Do you remember the first time you wanted to be right? It might predate memory or even language. Being good is immediately quantified after birth; we’re tested before we even leave the hospital. It’s our first “percentile.”
Learning a foundation of right and wrong is job-one for babies of any species. It keeps us healthy and safe. Some of us had parents who used positive reinforcement to teach us and some of us were motivated by fear, but by the time we were in school vying for gold stars, we were well on our way. Some choices were spiritual and some were cultural. It got confusing; some bad things felt very good! Sometimes doing the right thing turned wrong quickly. In erratic and unpredictable ways, black could seem like white.
In other words, life is the act of sliding around somewhere on the gray spectrum. We’re able to imagine the final destination of success or failure, but we spend most of our time ankle-deep in muck, negotiating the trail to get there and trying to make peace with compromise. Seeing things as black or white becomes almost nostalgic.
Meanwhile, some of us are on horses. We might be thoughtless and rude in our feeling of entitlement. Or maybe we’re holding our breath, trying too hard, and scrutinizing every step looking for fault. Humans are tedious.
Let’s say things start just fine. You and your horse are tacked up and ready to go. You have a plan for the ride that might involve learning something new or completing a task. Or you could have a nearly impossible goal–to just enjoy the ride. Then your horse takes his first steps. It’s right about here that your plan gets challenged and you might over-react. After all, your fundamental beliefs are being poked.
It doesn’t actually matter what you asked your horse. Maybe the cue was unclear, or maybe your horse volunteered something else. What you know for sure is that there is wrongness. It isn’t what you asked for and now it’s life or death–heaven or hell–and every future moment of leadership and training hangs in the balance. We’re taught that this instant will define your ultimate success with your horse…good or bad.
Did I mention humans are tedious? We come by it honestly. There was that problem you had with reading comprehension in second grade that threatened your entire adult career. That bad hairdo on prom night that destroyed your chances of ever marrying well. Not to mention the deal you made with your math teacher, trading a passing grade for a promise to never return. We acquire an inflated definition of cause and effect early on.
If you notice yourself looking for someone to punish, human or equine, just stop. The real challenge is breaking the habit of seeing everything in our Technicolor world on some fuzzy, old, black-and-white television.
When it comes to horses, I’m not sure which is worse: the arrogance of believing you’re divinely right and someone who must be blindly obeyed, or the insecurity of feeling wrong and fearing that no matter what you do, it won’t ever work out. Either way, this is the place where horses do their very best work with us.
In other words, get over it. Be the first to be flexible, to forgive and move on. In the end, the one who has the most creative perception, the one who can see the spark of good and rewards that instant, wins their freedom.
Meanwhile, back in the saddle, you take a breath. He didn’t give what you thought you asked for, but it was a response. Say thank you and ask again. The real conversation between horse and rider begins after the first steps, after you’ve avoided that first obstacle of needing to be perfect. Because riding well has little to do with the horse and more to do with our need to be right. Instead of being ruled by extremes, remember the games we played as kids and reward him when he’s getting warmer. Most of all, give yourself permission to do it wrong, on the way to doing it right.
The problem with being right is that it needs reflection against something wrong, so almost by definition, it polarizes your horse. Judge less, negotiate more. Become lost in the conversation,
“Just a bit more forward, that’s good. Would you trot, please? Thank you. Try this slower rhythm. I know, but try to balance back. There, that’s perfect. Feel that cool breeze, being together is good. Now, let’s walk…”
We take training so seriously, and of course, positive progress matters. But in the process, if we judge ourselves in the extreme of good or bad, we get stingy and small. There isn’t much room for joy and passion and fun–the fuel that sparks partnership.
So much about good horsemanship is perception gained from hindsight–the other side of the experience. Needing right-ness narrows that view and chokes down the opportunity for learning. And for those of us with insecurities, needing right-ness about our own shortcomings might be the most limiting thing of all.
When I’m giving a lesson or a clinic, and I make a decision with a horse that doesn’t work, I like to point it out. I call it a mistake right there in broad daylight. Then I ask another way. I know that in the end, I’ll find understanding with the horse but in the meantime, I invite everyone to watch as I demonstrate what it looks like to be human. It isn’t the worst thing.
Mistakes happen. If we believe horses are sentient beings, and we do, then know they are capable of understanding our full selves; our strengths as well as our shortcomings. They prove it by forgiving us. Breathe, apologize and start again, this time in the lightness of living color.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.