Ants in your pants. It was a childhood affliction constantly mentioned by adults when we couldn’t sit still in church or school or at the dinner table. Pervasive, chronic, and most of us didn’t grow out of it. I was certain that all the dull talk about patience was just a flimsy defense put out by lazy procrastinators to justify doing nothing. I had too much sense to trust adults so the only real question was how many horses it would take to tame me.
And decades later, our wardrobe hasn’t changed: Elmer Fudd hats, dirty barn coats, and muck boots on sub-zero days, giddy because the wooly mammoths are starting to shed. The earth will be sending up grasses soon and longer light will give us more horse time. This will be the year! It isn’t about ambition or arrogance, but it’s a chance to start again. We ponder a humble goal. It can feel confining to state something specific or quantifiable like standing still at the mounting block or resolving the head tossing at the canter, so we settle on something vague like wanting to have a better relationship with our horses. Then we secretly define “better relationship” as resolving every problem our horse has.
Now that we have an oversize nebulous but firm goal, we set a schedule. We’ll work an hour a day, seven days a week, haul off property once a week, and get this horse in shape. Boot camp starts immediately. While we’re at it, we set a few personal goals, like a diet to get us down to what we weighed when we were twelve. Then maybe start a new job and buy a new truck.
It begins to unravel on week one. The horse doesn’t want to be caught or the saddle doesn’t fit “all of a sudden” or the horse is just generally fussy as you tack him up. But winter has been long and we really want to ride, so we pull him to the mounting block and climb on. Just a walk, we say. And that feels so good that we cue the trot, which turns into a hell-bent crow-hop that was almost rideable until he veered to miss that stupid mounting block. As we fly through the air, we wonder if patience might be a virtue after all. Once we get our wind back, we can slowly roll over to get to all fours and push up to stand. We consider that perhaps we might have listened better. Also, we might have sprained something.
And finally, this is when we remember the thing we forgot to put at the top of our personal total-makeover reality challenge. A sense of humor must come first. We have horses; it’s a survival-level necessity. That wry smile comes and like a cue, your horse standing a few feet away shakes his head and blows. Acknowledge the fairness. Say the truest thing you know. Good boy!
Then we decide to just hang out with the horse for a while, and it feels good because being with a horse is always better than not, but haven’t you retreated a bit far? If giving the horse quiet time was going to heal him, winter would have done that. And just being in the proximity of a horse doesn’t help him, any more than sitting in a chair at the library makes you smarter.
Horses don’t have a master plan to dominate us or a dark side that wants to hurt us, so we set about figuring out where this good horse is feeling pain. When a horse behaves in a way that is unnatural, like bucking, it’s time to check saddle fit or hoof temperature. Look beyond the surface, make no assumptions. With luck, the two of you will rehab together, starting with fundamentals. Can we let the horse volunteer for the halter? Can we move him with a slack rope? Can we say thank you? Start over with some leading exercises, take your watch off, and do something advanced. Breathe.
The best thing about going back to the beginning is that reminder of how far we’ve come. The right answer comes easily. Nothing works better to adjust the attitude of a horse and a human than saying yes a few dozen times. Celebrate challenges because progress is defined more by setbacks more than easy, and sometimes false, responses. Be clear that the weakest link breaks, not to slow us down, but to point us in the right direction.
Maybe a new technique comes to our attention and we give it a go. Our horse responds by appearing to not respond. That old frustration begins to tighten shoulders and furrow brows and without noticing it ourselves, the horse takes that cue louder than the new technique. Learning new things is good, yes, but they are not a recipe for success. Techniques keep us balanced and thinking, but they are only conversation starters. Your horse will have resistant memories and current distractions. He will need time to process.
We need to learn that resistance is a sure sign of the beginning of change. Good boy! More than that, what we are asking for isn’t a one-off. We are building a new habit. Did we learn anything from the unplanned dismount? Change is best made, not by a full-frontal attack but by just starting a conversation and listening to the response. There is no “one simple way” for all horses, but what we focus on will grow. If we acknowledge failure, that will be the result, but if we remind ourselves that habits take time, maybe we would notice how much our consistency matters. We have to become dependable, too. Let it be simple, say good boy.
As much as we want a quick fix, as much as we hope that going to a clinic or taking a lesson will be a miracle cure, the experience of one human and one horse will be unique. The reason to reach out is to find inspiration and like-minds. To remind ourselves we are the good guys and stay the course.
Training horses isn’t about party tricks or control. Training is meant to form sustainable habits over time. The arc of a horse’s life should yield a crop of challenges that point us the way to reliable confidence. Our job is to hold a vision, letting patience become a friend because we don’t want this horse journey to end a moment too soon.
Comes a day when you stand at your horse’s shoulder and it feels like he is as tall and steady as an oak. That his roots run deep and you have lived in his branches, the wind passing through his ears to cool your cheeks, the warmth of his flanks beneath your calves, sustaining you far beyond riding.
For all the days that have gone before and for the uncertain days that will come, hold this moment. Celebrate the struggles and the fits of temper. Celebrate the bad with equal laughter because those trite labels don’t define us. We train for life. Not a day less.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.