If I were to write a training book entitled Less is More, it would be hundreds of pages long. The irony is not lost on me. At the same time, it’s an idea that I defend constantly. Us humans can be like rats on a wheel sometimes.
We’ve all seen the rider. Maybe she starts by lunging her horse in tight side-reins. He can’t breathe and gets a bit panicky. Confirming her opinion that he needs lunging to take the edge off. Most misunderstandings start this way–a simple mistake.
Then it’s like dominoes. She wants to get it right. Her horse tries in the beginning. She’s focused, she pushes too hard, for too long. Then she doesn’t notice that she’s talking to herself, about her horse, but behind his back. Each try, she wants just one more effort a bit better, but by now her horse has lost heart. He’s just getting the same cue again and again and he has no idea what it means anymore. Are you teaching your horse to be stupid or smart?
Wake-up call: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
And by the way, how did things go at work today? (Like your horse even needs to ask.)
Part of the challenge of riding well doesn’t have a thing to do with the barn. It’s just being who we are. That usually means a full-time job. Maybe a couple of kids. That’s enough for a twenty hour day right there. Being retired is just as busy, dealing with health issues, technology, and family. Is that a strange man in the house or do you recognize him as the guy in your wedding photos? Then book club and maybe a random thought about climate change and horse rescue. Balancing responsibilities and obligations with your passions and bank account ends up being a recipe for guilt. At the very least, it’s a lot of extra weight for a horse to carry.
Then some idiot trainer like me climbs on your horse, and with no fanfare or angst, your horse does that illusive movement for a few strides, as I smile and throw down the reins, like it’s no big deal. Ouch, apparently it’s easy for your horse.
And then my client says to me, “Know what your problem is? You don’t want it bad enough.” There’s an instant where the words hang in the air… and then we howl. A sense of humor will always be the very best training aid.
And she’s right. There’s an art to riding as if you don’t care. Sure, it’s an “untruth” and we’re obsessed about our riding technique. But I also hope we find a way to not torment our horses any more than we have to along the way. It’s pretty easy to get that Night of the Living Dead appearance in the saddle from just trying too hard. Your effort shows in your horse’s stilted gait and tense back.
So, your life is busy and you don’t have much time to ride? Good. Ride less. Ride lighter, and trust your horse. He doesn’t forget how to be ridden and he doesn’t need to be drilled. His memory is strong; he remembers his training as clearly as he remembers your frustration.
Since we humans think in hour-sized hunks of time, start when the big hand is on the twelve. Start by currying too long. Use one arm and then the other. Feel his skin warm as his blood flow increases. Then feel your shoulders relax and do the same. Forget the stupid clock; tune in to horse time.
Bridle him with slow hands and lots of deep breaths. Pause on the mounting block and let your guilt and stress drain out into a dark, sticky pool under your boots. Then lightly mount. Once in the saddle, take a moment to feel your sit-bones go soft and the weight of your heels sink low. Acknowledge you have a partner and not an adversary.
Take all the time you need to allow your horse a good warm-up on a long rein without correction. Just rhythm and stride. Never doubt this is the most important part of the ride. Feel his body with your seat and legs. Use time freely because quality matters.
Now is a good time to get off. Yes, so soon. Quit early, while you want more and your horse is happy. Finish by taking too much time brushing him down, give him a snack, and still have time to run an errand on the way home.
If you want to train just a little longer, be serious enough about your riding to remember the best work happens when it feels like play. Successive approximation is that happy path of bread crumbs. We reward that answer that isn’t right, but is closer to right, like calling out, “You’re getting warmer,” in a game of Hide and Seek. If you get one really good effort, quit right there. Jump down immediately. Then trust your horse’s intelligence. Even if you don’t quite trust your own. If your trainer releases you early, or your ride was only thirty minutes long, give yourself chocolate. You deserve a treat!
Current opinions about training have changed. Three days a week of actually schooling is plenty for most competition horses. Keep your horse fit with hacks or arena games or cross-training. Or anything else that doesn’t feel like boot camp. You know the two cardinal rules in training: Be consistent. Change things up.
If you still want to tell me that your horse is that hot kind of horse that needs to be ridden hard every day, well, ask yourself the hard question. “How can I help his anxiety?”
Fall equinox: Days are getting shorter and the world has a way of twisting things sideways. If we don’t pay attention, blessings start to feel like poverty. It isn’t true. What you have to offer is more than enough and your horse is just as magical as he ever was.