Leadership

Leadership is so much more than just telling the horse what to do and what not to do. True leadership comes from a person who has a clear focus on where they and the horse are going. They think, move and behave the way they want to show the horse to be. They don’t get pulled into the chatter, mess, and noise of the folks at the barn, whatever new training fad is popular, what others think of them. They don’t fight or argue with horses – they show the horse a clear, calm and consistent path, and they walk it with the horse. Leadership is taking responsibility, accepting your weaknesses, developing your strengths. True leadership takes every ounce of brainpower and focus. It’s being flexible when needed, firm when needed, but always with the well-being of the horse in mind.

Leaders don’t just boss others around. They take control of their own mind and body, and lead by example.

Photo by Jasmine Cope

Straight and Relaxed

Whatever our horse is accustomed to doing when things are fine, when things are slow and we’re just going about our day to day activities- is exactly what they will do when we add speed or things get a little hairy. Their normal habits become amplified when we add extra stressors. Also, the postural habits they develop in their normal day to day habits will show up under saddle.

If they’re pushy in the quiet moments on the ground, they could certainly knock you over when they get anxious or excited. If they’re pushy when they lead, they are likely to be very heavy on the forehand under saddle. If they’re straight and relaxed on the ground, and connected to you in a dynamic conversation, they’re likely to be looking to you for support when they get nervous, safer to handle, and feel good under saddle too.

One thing I try to be particular about is how my horses stand next to me and how they lead. I ask them to stand straight and parallel to me. It isn’t because I don’t love them or want them to be near me – on the contrary, I find horses who are straight and in their own space comfortably are significantly happier and more relaxed. They tend to fidget less, and tend to move more fluidly in their bodies too. It helps them advance on from basic in hand work to more advanced work far more easily and logically, and helps to improve our relationship – they know I will always be there to help them feel good body and mind.

A straight, relaxed horse on the ground makes a straight, relaxed horse under saddle.

A Horse is a Horse

We all attach judgements to everything, and we do it daily to our horses. We label their personalities, movements and behaviors, often inaccurately, and attach that judgement as almost a permanent way of seeing them.

He’s quick, she’s lazy, he’s slow, he’s curious, he’s spooky, she’s friendly, he hates to work, she has a great work ethic, so on and so forth. Are these really personality traits, or are they factors of a moment? All of these things can change moment to moment, and if we’re set on seeing them through the lens of a label, we miss what is actually happening.

True, some horses are by nature more one way than others. I am more inclined personally to be alone, to enjoy quiet events and activities. But sometimes I love to socialize, sometimes I’m chatty, sometimes I can even be loud. It depends on who I’m around, how I’m feeling, and how open others around are to me and who I am. How much of my personality is affected by my upbringing, my family life, my education, the culture I was raised in? How much of that is actually me as a person, and how much was instilled in me, or molded by my life? It might change under different circumstances.

I challenge you today and every day to see your horse with an open mindset and new eyes. Who are they really? Above all, they are a horse – not a human, not a dog, but a horse. And they can be a different kind of horse day to day, moment to moment. With an open mind, you can help them feel their best and be their best each day, because you can provide what they need and guide them to balance based on what the moment calls for – and that might not be what you think it is.

Goals and Flexibility

How do we make goals in our riding/horsemanship journeys without losing flexibility and openness to the moment?

That is a very fine line to walk. One of the things I believe causes more confusion and stress to horses and people both, is the packaging and selling of “step by step” paint by numbers horsemanship programs. You do step one, then step two, and no matter who you are or what your horse is like, they guarantee you will be at the top of the ladder if you follow the program. The reality is that every horse and every person is different- and where I’d start with one horse isn’t always what’s best for the next horse. How I’d teach one person isn’t at all the way I’d teach the next. Being flexible and open is essential to good work.

However, if we have no goals, or no picture to aspire to, we can get lost. Even worse, we can regress in our progress, because sometimes if you aren’t pushing your comfort zone, you are actually regressing. For example, if the idea of cantering scares you, and you were my student, I would want you to feel very solid at the walk and trot first, and ensure your horse is balanced. But, if we never broach the subject, it’s easy to think of yourself as a “walk trot” person only, and begin to shrink your world and limit yourself with such thoughts. Therein lies the fine line.

I think it’s a good idea to write out your goals and have a good image of what that will look like for you. What does it look like to be cantering confidently? Is it riding a horse with loose reins? Is it cantering quietly with a nice, soft contact? Having a picture to aspire to helps us get where we want.

Then, don’t get stuck on the length of time or order of the steps. For example, my goal was to show my horse first level in dressage, with him feeling confident and relaxed. I made the goal a year ago. I had a lot of things working well, and then we had some set backs and went back to more basic work. I know I am still on track for my goal, and comfortable with the fact that the time frame has been extended. I don’t care how long it takes to get there, because the confident and relaxed part was the most important part to me. And, even if we never show, the work we’ve done to get there will have developed him better as an athlete and as a partner. If I had clung rigidly to the progression of levels as written in the handbook, and continued upward when he showed clear signs of needing the work to go slower, I could have easily caused him more stress.

So, have a goal, understand the principles needed to get to that goal, and then buckle up, be flexible, hang in there, and don’t get too dogmatic about the work.

Battles

When a horse is distracted, too quick, unbalanced, and so on, it’s very tempting to try to make the horse do all the things we want- ride the figure I want, be where I want you to be, do what I want you to do, pay attention to what I want. We easily end up getting into a battle with the horse and create a lot of resistance in ourselves to what is happening, and pass that along to the horse. We stop guiding and start reacting- no,don’t look there, no, don’t go there, no, don’t move like that. The horse loses a clear picture of what’s expected and avoids further, due to the amount of discomfort created by the person.

Horses are seeking comfort, and a person at war with a horse does not provide comfort.

It’s very unpopular with most of us to hear and do the following, but it is by far better than tugging, pulling, resisting – if the horse can’t get with you, you get with the horse first. That might look messy, it might be very hard for us to give up our ideas of what we wanted to happen, it might look confusing to anyone watching. And there is a balance here – it does not mean let the horse take over.

But you don’t show a horse rhythm, balance, and alignment by pushing and pulling him into it. You show him these things by getting with him and showing what flow and togetherness feel like. Then he slowly recognizes your physical and mental balance – then he WANTS to get with you, because it feels good.

Camp Safety

Let’s face it, we’re not always the best at laterally applying principles.

When it comes to safety, many folks are in one of two camps:

Camp 1- use of safety gear (often very vocal about its necessity), lax training and/or acceptance of general unsafe practices or neurotic equine behavior as “normal”

Camp 2 – disregard for safety gear, potential disdain for safety gear and others that use it, and very vocal about safe training practices.

I’ll call myself out as a recovering camp 2 person.
I’m learning, changing, and you can too.

Folks, can you see how incomplete each camp is? If your well schooled horse slips and falls on top of you, what then? If your educated ranch horse ties perfectly but your trailer tips over, they will still succumb to the forces of gravity and be hanging by their head in your trailer.

If you have your helmet, knee pads, whistle, vest, etc, and your horse is flightly, pushy, unconfident, and not prepared, your gear only goes so far – you can still be badly injured or killed. A horse is a force to contend with when they aren’t on the same page as you. If you have breakaway ties, safety snaps on your cross ties, and all the gear, but your horse doesn’t stand, you’re still not safe when ties are flying around and your horse is on its way out of the barn.

Try to look at the whole picture.
And just because you haven’t had anything go wrong yet, doesn’t mean the potential is not there.

Do your training, get prepared, wear safe gear, practice awareness, use common sense and throw out whatever your buddies think is just fine cause that’s how they’ve always done it – (they aren’t gonna pay your hospital bills are they?)
Then enjoy your ride knowing you are prepared.

How Often Should You Ride ?

How often should you ride?

Not many of us have tons of free time. Most of us wrestle with guilt about not doing enough. We juggle day jobs, families, marriages, careers, children, and horses. Maybe a social life? What’s that??

Some horses are kept at boarding barns we have to drive to. Some are in our backyards. It seems no matter the proximity, there is guilt about frequency and effort.

Listen, I get it. We all have enough guilt. We all work too much. We have horses for fun! This is our recreation, our breath of fresh air. Why do we place it in the “to do” list category?

Well, there are many factors that make answering this question complicated. What kind of horse do you have? What are your goals? If you’re training for a big endurance race, you won’t get off easy as a weekend warrior. If you want to trail ride for recreation, and you have a calm, well schooled horse, you might be ok.

That being said, we humans have a way of sapping the fun out of a very fun thing. Personally, I am a very diligent rider. I have a dedicated schedule to my horses and do work them often. But I fight the inner demon of rigidity, of “training” my horses.

Sometimes I think less is more. Fifteen quality minutes is far better than an hour of fighting off guilt with an obligatory, mindless ride. Pop in and let your horse know he is a miracle. Go home to your kids. Maybe don’t show up until you have time-

I think it is a highly individual choice, and depends greatly on the horse you have, as well as your goals and personality.

I don’t have an easy answer here. But I do know, if you’re riding out of guilt or obligation, don’t forget this is a fun hobby and you sure pay out the nose for it.

Trailers

Here is a topic I find extremely important: access to, and some know how around trailers

Now before we get started, I recognize not everyone can afford a trailer, has a setup where they can store a trailer, or even has a truck to haul said trailer. But bear with me here-
Everyone who has a horse needs to have access to a trailer. Yes, you do. You need to be able to hook it up, load your horse in it, and drive it.

I read comments on horse vet corner every day where a horse has had a medical emergency and the owner doesn’t have access to a trailer, and can’t get any vets out.

I am called frequently by folks having an emergency and request I come haul their horse when I am out of state or unavailable.

I read posts about evacuations from floods, fires, etc where folks can’t get a trailer to their horse.

Your horse’s life could very well depend on access to this trailer and your ability to drive it. You don’t want to be in the middle of an emergency realizing your husband always hooks up the trailer for you, or your friend does, or your trainer does – (these are all things my students have said to me as a reason why they didn’t need to learn how)

I know they are expensive.
There are many solutions to this problem: payment plans, leasing, bartering with a friend, going in on a trailer with a friend. Of all the things we equestrians spend money on- matchy matchy tack, dvds, supplements, lessons (not saying you shouldn’t take them, just saying your horses safety is kind of a priority)- a trailer is not a bad investment.

To me, having a horse and no trailer is like having a baby and no car seat

Fear Response

How long does it take for a fear or pained based reaction to go away?

The answer is highly individual. For some horses, simply removing the source of fear or pain resolves the reactions. For others, reactions and their severity can come and go. Triggers can change or appear seemingly at random. You might be doing the same thing every day with success one day, and a huge reaction the next.

One of the horses here had a rider who would get off and whip him when he reared. I’ve petted him on dismounting every time for nearly four years. He is much more relaxed now, but some days if I get off too fast, he still runs backwards.

If we look at our own selves, we probably have stuff that triggers our anger, fear or reaction in some way. Maybe two people can say the same thing and one triggers us, while the other doesn’t. Maybe most of the time something doesn’t bother us at all, but one day we’re tired and overwhelmed and a small thing makes us blow up. Maybe we have something painful in our past that turns up to haunt us at “random” times.

Training is not linear. Things fade, pop back up, fade, improve, regress. We have to look at the long game, and not panic when something we thought we fixed comes up again. In the end, developing a relationship and tools to communicate when these fear based reactions pop up is the way to bridge the gap between rider and horse.

Hold on Tighter, Work Harder

I, like many others I’m sure, was heavily indoctrinated in the belief that you didn’t let a horse “win.” This meant that if you came off, you got right back on, injuries be damned, to show the horse who was boss.

As I got older and my horsemanship circles changed, the wording changed, but the premise was the same essentially. You rode out what was under you, and if you came off, in order to save face and not teach the horse any bad habits, you got back on.

There’s a sort of puritanical work ethic attached to this thinking. That working harder, holding on tighter, persevering through it all is always the answer.

In some ways, I think this thinking really benefited me- I am a hard worker, and I think much of the success I enjoy today is due to the fact that I was willing to work hard, ride colts in the rain, snow and blistering heat, and take horse no one else would touch.

In other ways, this thinking really didn’t help me. It impacted my ability to be flexible, and if something wasn’t working with a horse, I had been ingrained to just “wait it out, even if you miss your lunch.” I could work harder, hold on tighter for all eternity, even if I missed the signs that I was off course entirely, that the horse was stressed, or maybe I should have been happier with much less.

As for riding out squirrely movements, a large portion of my self esteem was attached to this. To fall off a colt was basically to disgrace yourself. Falling off meant weeks of moping, having a total crisis about my ability and whether I should take down my shingle. I remember being fired by a client for coming off her horse, belly up in the snow, her horse tearing around me. The word was I didn’t know how to ride, and why should she pay me? I learned to get punchier, stickier, word harder, hold on tighter. Even if I’d created the anxiety that produced the buck, spin, spoon, rear, I was bound to stay on, come hell or high water.

There came a time when I started to question that work. I wasn’t in a position, not working for myself at the time, to experiment. But, my heart wasn’t in the work anymore. I was noticing too much stress, the horses’ and mine, and knew I didn’t want that anymore, without knowing much else to be done about it. I started coming off.

I think I came off 12 times in a few months. I came off cream puffs, I came off colts, I came off a little spook, a big buck, I came off quick stops. Everything seemed to be dislodging me. I wasn’t riding in my defensive seat anymore, but I wasn’t sure how to direct these horses toward calm, so I just came off. A part of me didn’t seem to care, because I didn’t want to be doing this kind of work.

Years have gone by since then. I probably come off once a year, but when I do, I don’t get too worked up about it anymore. If I come off, it means I missed something, and I try to look for that something to do better next time. I work a lot harder on preventing anxiety in the first place, and supporting horses when it comes up. I think the last time I came off, I had a good laugh and did some in hand work to loosen us both back up.

It turns out it’s actually tons harder to do less, wait more, and observe, than it is to hold on tighter and work harder. But I do my best to not let the old brain goblins creep up- the ones that tell me problems are best solved by more work. I think there is a nice balance between putting an honest effort into something, and not getting carried away in the doing- to set it up and wait, to let our muscles take a backseat while we listen to breathing, watch blinking, and let the passive kind of work do the job for us.

The big question for me now is not whether I can ride something out, but if it should be happening in the first place.