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!