We’ve all had that day when we went to the barn with a plan. Today you would tackle that jumping grid. This would be the day you mastered a flying change. Or, it is a beautiful day for a nice long ride to the nearby reservoir! We are humans, and our brains love to have goals and plans – and those all sound like great plans! But, you climb in the saddle and everything is just ‘wrong’. Maybe you are able to follow through with your plan, but it’s a long painful process. Or maybe you struggle with your horse and finally just give up. Whatever the reason, we’ve all had those days when we came to the barn in a good mood, looking forward to that great ride we planned in our minds, only to end up with a struggle and leave the barn feeling like our day just didn’t turn out the way it should have.
The trouble is that in our sport we are dealing with another being who does not share our brain, our language, nor our goals. When you arrive at the barn, you have no idea what has gone on in your horse’s day. What is their mental and physical state? They can’t tell you, so you have to be a very keen observer. Maybe something very disturbing happened at the barn that left your horse feeling hyper-vigilant. I once walked in to find all of the horses on edge. It was a quiet morning – not the usual mechanical racket we too often are treated to – so I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. All attention seemed to be out back, so I ventured out to see what I could discover – only to flush a coyote from a shrub just behind the barn! It was quite a while before the inhabitants were able to settle down after that unexpected visitor.
The difference between the scenarios I opened with, and those related to our horses, is that we are completely in control of how that riding session ends. We, as the ‘adult’ in the relationship, can be mindful of our horse’s physical and mental state. As much as we might have looked forward to our plan, we can alter it. Contrary to some popular opinion, if you only ride to the road, and turn back because your horse is beginning to act nervous, your horse did not ‘win’. You can stop, enjoy the view, or the songs of the birds. If there is grass nearby, let your horse have a bite. If your horse is really nervous, and it is safe to do so, dismount and stand and stroke his neck. Find some way to relax together, then turn around and head back. If you have time that day, ride back and forth a couple of times, until it feels more relaxed, and maybe you go a stride or two further than the last time – but don’t push it!
The trick is to identify the moment when things start to get just a little bit tense or difficult. Do not blast through those moments! Take heed of those moments, try to understand them, and find a way to improve how your horse is feeling. This may mean taking a step back to something they just did successfully. In the case of that jumping grid, go back to ground poles, with maybe just one fence at the end if your horse is comfortable with that. Or, if you’ve been doing completely new work, go back to something unrelated that you know your horse can do easily and successfully.
The point is that riding is not about your plans and goals. If that is how you approach it, may I interest you in a different sport? Tennis, perhaps? Successful riding – the sort that builds horsemen, not the sort that wins ribbons – is first and foremost about a relationship. You can have a bad day with your friend or partner, later apologize and explain what was wrong, and (depending upon the state of the relationship overall) all will be forgiven. You cannot apologize to a horse. A mistake can happen quickly, but take many days, weeks, months, or even years to undo. Trust is built in hundreds or thousands of little, pleasant, safe interactions – but you can break it badly in one bad day.
The other struggle for our human brain is to not take any challenges with our horse personally. Your horse is not out to ruin your day or your plans. She is not anticipating that ride to the reservoir and thinking that it’s too much work. But, she might have seen a growling dog behind that bush at the head of the driveway, from her pasture that morning. Of course, you have no way of knowing that – but give her the benefit of the doubt that something very real to her is at issue. Stop focusing on that lovely ride, and focus on her distress and how you can build that cache of trust by helping her relieve it.
Or maybe you are the problem to begin with. Remember that guy who cut you off in traffic? Have you carried that to the barn with you? Horses can read your body language, facial expressions, as well as smelling the adrenaline and other chemicals coming out in your sweat. Before you even approach your horse, make sure you are calm, focused, in the moment, and ready to engage in a positive mood. This will ensure that what you see in your horse’s aspect is a reflection of her day, and not a reflection of yours. Begin to take your cues from her as to what the day may hold for the two of you. Turn it into a dialog, not a set of orders.
For some this may all sound very obvious and simple – yet, what we cognitively understand and how we actually behave can be quite a large divide. It takes practice to be observant. It takes humility to set aside your own plans in favor of attending to your horse’s needs. It takes self-awareness to realize that you are carrying the day’s baggage to the barn, and to be able to leave it in the car.
I mentioned above that all of this is part of how you build and keep the trust of your horse; but there is another aspect of trust in play. You have to trust your horse. By this I mean that you have to trust that your horse’s mood today is just today’s mood. Your horse is not plotting, trying to get out of work, or trying to derail your future plans. Your horse is just being your horse, on that specific day. Abandoning your plans to honor his mental or physical state for that ride will not derail your ability to advance. In fact, not getting into an argument over something you insist must be done might actually speed your time to advance over the long term. I had the privilege to learn this lesson from my late great mare Dani.
I was riding Dani one day when she was clearly not engaged in the activity. At that time, I was very used to riding horses whose breeding and background allowed you to push with few dramatic consequences. It might not result in a good ride, but I’d get done what I set out to do. On this day, Dani was having none of that human agenda pushing. She began to ratchet up her communication that she was not happy, ending in both of us barely missing flipping over backwards. In that frightening moment I had this epiphany that there had to be a better way. I asked for something I knew we did well, and ended our session there. I then went home and put my human brain to the task of analyzing the situation and coming up with a new approach.
From that day forward, I never pushed past her moments of irritation. Instead, I would typically find something we could do successfully, then stop for the day. I learned to really read her moods, and some days I would settle for some quiet walk work. I also learned to be a truly thinking rider. If something began to get a “No” response, I would find a ‘backdoor’ to get to the same thing. While our contemporaries sped past us in the lower level work, by the time we developed our basic work, we sped past them into the high school movements. More importantly, we developed a trusting relationship that resulted in her standing stock still on a soft contact (though she was shaking) as two loose horses bolted through the ring in which we were competing, one within arm’s reach. We picked up our test where we left off and ended up earning the high score of the day. That is what comes when a horse truly trusts that you won’t let them come to any harm.
It is in your power to make every day with your horse a good day. It is not about the horse that you take out of the field or stall on a given day. Rather it is about you setting aside your goal-driven easily distracted human brain to live in the moment, where your horse always lives, and assess how you can make this day a building block in your relationship. Perhaps, on this day, it just might mean leaving the equipment in the tackroom and taking a stroll to that nice grassy patch behind the barn. This small investment will pay you huge dividends in the future.