You know those days at the barn where your horse is happy to see you, and you are happy to see your horse. You have a great ride, and as you head back to put your horse away a big rainbow appears in the sky and birds fly up and land on your shoulder and sing you a beautiful bird song. Oh wait, that’s starting to sound a little like a Disney cartoon… but you know what I’m talking about. Why don’t we have that all the time?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming our horses for a bad ride, but is this really fair? Let’s pick up the boss analogy again. A good boss only gives their employee tasks that they are capable of completing, gives the support the employee needs to finish the task, and acknowledges the accomplishment when the job is completed. How often are we bad bosses when we ride? Do we set our horses up for success, support them, and reward when they get it? Or do we let our expectations or memories from a previous ride clutter our mind and give our horse mixed signals? It’s easy to do, and the habit is hard to break. “He always spooks there” “You can’t do that to him from his off side” “He doesn’t do XXX” How many times have you said something like this about your horse? How much of this behavior is human driven rather than horse driven?
When we ride our horses, a cluttered mind can really affect their performance. Horses, unlike humans, operate in the moment. They don’t have a master game plan or set of goals when you pull them out of their paddock. One minute they were eating or sniffing poo or whathaveyou and, the next, you came to catch them for a ride. We humans are great at making plans and goals, but where we fall short is helping the horse to clearly understand and accomplish them. We can inadvertently muddle our signals with tension in our body or mind. Our horses are so incredibly sensitive they can pick up on whatever physical or mental baggage we brought to the barn.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that if we just do it right then our horses will magically turn into the most obedient, cooperative critter in the world. They are still big prey animals with a mind and personality of their own. Certain individuals will always be more cooperative and pliable than others. Sometimes they ignore our wonderful leadership, but if we can stay consistent, clear, and patient they will usually come around to our way of thinking… eventually.
I find, when I’m not getting the response I want from the horse, it helps to stop and take a little break; sometimes I let the horse stand and air up or walk on a loose rein. I don’t come back to the exercise until we have both calmed down, and I have figured out a simpler step to ask the horse for. By then, we are usually on the same page and ready to get back to work.
Lately, I’ve been searching out times to ride when the arena is empty. I leave the radio off, put my phone on the rail, and really focus on the ride at hand. I want to be able to read my horse and give him the right workout for where he is at that day. It’s a struggle. It’s so easy to become distracted or frustrated, but the results speak for themselves. I’ve had some of the best rides ever in my life over the last couple of months. It’s exciting and makes my brain hurt at the same time.