We aren’t kids anymore. That’s the complaint. Riding seems easier in memory. When we were younger, riding was rose-colored and sweet. We don’t remember training issues, just wandering around in the sun. If you were bareback, you remember the feel of their flanks; of their warm coat under your naked knees. We wore shorts. Maybe the horse took you anyplace he wanted to go but that was just fine. Riding was an escape; some of us were afraid of everything but horses.
Around this time, we get our first trainer-not-a-trainer. Maybe your dad told you that you had to show the horse who was boss. Maybe peer pressure; a friend complained about something your horse did and it got you thinking. Or maybe you got to that age where you became self-conscious about everything and it trickled down to horses, too. Somehow, it became possible for horses to be wrong.
Rant into the wind, if you like, but it’s a natural progression. You wouldn’t still be riding without a care even if the world had ignored you. A steady diet of not thinking and not asking for anything wears a horse down eventually. They get bored with us and fall into bad habits but that isn’t the worst. They reflect our mushy indecision and lose confidence, just like we do. Is a passive lump of baggage in the saddle any better than an over-dominating rider to the horse?
If you believe horses are intelligent, that they have feelings and are capable of having a body language conversation, then wouldn’t a ride that went on like small talk about the weather bore him? Would constant nagging shut him down? Would micro-managing correction make him lose confidence that he even knows how natural horses should move? Shouldn’t being interesting matter?
Oh, great. Now it’s required that a rider be a brilliant conversationalist, too? Add that to the list of things you need to be for your horse; the list that already trails off into the distance and over the horizon. That’s why the kid memories came back in the first place.
Some of us blame our horses for everything that goes wrong. It isn’t fair but it’s always appealing to make excuses and shirk responsibility. Anything is easier than being aware without judgment.
It’s more likely that at some point you find out that you are the cause of your horse’s problems. The good news is that a rider can change, improve, learn to help their horse along. The bad news is that now we scrutinize our every thought and become immersed in self-doubt, and its evil twin, self-loathing.
Riding well requires a calm awareness of everything that your body is doing.
Is it possible that the stiffness in your horse is actually a hard spot in your mind? Is his resistance a response to an inflexibility in you? Is nagging and criticizing yourself really any different than blaming your horse?
Now you’re, trying to do the best you can for your horse, and frustrated with yourself. Trust me, I can see it and on a bad-trainer day, I wish you would just snap out of it, too. The problem is that it doesn’t do either of us any good to hate the bad stuff. It’s ineffective.
When we say our horse is great, but the rider is confused, too loud, too busy, too quiet, or just too wrong, we think it’s taking responsibility but what does the horse hear? Do pronouns matter to a horse, or is the blame, even directed at yourself, the loudest thing?
Self-criticism isn’t the same thing as self-awareness. One goes on in the over-thinking intellectual part of the mind and the other feels things in real-time like a horse does.
Judging people is no different than judging horses. It takes no special skill to see what’s wrong but if you focus on what’s wrong, the winner will end up being the least bad… not like winning at all. Instead, we should look for what we like in the horses and reward that. It’s positive, not blind to faults, only a way to say yes to something. And so much easier with horses than ourselves.
The problem with loving horses so much is that we have a hard time believing we deserve them; that we are good enough for them.
If a partnership is your goal, that might take a bit of a stretch to let go of the horse-crazy girl desperation long enough to trade up; to allow ourselves the naturalness of a horse, and then allow him to do the same, beyond the judgment of others, but more so, beyond our own self-judgment. No apology.
You can’t control your horse, much less the world, but you can control how you treat yourself. What if good horsemanship boiled down to kindly accepting yourself?
Here’s where words really matter. How do you define humility? Could what we think of as humility really be doubt of our own worth? And perhaps what feels like arrogance is just the confidence horses would like us to have. How do your words balance with your behavior? Is asking for what you want being assertive or aggressive? Is being as stoic as a horse, pretending to have a peaceful exterior when you feel the opposite, actual honesty?
Has defensiveness become your default state, or can you take a breath and not apologize for anything? Can we let go of our own anxiety, in the way a horse does while grazing?
It’s such a huge help in working with our crazy mixed-up minds to remember that what we are doing is unlocking a softness that is in us, and letting it spread. We’re letting it blur the sharp corners of self-criticism and complaint. -Pema Chodron
Some of us choose to train with positive reinforcement because we feel, in our own lives, we’ve learned all we will ever need to from negative reinforcement. Punishment, or being told we couldn’t do something, only made us try twice as hard to prove our worth. It became an icy habit.
Good for us for mucking through, but maybe it’s time to show ourselves the same acceptance we show rescue horses. Time to say good girl to our own self, just because it’s true.