Grace

While we are on our journeys to become softer, kinder and more educated horse people, it’s very easy to become derailed by judgement and dogmatism. It’s too easy to categorize the world into “us” and “them”- the nice people and the bad people.

There are lots of things I did years back that I truly thought were the best option for a horse at the time. Now I know better, and I don’t do them anymore. It’s not fair to judge me in the past by me in the present standards.

Don’t forget when you’re looking at someone’s belief system and ways of working with horses, you’re looking at a snippet of their lives. You can’t see where they came from, and you don’t know how they will change. Try to go easy on the folks out there that you think are dead wrong – you never know what they can do. I’ve seen some miracles. Shoot, I’m a miracle myself, as far as changing bad habits and wrong ideas goes.

And as anything worth doing, if you’re still doing it the way you did last year, you’re probably not growing. So give people some grace, yourself included.

Horse Fears, Human Fears

How do you separate the horses’ fears from yours? And how do you know if they’re actually afraid, or just conditioned to escape?

My gelding was extremely unconfident about going out on the trail, and especially through water. But when I turned him out with the other horses, he had no problem scrambling through the woods and wading through chest deep water. The problem wasn’t the water, it was lack of trust in human direction (can’t say I blame him).

So over time, he became conditioned to resist when directed at something novel- and add to that resistance the human need to be right and to make the horse do something, you have a horse who doesn’t stick around to find out what we want, and gets right to work getting bunched up mentally and physically. Is he afraid of water? No, he’s afraid of the human not setting things up for him to understand. If I gave him enough time to get through that water, he’d be splashing in it in no time- but if I start insisting, he might rear or turn and run.

Now add a person’s fear of something, and transmitted tension, gripping legs, imbalanced seats and pulling hands out of self defense and you have a real problem. When something potentially threatening comes up and the rider spends more time defending themselves against their horses reaction than directing and guiding the horse, you have a horse with zero confidence in the person or the novel situation- creek crossing, dogs barking, trailer loading, whatever it is.

One of the big reasons horses can do well in training away from their owners is they can get away from the fears of the owner and into an environment where they can explore, get curious, and expand their comfort zones – that is, assuming the trainer is good at such things. The hard part is putting the horse and rider back together – a horse who maybe developed confidence going through creeks and what have you can quickly get Unconfident again with a clutching, gasping, fearful owner.

Horse Fears, Human Fears

How do you separate the horses’ fears from yours? And how do you know if they’re actually afraid, or just conditioned to escape?

My gelding was extremely unconfident about going out on the trail, and especially through water. But when I turned him out with the other horses, he had no problem scrambling through the woods and wading through chest deep water. The problem wasn’t the water, it was lack of trust in human direction (can’t say I blame him).

So over time, he became conditioned to resist when directed at something novel- and add to that resistance the human need to be right and to make the horse do something, you have a horse who doesn’t stick around to find out what we want, and gets right to work getting bunched up mentally and physically. Is he afraid of water? No, he’s afraid of the human not setting things up for him to understand. If I gave him enough time to get through that water, he’d be splashing in it in no time- but if I start insisting, he might rear or turn and run.

Now add a person’s fear of something, and transmitted tension, gripping legs, imbalanced seats and pulling hands out of self defense and you have a real problem. When something potentially threatening comes up and the rider spends more time defending themselves against their horses reaction than directing and guiding the horse, you have a horse with zero confidence in the person or the novel situation- creek crossing, dogs barking, trailer loading, whatever it is.

One of the big reasons horses can do well in training away from their owners is they can get away from the fears of the owner and into an environment where they can explore, get curious, and expand their comfort zones – that is, assuming the trainer is good at such things. The hard part is putting the horse and rider back together – a horse who maybe developed confidence going through creeks and what have you can quickly get Unconfident again with a clutching, gasping, fearful owner.

Horse Fears, Human Fears

How do you separate the horses’ fears from yours? And how do you know if they’re actually afraid, or just conditioned to escape?

My gelding was extremely unconfident about going out on the trail, and especially through water. But when I turned him out with the other horses, he had no problem scrambling through the woods and wading through chest deep water. The problem wasn’t the water, it was lack of trust in human direction (can’t say I blame him).

So over time, he became conditioned to resist when directed at something novel- and add to that resistance the human need to be right and to make the horse do something, you have a horse who doesn’t stick around to find out what we want, and gets right to work getting bunched up mentally and physically. Is he afraid of water? No, he’s afraid of the human not setting things up for him to understand. If I gave him enough time to get through that water, he’d be splashing in it in no time- but if I start insisting, he might rear or turn and run.

Now add a person’s fear of something, and transmitted tension, gripping legs, imbalanced seats and pulling hands out of self defense and you have a real problem. When something potentially threatening comes up and the rider spends more time defending themselves against their horses reaction than directing and guiding the horse, you have a horse with zero confidence in the person or the novel situation- creek crossing, dogs barking, trailer loading, whatever it is.

One of the big reasons horses can do well in training away from their owners is they can get away from the fears of the owner and into an environment where they can explore, get curious, and expand their comfort zones – that is, assuming the trainer is good at such things. The hard part is putting the horse and rider back together – a horse who maybe developed confidence going through creeks and what have you can quickly get Unconfident again with a clutching, gasping, fearful owner.

Clinics

Some thoughts on lessons and clinics:

-if your horse is nervous or hot, that is fine. You’re not performing, and I’d rather you bring me what you have to work with and have me help you get them relaxed and balanced.

-lunging your horse to expend energy before a lesson wastes precious energy you’re gonna need in the lesson, and goes against the purpose of the lesson. We’re working on relaxation and balance: lunging or round penning in circles to get the ya-ya’s out does the opposite of this, putting you at a poor starting place. Again, bring what you have and we’ll get there together.

-if all you did was walk, there was a reason. We’re working with where you and the horse can stay relaxed and balanced. If the basics in the walk are not solid, how can we trot and canter without losing balance and relaxation?

-if all you did was walk, don’t downplay the amount of physical effort your horse had to put in. Your horses is using deep postural muscles to stabilize their body in a way they aren’t used to. They will be tired. I’ve had top level endurance horses exhausted after 20 minutes of walking in good form- it’s not what they’re used to doing, and different muscles and ways of going are being used.

-if all you did was walk in the lesson, at the end of the lesson getting a trot and canter in out of balance and with tension is like eating Oreos after brushing your teeth. I left you and your horse where you were for a reason: because your horse was in a good frame of mind and a good balance. Ending on that note was intentional.

-you won’t walk forever. You’re there because either a) it’s a great place to give the rider enough time to focus, learn to follow the motion of the horse and practice a new skill
B ) the horses’ back is tense and needs to open
C) the rider can’t go into the faster gaits without pulling, getting tight, or otherwise reversing the balance and relaxation we’ve worked on at the walk.

There is no shame in any of these. We start with where you are and go from there. I don’t care if you’re a Grand Prix rider or a backyard trail rider. I don’t care how much your horse cost. If we’re working together, I believe in you, and you will be treated with the same amount of respect
but if the basics aren’t right, they aren’t right, and we don’t rush past basics.

Confidence to Learn

How does your horse react when presented with something they don’t understand or are worried about? Surprisingly, their reaction often says more about their habits and understanding than the thing itself.

Assuming you present things fairly, and give plenty of time to explore and get curious, their reaction is a giveaway for their habits. Is their first reaction to pull back, crowd, bolt, avoid, leave, not think? Or do they say hey, I don’t know what to do here – what is this?

You couldn’t possibly expose your horse to everything you want them to be able to deal with. But if you teach them to think, explore, get curious, and to know they have all the time they need to figure it out, you can create a truly confident horse- one who can handle new things they’ve never seen before.

Advice to The Up and Coming Women

This morning I had the privilege of being interviewed by Rose Cushing for a podcast. She asked me what advice I had for up and coming horsewomen.

I gave her my answer, but once the interview was over, I really got to thinking.

My advice to young women is to be yourself. To be an example of what you want the horse world to be, not to fit into what it accepts. To make this change, you have to be brave enough to be vulnerable, to be soft, to be honest. Everyone advises hard work, and it’s true, you shouldn’t be afraid of hard work. But you have to have the gumption to say no, to walk away from places and people who take advantage or do harm. That is far harder than putting your head down and working more.

The truth is that opportunities don’t always come to people who work hard and are respectful- sometimes you get buried under a mountain of more work, and less respect. So work hard, but protect yourself. Say no, take a day off, take care of your body.

Don’t compete with others – lift them up. Encourage your peers, even if and especially if you think they’re on the wrong path. You never know what an outstretched hand can do for someone. There is plenty of success available for everyone. Don’t elbow your peers out of the way.

Young women, you don’t have to be as good as the men in our field. You have to be the best you- use your strengths to interact with horses in the most authentic, real way that you can. You will always fail at trying to be as tough, as charismatic, as showboating, or as strong as the men on a pedestal are- and you don’t want to be brash, rude, and cold like many of the women who have made it to higher positions.

Be yourself – it will take guts, but there’s never been a better time to do it. The horse world is changing for the better. There is a place for you, you are needed, you are wanted.

Empathy

The most important thing you can give a horse with a history of abuse, neglect, or any horse for that matter, is not sympathy or affection, but leadership, empathy, and good care for his physical and mental being.

Empathy is much different than sympathy. Sympathy is simply feeling sorry for him, which is not constructive. Empathy is understanding how he feels and where he is coming from in the moment. It gives the rider/handler an idea of where the horse is and how to proceed from there.

Vulnerability

We are all sick of over compensating, arrogant know it all trainers. We’re sick of them pretending to have all the answers, of their flippant attitude and destruction of human and horse self esteem.

But, do we punish vulnerability? When a trainer or professional says I don’t know, is our instinct to recoil, lose respect, drop them? I notice a very common trend here – people gravitate toward those who have an air of authority, superiority and an edge of narcissism- but we resent them for their behavior. However, when we are near a humble but confident person, we often disregard them completely. We act as if they don’t know enough, can’t help us, and move on.

In writing about ups and downs, mistakes which are not often shared by professionals, and open and vulnerable messages, the comment section is filled with advice giving, which is perceived as dismissive, or flippant comments such as “I’ve never had that problem,” or “that’s why I always x,y,z.” One comment I received once read that trainers who admitted to being wrong should return all their former clients money.

So do we really want humility, vulnerability, honesty and openness from our trainers? Or do we subconsciously punish it, because it’s new, weird, and it makes us uncomfortable?

The Onus is On Us

“My horse knows I mean well”
“I know my hands are sloppy but she puts up with me”
“I’m kind of scatterbrained but they tolerate me!”
“He knows a slap on the neck means praise so he puts up with it”

Words matter. They change how we behave and think. These types of phrases relieve us of the burden of personal growth and put the onus on the horse to tolerate our faults.

Some horses are tolerant, and these are essential to our learning. They are worth their weight in gold. But don’t let their tolerance allow you to stay comfortable in your growth – keep aspiring to get better, and treat every horse as if they’re the most sensitive horse in the world.

Just because they tolerate it doesn’t mean it’s right, and, it’s on us to continually evolve and keep offering a better version of ourselves to our horses.