It’s a normal and healthy part of growth to stop being impressed by things we once found impressive. I look back on pictures of me riding horses years ago and think now they’re too tight, too off balance and not relaxed enough. My idols then just don’t do it for me now anymore.

If we’re willing to let go of those ideals we strived so hard for, the ones we know just don’t fit with our new vision, we can make real progress.

If we hold tight to it, and don’t let ourselves see with new eyes what really is happening, we stay stuck.

It’s normal and healthy to find new goals, new idols, and to not like the way our old idols work.

Dropping the Agenda

I went out to catch Kyber and noticed an expression on her I hadn’t seen in a while. She was a bit anxious, and looking unsure. When things had sped up for her in the past, she got defensive and knew she had to book it to defend herself.
My work with getting her prepared to ride, though done very slowly, no doubt brought up some past feelings of concern. The human agenda has never done her much good.

I spent today just sitting next to her in the pasture, removing any goal whatsoever but to just sit quietly. I have to admit, I didn’t have the desire to do so as it was cold and wet. In no time she came over and stood by me, away from the hay and other horses, and took a little snooze. There is no feeling like a scared horse choosing your company over other horses.

It’s always worth it to give up the agenda to preserve the relationship. It’s trickier when you’re being paid to make progress with horses. Its easy to feel internal or external pressure to do something. However, I know if I had done anything else today, I would have done nothing but cause her mental harm.

I think it’s extremely important as a professional to a) work with clients who have the best interest of their horse in mind (which I most certainly have in Kyber’s mom) and b) communicate often and openly about what is needed and what is happening.

I have always regretted going too fast, even if fast is still at a snails pace.

Learning To Feel

Why can’t you feel what your instructor said is going on?

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with you. Half the people (at least) who say they felt whatever their instructor pointed out are lying. They’re afraid to look like an insensitive, unintelligent, incompetent rider. But of course that isn’t the case if you don’t- learning to feel the entire body of a horse moving under you is really something difficult.

There’s a few things I think that affect this ability to feel in major ways.

Firstly, beginning instruction focuses mainly on teaching the rider to control the horse. We learn to pull to steer, kick to go, and become concerned far too soon with directing a moving, breathing, thinking animal we don’t even understand. We’re told to be the leader before we even know how they think, what it feels like to follow their gaits with our seats, and how to understand their needs. Thinking of controlling this soon doesn’t develop our ability to feel.

Secondly, a huge portion of feeling what is currently going on is actually made possible through contrast. If you’re accustomed to a flat moving, imbalanced horse, that feels normal to you. A small change in balance isn’t going to be so obvious. But if you ride a big mover, then a small mover, an uphill horse, a downhill horse, a tight horse, a loose horse, a happy horse, and a miserable horse, suddenly those differences are quite noticeable.

What can you do to feel the little details more easily?

Play around with closing your eyes. If you feel safe, ride with your eyes closed. Obviously do it in an enclosed space, have someone lead your horse, or whatever you need to feel relaxed. You’ll be surprised at what you pick up on when you deprive yourself of your vision. Suddenly the horse moving under you is more dynamic – the footfalls are easily heard, and the way their back moves is easily felt.

Ride different horses if you can! A good seat is adaptable. We get caught up easily in our habits, and riding a variety of horses can help us learn to communicate in the moment instead of making assumptions with our seats.

Take video of yourself riding. Most of us have smart phones. Put your phone on the fence and record your ride. It’s quite eye opening to see the difference between what we think is happening vs what is actually happening. Through seeing this, you can adjust your ability to feel over time. I video myself at least once a week. It isn’t always fun or pleasant, but it’s very helpful. Get a glass of wine handy and watch the video with an open mind.

The Trick

The trick to good horsemanship is to love and want the best for your horse more than you love being comfortable, being right, and looking good. To put the well-being of your horse above ego, above grudges, above shallow goals and above our own pleasures.

That is a lifelong goal for me. If we are honest, and really open to self critique, we’ll find those moments where we aren’t our best and learn from them. I am constantly learning about myself, through the horse; and grateful for the opportunity to awaken and care as selflessly as I am able to for my horses.

The Blame

Why is it so hard to accept personal responsibility in our learning journey?
I don’t know…we are always blaming things outside ourselves for our problems: the weather, distractions, the time, other people, the horse, you name it. We all do it to a certain degree.

I remember a teacher I very much admire and respect telling me that I was drilling my horse. I responded that I was not drilling the horse, I was practicing for my own ability. He said that the two were the same to the horse, and my efforts to be a goal achieving, driven rider was causing stress to my horse.

I don’t know why that was so hard to swallow. It conflicted immediately with the image I had of myself. Then when I accepted it I felt shame. Then I felt like giving up.

In reality, it’s not that big of a deal – if I just had accepted the information and changed without having to go through the twisted labyrinth that is the human ego, I could have moved along happily.

I’m really glad horses are here to help show us the way to be better people. I’m glad they put up with us while we flounder through life. I think taking criticism gets a little easier – to not ignore it or smash yourself over the head with it is tough, but essential.

The Truth

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” -Gloria Steinem

I have been working with troubled horses for long enough to see a common thread in their rehab process: feelings get hurt. Sometimes I think I need to get a degree in psychology to really be good at this.
The solution for the horse is often quite simple: change our habits, change their environment, make consistent rules and learn along with our horse.
The human factor is not so simple, however. First we have to accept the reality of the situation, and our contribution to the problem. The human mind is expert at rationalizing, excusing, and then when it accepts, it beats itself with the truth. None of these are constructive habits, but meanwhile the horse waits in the background while we work on getting our sh** together.

Guiding people through the process of seeing the truth as it is, without being mad about it, hating themselves for it, blaming others, lashing out, shutting down, becoming fearful, or losing interest entirely, is really quite something. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my habits as well. Not taking this process personally is a goal I hope to achieve someday, but I get to understanding and empathizing with it more as I gain more experience.

My intention toward horses and people is always to help and create a better life for them. But in that process, walking the fine line between being truthful and sympathetic toward someone’s feelings is a tight rope act; and sometimes feelings do get hurt.

The Social Media Gauntlet

When is it appropriate to call out trainers or training you think is wrong? In what platform is it best done, and how?

With social media, you often see videos or photos make the rounds of the public gauntlet that is Facebook. Societies make the call of what behavior they’re willing to accept and where they draw the line. The discussion of what is considered animal abuse is an ongoing and ever evolving one, and currently we probably can all agree on how flogging a horse is abuse, but we can’t all agree on the grey area in training methods – are bits abusive? Is flooding abusive? Is owning a horse at al abusive?

Keyboard warriors take on their righteous battle in the comment section of videos and articles regularly, but I think it’s important to look at the why and the effects of such things.

If we’re going to call something out, I think it’s important to take into account:

-do I understand this topic as much as or more than the person I’m bringing into question?
-will my opinion benefit people and horses?
-do I just want to feel righteous, superior, better or do I truly want to help?
-is this the appropriate platform, or would a direct message discussion be more effective?
-is my language creating a defensive reaction? As any survivor of 2020 knows, divisive language tends to put people more staunchly on their own camp, rather than to think differently.

On the receiving end of criticism, when is it best to respond with an explanation, take part in a debate, or just delete or ignore? I think the same questions apply here as well.

The Basics

“Advanced work is only ever as good as the basics.” -Egon Von Neindorff

Before worrying about any kind of frame, a horse should be able to:

-Feel confident moving forward without restriction from the reins
-understand and follow your seat’s ability to drive, slow, half halt and move laterally
-stretch forward and down with an unrestricted neck: in other words, both sides of your horse’s neck are evenly loosened, and both shoulders are free, allowing your horses neck to be in the center of both shoulders.
-move with an unrestricted back, especially in transitions.

Until these things are working, the more advanced movements will require tension in the horse’s body. These basics are what good riders spend their time working on. The advanced postures and movements are a side effect of these good basics, not the work itself.

The Onion Horse

Why is the perfectly safe horse I bought suddenly displaying dangerous behaviors?

It’s a common frustration…someone purchased or came to own a horse who seemed quiet and was getting along well. Then, little behaviors here and there creep in, and soon you have a full blown problem.

Were you mislead? The horse drugged?
Maybe, but maybe not.

There are a lot of factors that go into horse behavior. Horses are not static beings, who, once trained, remain displaying those behaviors forever. A lot can affect behavior, but a horse changing homes goes through some major changes:
-turnout situation and herd structure
-style of handling

Some horses do very well in their previous home, especially if they were in training, because their feed is being matched to their energy output, they are being ridden frequently by a professional or someone who knows the horse well, and the horse is in a consistent program.

When a horse goes to a new home, their entire world changes. Some concern or frustration on the horse’s part is entirely normal and to be expected – and I think it’s only fair to give them an adjustment period. However, with inconsistent (meaning the rules are inconsistent) handling or poor handling, their frustration and confusion can grow into a full blown problem.

Another situation that can arise is the horse was not in fact calm before purchase, but was sort of “shell shocked.” If the training was dominating, involving flooding methods or excess pressure, horses can go easily into learned helplessness or withdraw entirely. This gives the illusion of a quiet, well trained horse.

This horse, once brought into a safe environment where those methods are not used, does not go through the Disney princess spin and – poof – becomes happy and gentle. The process is messy, with many layers of the garbage onion exposed over time, or all at once. They may go from withdrawal to explosion and back, they may become very aggressive or extremely fearful. They can often go through health issues with no explanation or lameness issues that travel through the horse’s body. What you’re seeing is the horse “waking up.”

If you’re in this situation, you’re in for the long haul. There’s no quick fix here- you just need to hang on with compassion for what your poor horse is going through. It can take months but more likely years.

You might need to give them time off. You might need to give them a healthy herd dynamic. You might need to get some professional help. One thing is for sure, this horse is not going back to the “calm, bombproof” horse you thought you had. They are waking up, and the world is a dark and unpredictable place for them.

What can you do? If this isn’t the horse for you, consider pasture retirement, unless you’re lucky enough to find someone skilled enough and compassionate enough to help this horse through their struggles. If this is the horse for you, give it time, be consistent, don’t take any of it personally, be willing to experiment and keep an open mind, and if you’re in over your head, get some good help – from someone experienced with traumatized horses, not the barn busybody who watched a YouTube video once 😉

Feasting Your Eyes on the World

Should I back off, try harder, work more, change course, or just wait longer?

How do you know if you’re doing too much, not enough, just need to relax and wait it out, or do something different entirely?

Those are questions I ask myself every day, and anyone I respect will admit they don’t always know what to do themselves. The last time I thought I knew what horses needed with any certainty, I shortly after found myself hurtling through the air onto the frozen November ground. Laying there watching the palomino colt run back down the hill was a good wake up call, and the long, limping walk from the middle of nowhere back to the barn gave me plenty of time to consider what I didn’t know.

I no longer consider myself a trainer of horses, but an asker of questions. An experimenter. An investigator and changer of my poor habits and developer of my strengths. The truth is I don’t know what to do lots of times, but many experiences of going over horse’s threshold has taught me that a good rule of thumb is to stay under it. How do you get good judgment? By having bad judgement.

How do you know what to do when things aren’t working out? You experiment, you observe, you think, you watch, you wait, you try again. My secret is I don’t really worry about it working out anymore – I know it will, in the horse’s time. All I have to do ask the right questions, come from the right place inside myself, and just give it my best. If it doesn’t happen today, it will happen some other time, or next year.

I’m not so worried about whether it will happen anymore because I’ve seen miracles happen with horses enough times to know they can get over our garbage and thrive despite us.

As Carlos Castaneda said in one of my favorite quotes of his, “ A warrior knows that he is waiting and knows also what he is waiting for, and while he waits he feasts his eyes on the world.”