First of all, let me offer a nod to the United Negro College Fund for the title of this post. This slogan originated in the early ’70’s and has gone on to acquire a life of its own. Now let me tell you that this post has nothing to do with ad campaigns, and the higher education I’m talking about is more “higher” as in evolved than “higher” as in further up the grade progression.

Think back to the last time you rode your horse – how many great steps did he take – steps that were relaxed, balanced, rhythmic? How many times did he trip, or perhaps not bend enough through the corner, or maybe spook just a little bit when a turkey trotted across the trail in front of you.

Now, using the same ride as a reference, how many great steps did you ride – relaxed, balanced and aware of your horse’s rhythm? How many times did you lose your balance a bit, stiffen your shoulders or discover that your outside rein was too slack on a turn or circle?

Got these two pictures clear in your mind? Great – now I want you to think about how your horse felt about the ride while he was out grazing that evening. I can pretty well guarantee that his inner conversation didn’t go like this: “Man, I can’t believe that I tripped in the corner between A and K – what was I thinking? That was so totally stupid! I’ve trotted through that corner hundreds of times! What is my problem?”

His thoughts as he ambles across the pasture with his buddies probably are more along the lines of: “Hmm, there’s a nice bit of grass… no wolves in the area so I can munch and relax… my back itches – time for a roll…. hmm, there’s a nice bit of grass…”

How about your post ride dissection of your performance? As you’re driving home from the barn, are you running your usual Negative Nellie tape in your head? You know the one – “Why can’t I ever (fill in the blank)”, “How come I always….”, or worse still – “What a frustrating ride! I can’t believe Trigger was so stubborn – he knows there’s a big show this weekend and he’s doing his changes late behind just to tick me off. They were perfect all last week but now that it really counts, I can’t buy a clean change…”

We can take a few dozen lessons from the imagined conversations above, but today, I’d like you to focus on just one – Stop beating yourself (and your horse) up in your mind! (I’m going to assume that you would never cross the line, no matter how frustrated,  and actually beat your horse physically).

Whether you ride competitively and are honing your skills in your chosen discipline or you love to take in the beautiful scenery along your favorite trail from the back of a horse, you’ll enjoy your rides more if you follow a few simple steps – and chances are that your horse will enjoy your rides more, too!

1. Have a positive goal for your ride. This can be as varied as “I will keep my shoulders relaxed in the canter” or “I’m going to feel my horse’s steps underneath me to be more aware of the sequence of footfalls” or “I’m going to ride down by the river and watch the heron and turtles, breathe deeply, relax and unwind”.

Having your goal couched in positive terms is very important. Since our brains unswervingly work to achieve goals set in front of them (kind of like an over zealous Lab with a ball), the words “not” and “won’t” get by-passed in a determined effort to get to the meat of the challenge. So phrasing something like: “I won’t stiffen up over my jumps today” becomes “stiffen up over my jumps today” – and, lo and behold – it will happen every time. Instead, of using no/not/won’t/can’t words, try framing your intentions with what you do want – “I’ll stay relaxed over the oxer today”. That gives your brain a positive target and it will work relentlessly to achieve it. For more information on this interesting peculiarity of the human brain – check out Jane Savoie’s book That Winning Feeling, or the granddaddy of the “brain-as-guided-missile” books Psycho Cybernetics – written about 50 years ago by Maxwell Maltz. This book has been updated since, but I still have the original – and it’s a classic for a reason.

2. Don’t blame your horse. We’ve all heard this, and quite honestly, sometimes it’s easy to feel that our horses spend their nights getting together to devise new and more creative ways to thwart our every attempt to have a good ride. Truth be told, your horse is just being a horse. He’s actually quite good at being a horse – an expert in fact, it’s been bred into him for millennia. The problems usually arise when we forget that he’s a horse with all of the physical and mental characteristics thereof (remember – he’s prey animal).

Sometimes I’ll hear my students say – Aaagh, he keeps getting the wrong lead/falling in on the corner/speeding up on the long side/yada yada yada. My response is to ask the student what they’re doing to create or allow that situation. I have them break it down into A: What is your horse doing?, B: What do you want the horse to do instead,  and C: What do you need to change to create the new situation.

Learning as much as you can about your horses mental and physical makeup is one of the most important (and sadly often neglected) aspects of learning to ride. If you understand his motivation, you’ll be better able to remedy resistances. Learning a bit about his physiology (and your own) will help you to help him, whether it’s picking up the correct canter lead, keeping the correct bend in the half pass or riding down the trail straight. To really improve your horsemanship skills, remember that horsemanship is a lot more than just riding.

3. The last simple step I’ll offer today is so simple a 3-year-old can do it (and in many situations, is requested to) – Time out. When you feel yourself getting frustrated (notice I said “when” and not “if” – it happens to most of us at least once in a while), stop. Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and neck and quietly evaluate the situation without asking anything from the horse until you’ve clarified both the problem and a few possible solutions in your mind. Once you’re ready to proceed, ask the horse something a bit simpler than the movement or exercise you were just attempting. Give yourselves both a chance to have a positive experience – then move on to where you encountered the challenge. Approaching an issue in a clear and relaxed manner is a big part of the solution, and may even help diminish similar problems in the future.

I hope these ideas have been helpful to you and that you and your horse both enjoy your next ride. Having fun with your equine partner is one of the best parts of living the horsey life.