It’s an election year and I’m a politics geek. There, I said it. But the rhetoric is deafening. Sometimes there are just too many words. I’ll bite my tongue right there. Instead, let me think of something positive to say. Optimism is heavy lifting sometimes. Here goes:

Have you noticed that there are way fewer photos of abused and starved horses on Facebook lately? 

Pathetic attempt. In a separate and only somewhat unrelated story, I tied a client up last week.

Let me start at the very beginning. As a riding instructor, I’m always trying to encourage the horse and rider build a positive tendency in their work. It isn’t about being perfect; it’s about a peaceful process with good effort and positive rewards.

Unless it isn’t. When things spiral downward, and frustration or fear are on the rise, good intention is easy to forget. Some trainers might yell, “Don’t be so tense!” or worse, “Stop being scared.” Not helpful. Being told to not do something isn’t a cue a horse or rider can take. Really, it’s like name calling more than instructing.

Meanwhile, the fight goes on. There’s no bucking; it’s more of a grudge match. By now the rider is over-thinking and over-pulling and over-kicking. The horse is over-stimulated and can’t even remember how it started. Maybe, he finds a corner of a cue to try, but just as he is about to do it, the rider gives a bigger cue that feels like a correction, so he doesn’t do what he was just about to do… which was try. It seems like the uproar and noise in the saddle is un-answerable, so he gets the deer in the headlights look–tense poll, hollow back, furrowed brow. Identical to his rider.

Can we all take a collective breath and admit we’ve been there?

I developed this technique years ago, not that I recommend it. It’s what I do in a lesson, after I’ve suggested breathing and going slow and a few hundred other things. Then I try something creative. (Others might call it something absurd.)

Did I mention that particular client was ramrod straight, with heels pushed down and her hands did not move. Her position was perhaps too good, meaning a tendency toward stiffness. So, I suggest to her that she do an impression of me riding. I’m guessing that she’d say I ride a bit like a boneless chicken sometimes. Her eyebrows become a straight line across her forehead. She’s not amused. Yes, I encourage her, pretend to be me. My rider clearly thinks mimicking me is a stupid idea–so stupid that she makes a face. Now she’s more frustrated with me than her horse. See? There’s an improvement already.

But then she slides down deeper in the saddle and pouches her tiny belly out. I know she is doing it to poke me back a bit, but in the instant that her back releases, her horse blows and goes soft. She melts into his rhythm rather than trying to fight it. Sometimes drawing the attention away from the horse is all the help a rider needs, along with a self-deprecating giggle.

“The biggest enemy to the partnership of dressage is impatience and the human nature to dominate other creatures.”  –Walter Zettl

Be clear on this: It’s our instinct to pick a fight or throw a tantrum. It’s as natural as a filly spooking when a plastic bag careens across the arena. As natural as a Lab chasing a ball all day and then, all night. Riding well means training ourselves to go against instinct. Riding well requires that we put the horse first. Their language; not ours. Best to just lay down whatever shred of ego you have left now.

And the hardest thing to do in the saddle–is to do less. When things start to come apart we instinctually speed up and get louder with our cues. Feeling unheard, we really can’t shut up now; we repeat and nag and chatter. Our hands are busy and our feet bang away on the horses’ flanks. As if the harder we communicate, the more sense it will make.

In other words, we act like Facebook in an election year.

These days, I’m more confident when I use this kind of creative ploy to distract a rider from fighting. I might ask an obscure question or tell a story/example. Sounding ridiculous is fine; I’m just trying to buy the horse a moment of quiet.

So, there we were last week doing groundwork, trying to walk-back a trailer loading issue. I’m not saying my client was over-cuing, but I started to imagine those flashlights with the long red cones that they use at the airport. She’d worked up a head of steam and tied her shirt around her waist. I was nagging her about breathing as much as she was flinging her rope. Her sensitive horse was getting taller by the minute. Stop. Just stop. That was when I tied her up. I used her shirt to attach her elbows to her waist. I was going for a version of Temple Grandin’s squeeze chute. 

My client didn’t get mad; that’s a good sign. Instead, she decided to ridicule the idea. She tells me it won’t work, demonstrating by barely flailing her hands, to exaggerate how much she can’t move. Mid-rant, her horse does just exactly what she’d been screaming about. Then, she does even less, even slower, but with a smile.

She was dead certain he’d never do it. But that’s a release, too, isn’t it?

It’s natural to try to dominate. We’re loud, even if we’re passive-aggressive about it. It’s our instinct. But in our focus to see what our horse is doing; we forget that a horse’s awareness is much keener than ours. It isn’t that they can’t hear us; it’s the exact opposite. Time to hush the brain. When we whisper, they lean in to listen.

I just love it when a bad attitude teaches a good lesson. The other words for that are having a sense of humor. It might be the best cue we can give a horse. Or our friends.

So, with a smiley face emoticon, here’s my advice, less is always more…  Shut up and ride.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
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