I was in my mid-twenties when I started training horses (and assumed I knew more than I actually did). I brought Jack, a young gelding, home. I’d given him a couple of weeks to settle in with my older gelding Caleb before riding him in the arena next to our house.
I caught him, groomed and tacked him up, and saddled him, making sure that the saddle fit. He was on his toes a little bit and moving around, but since I was a newly-hatched trainer, I thought I could “train” that out of him. Once I was riding, I decided it was time to see what his canter was about. I sat up straight, made sure the reins were relaxed and kicked his sides-gently, I thought-with both heels while making a kissing noise as loudly as I could.
He left the ground in a fine imitation of a rocket and then raced around the arena as though he’d eaten high octane fuel for breakfast. It became very clear very quickly that my arena was too small to contain a frightened galloping horse. I was so surprised I forgot to do anything for a few strides before I gathered up the reins and put some pressure on them to slow him down.
I started talking to him and relaxed the reins while trying to move with him at his frantic gallop. I noticed that despite all the flurry of his legs, he wasn’t actually going that fast.
Once we came down to a wide-eyed and hard breathing walk, I thought about what I’d just done. I had cued him for a canter with the same strength of cues that I had been using with my much more relaxed and experienced gelding.
This was my first lesson in how to NOT ride one horse like I’d ridden all horses.
I didn’t want to end our time together on that experience, so after a few rounds of a walk, I took a deep breath, relaxed and brought my calves closer to his sides by millimeters. I was smart enough at that point to not make any sounds as I did this. He leaped into a canter again, but this time he was less frantic and I could ask him to slow down with the reins. We did this a couple more times before stopping for the day.
This memory always conjures up two things for me; laughter because of my bravado and cluelessness, and the potent lesson that stays with me: an assumption is not the same as knowledge.
I made an assumption about Jack that I’d fostered while riding Caleb: horses need very big cues to know what we want. In the textbook definition of the word, I didn’t know I was operating on this assumption, so instead of paying attention to the horse I had under me I let my assumptions take control of the ride.
This is oh so rarely a good idea.
“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” Tom Bodett
Looking back, if I had taken the time to be quieter – by dropping my agenda for a horse I didn’t know, by slowing down while grooming and saddling- I would have seen how nervous he was. I would have seen that perhaps we could work on riding skills another day. I would have felt that he wasn’t breathing. I could have helped him start to settle into his new home, instead of scaring the spots off him.
Learning to take things slowly is often the result of lessons learned the hard way. And learning these lessons may involve repeating them until we figure out exactly what is going on. The hard way sometimes has to get harder before we find out what it is we need to learn.
The other thing about assumptions is that it’s easy to keep them alive if we don’t examine what they are. It’s also easy to mistake assumptions for knowledge because assumptions are hidden and secret things. Horses are great at unmasking our assumptions and causing us to broaden our knowledge. This lesson that Jack taught me was the revelation of an assumption (all horses need big cues) and the beginning of setting me on the long road to gain knowledge-both about Jack as an individual and horses as a species.
These days, whenever we get a new horse, we focus on finding out where the horse is comfortable and start there. Sometimes we can saddle up and ride and work. Sometimes it’s haltering and grooming and leading for a day or two. Wherever we start, where ever we are in the country and whatever horse we are working with, our goal doesn’t change; get to know the horse and help him feel confident about us and the job at hand.
Jack taught me not only to drop my assumptions about what I thought I knew, but he was also the horse who first taught me, over the course of our many years together, that a relationship built by knowledge, trust, and understanding will always go farther than assumptions and training.
When I was in my late twenties, I became fascinated by the art of Dressage. Honestly? I am still fascinated. Back then, however, the trouble was that I wasn’t a very talented technical rider. And I was on an unconventional horse for dressage; a 16’2 Appendix Quarter horse who excelled more at trails and jumping. His hindquarters were higher than his very prominent withers, and he had tiny feet and one clubbed foot that made it spectacularly difficult to collect and round as my instructor wanted me to shape him.
This shaping took the form of adding more and more pressure to the bit, pulling against the pressure he was exerting on it, and then the addition of a crop and spurs because he lacked impulsion.
At first, I truly enjoyed what dressage offered. But it wasn’t too long before things got serious. Things got complex. And the simple joys of riding a horse were lost to the technicalities that I was being taught.
If I had to count how many times I’ve thought about this particular method, and how many times the “I wish I knew then what I know now” syndrome has appeared, I couldn’t come up with a number. Thousands?
All horses are the recipients of our knowledge at any given point. And besides these dressage lessons, my horse lived a good horse life – out in a large paddock with other horses, nutritional support, regular massages and lots of hay. This is probably what gave him the tolerance to get through those weekly 45 minute lessons.
I finally ended up emotionally storming away from Dressage when the number of requests my instructor gave me outnumbered my ability to execute them.
Looking back, I can see how this endeavor triggered all kinds of old baggage from my childhood; I was always picked last to be on a team in sports, and I regularly sprained and even broke bones. I was never an agile or physically talented kid, and so when the time came that those kind of activities were optional, I chose instead to go to the library or read a book.
To this day, I still happily make the same choices.
Also to this day, however, I am grateful to have learned simpler ways to ask horses. Less punitive ways that instead of assuming the horse is stupid and needs endless repetition, assumes that horses are incredibly intelligent and intuitive and we can focus on those aspects when we are with them.
By now, my husband and I have spent countless hours held by numerous years traveling the world helping people with horses. And in that span of time, one lesson stands out above all the others.
The answers lie in simplicity.
Why use a leg, a crop, outside rein, inside sit bone, flare your left nostril and sing “Do Re Mi,” (that last part is the vestiges of my frustration from all those years ago) when you can inhale and think about changing the rhythm of your gait from a four beat (walk) to a two beat (trot)? Now we get a response from the horse that is more relaxed.
“To quote a dictum of Simon, what a horse does under compulsion he does blindly, and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet-dancer taught by whip and goad.”
Complexity makes us feel good about ourselves. And to be fair, our brains are really good at complexity. The downside, however, is that there is a very narrow line between complexity that is productive and complexity that ties us in knots.
In our work with horses, we have seen time and again how they prefer simplicity. While our brain excels at complexity, the horse brain and body is made for movement. The fantastic thing about horses is that they can also sense internal movement. Call it intention, call it micro-movement, call it hocus pocus, but whenever we lead a request with our intention and focus, horses will hear it and do their best to answer.
We can ask ourselves to first breathe, then let go of tension and have a clear picture in our mind of what we would like to do. Oddly enough (but not really), horses respond not only more quickly, but also with more ease.
The fact that we are amazed by simplicity perhaps tells us just how long and how often we make things more complex than they need to be. While there are indeed parts of life that feel like endless hoops to jump through and are filled with emotional complexity, a lot of life is also quite simple.
Breathe deeply. Notice what is going on now. And breathe more deeply again.
I think we learn and go through life much like a pendulum; we swing all the way to one side and then we swing the opposite way before realizing that the middle is where balance and skill lie.
When we begin learning about horses, we are at the apex of knowing nothing. The only time we are taught to release is when asking a horse to stop and he does, or after he turns.
Many of us know when we are teaching horses any new skill, we must provide a release of pressure to show them they got it right. I had been doing this to some small degree from the time I began riding as a child. Shortly after I began training horses, I encountered a way to be more conscious about it at clinic given by a well-known horseman.
When I started systematically applying the release, it worked really well. It wasn’t too long before I came to the realization that if a little release was good, more was better. This included completely letting go of my reins if the horse I was working with did whatever it was I was asking. I would stop all work immediately if they hit on the right answer. You name it, I released it. The pendulum had swung opposite of where I began when I learned to ride; instead of infrequent releases, I now released for everything.
For a couple of decades, I continued to practice and refine my skill of releasing. I was always searching for that middle space where the release was not too far one way or another, but right in the middle. I learned that horses are sensitive beyond our wildest imaginings, that big releases were (most of the time) not necessary and indeed could create an unintended message.
But it wasn’t until we spent some time recently with Dr. Steve Peters (neuropsychologist, horseman, and co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship) that he mentioned in passing that the horse must experience both release and relief for optimal learning.
If I were a horse, I would’ve pricked my ears forward and thrown my mane in the wind.
It turns out, that the more time a horse is given to process a new skill, the more time there is for the nervous system as a whole to move into a state of relief. The chemicals that were present during the pressure of learning or doing something new dissipate, and the feel-good chemicals, specifically Dopamine, get released. Simply put, the greater the relief (the more Dopamine), the greater the learning.
How do we achieve this hallowed state? By giving our horses time.
Time is exactly what I had to give my little Arab mare, Bree. She had come to us as a very green seven year old, whose majority of riding experiences had been people hopping on and making her run. On our first working day together, I had saddled her up with no intention of riding. I did, however, put my foot in the stirrup and prepare to get on.
She responded by, ever so slightly, rocking back on her hindquarters, not-so-slightly pinning her ears, and then trying to leave the ground like a rocket.
“Huh,” I thought. “That was informative.”
For the rest of that day, and the following weeks as we taught clinics, I would randomly put my foot in the stirrup on either side and prepare to get on. Because we were doing this work while I was teaching, sometimes we could practice a lot and sometimes not once during a whole hour.
I was surprised when each day she showed less anxiety and a need to run. Every day there was a monumental improvement. I thought, “Well, she’s an Arab and they are noted for their smarts.” I thought, “Well, the magnesium oxide we have her on is helping her to stay calmer.” I thought “Horses are amazing and brilliant.”
Now, all of these are true. And every thought I had about the “why” she was settling so quickly after five years of being inadvertently taught to run when the rider’s foot hit the stirrup, was only part of the picture.
It’s been almost ten years since Bree taught me all she did, but when Dr. Peters spoke about horses needing a release and relief, she was the first horse who popped into my mind.
Because during those weeks when she and I could only work together sporadically on this one skill, the circumstances had conspired to give her a lot of time.
By being given a lot of time, she was allowed to settle from a chronically stressed state to a more relaxed state, which allowed her learning to be more firmly cemented. Because horses learn best when pressure is low and not ongoing, she could integrate the information and start to have confidence in our interactions.
I often think of Bree and how far we got together, how close we became. After the initial weeks of struggle, she turned out to be a horse I could do anything with; working cattle, trail riding, teaching lessons with, switching from riding in a bit to a bosal, and all around trusting. She’s a little mare with a very big heart.
Horses seek comfort. Horses seek a quiet way of feeling and being and going. Despite our perception that we don’t have any time and our busy lives are too full, we could stop and consider that it is within all of our power (as riders and horse owners) to give the horse one of the most important things they need to feel confident and peaceful with us.
When Rusty arrived, his eyes were as hard as his muscles. He had rain rot from withers to tail and large old white scars on his back where someone had ridden in a saddle that didn’t fit. I chalked up his disinterest in his new surroundings to the long trailer ride from Texas.
A few days passed before he recovered and made it clear that it wasn’t the trailer ride. He had zero interest in all things people. He was adamant about how he meant to be handled, which was not at all.
He was difficult to catch, he didn’t stand still for grooming, and he was not going to have his feet worked on. He was disruptive in the herd; Rusty operated on a kick first, ask questions later philosophy. Oddly enough, he was quiet and reliable under saddle, which was exactly what we needed. We found him to be a safe horse for actors to ride, for our then upcoming movie, “Out of the Wild.”
During the filming of the movie four months later, he proved to be trustworthy and levelheaded. With time growing shorter to get the footage we needed, he chose to do several spur-of-the-moment jobs for us that we hadn’t prepared him for. For some reason, Rusty decided to work with us, when for months all he wanted was people as far away as possible. Preferably outer space.
We couldn’t look a horse like that in the eye and sell him. So he stayed with us.
It’s been four years since the movie, and Rusty is a changed horse. The rain rot is long gone. He’s soft and sweet with eyes like a clear mountain pond. He’s easy to clinic with; he stands tied quietly, drinks and sleeps well, and doesn’t threaten other horses if they get too close. He doesn’t worry if another horse is nervous. He’s become a quiet leader in the herd.
Those saddle scars have never softened or gone away, despite numerous treatments and consistent grooming. His stifles are a little creaky, and his right hip bone is sheared off; the result of an old injury which was probably hitting the metal enclosure fast and hard when he was a roping horse.
As time runs on like the river it is, we gather information and glean insights, much like the list above. This is the Rusty we know today.
Most horse owners are an enthusiastic bunch; since a sizeable chunk of our income goes toward our horse way of life, we focus on what is important. We know what our horses like and don’t like, where their strengths and weaknesses are, where we can excel and where we need work. We know when they are sore, or tired, or feeling great. I’m sure they know this (and much more) about us as well.
It’s part of being human that we sort that information and adapt to fit our conclusions about any given horse in any given situation. Getting more skilled and informed as a horse person comes with a good news/bad news scenario: the more you learn, the more you see. And sometimes, the more you don’t want to see.
This past summer, Rusty let me know everything I’ve learned about him over the years had changed.
It was the end of our clinic day and everyone had left the arena. Rusty and I’d been trotting but I asked him into his canter to find out how he felt.
We transitioned into an easy lope and after a lap, I thought “Ok buddy, it’s hot out and you’re getting to be an old man so let’s go ahead and stop.” I exhaled and touched the reins lightly, which usually is enough to help him slow down.
Nothing. Instead, he lengthened his lope, making the wind rush past my smiling face.
We cantered for three more rounds, then came down to a walk. And I laughed. “Old Man” indeed.
That day he showed me how having a story about him had shortchanged what he could actually do. He reminded me that just when we think we know something, we are in store for a surprise. We are shown a facet we weren’t expecting to see because we relied on our cruise control story to give us information, instead of being more present and open to seeing new things.
Stories are a form of insulation; if we think we know something or have all the information about anything, we don’t have to put much thought into how we are interacting or any effort into being aware. Stories and expectations are best buddies. Assumptions might be holding hands right along with them.
It’s a curious occurrence that with the whole kaleidoscope of life passing around us on any given day, that out of the bazillions of things to see, we choose the comfort zone of our story. I get comfort zones (you could say comfort zones and ruts are buddies too). You get in a groove, in a rhythm, and you can spend years dancing to the same beat.
There is a great chasm between having knowledge and creating a story. Knowledge stands on its own and can be shared among many. A story is singular, insular and needs knowledge to prop up its flimsy walls.
What I know about Rusty is knowledge – where he needs support physically and how reliable he is mentally. My thinking of him as an “old man?” That’s the story.
It’s a potent lesson for me every time I’m snapped out of my own rutted thinking: that by listening to what I thought was a familiar situation, I can actually learn and see new things. Seeing new things is what keeps horsemanship, and life, full of surprises.
“My horse is such a jerk,” I sputtered, the dirt flying out of my mouth as I brushed off my white shirt. I could still hear Caleb’s rapid staccato hoofbeats as he galloped away. He was thirteen years old, a flashy chestnut appendix Quarter Horse with three white socks. He’d had another surprise bucking fit and this time I had come off. Spectacularly. At a dressage schooling show, in the warm-up pen.
He was a skilled bucker too. He would plunge his head between his knees as all four feet left the ground. This time, I had sat the first four jumps, but just as I thought he was done, he added a twist to the left and off I went over his right shoulder.
After I recovered and remounted, we performed the best test we’d had all day. The judge made numerous comments about Caleb’s “nice impulsion at all gaits.” The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Often when I would talk with friends I would tell them what a jerk Caleb could be. How his bucking fits sucked, and how he was either lazy or airborne. The litany of things that I didn’t like about him became longer than what I appreciated.
About that time I started going to various horsemanship clinics and listened to what the pros had to say. It was an eye opening experience to sit for three days and not hear any badmouthing of the horses from these trainers. Up until that time, the only culture I had been exposed to was (I realized) based on a lot of fighting and negativity.
I began to search for the cause of Caleb’s bucking. I learned about saddle fit and equine chiropractic and bodywork, which at that time was just beginning to gain traction. I had both my horses worked on and I also worked on how I was talking and thinking about them. I practiced keeping my mouth shut when my old circle of friends started bashing their horses. Because of Caleb, I also learned about equine acupuncture, became an herbalist for horses, and learned how to keep him sound despite his numerous physical challenges.
That was over twenty years ago. Since that time, I can say that because of this change in perspective, because of many years of learning, and because of Caleb, I prefer to search for the good in a horse, instead of focusing on what is perceived to be wrong.
I had a flashback of this time with Caleb when I recently heard a rider talking about her horse with words that sounded like she was beyond frustrated.
“My horse is willful, stubborn, opinionated and lazy. He has ADD; he can’t pay attention to anything, especially not me.”
As we teach across the country, my husband and I hear these descriptives consistently. There is some form of name calling going on, a litany of all the ways the horse isn’t satisfying the owner. Most riders are actually eager to change their perspective, but I am also convinced that it is their horse who is waiting for the moment when their rider discovers that everything they wanted was within reach, all they had to do was drop the story. One of the many amazing things about horses is, after all, that when we change, they do too.
Name calling a horse, or anyone for that matter, may be borne of frustration or anger but I can guarantee you that the only result will be to perpetuate an adversarial relationship. Name calling is a lack of imagination, it shuts down our innate curiosity and it smothers learning. Wanting to have a partnership with your horse, and name calling are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Since when does seeing your horse as an enemy to be vanquished yield a harmonious and pleasing relationship?
I get the frustration, and anxiety, and ignorance. I’ve felt those things too (sometimes all at once) and will feel them again, I’m sure. If you have a horse, you have signed up for constant lessons in humility. As we go along through this horsemanship journey though, I think it’s important to remember that whenever we feel like calling our horse (or ourselves, or others) names, it’s also time to find another way to handle the situation.
Personally, I like curiosity. I also like the idea of pausing and breathing. Whatever your favorite strategy for dismantling frustration is, do it. You may walk away with nothing but positive things to say about your horse. And your horse will thank you for it.