A Serenity Prayer For Both of You


The seasons are changing and the air feels cooler. That’s what you notice, but your horse seems just a bit more interested in his surroundings than usual. You feel his tension, so you push ahead. Maybe if you put him to work right away, he’ll pay more attention.

You ask him to do the first thing that occurs to you; you turn him toward the rail. He’s sticky. So the reins get shorter as you insist. He steps slower, and your inside leg goes to work pushing. Then pushing harder. He’s stuck, so you pull the reins over his withers, hard to the outside. Then his shoulder falls to the outside as he tries to find relief from that impossible pull on the inside rein. Now the two of you look like you are trying out for roller derby, but not on the same team.

It’s a war of wills; more passive-aggressive than an out-and-out fight, but adversarial just the same. The resistance is undeniable and you just got on. It’s natural; how you were taught to ride. Meanwhile, the ride feels like one long correction to your horse and he can either get stoic and shut down, or get so compressed that he needs to explode. Bottom line: His anxiety is even higher than when you got on.

Think of it as a runaway of a grudge match. Probably better than whips-and-spurs violence, but is it any kinder? And where to from here?

Well, first, your horse is right. That doesn’t mean that you are wrong, it just means that his vote counts. He’s on the defensive because everything he does is wrong. The conversation between the two of you escalated. Somewhere in those first steps, you felt a need to control him and he resisted. Because that’s the answer every horse gives when you pull on the reins.

Reins give us an illusion of control. And by illusion, I mean it isn’t real.

But the heart of the problem is that rather than being in the moment moving forward, your action was a reaction to what just happened. It’s like a downward spiral and the tone of the partnership changes completely. We stop being leaders and become passive-aggressive bullies, but we only notice that in hindsight. And was either of you even breathing?

Another way of saying it is that the correction was bigger than the mistake. Think about it; it’s like we’re the judge who decides to make an example of a kid by giving him twenty years for shoplifting a sandwich, rather than finding out why he was hungry.

Gaining good judgment about over-correcting is crucial for a rider to improve because constant over-correcting makes a horse dull. It kills his try. Eventually, he’s broken. It’s the flip side of adage Less is More. As a dressage instructor, I really have to quit quoting Ray Hunt so often… but he says it best:

“You need to do less sooner; you’re always doing too much, late.”

I smile every time I read this nearly unintelligible quote. You have to have had the experience of being tied up in a knot with a horse for it to even make sense. Here’s the good news; if the quote does make sense, you’re half-way there.

REWIND: It’s that same ride. The air feels cooler and your horse seems just a bit more interested in his surroundings than usual. You feel his tension, so you let him look around, as he walks on a long rein. His tension cues you to take deep breaths and blow them out. You’re going to put him to work, but you’ll show him the respect of allowing him to get comfortable first. Take that first walk he offers you, and exhale a thank you. Feel your sit bones unite with his movement. A few strides later, your waist feels looser. That’s how you can tell his stride is lengthening.

If you want to move to the rail, that’s great. Let your legs follow his barrel as it moves back and forth, and slowly begin to pulse with your inside leg, asking him to step to the outside. The rein is still long. Give him all day to figure out his answer. It’s an attitude of a leg yield, but in a way, you are massaging his ribs, so the outside bend is a stretch. It might take the length of the arena to get to the rail, but your horse is more relaxed when you get there. There has been no fight. You’ve used time as an aid to release his distraction and anxiety. You and your horse are together in the present moment, partners at the beginning of a great ride.

Making corrections that are bigger than the original mistake can be habit-forming. You aren’t a malicious rider; you love your horse. It might be nothing more than letting your mind default position that you can let go of now. Being slower to react is an art outside the barn, too.

Do you ever have that moment when things are beginning to spin out of control, and almost as a joke, through gritted teeth, the Serenity Prayer comes to mind? But the words work, even said sarcastically, because the anxiety has to take a breath. Next time you’re having a mental runaway in the saddle, try this:

Horse, grant me the serenity to breathe, the patience to give a small, quiet cue, and the wisdom to listen for the answer with gratitude.

Then in that stillness, perhaps you’ll hear a message back:

Rider, grant me the time to understand what you ask, the confidence to try without fear, and the grateful release of giving you my trust.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “A Serenity Prayer For Both of You”

  1. Very good reminder Anna as I just experience that last weekend but I came back to my sense and finished on having a good ride for both of us. With time around horses, I have come to realise a simple fact about them, they dont live according to the same time line; in a way, they are more contemplative thanus and take time to enjoy, yes, the moment. It’s up to us to adjust. Thanks for reminding us all.

  2. I wish that I had the numerical capacity to determine the number of times that I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to force my way instead of letting things proceed at a proper pace. Perhaps constantly with horses, but certainly a great deal more times with humans. Great advice and insight.

  3. Love, love!
    It’s the changing time and had the attention problem. We started getting relaxed and the mare got attacked by horseflies. She was running up and down the fence screaming to be let in the barn. He was gone from me.
    First thought…..he’s having a horse problem. His gal is in trouble. I dismount and put her in the barn.
    When I mount back up it is the softest I have ever seen this horse.
    Your welcome. 🙂
    He thanks you too Anna. Will be putting the prayer where I can see it before I ride.

  4. This brought tears to my eyes… it is all so simple in theory… but oh so difficult in practice. But practice we will… again and again until the muscle memory says less…
    Thank you again.

  5. This is one of the truest things I’ve ever read. I’ve thought for years that a significant part of learning to ride has to do with unlearning much of what we’ve been taught. Somewhere along the line, I developed a habit of waiting for a moment when I have the impulse to make a quick and strong correction. More often than not, I find that whatever seemed like a problem was just a momentary thing, and the horse and I can proceed without having lost our trust in each other. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the larger issue discussed as well as it is here, though.

    • Thank you, Tracey. I think so much of riding is counter intuitive to our nature in general, but I agree. Most issues are just a breath away from peaceful resolution.

  6. Pingback: A Serenity Prayer For Both of You – Hest
  7. Tears in my eyes from how this strikes me. I want so much to join my horse in his now, but so many years of misguided riding often gets in the way. I will continue trying, keeping your words in my heart. I think I need to print out the prayer and hang it in the barn. Thank you.

    • Just in case it isn’t painfully obvious, if riding well was easy, everyone would ride this way… Keep at it, Celeste. Your horse is grateful.

  8. Amen! I couldn’t agree more about Ray. He absolutely says and does it best. He was an amazing horseman and a wise man. I miss him, but still hear his voice and his words in my head when I ride. It didn’t matter in which discipline a person rode, just that they practiced good horsemanship with respect at all times. You too, are a compassionate teacher and have a gift putting your words into written form. I am grateful! Beautiful serenity prayer…

  9. Love the prayer. Again, you’re channeling Rudd. He’d stop you as soon as the horse was telegraphing his discomfort. Get you back on the ground and tell you to wait, let the horse walk around the arena (corral in his case) and see if he came to you again as he had to before you were allowed to saddle up in the first place. He’d remind you the horse is a prey animal, that you being on his back was huge as far as trust was concerned and you damn well better respect that gift. He didn’t use bits, but that didn’t mean you got to haul the horse’s head around, he’d take the bridle off and tell you to manage without or go home, sometimes he’d take the saddle off too and tell you to really learn to ride, “like my people, the Indians, did.” I watched him do that with another kid, she wouldn’t listen, said her riding coach said she should be boss. Rudd got real quiet and then told her she had to go up to the house and call her parents to come and get her, she would not be allowed on any of his horses ever again. I was shocked at the time. He wasn’t angry, sad fit better, deeply disappointed that such behavior was being encouaged by a “professional”. Sure wish I could meet you and have a nice talk over the corral fence while giving scratches to whoever of the equines wanted them. Blesings to you.

    • It constantly amazes me how many equine professionals don’t like horses at all. Good for him for standing up for his horses, and I am sad for the girl, too.

      • She was not even civil to the rest of us which was also something Rudd talked to her about. After she had been collected by her parents, who demanded a refund from Rudd for his inability to teach their daughter, he had the rest of us all sit on the grass and explained that some people just don’t seem to understand how to treat other people or animals and when that lack is combined to both, those people are often very unpleasant and difficult to deal with. We, however, should try and understand that they have chosen to be the way they are and that the consequences of their choices will come to them, so try and forgive any unkind words or actions if we could. I heard years later (the girl was from the same area I was) that she had quit horses completely (better for the horses) because they were “too stupid” and wouldn’t behave. I felt relieved for the horses. People like her really shouldn’t be involved with animals or children. I’m sad for her too, it must be a miserable burden to live with the attitude that everyone and everything is stupid except you.

  10. I have waited all day to read this. As I was reading, I could feel the horse’s barrel stretch as you described it so beautifully. Thank you for all you do.

  11. Wonderful post as usual !! Every horse person should have the Serenity Prayer posted in their barn, I don’t have one but I will ‘save’ this in the recess of my mind for whenever I have the opportunity to ride…Thank you AGAIN!!

  12. I like this, and it seems to me maybe let the horse take you around the arena where he wants, unstructured for a few minutes, before you ask him to do anything. I don’t always see the need for strict control, Sometimes I let my horse choose speed or direction, give him a say in our trail ride. It’s fun to see what he wants to do sometimes instead of being a dictator. I’ve done that with many past horses too. I’m not always working on something, sometimes it’s just” hanging out” with my horse, even though I’m riding/passenger ing . It makes me laugh when he gets that animated trot with his head up looking around with expression.

    • I often write about the importance of a good warm up, to have a time to “acclimate” and warm muscles before we put them to work.

  13. You know, I look forward to every Saturday morning, as your blog arrives while I sleep and I wait until a time with no interruptions so I can inhale and savour your words. Every post is so relevant to me at that moment that I could believe you are an angel sent from horse heaven to guide me in my quest to be the best I can for my horse…..something I feel I fail at too many times. So now as I ride and think to myself ‘what would Anna do’ I can also recite a prayer and hope that it will all fall into place and I can retire at the end of the day with a smile and the hope that I am a little bit closer to being a better me. You always makes the world seem a better place. Thank you 😉

    • Oh, this comment does my heart good, thank you for sharing it. Don’t be too hard on yourself… so much of riding is being aware that your horse is trying… and your horse knows you are trying as well. Thank you, Lisa.


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