This is how it goes: Sometimes it’s just fine to go lollygagging around. The time isn’t right; you’re hungry or distracted by work or family, or where your gloves went to. You don’t want to ride alone but can’t find anyone to ride with. But then you find someone and spend the whole time talking to them. Or maybe you’re flat; your energy is just spent from being busy, so very busy that you get nothing done. There’s some dawdling while checking your list. And then some futzing around out of habit. You’re in the saddle and your horse feels like he’s part goat, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a bad time to ask him for anything. Besides, he’s resistant.
Or it goes like this: Everyone is going to a clinic or a group trail ride. You want to go but you have so much anxiety about how your horse will behave or how you’ll be judged, that you’re immobile. Or while riding, a friend gets hurt and you want to help but your horse gets upset. (Or you do.) Maybe there’s a fire, or your horse is injured, and you need to haul him, and it has to happen now. It’s important and your horse must listen but for some reason, he won’t listen. And he’s still resistant.
There were times in my life that I asked my trainer to tune up my horse. Years later, I was the trainer tuning up a client’s horse. In the beginning, I was happy to do it. It’s always fun to climb on. In a few minutes, the horse and I’d be working through transitions, lost in our conversation, acting like old friends. It was lightly reminding the horse what we liked and if there was something we didn’t like, re-phrasing the question until the horse could say yes. Some horses get dull because of confusion, but they all get sticky from over-cueing. Humans are just the same.
Then my client would climb back in the saddle and have an improved ride, but soon enough the horse would be resistant again, and I’d climb on again. I started feeling like the horse was being sent to the principal’s office for a talk. I’d be the sort who would invite the parents (rider) in so we could all work together. I know other trainers might beat a horse into a tune-up and then ridicule the rider, too. Making everybody feel bad is still training, but at the price of any shred of confidence the horse or rider had. Most of us don’t need our self-loathing topped off.
Climbing on for an affirmative tune-up was fine in the short term, but truthfully, all three of us lacked consistency. My goal as a trainer is to turn out partners because the challenges don’t always come during lessons. I hoped riders had a passion to learn because horses seem to have a passion to teach us, and we can save face a little bit if we at least act like it was our idea.
This is what clients have taught me: They would like a simple technique that works on every horse. It should have three easy steps.
There are trainers smart enough to market just that plan. It doesn’t work, but they get rich selling it because people want it to be true. Maybe the technique makes sense to humans, so we commit to the plan so hard that we forget to listen to the horse. Do I need to remind you that human logic rarely works with horses?
I hold an unpopular opinion. I think riders have to be the ones to change, always a nebulous, awkward, and somewhat painful process. We have to understand the concept behind what we do; we have to understand how horses think. We have to ask in a way that the horse can say yes, and then be relentless in our praise, while remembering to breathe and respect his space. We have to negotiate fairness and that means we don’t always get to have our way. And this can all be destroyed in an instant if our hands on the reins create resistance, which they almost always do. It’s enough to make you want to spend a fortune on yet another flimsy three-step plan.
Okay, fine. Here are my three easy steps. They are free, but they come with the disclaimer that “easy” is an abstract concept.
- Unless you are near hospitalization, energy is a choice. Take some breaths, excuse whatever attitude you have, and lift yourself up energetically. Embrace yourself because self-criticism is a heavy weight for both of you. It will be a conscious effort in the beginning but hold that standard of self-acceptance. Consistently show your horse the best of you and then notice how good it feels. It makes the burden lighter for your horse and it should be the admission price to sit in the most sacred place, spine to spine with an intelligent sensitive creature who will share their grace with you, at the exact level you consistently ask for. Eventually, you notice that you love yourself as much as horses.
- Use that energy to focus on yourself. Feel your sit bones in the saddle, take in the air which is always a bit better just a few feet off the ground. Feel your horse’s body between your legs, aware of his tiniest movements and calming signals. Converse in cues as light as air because each of his senses are so much keener than yours, that you know he can hear you. Look up, to a higher place, and trust his intelligence. Stay curious and bright, complacency isn’t an option because it will take a lifetime of learning to understand your horse. No time to lose.
- Hold yourself to a high standard of consistency. Not the number of times you ride, but the quality of who you are in each ride. Horses are always moving toward a way of being and it is your job to be an affirmative beacon for him, safety in an uncertain world, confident in yourself because a confident horse is the goal. We’re always training for the next ride, the human we want to be for the horse who deserves the best in all things.
Practice holding a consistent standard. Being dependable is a greater gift than treats or commiseration or any training technique. Life happens but when a horse and rider can depend on each other to be their best, we break the pattern of needing to tune-up horses. We need to take on the heavy lifting of making ourselves reliable partners, working on our own consistency so it can inform consistent, confident behavior in your horse. Seen in this light, consistency is the greatest kindness we can show our horses.
Eventually, it goes like this: There’s a beautiful pair. The horse is calm but responsive and the rider’s cues are nearly invisible. There is equal energy and relaxation; the contact on the reins is sweet and soft. Then, look down and thank your horse.
New book available Monday! Going Steady, More Relationship Advice from Your Horse. Available here and at Amazon.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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