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What Horses Teach Us



I am a horse and rider trainer. Anyone can say that in the U.S. How do you choose who to learn from? Do you look at their show record to see how much they've won? As a child, you probably didn't have a choice and rode with the stable that your parents chose. My first time on a horse was 1972 and my neighbor's barrel racing horse. I was 4. I rode lesson horses from age seven until I was able to finally purchased my first horse in my 20s. I was the student, and then instructor, that rode the 'crazy' horses before, owning my own horse. One of these nutty horses was even named Spaz! I didn't just ride. I helped bring hay off the fields, stacked and threw those around like they were feathers. I got to the horse shows early to braid manes before I showed. I cleaned stalls. I rode with lots of instructors.


There were two main places I rode; one was a western summer camp, the other a hunt seat/polo/fox hunting facility. I rode with at least 6 instructors while at the year-round facility from 1978-1995, and off an on until 2008. As you can imagine, I rode with MANY more than that from the summer camp I attended from 1976-2006 and off and on until 2023. The summer camp moved from western to hunt seat to eventing. I attended other facilities and clinics as well throughout the years. I started a riding club in college. I got certified to drive one of the school vans so we could drive out as a group to local barns for lessons.


I grew up in an age when many trainers taught firmness and "being the boss". This meant demanding riders and reluctant horses. Denny Emerson recently posted on his social media about this very topic. Alois Podhajsky was an early voice refuting roughness with his book My Horses, My Teachers (1968, Doubleday and Co.) The title of Mr. Podhajsky's book says a lot. As riders, we learn just as much from the horses we ride as the instructors we ride with. We've made tremendous progress since 1968. There's still room for growth but overall working with horses has become safer and training techniques have become gentler. We are all learning, and governing associations and federations are becoming stricter about inappropriate acts.


I was 7 (1975) when I started a list of all the horses I rode and stopped after the cardboard became full (1985) when the number was at 86. Imagine how much I learned in 10 years from 86 horses? Luckily a good proportion of the many instructors I rode with were not of the roughness mindset. I'm not saying that everyone should ride with a huge number of instructors, but I was able to amalgamate my own style of riding and instruction from picking the gold nuggets of instruction from all the instructors and horses.


Horses teach us:

Patience.

You know that saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink? Well, you can never force a horse to do anything. Firstly, it is bullying, and any horse that is taught by roughness won't be happy. They'll do what they are told, but their spirit is gone. This is one of the saddest aspects of horse training. When I recognize the signs of this in a horse I'm working with, I go back to square one. It breaks my heart when I see this. Trust goes both ways in your relationship with your horse. When you see fear, not trust, go back to a skill they are comfortable with to work on trust. This means you can't rush through your training. When I see these competitions that have time limits - 100 days or whatever - I know that some of these horses stress levels will be so high that another trainer will have to start all over again from the start. You might see the skill done by the horse, but the quality of the skill and relationship with people will not be good. Never rush.


More patience.

Injuries can happen that knock the horse out of training for a period of time. Bone heals faster than soft tissue. Soft tissue cannot heal quickly. Sometimes the horse can lose a shoe or come up with an abscess. My older horse got himself injured behind his left front ankle. This area can't be sewn up with stitches because the area moves around constantly. It could be 10 months to a year before he is fully healed. He doesn't have lots of riding time left with his age, but I need to do what I can to help this heal well - speed is not on the radar at all. Of course I'm not happy about it! Getting angry and worked up about the situation won't help. I need to be patient. So here I am catching up on my blog - it's been way too long. I'm reading Warwick Schiller and watching some Wehorse.com training videos. I can also groom him, get him to improve standing tied, and ground work stuff. There's always non-riding training/play to do. I'm also getting pasture projects accomplished and working with my younger mare, Patsy. Never dull!


Honesty.

You can't fake your mood around a horse. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or stressed, find another time to train. Do physical work or something non-horse related until you are in a better frame of mind. Bad things happen when you soldier on through a mood. And your horse will lose their faith in you as a calming leader to bravery and confidence. This is why so many horsemen wear their heart on their sleeves. If you are good with horses, you are emotionally sensitive enough to attain positive relationships with them. That means you might sometimes be overly sensitive to human behavior. It's only natural. I find that some folks trust me very easily and tell me their life story. I don't mind that; I'm glad that people are comfortable talking to me. That's a touchy topic in this era of social media. People don't actually listen and communicate very well face-to-face. The skills aren't needed as much when it's so easy to text, email or message information. Of course the problem is that the information might not go across the way it was intended. This can happen often with horses too. Check that your cues are clear and listen to why your horse isn't responding in the way that you intended. Horses would never understand social media, lol!


Being in the moment.

I'm better at communicating with horses than people. It comes more naturally to me. Horses don't lie or play head games. None of that drama. I prefer people that are straight up like a horse. Branding? Who would have thought that one day people would be branding and re-branding themselves?! I'm a horse person. Always have been; always will be. My methods have changed for the better over time because I keep watching, learning and creating. I used to work towards a certification, or a license, or a degree, etc. Now, I work towards a feel, a moment, a skill, and better relationships with my horses and loved ones. Too much life flies past without realizing the joys of these small moments. In working with horses; I've learned to let go of expectations. Horses don't know much else besides living in the moment. This is a frame of mind I'm still navigating. How do others judge me? What do others think of me? I am getting better at letting those types questions go. There are strong and wonderful people I've learned this from as well. You know those folks that laugh, smile and always seem joyful. They weren't always like that. It's a skill. Try this next time you're out with your horses: get a comfortable place to sit and just sit with your horses in their pasture. Don't have your phone on. Listen to what they're doing. Watch how they behave. And smile. Just enjoy a few moments alone with them. Whatever happens, it will be worth it!


Body Awareness

We have no comprehension when we're young how much we should cherish the ease of movement. The physical lessons I've learned from all the horses I rode and trainers I had have become even more important as my body ages. The great aspect of learning young, is that eventually our muscle memory kicks in. I don't have to think about much in words when I ride. My body just naturally works towards getting the right feel and balance. It even kicks in during those unplanned movements that can and do happen during training. There might be some dicey moments in the spring, at a new riding space, at the "ghost" corner (doesn't every arena have one?). I've had horses trip and fall to their knees, lots of rearing, bucking and one that went ballistic and whacked us both into the side of the metal round pen, but my body memory kicked in, and I stayed on. I've fallen many times, but my muscle memory has saved me from some serious falls too.


Reflection and Processing

Riders and horses need time to think about what just happened in a ride or during a question to the horse that they are struggling with. One horse I worked with would shake his head when he was getting overwhelmed. He was a big draft type, and he was super sensitive. I think he was from Amish country. He had permanent areas with no hair where the harness would be. Anyways, when he began this shaking, I would just stop and stand and let him get calm again. This wasn't bad behavior; this was him saying that he needs his brain to do some processing. You have to listen to what the horse is telling you. After a ride, I like to sit and reflect on how it went. Maybe there was something that I didn't get while we were riding, but if I sit and think about it, the ride makes more sense. Then I can plan for the next ride. What am I going to work on? How can I make the ride more understandable for the horse? Sometimes I even dream of a lesson plan/ride plan for the horse!


I hope these insights have sparked something in you for your next ride! Enjoy!

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