Whether you’re an adult new to horses and horseback riding, or you’re returning to the equine world after a long break, there’s a bit of a learning curve to understanding a horse. (Trust me – I’ve been a professional for over 40 years, and I’m still learning :-).
There are some easily recognizable signals, such as the horse nickering when he sees you coming (and he knows you have a treat), or putting his ears back when he’s cranky (it pays to learn this one early on in your Horsey Life!); but there is also a myriad of other signals that you may be missing. And the best way to learn them may surprise you. Learn to understand yourself first.
Self is a four-letter word
There are a lot of times where “self” has a negative connotation: self-absorbed, self-centered, selfish – even self-confident has been given a bad rap.
Self-Awareness, on the other hand, is a good thing. By becoming aware of our bodies, our thoughts, and our emotions, we’ll not only gain insight on how we’re perceived by horses, but also why we perceive horses the way we do.
We all have built-in self-protection behaviors – it’s how we’re wired. They spend their days toiling away deep in our subconscious. They have a huge part in running the show in our lives, and we don’t even realize we’re relying on old habits of processing fear, anxiety, or doubt. Our sneaky subconscious has become pretty good at hiding in plain sight.
With a smile and denial
Think about a time when you were around a horse and you felt a little fear tugging at the edge of your mind. You brush it off. Why worry? This is a horse you’ve taken lessons on for a year – why the sudden whisper of fear?
You finish tacking up and hide behind a smile (and in denial). Everything’s fine – at least that’s what you tell yourself. You’re just being silly. After all, it would be too embarrassing to tell your riding instructor that you’re afraid, and you wouldn’t share that with your family – they don’t even understand why you want to ride in the first place.
But by pretending everything is OK, you’re setting yourself up for more discomfort down the road. Without acknowledging and working to understand your feelings, the fear will keep coming back and you will feel more and more powerless to combat it.
Bring your fear out of hiding
If you’re going to continue working with horses, you’ll need to do some inner work.
- Extend grace to yourself. You are not hopeless, idiotic, pathetic or any of the other nasty adjectives you use to label yourself. We are ridiculously unkind to ourselves – beating ourselves up over things we likely wouldn’t even notice in a friend. So – no self-flagellation allowed.
- Acknowledge the emotion. You are entitled to your emotions and no one else has the right to belittle you or gloss over your feelings. This extends to your instructor, your family and yourself!
- See and feel the emotion. Enter journaling and visualization. I know – journaling has become the new black. I think the only thing I haven’t heard people insist journalling can cure is male pattern baldness. But – I’m saying to journal anyway. Write down the instance when you felt the fear – put in as much detail as you remember. Now, visualize the experience in “slow-motion”. Take it one frame at a time and see if you can pinpoint when and how the fear showed up. Were you picking out the horses’s feet? Were you getting ready to tighten the girth? Once you’ve identified when you first noticed the fear, now connect with the what. What did the fear feel like in your body? Did you have a mini-flashback, so brief that you hardly noticed it? Did you feel a catch in your breath or a tightening in your shoulders? Sit with that feeling. You’ll most likely want to skip this or do a very cursory job of it. Resist the resistance. Acknowledging your emotion is the first step in understanding it, and understanding yourself.
- Visualize the scene again, but this time, imagine you acknowledged your fear. Imagine you spoke with your instructor and explained your fear. Imagine she listened and worked with you to find a way to work through the fear. How does that feel in your body? Did you experience the same tightening in your shoulders? Did it stay the same, intensify, or lessen? Being able to feel the physical manifestation of fear stops the downward mental spiral that can quickly spin into a much greater level of anxiety.
- Gradually work through your body, head to toe, and consciously relax each body part – the jaw and shoulders are often where the fear pops up, but check the rest of your body as well.
- Repeat the second visualization a few times and you’ll see your fear start to dissipate.
Visualization is a great way to “pre-treat” anxiety and fear as well. Visualize in great detail that you’re tacking up the horse, you and the horse are calm and relaxed. Feel the silkiness of the horse’s neck as you pat him, smell the peppermint that you gave him. Feel yourself leading him to the mounting block and mounting him quietly as he stands perfectly still. You take a deep breath and exhale, and carry on with a great ride.
Until the next time, love your horse, love your life, and love yourself!
Are you interested in a few more stress-busting exercises? Grab your free copy of 60 Seconds to Calm and learn 3 simple exercises you can do in 60 seconds or less to help you nip anxiety in the bud and fully enjoy your Horsey Life.
Have you ever realized that “goal” is a four-letter word? The irony and appropriateness of that amuse me (but my amusement threshold is incredibly low after a year of pandemic life).
According to Wikipedia, a goal is “an idea of the future or desired result that a person or a group of people envision, plan and commit to achieve.” When I was running my training barn, I created goals tailored to each horse. One stallion that came to me for training clearly needed to relax his topline use his back more freely. He had been started by a rider who tried to control him by taking a death grip on the reins. By the time the poor horse came to me, his defense mechanism was to just tuck his chin against his chest, totally dropping behind the contact, and then just tank off. He clearly needed to be ridden sympathetically, and learn to seek the connection rather than fearing it.
My solution for him was to take him out trail riding. He’d never been out on trails, so it would be an experience he wouldn’t associate with having his head cranked in, and he was fascinated by all the smells. He walked along like a bloodhound, nose to the ground, and stretching over his topline nicely. As the days went by, I gradually asked him to walk on very light contact, then a bit more contact, and he was perfectly happy to comply. After about 3 weeks of solely being hacked out, I took him back in the ring and he happily stretched over his topline and reached for the connection with the bit. How did I achieve my goal? I used 3 steps that can be applied to any goal – horse-related or not.
- Begin with the end in mind. I learned this from the late Stephen Covey, a leadership and productivity genius, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, (although the original idea is attributed to philosopher Seneca around 50 BC). So, how does that relate to goals for horsewomen? You’ve got to know what you want to achieve. In the case of the stallion above, my goal for him was to have him relax his back and trust the contact. I couldn’t do anything with his training until we achieved that objective. So, I started there.
- My second step was to establish exactly where we were starting. If I rode him on a loose rein and didn’t attempt to pick up contact, he was calm. He responded well to aids from my legs and seat, and would half-halt nicely just without any rein contact. That was good, but as soon as I picked up the reins, he would get tense and start to duck his head back against his chest. So, my starting point with him was that he was responsive to seat and leg, but the whole idea of contact really freaked him out.
- My third step was to reverse engineer the journey that would take him from very tense and tight to relaxed and trusting. I worked backward from my goal and brainstormed some ideas to use as goalposts along the way. I wanted him to seek contact, but before that, he’d have to trust contact. Before he could trust contact, he’d need to trust me, and learn that I wasn’t just going to pull on his face as hard as I could. Before he could trust me, he had to get to know me a bit better. I spend a lot of time on the ground with him. Hand grazing, grooming, a bit of lunging – all of those experiences let him began to see me as someone very unlike the original person who started him. It all began with trust.
If you’re having any training issues with your horse, take a step back and decide what your end goal is. The steps required to help a horse relax his topline may be quite different than if you’re wanting your horse to be more responsive to leg aids. I always ask students if they want to ride in the Olympics, or would they be happy taking relaxing trail rides or entering some local shows. Be crystal clear about your goal will help you attain it that much more quickly and easily.
In the words of the inimitable Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you‘ll end up someplace else”, so make sure you know where you’re going!
Until the next time, Love Your Horse, Love Your Life, and Love Yourself!
Did the title of this post get your attention? If you’re like me (and at least 97% of all the horsewomen in the world), you may be wondering what on earth I’m talking about. Of course he’s better cared for! He depends on you to feed him, keep him in a safe and comfortable environment, and scratch that spot right near his withers that always makes him do that funny thing with his lips.
Read the last sentence in the previous paragraph again. (Just humor me and do it, OK?) Anything stand out? How about the word “depends”? (I’m not even going down the bladder control rabbit hole)! He depends on you. So what happens if you get sick? What happens if you injure yourself? What happens if you’re so tired when you feed him at the end of the day that you don’t even notice that little lump…?
Do you see where I’m going with this? You can’t be the best horse owner if you don’t care for yourself. You need to be healthy, at least somewhat fit and rested to be there for him.
The Ugly Truth
Remember the movie A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise get in a shouting match and Cruise says he wants the truth? And Nicholson replies – “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Can you handle the truth about yourself? Can you look yourself in the eye (in the mirror, of course) and say that you’re doing everything possible to take good care of yourself?
“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
“Taking care of yourself” means different things to different people. Understand I’m not talking about massages, girls’ night out, or mani-pedis – I’m talking about your health (which also means different things to different people). For the sake of this post, I’m taking a lead from the World Health Organization, which describes health as, “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
So you don’t have to be running marathons every month (or at all), you don’t have to adopt a vegan diet, you don’t have to spend hours in the gym or drink gallons of green smoothies, but you should at least establish your baseline. Caveat – I am not, nor do I claim to be, offering any medical advice. I am not a doctor, nurse, nutritionist, or personal trainer (or marathon runner, although I do love green smoothies!). I’m simply a 62-year-old woman who has spent the last 50 years, yes – 50 years! – as a horse person, and I have the surgical scars and cantankerous joints to prove it.
The whole “self-care” thing has become a bit of a cliche – which is one reason why I didn’t use it in the title of this post! For a lot of horsewomen, myself included, “self-care” means washing the cut you just got fixing the fence, or at least squeezing on it a bit so it’ll bleed out any germs. Horsewomen, we need to do better.
I’m challenging myself to do better this month, and I’m inviting you to do the same. March is Women’s History Month, so let’s make a little history of our own by becoming the healthiest horsewomen in the world (or at least at the barn).
Hello and welcome back!
Today I’m wrapping up this 3-part series on why resolutions suck for horsewomen. In the first two posts, I laid out why I think there are better alternatives to resolutions, and how to begin using them.
If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, I’ve got the solution to keep you from running off screaming into the night: chunking.
Yup, chunking. Chunking means simply breaking down your goals into small, manageable steps. For instance: You love trail riding but haven’t done much recently. Your friend has invited you to go on a 15-mile ride with her in 6 weeks, how would you ensure you and your horse are prepared:?What’s the terrain like? Are there a lot of hills? Is your horse fit enough? Are you fit enough? Does all of your tack fit my horse and me appropriately? Does your horse load into, and stand quietly tied to the trailer? Do you have enough Epsom salts for the 3-hour soak you’re going to need after the ride?
Answering those questions will give you an idea of where you’re starting. You have your why (you love trail riding and spending time with your friend), and you have your desired outcome – you and your horse having an enjoyable day out on the trail in 6 weeks. Now, all you have to do is get from here to there… before your eyes glaze over at the thought of trying to get this all managed, let me introduce you to my not-so-secret weapon. Chunking.
Yup, chunking. Chunking will help you break down the steps that are necessary to get you from today to the end of the trail ride. Let’s say that you’re not as fit as you’d like to be. Instead of putting down: Get Fit in your planner, break it down. Do you need more flexibility? Work 10 minutes of stretching into your day, gradually upping that amount. Need more endurance? Grab your smartphone and check how many steps you’re currently walking in a day and then add a hundred more each day.
Or maybe your horse doesn’t load reliably. Instead of waiting till the morning of the ride with your fingers crossed, break down your work with him into steps. 1. He needs to come to the trailer quietly, rather than yanking your arm out of the socket or dancing around or digging in his heels. That’s step 1 – just get him to approach the trailer quietly. Perhaps the trailer isn’t the real root of the problem – perhaps it’s because he likes to be a bit pushy at times, in which case you want to work on that aspect first.
Keep working backward from your goal to where you’re starting today until you have the smallest effective steps laid out. Taking a 15-minute walk followed by a stretch once or twice a day is much more manageable than hitting the gym for 3 hours a day the week of the trail ride.
As I suggested in the last post, keep track of your goals, but also of your progress. Check off the steps you’re taking every day in a journal so you can see how far you’ve come (and to point out that you’re not making the necessary progress should that be the case)!
Chunking is great for nearly every situation in life – whether horsey or not – overall health goals, home improvement projects, learning a new skill – they’re all much easier to manage when you have a baby-step that you can complete and check off in 1 sitting. If your chunk is much bigger than that, break it down again, and again, and maybe one more time until you can see yourself being able to complete the activity in 1 session.
I know someone out there’s saying to me, “For goodness sake, women – the damn ride is in 6 weeks, not 6 months!”, and I hear you. Notice I’m not limiting you to just 1 baby step per session (or per day), feel free to do one, and then another, and then another, go for it, but be sure to acknowledge the progress you’ve made!!
So, hopefully, when next December rolls around, you will be thinking beyond those same old resolutions to a system that really helps you reach your goals and celebrate your progress every step of the way!
Until then, love your horse, love your life, and love yourself.
I don’t know about you, but 2020 pretty well had me on the ropes by February, and it didn’t improve much over the following 10 months. I lost my Mom in February, lost my job in September, and spent the rest of the time trying to come up for air.
While 2020 had its challenges, it also offered opportunities for growth and gratitude.
While losing my Mom was and still is devastating, she was 99 years old and had had an amazing life. And she passed away in February. Which meant she didn’t have to die without family nearby. My sister and I spent the last few days at her bedside. The fact that she didn’t have to endure the loneliness of a lockdown is one of the things I’m most grateful for from 2020.
I grew in my job, writing over $70,000 worth of successful grant applications in 5 months. This was for a small non-profit whose budget was in the $100,000 range. I’m still pretty proud of that.
I’m also pretty proud of the fact that I left that job when staying would not have been in my best interest. The situation evolved over the period of just a month, and it took me a while to move past the disappointment and anger I felt; however, I now know that I am right where I’m meant to be – in my writing studio in my home working on ways to help empower horsewomen in the Barn & Beyond.
2020 brought things into our lives we never could have foreseen, which is probably a good thing – can you imagine knowing ahead of time how the year would unfold? There were times it was hard enough to live just that moment without having a foreshadowing of what was to come.
2021 rolled in right on schedule (and not a moment too soon!), and with it came hopes for a better 365 days for all of us. I’m planning amazing things for The Horsey Life Community this year including teaching ways to calm the anxiety that’s seemingly become a constant companion of late.
You can grab my newest offering, 60 Seconds to Calm below. It’s a small collection of exercises you can do in less time than it takes you to read this post, because the last thing we need is another activity that will be “good for us”, but takes a half-hour or more. I can’t imagine wanting to add to our already overloaded schedule and burgeoning to-do list!
While I’ll be the first one to admit that not all short-cuts provide us with the desired results, there are definitely instances where we can set our MER – Minimum Effective Result, and get the improvements we’re looking for. This is especially true for relaxation exercises.
I love meditation and typically meditate at least once a day. Some days I do 20 minutes, some days more, some days all I can manage is 10 breaths. But on those days, 10 breaths give me enough space to step back from the brink, re-evaluate, and reconnect with now. This is extremely helpful when you’re doing something which requires your full presence, like working with your horse.
Being prey animals, horses are very sensitive to a perceived threat. If you get to the barn stressed about your job, the traffic, the COVID virus (or vaccine), chances are you’re going to pass some of this onto your horse. He might not understand why you’re stressed and not fully present, but he’ll sense that all is not well. Which will make him warier. When he tenses, you’ll become warier, and the whole thing spirals like water going down the plug-hole. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are simple effective ways to show up fully for your horse, your life, and yourself.
Check out this post for a great exercise to do before you greet your horse, and remember to download 60 Seconds to Calm. Your horse will thank you.
Until next time, Love Your Horse, Love Your Life, Love Yourself
So, my friends, you discovered in last week’s post that you’re not the only returning rider who is struggling to bridge the gap between your happy memories of riding when you were a kid and the occasionally scary and painful reality of riding now. And you might not like what I say next, but stick with me – it gets better after the next piece of advice!
Step one in becoming a comfortable, confident midlife horsewoman is to… manage your expectations. I know, I know, I can hear your outraged/despondent/indignant voices now – you thought I was going to help you live the dream and now I’m telling you to manage expectations?? Really?
OK, now that you’ve had a chance to register your complaints – take a deep breath and read on.
Managing your expectations is not the same as giving up. Let me say this again, managing your expectations is NOT the same as giving up. Here’s the deal – by being realistic, even cautious, at the beginning of your journey as a recycled rider, you’re a lot more likely to ride better and longer and have more fun doing it.
Managing your expectations is NOT the same as giving up.
Here’s my 4-step process to make getting back on the horse (literally and figuratively) one of the best decisions you’ve made in 2020 (not a high bar, I agree, but at least you’ll have one good memory of this dumpster-fire of a year).
First, what do you want from riding?
Are you planning on trying out for the Olympics or is going on a Sunday afternoon trail ride more your thing? Are you hoping to own your own horse, take lessons, borrow a friend’s horse? Get clear on this – take some time and really think about your ideal horsey life. There are no right or wrong answers, this is your vision of your life, not your friend’s, spouse’s, or instructor’s.
Next, where are you now?
Take inventory of where you are on your journey now. Are you a returning rider who rode a lot when you were in your teens and are comfortable with the idea of getting to the same level again, or are you happy with the idea of trail riding to relax on the weekends?
Do you have excited butterflies in your stomach when you think about riding or is it more a queasy feeling and sense of dread?
Notice where you feel anxiety or avoidance – that’s often a clue that we don’t feel like we can really achieve our goals or that they’re more difficult than we’re comfortable with (yet). Give yourself the time and the space (and the grace) to let these feelings percolate for a while.
That discomfort may also be a clue our goals are not actually ours, but rather something we’ve held over from a younger version of ourselves, or something society has decided is “appropriate” for someone in their midlife.
Third Question – What are you willing to do to get from here to there?
This is often where the dream goes a bit soft-focus. We dearly want it to be easy and smooth and perfect. What we get is often frustrating and bumpy and borderline awful. The dream seems so far away sometimes.
Are you willing to put in extra hours, extra money, extra exercise, and learning, and humility, and vulnerability to get there? Are you willing to keep smiling at the doubters (it’s perfectly OK to call them every name in the book under your breath and behind your mask)?
Are you really able to do/give/be whatever it takes to reach that dream or maybe, just maybe, is it time to adjust your sights a bit closer to your current situation and create an interim goal to help you reach your bigger goal? As I said earlier, managing your expectations does not mean you are giving up!
And now, the one question to rule them all (sorry, Tolkein) – what is your why?
Why are you willing to spend an hour in an Epsom salts bath every evening? Why are you willing to slog around in the mud and the dark and the cold to feed your horse or adjust his blanket? Why do you keep getting up at 5, keep getting up into the saddle when every part of you aches and that duvet looks so inviting? Why?
Many people would argue that this question should come first, but putting it after the other questions means you can go back and look at your answers through the lens of knowing your why. It can change your perspective and offer you a way to think about your goals and dreams in a way you hadn’t before.
Did you find that some of your answers changed? Are you able to see a bit more clearly where you are, where you want to go, how you’ll get there knowing the overarching question of Why?
If your answers have changed, and you’ve decided that you really don’t want to go on hunter paces after all, or you don’t want to trail ride, or you don’t even really want to ride at all, preferring to groom and hang out and bond with your horse – that’s fine! It’s better than fine – it’s your truth. You haven’t given up or given in – you’ve managed your expectations.
Until next time, love your horse, love your life, and love yourself.