People love to tell horror stories. Once they know that I have horses, they can’t resist telling me about getting bucked off, run away with, or stepped on.  Somehow this makes them very cool and the horses very stupid.

I tend to defend the horses, most are pretty honest. Is it possible that when your horse tenses, you actually cue the problem behavior? Your body language says, “OMG, we’re gonna die!!”and he hears you loud and clear. A lot of times, horses are totally justified, and the rider who intends to blame her horse actually ends up inadvertently bragging about her own ignorance.

Once while scribing at a dressage show, a well-known trainer came in on a very green (imported) horse, who was understandably nervous about the judge’s stand. The trainer made jokes to the judge about the horse being stupid. She used harsh words and the judge laughed. Hearing that interaction has colored how I see this trainer. It’s probably a good thing I’m not a judge, I might disqualify half the rides.

I hear the bad stories from new clients, but the tone is different, almost an apology. “He doesn’t load in the trailer.” “He pulls on the reins.” “He hates to canter.” Asking for help is a great time to tell the bad story for the last time.

Sometimes in a lesson, the dreaded problem, so horrible and unforgivable, goes away and the rider doesn’t notice, she’s too busy complaining.  The truth is that most horses let go of an unwanted behavior about as quick as their riders do. Words are so powerful, and recalling a bad moment brings that experience into the present moment all over again. What if having a winning story to tell is as easy as using other words?

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. Socrates

Step one is to tell a better story. Words are so powerful and especially when combined with an intuitive 1200 pound animal who reflects them right back at you.  “Good boy” praise when your horse is still thinking about a task can build confidence and try. If you are too stingy to say “good boy”, consider taking up gardening.

At first it takes a bit of discipline, so much of our ordinary language is grounded in problems and lack. Pick a positive set of words, let them be the rule. Keep taking deep breaths, and give your horse time to think.  New story, new ending.

If you are afraid your positive affirmations will make you seem arrogant, then remember your sense of humor: “White plastic bags in a 35 mph wind make my horse was a bit playful.”  “There’s opportunity for growth with our canter depart.” “We had excellent forward all the way back to the barn.”

If you are afraid that positive reinforcement will make you look weak, go ahead, praise your horse all the way to the Winner’s Circle.

It is the lowest form of horsemanship to blame or ridicule your horse. When you talk trash about your horse, you betray your partnership. Always. If you do have a bad ride, it’s just good manners for the rider to take responsibility. And of course, if you have a great ride, your horse gets all the credit. The people who matter know the truth and so does your horse.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” – Herm Albright.

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Comment by Elizabeth Duke on July 15, 2013 at 12:41pm

I loved this! I think its so important to recognize the good, especially in the sport of dressage where we strive to improve every aspect of our ride. When we blame our horses we aren't just being childish, we're preventing ourselves from coming up with a solution.

Comment by Mandy on July 2, 2013 at 6:10pm

This has been a pet peeve of mine for many years. And yes, the biggest culprits are often trainers, coaches, and all around adults, who set a poor example for those learning around them. I hope you don't mind if I quote you when I'm arguing this point from now on!

Comment by Jackie Cochran on June 28, 2013 at 11:28am

As my decades of riding passed I blamed the horse less and less, especially since the rather low level bargain basement horses I ride can come up with absolutely wonderful and correct movement once I learn how to ask for and ride it correctly. 

The horses already know how to move correctly, all I have to do is stop interfering with their movements.

And I LOVE the Herm Albright quote!

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