Goals are often touted as the way to make progress – whether in a sport, career, or just in life. Setting goals is supposed to motivate us by having that point we work toward. Making those goals time driven is supposed to keep us accountable to them. Or so the various types of motivational speakers will tell you. I have my own opinions about how well this actually works for most people – but that’s not the point here. Even if you believe in setting goals, I have some bad news – your horse doesn’t care about goals!
First there is your long term goal. Maybe that’s to compete at a certain level next year. Unless your horse has already reached that level in his training, that goal may take longer than you planned. Of course, there are many out there who set those hard goals – say to show a three year old in a young horse class – but those are almost always achieved at the expense of the horse. No two horses I’ve ever met progress at the same pace in the same areas. I had one who was solid in collected trot long before he could achieve collection at canter; another was able to achieve collection in canter before trot was sustainable. Ben was so talented over fences, at a very young age, that one trainer nearly got me killed by over facing us – proving that even if a horse ‘can’ do something, it doesn’t mean they are really ready for it.
Then there is the agenda for your training session. Today you plan to work on canter transitions, because that’s on your list to improve. But, the north wind is blowing and your horse is a bit jittery. Is that the day to move forward with your goal? Many will say that your horse has to learn to work on windy days, so go for it. That is true – but working on something that is still rough, where you want success and for your horse to focus enough to learn should not be done under adverse conditions. A windy day may not stop your ride, but if it has an adverse effect on your horse then it is best to stick to things that are well known and solid. Save learning for days that are more advantageous. And perfecting canter transitions is about learning. You are asking the horse to reorganize his way of moving to accommodate your weight and the precision you eventually want. That is not just about exercise.
The other time to throw out the agenda is if things are just going badly. Maybe it seemed a good day, but you two are just not connecting. Be willing to recognize those moments and accept that sometimes it’s worth abandoning the plan and finding a way to salvage the session. There is an all to common notion that if you don’t get what you want the horse has won. I can tell you that is bunk! It is not a war and it is not a game. The horse is not trying to pull a fast one. If it isn’t working, then communication has broken down somewhere. Be willing to step back, do something you know will be successful, and take time to mull over what might have been wrong before you try again next time.
That is a common thread you will find throughout my training. It is a lesson that I learned from my mare Dani, and it has served me with every horse since. I have yet to find a situation where abandoning my plan for a day ever resulted in a horse ‘winning’ and being unwilling to ever again do what I was asking. There is an old saying that you begin each ride with the horse you ended with yesterday. Try to end each ride with a happy partner, even if that means tearing up that day’s agenda. You may surprised at how those little ‘losses’ actually result in a big long term win.