This is magical, okay?

Do you remember being a very small child and wishing to ride a horse? I do. I was not part of a horsey family growing up. The closest thing I could get to were my grandpa’s dogs, which I naturally tried to ride. They were greyhounds - fast and slippery, and not a good choice for a first “horse.” I rode the futon, which was a more stable mount. I rode my sister around the house, which was perhaps the most unpredictable of the three. Finally, my parents sent me to riding camp, and I was a goner.

Now, I get to ride all kinds of horses and do fun things I never dreamed I would do. That in itself is magical, but let’s dig deeper than that. We sit on prey animals who breathe calmly and trust deeply. To feel the muscles rippling underneath our legs, to feel the communication running through the reins, to feel the soft puff of their breath, to see their fuzzy faces reaching back for a treat, to go galloping through an open field, to sashay across a diagonal in halfpass, to fly over an oxer, to splash through water, to trot down a dirt road, to feel the silly happiness of a fun spook, to feel the power of collection, to feel the drama of extension, to feel the quiet of a walk home --

This is magic. There is no other way to say it. It is a privilege to sit on their backs, and most of these other things are icing on that magical cake. It is an amazing, privileged, awe-inspiring thing we get to do.

So, in this time of gratitude, let’s give thanks for the magic we experience day in and day out.

The unemotional rider

One of the best parts about a horse is the relationship we develop with them. We spend years developing a shared language, building trust, finding joy together. They are a source of acceptance, kindness, and redemption. They greet us with a soft nicker and nuzzle for cookies in our pockets. Most certainly, our relationship is one of the most important reasons why we do this at all.

And then your horse goes and does something silly, like get behind your leg or forget how to bend right or spend the entire ride saying OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT WEIRD THING IN THE CORNER IT WILL KILL US FOR SURE HAAAALP!!! Let’s face it, what horse doesn’t have less-than-stellar rides, or bad moments, or rides that are so terrible you question whether they’ve ever had training at all or whether you’ve actually learned anything in all those lessons? Mechanical horses - that’s who. But those suckers are expensive and probably don’t nicker to you, so here we are with the real deal. And the real deal can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.

And in these moments, it’s our love for them that does us in; it usually does us a disservice rather than being helpful. Our love and our relationship with the horse bring up feelings and actions, like:

  • Why does she hate me? She must be not bending/running off/twisted like a pretzel because she’s trying to get my goat.

  • Oh, poor baby! You’re right, even though you’re 12 years old, staying in front of the leg is too hard. Let’s just chill out.

  • *crying* I must be doing everything all wrong!

When your horse (or you) has a bad moment, bad ride, or moment of misbehavior and you have a deep love connection (in a not-creepy way), it’s very easy to take things personally. That usually results in you getting mad, sad, or overly sympathetic, none of which are helpful for the horse. (I am as guilty of this as anyone. Someone pointed out to me the other day that my go-to response when a horse stops at a jump is to pat them. So yeah, I feel the pain.)

But how do you do it? How do you keep and maintain the beautiful relationship you have with your horse - and train her effectively?

Like so many things in life, this requires you to hold two fundamentally opposed concepts in your mind at the same time, and not go bonkers in the process. You have to love your horse, and interact with her in an almost wholly unemotional way in many situations. You can bring patience, a sense of humor, and empathy with you in the saddle, but not much else.

In this way, when something goes wrong, it’s not a reflection of your relationship. It’s not personal and it’s not cause for alarm. It’s just a thing that happens. It doesn’t mean that you’re bad or that she’s bad.

Maybe she’s sore. Maybe she’s tired. Maybe she’s just having a case of the “blahs.” Maybe the weather changed, maybe her hormones changed, maybe the breeze blew the wrong way. Maybe you woke her up from a nap. Maybe she needs a nap. Maybe YOU need a nap.

Regardless, stuff happens. Now, I am in no way saying that you should ignore patterns of negative behavior (which could be indicative of health issues or other training problems). Nor am I saying that you’re doing everything perfectly and can discount your own problems. Instead, I’m saying that you will be a more productive trainer and have a better working relationship with your horse if you can let negative situations or interactions roll off rather than interpreting them through the lens of your relationship.

I’m not saying this is easy. I ride some horses and feel like we’re an old married couple, for better or worse. But with each horse I start, I feel like I do a little better job at maintaining those boundaries.

Keeping those clear boundaries lets me - helps me - be a better rider. I can be clear about my expectations without being unduly sympathetic to the horse. When the horse gets behind my leg, I can apply a consequence without feeling guilty that I’m being too tough or attributing emotion that doesn’t exist to the situation. When the horse misbehaves, it’s not a reflection on our relationship; it’s just something that happens because we’re all animals and this riding thing is hard. It’s kind of like parenting a toddler (from what I’ve seen, at least) - sometimes everything falls apart for no apparent reason and no real meaning. There is no judgment or deeper meaning. It’s just how life works.

I frame it in my mind as a way of being kind to the horse. By staying unemotional and training with clarity, I can help the horse get to the right answer as quickly as possible. I can reward sooner and more often. I can show the horse my love by being a fair, clear, and consistent trainer. And of course, lots of grooming and snuggles and carrots along the way.

Training tidbits - impossible vs. hard

Have you ever heard your horse tell you that something is impossible? You're working on a new move, adding some collection, asking for a bit more/crisper/sharper and your horse clearly says, "This is so impossible and no horse has ever done this and there's no way I could ever do this so let's just stop, okay?"

What if I told you that most of the time when we hear horses say that something is impossible, they are actually telling us that something is hard? They say hard, and we hear impossible, and then we give up and go onto something else.

When I hear the horse making some rumblings about something edging towards impossible, I ask myself these questions:

  • do they understand what I'm asking given their level of training and knowledge? E.g. if I'm asking the horse to do a downward transition, is that a task they're familiar with?

  • are they fit and strong enough to do what I'm asking? E.g. if I'm asking the horse to hold a collected canter for several minutes and they're only just learning the collected canter, three minutes might be too long to stay in the gait initially.

  • am I asking correctly and clearly? E.g. am I using the correct aids, or has something gone awry with my position?

If the answers to those questions is "yes", then all systems go. These questions help us figure out if our expectations are reasonable. For example, if a horse is slow to move off my leg, and they're ten years old and have been trained to move forward off my leg since they were four and I am asking correctly and they are not too tired to do it - then they sure as heck better move off my leg!

I can acknowledge that something is hard, but ask for the horse to try anyways. This is productive, athletically-induced discomfort, the same discomfort I feel when I am doing squats or holding a plank or something else that's hard. It may also be mental discomfort, like when I'm trying to wrap my brain around a new skill. Growth and learning is uncomfortable, but doable, and often even fun!

It is hard work to use one's body well. It is usually easier to do something else. It is easier for me to sit on the couch than go for a bike ride, but that doesn't mean that a bike ride is impossible. Consider your expectations and whether they are reasonable given the information you have. And then - go do that hard thing! In little, manageable (and likely imperfect!) chunks. Your horse will never magically become more collected/more through/more awesome without some input and guidance from you. We have to build that up, one piece at a time, being bold through our mistakes, messiness, and the difficulty of it all. When you were a wee one and learning to walk, it was really hard and messy and you made mistakes all the time, but more than likely you learned how to do it eventually.

Hard is not impossible; it's just hard.

The mediocre rides

I’m sure all of us have had great rides. The ones that leave you beaming for days, just thinking about the quality of a movement, the power of a jump, or the throughness of the connection. Those rides where you feel competent and accomplished and your horse feels just awesome. Few things in life feel as good as those wonderful rides, I think. They keep us coming back and keep us going through the early mornings, the frozen hands, the sweat-drenched breeches, the dirt, the dust, and the disappointment.

And I know we’ve all had the terrible rides. You know, those times when nothing goes right. There is no in front of the leg or on the aids or bend. You’re somehow both wobbly and stiff at the same time, and the bits that are supposed to bounce stay tight while everything else flops like jello in an earthquake. In those rides, it can feel like your horse has forgotten everything you’ve ever thought they’ve known - and maybe you’ve forgotten it all, too. Surviving those rides and finding a teeny shred of positivity is often all you can do. Trail ride, anyone?

Those are the extremes. They’re easy enough to recognize and categorize. Although the bad rides are awful (and can make you question any competency you ever thought you had - or perhaps just your sanity), to me, the most challenging rides are often the mediocre ones. Those rides where everything is okay, but not great. That medium you thought you were rocking? Meh. The expression you’ve developed in the canter? So-so. The connection that you thought was solid as a rock, those hind legs that stepped right up to your hands? A little too wiggly and messy. The mediocre rides, for me, are the hardest to get through.

When the ride is just miserable, you can categorize it, learn from it, shelve it, and move on. But the rides that are just okay are more confusing yet. Is something not quite right? Is your horse a little sore? Something wrong with the equipment? Footing? Your seat? Were those brilliant movements you’ve been getting all a farce? Do you even know what you’re doing at all? Is this all there is? You see, these rides make you question everything you thought you knew. The aids that had been working just fine now are questionable. The movements you’d been getting beautifully are now just average, and you can’t necessarily pinpoint what (if anything) is different. Should you ask for more? Should you back off and ask for less? What do you do? When things are terrible, at least you have some idea of what to do - usually because it’s so darn obvious (e.g. the horse is running around flashing you her blaze at six million miles per hour). When things are just average, everything is so much murkier.

I don’t know what I’m doing. (Isn’t this what you wanted to hear? Comforting, no?) I am trying and I am learning, but I am the last person to say that I know all the things there are to know, or even a good chunk of the things there are to know. But - I try to collect things that are useful and build on those. Here are some of the more useful things that flicker through my brain during those ho-hum rides:

  • Just like us, horses have days. You know, those days where you’re tired for no real reason, or just don’t have lots of energy, or are just a touch sore. Sometimes there’s a clear reason, sometimes not. It’s just part of being an animal, from what I can tell.

  • Um, work is hard. There is a reason we all don’t work for free - because it don’t make no sense! There has to be some incentive to work. If we could all go to work and earn money, or stay home watching Netflix and earn money...well, you understand the end of this analogy. Did your horse wake up today and think, “Today is the day, I can feel it! I am going to nail every single change and float in my lateral work! Mom will be thrilled!” No. Never. That is just not a thing. Your horse wants a snack and a nap in the sun and maybe some scratches with a good mud bath in there somewhere, and probably a pasture so he can work on his bucking. Work is not on the agenda. We are the reason he works. Do not be surprised that this is hard and that he tells you it’s hard sometimes. We can be fair and kind and all of those good things, but at the end of the day, it is easier (and evolutionarily speaking, smarter) not to work. We as riders have to create the incentive to work through clear communication and reward.

  • Sometimes, work is just boring! So go outside. Gallop (or walk!) through a field. Hop over some jumps. Set up some cavaletti. It is work for your horse, so make it a bit fun if you can!

More than anything, please remember that more often than not, the mediocre (and awful) rides are okay. That is part of the process. Learning is hard and slow. I spent about 27 years of my life in some kind of school, and I am still not sure what I know. There will be good days and bad days, and it all evens out in the wash. Take it with a grain of salt, get good help, and keep plugging along. Riding (at least dressage and eventing) is a test of persistence. Having a poor or mediocre ride does not mean that everything has gone off the rails. It’s just a thing that happens. When most of your rides are poor or mediocre, there are other paths to travel (vet, chiropractor/acupuncture/massage, saddle fit, footing, different instruction, different horse, and so on). But the mediocre rides that come in between the awesome ones? Par for the course. It’s okay. You are okay. This is not a crisis. I repeat, this is not a crisis.

The Should Monster

The horse should be there. She should be doing this. This should be easy.

Sound familiar? I know all about shoulds. I have definitely ended more than one ride in tears, frustrated with myself for what I should be doing or the progress that should already be evident. Sometimes, it feels like the shoulds are lurking around every corner. And thank you, social media, for putting those shoulds right out in the open with pictures and videos and posts of everyone’s beautiful and seemingly effortless riding. It can be all too easy to watch someone else and think, I should be able to do that, but I can’t.

Where are the shoulds in your life with horses? And what are they telling you? For me, the shoulds are often about comparing my riding journey with someone else’s. Sometimes, those comparisons are helpful. If I’m feeling jealous of someone else’s progress, maybe I need to change my training program or do something differently.

Sometimes, those shoulds are really instructive, like when Bella was uncharacteristically stopping at simple cross country fences at a show. Near tears, I told my coach, “She should do this! She understands her job! Something is wrong!” And after falling off in front of the technical delegate at the first jump while simultaneously pulling Bella’s bridle off over her ears, we all knew that indeed, something is wrong. Bella told us that she could no longer be asked to jump barefoot on wet ground, and once she had shoes and studs, she felt much more secure in herself and her jumping. The should - the thought of what Bella typically does - told us that something wasn’t right and needed to be changed.

More often, though, those shoulds are demoralizing. We have a thought planted by Facebook or some article about what should be going on with our horse and our riding, and our minds take that as a sign that we are defeated. You should be able to do this already. You have heard that feedback a million times - you should be better already. You should...ride more. Ride better. Spend more money on equipment. Go to more shows. Get a better horse. Know better. Do better. You should, you should, you should!

With horses, there are often lots of shoulds. It’s pretty easy to imagine where you think you should be, or where you’d like to be, and compare that to where you actually are. Yet when it comes to horses, the shoulds go more or less out the window. Horses are not on any kind of schedule. They have not read the books. They are just here with us, typically trying to do a good job. There’s also the fact that indeed, we as riders are animals too, with physical bodies that sometimes don’t behave themselves and emotions that sometimes zigzag around and thoughts that can be a little hard to wrangle in all the time. There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to horses and humans, and not a lot of room for the shoulds.

Here are some shoulds to keep: You should not abuse your horse. You should be kind, patient, and gentle with yourself and your horse. As for the rest of them? Ask yourself this: are those shoulds serving you? Are they coming from within you and what brings you joy, or someone you want to put your trust in? Are they actually helping you to feel better and do better? If they are, great! But most of them are worthless. If thoughts about the "should life" are not serving you and your goals, be rid of them.

(HA! So easy to say. This may be an impossible task. But like most impossible tasks, it’s still worth doing.)

There will always be more you can do and room to improve. Very few of us reach the peak of any sport, and even if we do, we are likely not without space to do better. That’s part of the fun of horses, I think. There is no end to what you can work on and do. At the same time, it’s very easy to compare yourself to others or some external standard and use those comparisons to beat yourself up. There is a fine line between making positive, forward, meaningful progress and self-abuse. That is not to say that learning and growth happen without pressure; to the contrary, we need pressure to do these things. But positive, appropriate pressure is far different than shaming yourself.

And if you are dictating a timeline or way of moving through life that is unrealistic or just not working for you right now, I ask again - why? Is it helpful for you? Is it fun? Is it helping to make your life more meaningful and rich and full? What would be different if your horse learned his changes at six instead of seven or twelve or twenty? Would your life be fulfilled if you could make it around a 3'6" course? Win a combined driving event? Canter down the trail? Even if it is a goal you want to achieve, is berating yourself or your horse the best way to get there? Does that put you in a state of growth and learning? If you are like most human beings I know, absolutely not! Find the balance between constructive growth and appreciating where you’ve been. Find those people - coaches, trainers, friends - who will be your cheerleaders and support you on your journey. Own your own journey and celebrate that it doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s. Find the joy, whatever that means for you.

So let’s add one more should: This should be fun. After all, we are talking about riding horses and not hitting ourselves with a hammer!

 

There is never enough time to ride horses

There is never enough time to ride horses.

I mean that in a literal way, as in I need more hours in the day.

I also mean that in the sense that there will always be more important/other/more enjoyable things to do. There are many reasons not to ride, such as:

Whenever it’s:

  • Raining

  • Windy

  • Cold

  • Dry

  • Muddy

  • Hot

  • Snowing

Whenever I:

  • Just ate

  • Haven’t eaten

  • Am tired

  • Am cold

  • Am hot

  • Am just feeling generally useless

  • Am just not feeling into it

  • Am worried I’m not going to be any good

Whenever the horse:

  • Just worked

  • Hasn’t been worked

  • Is napping

  • Is running

  • Is muddy

  • Is hairy

  • Is wet

  • Is too far away across the pasture

There is an endless combination of excuses. And sometimes, the thing that keeps us from riding is the paralyzing fear of failure, the worry that we will do poorly or not live up to expectations. Ironically, perfectionism makes us procrastinate and not do things. There are always people who tell me to take it easy. But here’s the thing - I am naturally very lazy. I know this from a scientific standpoint. Let me explain.

Whenever I stand next to something, I lean on it. Not just when I’m chatting for an hour in a doorway. No, this is when I’m standing in the bathroom for two minutes to brush my teeth. I notice that I can’t even find the willpower to keep myself upright through my own physical volition. No, I have to drape myself across the counter like a damned snake. I am lazy.

I also have at least some self-awareness of my laziness, which is a small saving grace. This means I have to constantly combat my own wicked laziness, which means that most of the time, I can’t give any weight to the aforementioned excuses.

There will always be a reason not to ride. There will always be other, more important things to do. And in the grand scheme of things? Riding a horse isn’t that important.

And there are certainly times when riding a horse really shouldn’t top the priority list. I know there will be plenty of times in my future when I just can’t go ride. I will have to take care of a pet, or a sick parent, or an ill partner. My body might give out. My job might not allow it. My finances might not stand for it. There will be times when I simply can’t ride.

But most of the time, I can. And if I want to get better, if I want it to be easier, if I want to make progress, I have to. Yes, by all means, I try to keep it fun and light and enjoyable. But I have to get my butt in the saddle to make any of it happen.

Sometimes, it’s just a slog. There’s no getting around it. Maybe there are better riders than me, who are more optimistic and bubbly and enthusiastic and full of energy and just all around better, who don’t have those days. Maybe I’m in the minority here.

But for those of you who sometimes feel defeated and flat and just plain tired, I hear you. This is hard. We all get tired. The excuses will always be there.

But when they’re not deafening - just do it anyways. The only path to progress is through the mess of excuses.