My young horse was lame, so my mentor asked if I’d like a lesson on her horse. It wasn’t a rhetorical question; we all knew the barn rule. Even if I was green -lime green- I knew if you were offered a horse, you said yes. My mentor watched as I climbed on her impeccable Arabian Stallion. It’s hard to tell if you should feel sorry for me or cheer, isn’t it?
The lesson started marginally okay. I knew enough to stay light, but I’d never ridden a horse like him before. His neck rose proudly in front of the saddle, he felt like he balanced on tiptoes in mid-air, and he gave me the feeling he was out of my league. And he was right, of course, even my toes felt awkward. After a bit of walking, my mentor asked for a canter and I gave a light cue. The stallion took off in a road gait that nearly gave me whiplash, just the beginning of the longest thirty minutes of my young life. My mentor laughed, the stallion shook his head, and I tried to regain my wits. The cue didn’t work, I was getting the bad result each try, but I plowed on. I’m certain that the more she laughed, the more the stallion played with me. The frustration was mine alone.
“Take a deep seat and a faraway look,” she said. It infuriated me. She said that in lessons I had on my horse. She said it often enough that it was on her memorial card at her funeral. She was an amazing horsewoman, even with her habit of laughing at jokes that horses told. I didn’t know how to get my seat deeper in the saddle. My head was frozen robotically high. Each time I asked for a canter, the stallion gave a different but equally clever response and my mentor laughed until she was out of breath. Eventually, I got a couple of strides of canter, he halted instantly, and hysterically funny, I ate mane. I’m betting my shoulders came forward.
Decades later, I have my mentor’s job. I give lessons to riders who try too hard. I listen to the horse and try to translate. Sometimes I laugh when riders are frustrated because it helps horses understand our conflicted emotions. In certain nebulously philosophical situations, I might tell a seriously earnest rider something that they take too literally. Then I might laugh again because I love my job. And because laughter is a calming signal.
Without further ado, the unwritten and not-at-all-funny barn rules, usually learned in hindsight:
- Ride all the horses you can.
- You will necessarily make mistakes.
- It isn’t personal, but you will make the same mistake again.
- Get a sense of humor.
- You will still make mistakes but with humor now.
- The relationship with your horse doesn’t start when you get it right.
- Going back to the basics frequently isn’t punishment; the answers are there.
- The truest strength will be found in your vulnerability.
- Pick yourself up and try again.
- It takes courage to do less.
- Take a deep seat and a faraway look.
Are you having a “dark night of the soul” with your horse? If you have not gotten to the point of thinking you have the wrong horse, you’re just skimming the surface. Sure, sometimes we truly get the wrong horse, but usually, the horse is pointing out our shortcomings. He isn’t being divisive about it and it isn’t the least bit mystical. It’s just the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation with a twelve-hundred-pound flight animal. Building a relationship with a horse is not easy or quick. The challenges rise up like sheer cliffs. One minute you’re at the top looking down and a minute later you might be at the bottom looking up and you have no idea what happened. Most of it feels nebulous, you make vague guesses and get contradictory information. You would love to just have one hard, fast, work-every-time rule. There isn’t one.
Well, not exactly. Breathing works every single time, but we don’t believe it.
We want it to be easy, so we grab onto an idea and choke it like a chicken. If it doesn’t work immediately, so we frantically look for our next technique-victim. Does it feel to you like have tried too many training tips? Is your “toolbox” too big to find anything in? Good, you’re in the game. Dare I say you’re ambitious. I hope so, it takes drive and desire to work with horses.
At the exact same time, humans are slow learners. We need repetition and time to assimilate. We need to prove it to ourselves more than once. It isn’t a fault, especially since much of the work we do with horses is counter-intuitive, and even worse, it goes against instinct. Example: If your horse is running away, take your legs off.
If that isn’t enough, we are self-critical. We think others are judgmental, but if we weren’t so self-critical it wouldn’t matter. Nuno Oliviera once referred to riders as poète maudit, “cursed poets” of the art, which makes perfect sense during one of those dark nights of thinking too much. We can’t find an answer and we can’t quit. We seek perfection and fall short. If we stumble into perfection, it reveals itself to be a stiff dead thing, an idea that limits your options. It’s enough to make you cut your ear off. Have you underestimated the need for a sense of humor?
If you do it all right, time passes, and we forget the struggle. We have done nothing less than the incredible, but we take it for granted. The world does not stand still, change comes. It might be the same horse, or it might be the next horse, but it happens. In a flash, it’s obvious that you have the wrong horse. Any horse would be easier than this one.
“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” ― Rabindranath Tagore
It’s a tradition in our species to consider unseen things, bigger than us, spiritual. Is working with a horse anything less than a personal crusade? It starts inside, the quiet action of believing in yourself, before your horse feels it, and long before others see it. Just a thimble of faith to start.
Then head for the horizon and expect a bumpy ride. It isn’t fair to you or your horse to take one moment out of context to beat yourself up. It serves no purpose to fight the inevitable. You can’t quit and you can’t be perfect, but you can accept your humanity with a smile for your horse. You are on the long ride, and in the perfect place. The rest will come in time, so
Take a deep seat and a faraway look.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.