Ride Shorter, Progress Farther.

wm-hannahandanteIf I were to write a training book entitled Less is More, it would be hundreds of pages long. The irony is not lost on me. At the same time, it’s an idea that I defend constantly. Us humans can be like rats on a wheel sometimes.

We’ve all seen the rider. Maybe she starts by lunging her horse in tight side-reins. He can’t breathe and gets a bit panicky. Confirming her opinion that he needs lunging to take the edge off. Most misunderstandings start this way–a simple mistake.

Then it’s like dominoes. She wants to get it right. Her horse tries in the beginning. She’s focused, she pushes too hard, for too long. Then she doesn’t notice that she’s talking to herself, about her horse, but behind his back. Each try, she wants just one more effort a bit better, but by now her horse has lost heart. He’s just getting the same cue again and again and he has no idea what it means anymore. Are you teaching your horse to be stupid or smart?

Wake-up call: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

And by the way, how did things go at work today? (Like your horse even needs to ask.)

Part of the challenge of riding well doesn’t have a thing to do with the barn. It’s just being who we are. That usually means a full-time job. Maybe a couple of kids. That’s enough for a twenty hour day right there. Being retired is just as busy, dealing with health issues, technology, and family. Is that a strange man in the house or do you recognize him as the guy in your wedding photos? Then book club and maybe a random thought about climate change and horse rescue. Balancing responsibilities and obligations with your passions and bank account ends up being a recipe for guilt. At the very least, it’s a lot of extra weight for a horse to carry.

Then some idiot trainer like me climbs on your horse, and with no fanfare or angst, your horse does that illusive movement for a few strides, as I smile and throw down the reins, like it’s no big deal. Ouch, apparently it’s easy for your horse.

And then my client says to me, “Know what your problem is? You don’t want it bad enough.” There’s an instant where the words hang in the air… and then we howl. A sense of humor will always be the very best training aid.

And she’s right. There’s an art to riding as if you don’t care. Sure, it’s an “untruth” and we’re obsessed about our riding technique. But I also hope we find a way to not torment our horses any more than we have to along the way. It’s pretty easy to get that Night of the Living Dead appearance in the saddle from just trying too hard. Your effort shows in your horse’s stilted gait and tense back.

So, your life is busy and you don’t have much time to ride? Good. Ride less. Ride lighter, and trust your horse. He doesn’t forget how to be ridden and he doesn’t need to be drilled. His memory is strong; he remembers his training as clearly as he remembers your frustration.

Since we humans think in hour-sized hunks of time, start when the big hand is on the twelve. Start by currying too long. Use one arm and then the other. Feel his skin warm as his blood flow increases. Then feel your shoulders relax and do the same. Forget the stupid clock; tune in to horse time.

Bridle him with slow hands and lots of deep breaths. Pause on the mounting block and let your guilt and stress drain out into a dark, sticky pool under your boots. Then lightly mount. Once in the saddle, take a moment to feel your sit-bones go soft and the weight of your heels sink low. Acknowledge you have a partner and not an adversary.

Take all the time you need to allow your horse a good warm-up on a long rein without correction. Just rhythm and stride. Never doubt this is the most important part of the ride. Feel his body with your seat and legs. Use time freely because quality matters.

Now is a good time to get off. Yes, so soon. Quit early, while you want more and your horse is happy. Finish by taking too much time brushing him down, give him a snack, and still have time to run an errand on the way home.

If you want to train just a little longer, be serious enough about your riding to remember the best work happens when it feels like play. Successive approximation is that happy path of bread crumbs. We reward that answer that isn’t right, but is closer to right, like calling out, “You’re getting warmer,” in a game of Hide and Seek. If you get one really good effort, quit right there. Jump down immediately. Then trust your horse’s intelligence. Even if you don’t quite trust your own. If your trainer releases you early, or your ride was only thirty minutes long, give yourself chocolate. You deserve a treat!

Current opinions about training have changed. Three days a week of actually schooling is plenty for most competition horses. Keep your horse fit with hacks or arena games or cross-training. Or anything else that doesn’t feel like boot camp. You know the two cardinal rules in training: Be consistent. Change things up.

If you still want to tell me that your horse is that hot kind of horse that needs to be ridden hard every day, well, ask yourself the hard question. “How can I help his anxiety?”

Fall equinox: Days are getting shorter and the world has a way of twisting things sideways. If we don’t pay attention, blessings start to feel like poverty. It isn’t true. What you have to offer is more than enough and your horse is just as magical as he ever was.

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 “Ride Shorter, Progress Farther.”

  1. Anna Anna Anna…..thank you for giving me back my faith in humanity. I read your blogs and have been for a while now and so consistency i am delighted to know and to realize that altho i cant ride (i can sit there and not fall off in all strides – i just cant dance yet with my partner yet) and i am dismally inept at the wonderful language of our equine friends – that i do have the right attitude. Well….the same one as you….and that gladdens my heart and horsey soul. There is a massive scope for my improvement in all equine matters…but i strive constantly for that gentle, strong, delicate communication with trust and faith that in every moment i build something wonderful for both my horse and me. Dont stop writing Anna – it is wonderful to see great horse people sharing knowledge and wisdom. I look forward as per usual to the next gems!!!!

    • The thing about work like this is that it’s appropriate at all levels. The horse I’m talking about in the blog is schooling 3rd and 4th level work, but it’s the best thing for babies too. Thanks, Kerrieann.

  2. Anna-WOW! You’ve done it again…taken the jumble of words, emotions, & thoughts flying around in my human brain and sorted it all into printed sentences. Sentences that my lovely & honest horses have been repeating…over & over, again & again. Stuck in “rules” instead of the moment, instead of trusting myself and those lovely horses. Thank you for being you.

  3. THIS! Literally two nights ago I was telling my husband I do too much when riding. I need to do less. Have you seen the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall? There’s a scene where the guy is learning to surf, and the instructor says, “Do less. Do even less. No, do even less.” And then the guy doesn’t do anything at all, and the instructor says, “Well, you have to do more than that.” That’s where I feel like I am — I need to do less, but it’s hard to find that balance between too little and not enough. I’ll get it eventually. By not trying as hard.

  4. Love this so much, thank YOU! Our horses are our mirrors and are better than we are. Help them help us be better! I get swept up in it, but this is a great reminder to forget about time and get back to allowing ourselves to enjoy the horse for who and what he is and allowing him to enjoy us. Thank you! I am going to visualize this imagery on my next ride.

  5. “Take all the time you need to allow your horse warm-up on a long rein without correction. Just rhythm and stride. Never doubt this is the most important part of the ride. Feel his body with your seat and legs. Use time freely because quality matters.

    “Now is a good time to get off. Yes, so soon. Quit early, while you want more and your horse is happy.”

    I do this! Thanks, Anna, for this confirmation.

  6. Love this one – so so true, every word and syllable. Years back my trainer, who is very accomplished in riding and training, and a good person in all ways, locked (gently, I’ll say) horns with me about warming up. I felt my horse warmed up best on a loose rein, with lots of walking and then sometimes a big bold canter before we ever tried to do the trot work. That knowledge came from the days she wasn’t here, when I rode him by myself, and although with her guidance both he and I made lots of progress, sometimes it felt like I was pushing him too hard and he was (all 16.2h and 1400 pounds of him) simply tolerating the work because he’s a good guy and a kind one. At some point I took a break from lessons and decided to do short bits of classical work, using Zettl’s exercises and some others from books. I opened the back gate to the arena and instead of warming up slow and then digging in for the “work” we warmed up slow and then did a bit of work, just one exercise, and then we rode out the back gate and around the back field and up to the paddock and then back again for another little bit of work. It no longer felt like pushing at all but playing and it was during this time that I had the best instruction in my life because it came from HIM SHOWING me what it feels like to have a horse completely forward, but soft as butter, relaxed and forward and offering his back to my seat so that suddenly everything I’d read made perfect sense. All my fretting about seat and legs and hands just melted away because suddenly everything worked the right way. By now I can say that he and I have had hundreds of beautiful moments together, maybe thousands, but it doesn’t come in entire rides yet and maybe it never will – but when it does it’s absolutely the best thing in the whole world. I think he and I both go into it now with trust and faith that no pushing is required.

  7. Anna, you are going to think that I am crazy. 🙂 I love reading these because they take me back to my riding days. BUT I am currently a dog trainer/teacher and everything that you post is so very applicable to my dog training. I am so grateful that I found your blog and have many of the things you have said running through my head when I am training. Thank you for sharing your insights!!!

  8. Love. Love. Love. Laughed so hard at “you don’t want it bad enough”. Personal experience with that! I do want it bad enough. But I want the Wrong Thing bad enough: connection. Bareback. In a halter. While grooming. While moseying. While discussing a a half pass with my horse. I’ve taken lessons with two good trainers and one former Olympian. My “attitude problem”: I want to celebrate if I achieve adequate status. I can build on adequate. Only one of the trainers believes this is okay. (The one I’m sticking with.) I’m not special. I’m not blue ribbon -or white ribbon- material. I don’t have talent. I’m a slow learner. I forget stuff. I get mixed up. I have to rely on my horse to tell me how I’m doing. I feel like the only thing I have going for me is the desire to communicate back and forth with the horse I’m hanging out with. I’ve felt ashamed about my lack of “wanting it bad enough” for a long time. Thanks for this!

    • From someone who used to wanted it way too much, you have my envy. Hopefully the whole herd can meet in the adequate middle! Thanks, Jane.

  9. I LOVED this today ! My riding friends often tell me that I’m too soft with my horse,and I’m not as serious as I should be (time in the saddle) but I have believed in these words that you are sharing..lived like you just described,and I tell you …iT IS THE WAY.. I love finding that magically sweet spot ,that some cannot understand,but I can feel..I tell her in a happy voice that she was a GOOD GIrl..and I hop off,and walk her a few strides..hugging her neck,and saying sweet things..
    I can get on this horse once ever month,and have a lovely albiet energetic ride!!
    It’s this style of training..It works ! ps..She’s arab/mustang,so I do try to ride her at least twice a week..and make it something to look forward to
    …raising labradors has taught me a lot about that~ having fun -:)

  10. Dest Anna Blake, thanks sooo Much for the endless river of highly relevant newsletters – I love your Witting!!! In fact i wouldd ikke to ask if i ca Translate this newsletters to use in nu Facebook in Danish?

    Thanks again. Helle KnudSen http://Www.denheleekvipage.dk

    eptember 2016 kl. 14.53.14 +02.00, skrev Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog : > > Anna Blake posted: “If I were to write a training book entitled Less is More, it would be hundreds of pages long. The irony is not lost on me. At the same time, it’s an idea that I defend constantly. Us humans can be like rats on a wheel sometimes. We’ve all seen the rider.” >

  11. This made me smile, thank you ! When you hear pros say from the moment you get on your horse you are training him, it can be very stressful to make sure you are always riding correctly and not doing anything that will ruin your horse. When I ride on my own I like to relax in the warm up, look around , enjoy the moment. I never do this is lessons because, well, you just don’t! I end my ride when I feel good, and my horse does too, sometimes after just 20 minutes! Have had more than my share of “oh, done so soon?”,” that was fast” . I don’t whine about her attitude, ability, obedience,or dressage scores, I just brag about how perfect she is for me and how much fun we are having!

  12. Anna,
    I don’t have a trainer, unless you count videos and books. I’m my own trainer, which can be such a drawback sometimes. I only found your blog this summer and I am so thankful. It fills in some of the gaps in my thoughts and efforts. This one really touched on the obvious and I thank you!

    I hope you put all your blog posts into a book so we can flip it open with our hands, thumb through the pages and read. Kind of like our equine daily devotional. I do have a folder in my email account where I save all these. But I like paper books!

    Hope you Enjoy your day as much as you help us enjoy ours.

  13. What a great way to “let riders off the hook”! My riding days are past at this point (I guess) but the whole idea of stopping when you are in a good place is something that many of the trainers I used to watch(my horse & I were trail riders) should have paid attention to. I remember watching riders & horses being pushed pushed pushed – and the horses becoming more & more fed up with the whole thing – the riders becoming more tense! Just not the right way at all.

  14. I love your articles and I have taken them to heart with my own horse, which has helped the bond between us. Thank you and please keep writing. I need your words of wisdom.

  15. Another great article, Anna. As usual, I think: “If only I had it to do over again.” Often, when I wear my horse pin when out and about, I collect another horse friend, It happened again last week. She is young and eager to do right by her horse. Naturally, I am recommending BOTH of your books to her and am signing her up for your blog – without asking. 😀

    I truly appreciate the time and effort you put into your weekly photo and blog. Just want you to know that it matters.

  16. You sound like Rudd. “There is no time, there is only the present moment and how it feels to you and the horse.”
    “You groom until the horse is satisfied, not you.”
    “Make sure to get all the itchy spots.”
    “Don’t yank on the mane and tail, work the knots out gently, even hair by hair if you need to.”
    “If he falls asleep while you’re grooming you’re doing a good job.” ”
    “Don’t hurry, unless it’s an emergency, remember, there is no time.”
    “Watch the horse, did he sigh?”
    “Take it slow, be gentle with the bridle.” {bit if you use one, he favored an odd sort of homemade bridle, no bit, wish I could find one as I think you’d like it.)
    “I know the saddle is heavy, try and ease it onto his back don’t throw it and let it land hard, you tell him you don’t care when you do that.”
    “Talk to him softly, gently, horses don’t yell at each other, you don’t need to yell at him either, he can hear you just fine.”
    There were several large sticks leaning against the outside of the pasture fence. When I asked what they were for I was told I’d see. His horses played fetch. I can still see them, standing and watching when you’d pick up one of those sticks and throw it. Then watching a thousand pound plus horse scamper off to bring the stick back usually with tail swishing and a look that brought lots of laughter and a stick that was dropped at your feet. Rudd would’ve loved the big horse balls. He played with his horses every day.
    He also said, “less is more,” frequently.

      • Rudd was the man who taught me to ride when I was a kid. He lived up in northern Wisconsin next to the Wolf River. He was Norwegian/Menominee. He and his wife who was full Menominee adopted a bunch of kids, all Native American or part Native American. During the summers they had a “learn to ride” day available for the vacation people. I went every year, usually for several days in a row. You would be dropped off about 8 am and by the time you were picked up about 5 pm you could saddle, bridle, groom and ride. It was incredible. He and Dot were the most loving people and while you were with them you were just one of their kids. I was blessed to have had him in my life.

    • What a wonderful, kind, thoughtful man he must have been (or is). Just the picture in my mind of a horse “scampering” to fetch the stick? That will make me chuckle for a long time!
      Thanks for all those delightful bits of advice (learning!)

      • If you’ve ever seen a video of a horse playing with a horse ball you kind of have an idea of what the scampering looks like. He had one little white horse with green eyes who would get huffy if you laughed at her when playing fetch.

  17. Pingback: Ride Shorter, Progress Farther. | Clicker Chronicles
  18. I feel so much better and so validated. It took us four years to get from a new horse with little ground training to a mostly willing and not too timid (most of the time) trail partner. When I tell people how happy I am to be riding out on the trails, people say, is that normal for a horse, to take 4 years? Well, I was a new horse person and little steps felt and still feel big to me so, yes it took a while…but,is it “normal?” Well, your clear and convicted words tell me it may or may not be, but it is good and kind and fair and filled with joy and gratitude.

    thank you!

  19. I thank you too. I think I have the long slow warm up down but then I tend to sabotage myself by thinking, “oh, here comes that dark spot through the woods, I bet she won’t like that’ instead of just going ahead like it was no big deal. Being past 60 and a lot more cautious than I was 30 or 40 years ago I have become pretty adept at deep breaths and pretending everything is hunky dory when around my horse or getting ready to ride but still…..

  20. I have never trained every day. My horses have been my counselors and my “in the groove” time. I do slow down and I forget about time. As a special educator, I need to forget about work and worries I can’t change but I do remember that my horses also have to be put in a win-win situation and I learned that hard way to stop early on a good note rather than push too hard and both of us get frustrated. Once I learned that, though not an intense competitor, we sometimes won. I totally agree with your article! Fun read, too

  21. Anna, to me your articles are like the chocolate you spoke about. The treat I wait all day to read when it’s quiet. Thank you!

  22. Bringing along my young horses (from 6 months to 4 years), my whole motto was less is more! Those young brains have a short attention span and it’s a way more positive experience to chip away at concepts – for both of us! 🙂

  23. A six month layup with rehab taught me the lessons you articulated. First all I could do was groom and massage my TB mare. Then few minutes of hand walking. Finally I could ride but only a few minutes of walking. We are still walking but are up to twenty minutes. Along the way my mare learned to be quiet, relaxed, confident and she has never looked better. She has built muscle and is way more balanced than before the injury. Her injury was a gift to teach me the lessons that you already know. Less is more.

  24. I think we’ll add in some team penning! I did that 2 horses ago, and it worked well – it was new for both of us, and fun.
    Great article – just reading it relaxed me. Sometimes I go to the barn (which I just love) to ride my (green) TB (who I love, as well, and has a calm, gentle brain) feeling like I have to GET TO WORK! RIGHT NOW! So thank you.
    btw, I’m serious about the team penning.


  25. Thanks!

    Great text about a subject I’ve discussed with my trainer many times.

    Regards, Annie in Finland

    2016-09-23 15:53 GMT+03:00 Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog :

    > Anna Blake posted: “If I were to write a training book entitled Less is > More, it would be hundreds of pages long. The irony is not lost on me. At > the same time, it’s an idea that I defend constantly. Us humans can be like > rats on a wheel sometimes. We’ve all seen the rider.” >

    • Thanks for reading, Annie. It has to be an ongoing conversation, I think. It’s our foundation training…or it should be. Thanks, hooray Finland.

  26. Bravo! This is a much needed conversation. Our horses are so in tune to us, & unfortunately, we carry a lot of baggage with us to the barn. What I love most about riding my horse is that i have to be so “in the moment” when I am on him. Nothing else matters on those precious moments on “my boy”!

      • I interpreted “less” as do less to get more. For example: Getting to the walk from a stop. You don’t need to kick your horse, that’s too much. Do less, roll your hips from your sit down position in a stop up to forward more athletic position for the walk. Quality or quantity. I feel like we get so obsessed on “fixing” the problem we train to much and try to much the wrong way. We need to feel of the horse for the horse. Or am I still off? 🙂

        • I agree with your definition. I just notice not everyone’s actions fit their words… And I really agree that we spend way too much time “fixing” when we should be communicating. Less correction; more direction. Thanks.


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