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

Cowboys, Dressage Queens, and Respect.

WMRein napI got badmouthed by a cowboy recently. He dressed the part way too seriously.

It’s okay, in dressage we think of ourselves as eternal students. There isn’t a day that goes by that horses don’t teach me something. I expect the same from people. I would have liked to have a friendly conversation with this cowboy, but he talked behind my back, so I didn’t get the chance.

Like every other riding discipline, there are some lowlife that wear the western outfit, down to chinks and neckerchief, but don’t reflect the highest in the breed standard, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes the term cowboy has a bad connotation–to cowboy a horse around usually means rough handling. We’ve all seen enough shank bit jerking, tie-down bracing, spur gouging, and general training profanity to last a life time.

But there are some dressage riders I wouldn’t want to lay claim to either. Our breed standard runs the gamut, as well. Intelligent horse people should never judge an entire group by the worst example. I’m reminding myself of that right now.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, a suggestion: when you see a woman with well-earned gray hair and an accent like mine, it’s a safe bet that she probably didn’t grow up in British riding yards where English saddles were the norm, or the Spanish Riding School, learning elite equestrian principles while wearing full seat breeches and tall boots. More likely, I grew up like you; I rode whatever horse I could catch on the farm. I didn’t have to choose between English and western tack, because we had none of either. Yes, I’m suggesting we may be more similar than different.

I appreciate cowboys. Some of the kindest, most courteous people I know wear that Hat. Mutual respect has always been part of that code toward both horses and other humans. And some percentage of cowboys have always trained horses using compassion and kindness, since cowboy-ing began.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, suggesting that the young horse I’m working can be intimidated into work faster is certainly one method. Or maybe if you watch a moment, you’ll hear this horse tell you that violent approach was tried already and that’s when his problem got bigger.

“The horse is a mirror. It goes deep into the body. When I see your horse I see you too. It shows me everything you are, everything about the horse. I try to face life for what it is. There’s heartache, but it’s a good thing. I’m trying to save the horse’s life and your life too. The human is so good at war. He knows how to fight. But making peace, boy, that’s the hardest thing for a human. But once you start giving, you won’t believe how much you get back.” Ray Hunt

There was a time that I was happy in a western saddle, slowly building from a lope to a gallop, leaving 11’s in my wake. If you haven’t heard the term, 11’s refers to the marks on the ground left after a reining horse does a sliding stop. Yes, I’m a post-cowgirl who peeked through a door to a different kind of riding, one that intrigued me. The training process was slow but the results seemed ethereal. I decided to take my reining horses and give it a try.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, cowboys didn’t actually invent horse training and not every horse will be improved by ranch work. And hard as it is to believe, there is a whole horse world out there, past the cows. It isn’t that it’s better or worse. It’s that there is always more to learn and having an open mind is the best training aid that ever existed.

I knew a lifelong cowboy who was invited to a dressage barn to ride upper level horses for a month. He took the dare and when he returned, he sought me out for some gleeful dressage chat. His eyes were bright; he was filled with awe to have experienced a totally different dimension of horses.

“It’s amazing what you can learn after you’ve learned all that you think there is to learn.” Ray Hunt.

At the same time this week, I continued an ongoing conversation with a couple of other cowboys who are questioning the way they have always done things, wondering if there’s a better way to work with horses, and asking my opinions. Conversations like this one can be so affirming on both sides. Every time people manage to evolve a bit, horses benefit.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, yes, I found a home in dressage, but I still share your heritage. America has a proud history of good horsemanship. We aren’t gangsters, we are communicators. Suggesting that a horse will benefit from speed and fear demeans good trainers of any discipline.

“My belief in life is that we can all get along together if we try to understand one another… You’ll meet a lot of people and have a lot of acquaintances, but as far as having friends—they are very rare and very precious. But every horse you ride can be your friend because you ask this of them. This is real important to me. You can ask the horse to do your thing, but you ask him; you offer it to him in a good way. You fix it up and let him find it. You do not make anything happen, no more than you can make a friendship begin.” Ray Hunt

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, kindly don’t assume that because I dress differently, I’m don’t understand horses. Kindly don’t assume, because I work quietly and slowly, that I am unskilled. And because I still carry that cowboy heritage along in my dressage saddle, I wish you didn’t reflect so badly on good horsemen and horsewomen who still wear the Hat.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.