In one online class this week, a woman in Maine said it was 90 degrees that day and her black mare wasn’t coming out of the shelter. New York was no better. Two women in the class said the heat in Texas was just as high. Last month the mud ate their homework. Before that, the power was out. Texas hasn’t had a riding season all year but we’re having weird weather everywhere. In Colorado, we had more snow in May here than we had all winter and now there’s fire danger for many of us. What’s a horse-crazy girl of a certain age to do?
The class watched a member’s video and talked about recognizing lameness. We did the math (the heat index is the temperature (Fahrenheit) plus the percentage humidity. If the total is over 120, it’s too hot to ride.) Then we compared YouTube videos of gaited horses and dressage horses. We talked biomechanics and balanced movement, training our eyes. We compared conformation, not that one was better or worse, but to see the ingredients of the ride more clearly. We watched to see how the rider impacted the horse. Why is it so easy to see on video?* One participant later commented, “I watched a friend micromanage her horse and thought if I were the horse, I might bite her arm off in aggravation.” The challenge in micromanaging a horse is that we’re too busy to notice we’re doing it in the first place. Now there’s an app for that.
We can’t learn everything in the saddle, but still, I probably had a better time in class than they did because it was nostalgic. Back in the day, when I spent as much on riding lessons as others spent on college, I also watched all the lessons I could at the barn. Isn’t that the thing about clinics? We learn from everyone else as much as the clinician. Then on the way home, I rented VHS tapes at the tack store: “CSI, The Search for the Outside Rein.” I made that title up but it’s a good idea.
Perhaps you think you know all you need to. Fine, and my condolences to your horse. Maybe you think watching jumping videos or dressage videos won’t be relevant because you “only trail ride.” Do you need a dressage queen to explain the challenges of trail riding? Besides, between bloody thrillers and syrupy romances, what else would we watch?
Tips for Homeschooling Horsemanship:
- Head over to YouTube and enter something interesting into the search bar. There are some great trainers there and an equal number of monsters and charlatans. There are videos from world-class competitions. For our purposes today, don’t watch those. There is much to learn from them, but today you’re looking for the baby steps that make sense on your horse right now. Try to find someone like you.
- Remember it’s never about tearing down a rider or being critical of a horse. Any railbird idiot can complain, this is about learning to see details without judgment or correction.
- Hit start and just watch. Start to finish, let the ride unfold. Just let your eyes follow, look for what you like. Smile.
- Hit replay. Only watch the horse. Is he moving forward in a balanced, ground covering gait? Are his strides even or is he bobbing a bit? Is his poll soft and does his tail move in a soft “S” shape because his back is relaxed? Do you get the sense that he’s breathing regularly?
- Hit replay. This time, just watch the rider’s position. Is she tall but seated cleanly in the center of the saddle? Does her body move in unison with the rhythm of the horse? You know rhythm is your horse’s first concern.
- Hit replay and this time, only watch the rider’s legs. Are the heels under the rider’s shoulder? Are her legs soft or do they bang on the horse’s flank? Are her heels up or do her feet rest just above the girth? Are her calves quietly working? Just notice.
- Replay again, and this time only watch the rider’s hands. Are they generous or do they impede the natural movement of the horse’s neck, working a bit like a hand brake? Are the hands in balance with each other or is one stronger? Does the rider overuse the inside rein and ignore the outside? Is there hand-weight on the rein or does the rider carry her hands?
- This last step is the important one. Watch one more time and dismiss your thoughts. Listen to the horse’s calming signals. Does the horse partially or fully close his eyes or turn his head away. Does his poll go up in anxiety? Is the horse unwilling to go forward and engaged in the conversation? Is the horse telling the rider something that the rider isn’t hearing? The horse’s opinion of the rider is the only one that matters. Turn the sound down and rather than intellectualizing about the ride, listen to the one who knows. Now trust that the horse is right.
Consider giving yourself an extra-credit assignment. Make friends with technology. Of course, it’s easier to complain about it or throw your hands up in frustration but wade through your apprehensions. Use a cheap twisty tripod to video or blow a hundred bucks on a Pivo, but get into the habit of videoing you with your horse. Yes, you look older and you might have gained a few, but this is about something more important than superficial appearance. Then follow the same steps as above.
Does the camera make you nervous? Let go of self-judgment. Horses like us neutral. Instead, just notice. Maybe the camera helps you focus better on the task or be more aware of your body movements. Your eye might get more involved. Good, it’s working already. Most people are pleasantly surprised, looking less awkward than they felt. With that affirmative nudge, it’s easy to notice habits that your horse might like you to work on. On the ground or in the saddle, seeing yourself with the impersonal eye of a camera is something to embrace.
As you begin, you’ll probably drudge up old issues, self-blame, and issues that never had to become issues. You’ll judge yourself more harshly than I would. Breathe your way thru. Use a neck ring to learn about your hands. Drop your stirrups and see what happens. Collect these videos because a year from now it’ll all be different. Because years will pass and looking back on these videos will leave a rosy glow on the distance the two of you have traveled. Make friends with your challenges, embrace those shortcomings because it will give you compassion, perhaps the most necessary skill of all.
Partnering with a horse is a noble goal; a solitary journey that the two of you take. Let it rain; let it bake. We are not deterred.
*Drop by The Barn School and check out the courses.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.