If the horse is reluctant or sluggish to go forward, I always want to know the reason before taking action. If the horse is getting mixed messages, tuning out a rider’s sloppy or unending aids, or tight and restricted in the back and shoulders- these are all very different reasons for not going forward which require different solutions.
Rarely does just kicking or driving harder fix the root of the problem. It’s important to think critically and not just react, but problem solve with our horses in our daily riding.
After decades of horsemanship programs following the McDonalds business plan, turning horsemanship into a franchise that makes millions- breaking up a feeling and complex thing into bite sized packages, levels you can purchase, people are wary of marketing.
I know personally a lot of horse trainers are extremely wary of marketing themselves. Some folks feel like they’ll have sold out, or that making a profit is dirty. There’s a romanticized view of the “starving artist,” that if you’re a real horseman, you’ll struggle paycheck to paycheck and work til you’re too old and beat up to swing a leg over a horse.
I’m driven by passion and love for learning. I’m driven by a desire to help people and horses. Marketing is how I spread the message that can help change peoples lives. Getting paid is how this job is sustainable. If I didn’t get paid for riding and teaching, I’d have to have another job, and I wouldn’t have the time or energy to help people with their horses.
Marketing is how you know who I am, what I do, and where you can find me. Getting paid is how I afford to keep taking lessons and continuing my education to give back to the public.
Marketing and selling is what keeps my horses fed and trimmed, my truck fueled and my daughter fed, clothed and educated.
I teach in areas all the time where folks complain that there aren’t good trainers out there. Why aren’t there good trainers? Possibly because it isn’t profitable to be there. I myself moved from an area where business was hard to an area where people were willing to pay better so I could keep doing business.
Marketing and selling isn’t inherently dirty. It’s only distasteful when the marketing promises something the product doesn’t deliver- it’s right to beware of quick fixes, easy cures, guru worship and cult-like followings. It’s right to be smart with your money. But if good horsemanship is going to stay around, thrive, and be accessible to you, marketing and selling is how this can survive.
When is the last time you really listened- not listened to respond, not listened to tell a similar story, not listened to get something- just listened? Listened to acknowledge, listen to observe, listened just to get to know someone? Every one of our brains works differently, and we all have our strengths and weaknesses- but one thing I notice about people far and wide, is most of us are quick to jump to defending ourselves. We interrupt someone’s story and say we have good intentions of connecting, or we say we’re excited, or we say it’s just how we are.
We all have our burdens to bear, but the truth is that to connect to another being, especially a silent being, the responsibility is on US to change. Speaking is hard for me. I struggled for years with fumbling over words, especially if I hadn’t practiced them before hand – but teaching people is my job- it isn’t enough for me to say I have good intentions if the person I’m teaching can’t read my mind. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to teach others how I’d like to learn, but have had to really listen to what others need- by paying attention to those subtle cues that they’re engaged or not, seem confused or not, and just listening. It’s up to us to communicate with the learner, and if we can’t listen, we can’t really communicate.
To start with, just practice awareness- do you feel yourself wanting to jump in with that story? That’s ok, just notice it. No judgements. Do you feel your mind wandering when someone talks, waiting for the topic to get back to you? It’s ok, it’s pretty dang normal. You’re not bad, you’re human. But practicing non judge mental awareness is the key to practicing and achieving real listening and communication skills.
Correction- happens after a behavior Redirection- happens during the behavior Education- prevents the behavior from ever happening
I get asked all the time, what do I when my horse __? Sometimes you don’t have a lot of control of certain behaviors, such as a farrier trying to get a trim done. They aren’t in a position to educate your horse and can only mitigate behaviors. Correction in this case would be things like slapping, yelling “no” or “Quit” (which last I checked, horses don’t speak English), yanking lead ropes, etc. Redirection is possible if everyone is attentive, watching the horse and communicating. Taking some time to set the environment up for success is helpful too, such as moving away distractions like nearby hay, or bringing in a buddy to keep the horse quiet.
Ideally, the owner would educate the horse before hand, to prevent any problems. This would involve teaching the horse to pick up their feet, come into the barn and stand for short periods at a time leading to longer periods, and to feel calm with or without a buddy.
In many scenarios, some combination of all 3 might come into play- education, redirection, and correction. I think it’s important to never say never- but in most cases, we can eliminate the majority of need for correction with education and attention to the situation at hand.
Many horse people are caught in a cycle of reactive correction- waiting for the horse to ”misbehave” (which I put in quotes here because horses behave in accordance to their education, handling and environment) and reacting – the problem with this is it is always too late. The behavior has happened- and now the horse is frustrated, the person is usually emotional, and the whole thing is a setup for failure. It doesn’t actually teach horses- it can create fear, can create sneakier behavior, or can cause a behavior to stop due to startling- but it doesn’t actually teach. For a horse to learn long term, we need to break down the pieces that go into the behaviors we want to encourage, and reward those.
It’s a tough pill for most to swallow, but important nevertheless- the behaviors of the horse are always our responsibility- and that if we are correcting, chances are we missed the signs leading up to it, and are late. It’s up to us to create the education and environment needed for a horse to succeed, to get into an education and observation frame of mind, and to get out of reaction mode.
Is it actually their personality, or is it adaptation or stress behavior?
I watch the behavior of horses in boarding barns and yards and wherever horses are kept with interest. What fascinates me is how behavior changes radically with the manner in which they’re kept.
Large fields of turned out horses often have a peaceful feel to them, with horses grazing or browsing, dozing or grooming.
Horses kept in smaller pens often have more aggressive, competitive behaviors, especially if hay is fed at “meals,” instead of being available all day. These environments often carry the feel of a prison yard- lots of aggressive gesturing, fights breaking out, some horses bully others needlessly and without cause.
Once we get into single kept horses or stalled horses, horses kept alone or spending a lot of time in small spaces confined, we can often see more neurosis develop- horses that bite or make aggressive gestures at anyone walking by, stall walking, cribbing, kicking, etc.
I often get a run down on a horse’s behavior, placement in the herd hierarchy, eating habits, vices etc, when getting a new horse into my training program. I get information about their personality, what they like and don’t like, and while I take note of it, I take it with a large grain of salt.
Quite often, the horse behaves entirely different in a different environment- grumpy or pushy horses become calm and peaceful, horses that are stressed and don’t eat well graze all day, groom friends, and doze.
It isn’t magic – it’s simply setting up the environment for the mental and physical needs of the horse first, human convenience second. Horses need space to move, functional herds (this is not the same as just number of horses- they need horses who know how to read and respond appropriately to other horses expression), forage available steadily, and an environment where being a horse is the top priority. The training helps; but environment plays 50% of it.
The first time I rode with my teacher, I didn’t know what balance was. I was pulling a lot, and fighting with my horse. Of course I wasn’t aware that I was doing those things. I only was aware of what the horse I was riding wasn’t doing.
It took me years to register and really understand what she meant. To understand just how much I was pulling or kicking, even when I didn’t think I was, and how much that stiffened, discouraged and imbalanced my horses.
It’s always been important to me to keep a learning frame of mind- but in this instance I just didn’t know what I didn’t know- there wasn’t anything in my head like this for this information to “stick” to.
I didn’t realize how messy it looked, how little I really knew and how far I had to go.
I still have so much to learn, but I think about this whenever I see folks whispering or plainly criticizing someone they think is being “bad” to their horse – that firstly, we rarely are aware of our own faults (we don’t know what we don’t know), and secondly, anyone dedicated enough is capable of change.
Seeds can be planted, but they take their time to grow. And sometimes the process of growing is ugly- some very tumultuous changes might happen before the good.
And let’s not forget that sometimes our definition of good, soft, or right, is not the horses’ – that we are good at getting dogmatic and not always listening or feeling. So before we criticize others, their riding or handling, remember- anyone can change, and we are good at missing our own flaws.
How often do we notice those little 1% improvements? The horse settled just a little, the horse is breathing a little more, the horse is not rushing off as much.
I point these improvements out to my students as often as I see them, no matter how small, because I want them to develop an eye and feel for how improvement works- it doesn’t happen all at once, it happens in little pieces. So often after announcing an improvement, I am met with the ”but”-
“But he still isn’t bending” “But he still isn’t listening” “But he still is too fast” And so on
Or even worse, sometimes people write off the improvements entirely and chalk them up to accident
“Oh I don’t think he’s relaxed, he’s just finally tired” “He just did that because the horse in front of him did it first” “He’s yawning because he’s bored!”
It’s amazing how much the human mind grabs onto every problem and holds it in its clutches like a treasure. It’s amazing how the human mind sees in black and white, the problem is either there or not there, but struggles to see the gradients.
To guide our horses toward our goals, we have to be flexible, and we have to be sure our goal is even possible being their goal- if we’re worried about bend and they’re worried about safety, we are not operating on the same wavelength.
One thing at a time, one small step at a time. Keep your eye on the long goal but don’t miss the little improvements, even if it’s just one good step, one breath, one little change. That’s what a path is made of- a bunch of little steps taken.
What is the difference between lightness and softness?
Lightness can be the feeling of weightlessness, quickness to respond, ability to move in a way that requires minimal pressure from the rider.
Softness can be a feeling of ease, relaxation, and fluidity through a horse’s body. It is a feeling of connection and engagement with the task at hand.
Which is your priority?
Lightness does not require softness, and softness might not feel “light” in the way some people expect- the feeling of zero weight can often mean disconnection, evasion, and worry. Sometimes lightness is achieved through teaching escape, and produces a horse that scoots away from the leg, hides behind the bridle, and folds up tension into corners of their body. I often tell students, if you can’t stop what you’re doing with ease and go on a calm straight line, you are in fact wiggling body parts around.
The pursuit of lightness often creates a disconnect in the horses body- a chin that tucks toward the chest without a back that swings. A body that steps away from a leg while the neck over bends. A horse that over responds without connection, and carries a braced poll.
The pursuit of softness engages a horse in a way that asks them to feel good, nose to tail. It asks them to maintain connection from the hind feet to the reins, not to hide away from the reins, but without bearing down on them either. It asks for nothing at the expense of fluidity and relaxation in movement, and it doesn’t seek to imbalance the horse to get a quick handle- but rather to improve upon their nature and to create a true partnership.
Lightness is often a persons pursuit to create a look, shape and a feeling that satisfies a person.
Softness is an internal desire from a person to connect with a horse in the way that best suits the horse.
I have access to a lot of therapies for my horses: multiple types of body work, a Bemer set, proprioception pads, poles and more. I love all of them. But at the risk of upsetting my body workers, these therapies don’t work without doing the work to support quality of life in the horse.
If the horse keeps moving in unhealthy ways that continually need repair, these therapies will provide only temporary relief. I believe many types of body work can certainly pave the way toward change, allow muscles to feel better, and help a horse find a path toward better movement – but if you don’t learn to ride the horse in good movement, you will be actively fighting the body work. If you don’t work on your own balance, your horse will have to tighten their neck, shoulders and back to balance you and stabilize their own body. If you don’t learn about teaching your horse to carry themselves in healthy and sustainable postures, your horse will continue dysfunctional movement that requires bodywork repair.
The goal is to let the movement be the therapy- using therapies to assist you in getting there. The therapies are not the end- they are not a get out of jail free card. They are just the beginning.
Just as much as I dislike squeezing horses into idealized postures, I also very much dislike putting riders in rigid (but thought to be good) postures. One of the biggest struggles I encounter with most riders is they are trying to achieve a fixed position they’ve been taught- shoulders back, leg on, hands still, and so on. This creates a lot of rigidity in their bodies and takes away their ability to feel and flow with the horse. It inevitably leads to overuse of hands and legs, because it blocks the horse, requiring the rider to nudge and bug and nag him to go or turn or get on the bit or what have you.
Just like with horses, my aim as a teacher is to help the rider feel their body parts and become aware of where they are in space. I often ask them to notice a piece here without trying to change it, and compare it to the other side. How does the how belly feel? Is it soft and relaxed? Or is it squeezed in tight? How does your neck feel? Can you turn it freely or is it tense? As we run up the body and begin to feel and be aware of where their bodies are in space, and how they follow (or don’t follow) the horse, an amazing thing almost always happens- the rider gets into a beautiful, free position, all on their own.
This happens through becoming aware of their body, moving with the horse’s body, and relaxing enough to have fluidity in their body, but focused enough to have structure. And the horses love it too- they always get so relaxed and straight and melted over their backs- they absolutely love a rider who is with their movement, instead of antagonistic to their movement.