donkeys and cats are not burdened with the same restraint.
We think every instant is a training opportunity; not trusting that they can remember, we “train” every obstacle or trailer, or mounting block. We get serious and loud, we repeat ourselves, and when we get an answer we don’t like, we discipline them because it’s easier than being creative enough to ask in a better way.
Then if something does get a good response, we over-repeat the lesson. How many horses had been over-disengaged until they won’t let us stand next to their flank? How many of us are so sick of over-discipline that we develop a new habit of kindly over-nagging, over-whispering, or over-treating?
Just stop. And if you are doing the same groundwork you were a year ago, just stop that, too.
When children are potty-training, it’s appropriate to cheer and congratulate them for using the toilet. But if you are calling your son at college and asking if he has “done his business” you’re letting him know you’re an idiot. At some point, we trust children to use the bathroom.
If we continue to train the obvious, we are encouraging horses to a state of learned helplessness. Killing any spark of spontaneity, brilliance, and even their spirit. Killing the thing we loved in the first place.
In the beginning, we don’t know what we don’t know, humans and horses, but when we know better, we must evolve. At one point, western pleasure might look inspiring and at another, you might consider flunking out of western pleasure a riding achievement.
Start building a bubble. It’s a safe place for you and your horse where breathing happens with a life-affirming regularity. It’s a place where leadership means safety and peace, where we abide in the present moment.
Training: Have you been using the wrong definition all this time?
Training is defined as the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior. (synonyms: teaching, coaching, schooling.) Training is also defined as the action of undertaking a course of exercise and diet in preparation for a sporting event. (synonyms: exercises, working out, conditioning.)
Stop training discipline. Start training strength.
Let the concept of training be illustrated by an iceberg. The training of movements is only the small tip visible. The vast majority of training is the other definition. In an hour’s ride, spend forty-five minutes riding forward, on a long rein, to warm muscles slowly, to strengthen and supple the horse. Riding exercises that encourage balanced movement and lightness. You are training for longevity and soundness.
The rider stays engaged and positive, always looking for ways to communicate clearly and letting the horse know how much each try is appreciated. You are training for confidence and trust.
There was a reason your mother taught you to say thank-you.
By the way, this definition of training also results in a horse who is focused, brilliant, and wins at shows.
Now he’s warmed up and you start the actual work. The first canter transition or first lateral movement won’t be his best, just get through it and go on. If you start correcting his first try…. Do I need to explain why it’s silly to correct a horse’s first try? Because you kill that try.
Remember successive approximation.
The first of any movement isn’t the best. Did he toss his head in an upward transition? Make a note; you weren’t forward enough. Maybe you pulled back as you asked. Tell him good boy and prepare him better for the second try. Then he’ll be the one to say thank you.
If you still are just not quite okay with the lack of discipline, if the training doesn’t feel serious enough, or isn’t result-oriented enough, there’s an answer for that: Train yourself to breathe and notice the color of the sky. Train yourself to be an artist; sculpt a horse under-saddle depicting all the traits you respect and love. Train your heart to feel empathy, acknowledge the teamwork and effort that you and your horse share. Let it be enough for today.
How you can tell the training is working?
Instead of pretending to be a horse, you’re becoming more of a horse: Tolerant. Forgiving. Willing to try.
Recapping the series: