Holes might be things like confusing cues; you want to canter but instead find yourself in a road gait. (I hardly ever make gaited horse jokes.) Or maybe it’s a tarp that he’s seen a million times that’s in a whole new strip of sunlight–otherwise known as a leak in the space-time continuum. Or maybe some idiot brought a baby goat to the barn. It can be anything.
Sometimes your trainer is even the cause. If a lesson is going really well and a challenge is in order, I might announce loudly that I’m going to ask for something “really hard”, or I’ll literally say I’m about to throw the horse and rider in a hole. Lots of times announcing it out loud is enough. If a little more of a push is needed, I usually ask them for a transition requiring just a bit more finesse than usual, and since they are looking for the worst after my warning, they fall into a hole of over-thinking or over-hurrying or any other ordinary mental flop sweat.
This is a good thing because if you are going to fall into a hole, doing it when the trainer is actually there is a smart thing. Your trainer can teach you something really valuable; how to help your horse climb out.
Rule number one when your horse falls into a hole, is to go right in with him. Meaning we’ve all seen riders punish their horses for making the wrong choice. They assume the worst first, rather than giving their horse the benefit of the doubt, they demand obedience. Then the horse gets upset, his mind shuts down as anxiety mode kicks in, and nothing good can happen now. So saying something like You’ve seen that before, Stupid or You should know how to do this by now, Dummy cannot possibly help. Standing at the edge of the hole and name-calling isn’t a cue he can respond to and the rider has created a break in partnership.
You were part of how he got into this mess, so embrace the bad. Stay present and connected. When your horse falls in a hole, go in there with him and help him out.
The first thing to do when you get into the hole is take about three deep breaths to slow things down. Give him a scratch; you aren’t so much rewarding him as reminding him that you are partners and you haven’t abandoned him. It’s what a good leader does to provide encouragement.
Now is a good time to lower your standards, so you can say thank you more often. So go back to something simple that you know he can succeed at, and as soon as he even thinks about doing it, reward him big. Be generous, so he will learn to be kind. When you are partners again and the trust bump has been smoothed, return to the original task and cut it into three or four tiny bites. Ask for one piece at a time with slow breaths and generous rewards. Take all day. Then string a couple of the bites together, and eventually when he willingly does the whole task, pat your own self for remembering that going slow works every single time.
And that trust is a living thing; it grows and breaks down and is brand new every ride. Take nothing for granted. Trust is a gift that’s volunteered. It’s sacred and rare and you can’t buy it with money, but it will grow and thrive when given a committed diet of respect.
And eventually, my warning that there’s a hole up ahead is a cue to smile because there’s an opportunity to show off just a bit; a time to become more consciously aware of working together and truly enjoying a challenge.
“To practice equestrian art is to establish a conversation on a higher level with the horse, a dialogue of courtesy and finesse.” –Nuno Oliveira always says it best.
(I might add, “Especially if you are in a hole.”)
Of course, there are holes that riders fall into as well. It happens when we carry our day-trash into the saddle, or when a judge is watching, or maybe when we have a gut-busting desire to relive the past…canter depart.
That’s when, if you have been kind and fair, your horse gives you the benefit of the doubt and returns some of your generosity. Because he has had good manners modeled for him, he’ll come into the hole and carry you out. He’ll make you look better than you deserve, and in that moment you’ll be humbled by his heart.
To earn a horse’s trust, you have to offer it first. Another word for that is optimism.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm
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