Recently, I had to take a long hard look at what I want with my horses and why. I have been considering what is important to me and what I am prepared to sacrifice to stay true to what I believe in. This can sometimes be very hard. My ego, and desire to ‘do stuff’ is something I have to keep a constant beady eye on.
I have also been thinking about some of the insights and pointers which have made the biggest difference to me along the way. Most of them are pretty obvious, and yet I need to remind myself of them over and over again. Many of them are things good horsepeople do or know instinctively, but the rest of us need to be a little more active in implementing them or considering them. Here they are.
DO NOT PULL. DO NOT PULL. DO NOT PULL. It is possible to pull with a lifted hand rather than a backward one, it is possible to pull even when it is tiny (I was ‘pulled up’ for this rather publically by one Stetson wearing American. At the time it was depressing, in the long run, completely life changing). There are some pre-requisites for not pulling, such as your attitude, your level of relaxation, and a belief that your horse can learn rather than be forced. Do not pull on the head collar, on the bit, on the rope, on your horse’s foot. Do not present your horse with braces which he has no option but to match. Try and stay true to this even when you are just itching to give it a tug (so to speak).
RELAX YOUR ARSE! Now, maybe this is just specific to me, but I suspect not. There are many, many occasions on which I have been able to make a big difference to a horse just by relaxing my body, and most importantly going soft in the buttock region. That’s why I am not a big fan of riding in a way which is physically hard work for the rider – I don’t think tension is something we want in the horse or human. It also means having a soft bottom is no bad thing.
Breathe. And again, and again. Breathe when you pick up the lead rope or foot. Breathe when you open the field gate. Breathe when you put your hand on your horse’s neck or when you ask for a canter transition. It is so easy to hold your breath, even fractionally, and horses know it. It doesn’t matter if you need to stop what you are doing and take a few outbreaths, but just keep remembering to breathe. P.s. This may also help in other areas of your life.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, but not all roads lead to Rome. You need to know what your paradigm is, and you can then understand what fits within it and what doesn’t. I am pretty clear about the model of riding and horsemanship that I ascribe to, which means that I can look at various trainers and methods and work out what might I want to explore further. I try to never say never, but I think my paradigm is concrete enough now that I can say I would never use draw reins, for instance. But there are plenty of other things I might experiment with.
Try to be honest with yourself. Keep standing back and looking at the truth of what you are doing. Blindly following a trainer or system without ever looking left or right reduces ones potential to learn. If a way of working is physically or mentally damaging your horse, even if it has been sold to you as the complete opposite, stop and wonder. The issue may well be with your application rather than the system or trainer. Or maybe not. That’s your job to understand.
Mistakes are compulsory. You absolutely cannot learn without making them. The key is learning the lesson and not repeating the mistake too many times. Horses are forgiving and generously live in the moment; they can handle mistakes if they lead to greater clarity and a better understanding in the long run. They can’t handle a grey area where no one dares try anything in case it’s the wrong thing.
On a personal level, I am not sure competition is for me. I worry that there is a bit of me which would like to win and that might at some point mean I forsake my horse to this end. I know that there are plenty of people out there who have a better handle on this than me, but I suspect that there is a little bit of me (and maybe, if you really look at yourself, you too) which might end up caring more about what other people think of me and my horse than is healthy.
I WISH I could be satisfied with short cuts, but I can’t. I don’t believe that you can do a good job of starting a young horse in a couple of weeks. I don’t believe that using a pulleys and levers based gadget is useful for helping a horse with its posture. This is just my opinion, and I could well end up taking forever and not ‘maximising my horse’s potential’ (someone asked me how I was going to maximise Des’s potential, and I wasn’t sure quite how to answer. I think he is doing a pretty good job of that every day all by himself).
If a horse changes its behaviour it could well be in pain. If a horse is always anxious or nervous, it could well be in pain. If a horse really struggles to do something you are asking of it, it could in pain. I didn’t used to think like this, but having had a couple of horses now who were so clearly completely different when they were uncomfortable I would rather be overcautious and get this investigated first. If you consider how you feel when you have tweaked your back, or have a headache or toothache, you might imagine how it would feel if someone asked you to run a marathon with a massive backpack.
It is definitely worth investing in bodywork for yourself, and in yoga lessons and getting fit and all that jazz. However, just because your body may be a little crocked that doesn’t mean you can’t do a pretty good job with a horse, if you remember points 1, 2 and 3.
Remember that you and your horse are on the same side. Your horse is certainly not against you (even though humans may have taught him some stuff which means his behaviour is challenging for us), so try really hard not to go into battle with him. He would really rather not go into battle with you.