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.