In the winter months, below-freezing mornings make for stiff joints and a cold bit; midday riding is the best. As summer comes and it’s in the nineties before the horses have finished breakfast, get up before dawn or wait for the sun to cool. Just get to that routine and it seems to get dark about ten minutes earlier every night; no more rides after work. Spring is anyone’s guess. If only we could all schedule our ride times first, do the rest of the work as we get to it, and just ignore what we miss.
Maybe you have access to an indoor arena, and now the weather doesn’t matter. But your kids get sick or your parents need help. You have a project at work or you’re retired and somehow busier than ever. Then a health issue of your own pops up. Just when you are as bored and frustrated with your own excuses as you can stand, your horse is a little off on the right front. Intermittently. But consistently.
Can we all stipulate that we can’t ride as much as we wish we could? That we are all busy people and life is complex? Now can we let that be okay? Because you don’t do your horse any favors by showing up at the mounting block stressed out.
Horses need consistency, everyone agrees. If it’s your goal to take a long trek in the summer, you both have conditioning work to do. If it’s a goal to compete at a level higher in dressage next year, again, some training commitment is required. And if something gets in the way, we push harder. We aren’t quitters, so we double down and get tough… with soul-killing consistency. Yay.
What if it’s more mundane than that? Everyday life conspires to mess with your schedule enough that you’re sometimes at the barn every day but then a week passes with no visit. Do you fear your inconsistency is hard on your horse?
There was a time when the theory was we needed to train six days a week, push hard and get it done. As if a horse isn’t capable of remembering training if he gets a day of rest. What good has ever come from repetitive drilling? Lameness, yes. A horse shut down or bored, of course. When hours in the saddle become routine, without variety, each of you moving like zombies, brilliance becomes impossible. Is control really what you love about riding?
Maybe you think the one who rides the longest or the most has the best horse, but riding has always been more about quality than quantity to horses. Horses care profoundly about consistency, but it isn’t about adding up time in the saddle.
What does a horse need most consistently?
Most of all, horses need consistent good care and management. Whether your horses are at home or boarded, horses need to live as close to their natural way as possible. Free choice hay is a requirement. They need a social life with other horses, and as much we’re flattered if they nicker when we arrive for a couple of hours, the majority of the day should be spent in the consistent company of their own kind. Sorry, they need horse company more than ours. (Besides, you don’t want your horse in solitary confinement while you are waiting all week for the dryer to get fixed.) The best horse owners consistently challenge themselves to improve the lives of their horses when they aren’t being ridden.
Horses need us to be consistent about who we are when we’re with them. Our emotions impact them and although we might like to say our horses are healers, should they have to deal with our depression or anger? Our impatience or even our besotted passion? Do we have any responsibility to bring our best selves to ride? To be positive and focused on them? How do we impact their confidence when our partnership falls short? We know horses read our emotions, but it’s usually said in the context of fear. What if we made our emotions good reading for them? Consistently positive and optimistic, powered by a genuine smile.
Then the flip side, we need consistency in the way we see our horses. Do we doubt them, making jokes belittling them, or do we see them as always trying hard to do their best? Horses become the stories we tell about them, they return the trust we have in them. We make a choice every day about whether we ride the good horse or the bad horse. Even if we resent their flaws or worry about their health, can we accept them for exactly who they are and call it good, whether they are competing well, or spooky on the trail, or it’s time for a peaceful retirement? Can we remember how lucky we are every day and just say thank you?
The consistent reality between a horse and rider must be an engagement that is fresh and interesting, even between long-time partners. It takes lively mental energy to connect and let work be made light. Let the reward be larger than the ask because the rider has developed the habit of being consistently generous with praise. That we are ready, each time we ask a horse for something, to offer even more in return. That partnership means giving first; leading in such a way that a horse chooses to follow.
Consistency isn’t about a schedule. Horses don’t count the days we miss or forget how to wear a saddle or how to pick up a lead. They don’t need cookies every day and they don’t hold a grudge. We make that up.
Whether just starting work under-saddle or retired from carrying weight, horses are capable of so much more understanding and intelligence than we give them credit for. It might serve them better if we worried less about training them and more about working on ourselves, so we can offer them the safety and trust of our own consistent good character.