We’ve made it to Day 5 of 5 Steps to Better Understanding Your Horse! The steps so far:
- Be Still
- Be Curious
- Be Patient
- Be Open
To wrap up the series, I’m going to share the most important step – the 1 Step to Rule Them All.
This is the foundation on which all of your interactions with your horse should be built. Yes, your horse should respect your personal space, not barge through the gate, or squash you against the wall of his stall; but, again, this isn’t about him, it’s about you.
As we discussed earlier in this series, you need to learn to understand everything you can about your horse. Starting with the basics, like the fact that he’s a prey animal whose response to threat is flight. The fact that his eyes are set on the side of his head so he’s able to see nearly 360° in case a predator approaches from behind. That’s why a horse immediately puts his head up and slightly angled if he perceives a threat – it gives him a better field of view. (In case you didn’t know that, I figured I’d add that in here.)
Horses have evolved over millions of years as prey animals. Despite the fact that your horse has probably never had to run from a pack of wolves or a mountain lion, he’s programmed to run from any perceived threat.
A perceived threat to him might be a garbage can or flapping flag to you.
Because you understand that a garbage can is not a predator, it falls on you to understand and respect the fact that he’s not “being an idiot”, or “doing it on purpose”. Respect of your horse’s innate horsiness will make everyone’s life easier. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with him to help him understand that sometimes a garbage can is just a garbage can (sorry Freud), it does mean you shouldn’t punish him for a response developed eons ago.
On a side note – if you start to get tense when your horse does, he’ll sense that fear and be ready to get the hell out of Dodge at a moment’s notice. He doesn’t realize he’s the source of your fear, he just knows fear = run.
Learn as much as you can about your horse’s behavior, about horses’ behavior in general. Understand and respect the why behind the what. You owe it to your horse – and yourself.
Hope you’ve found the first 3 posts in this series helpful! Today’s step is:
To set the stage, let’s start with what “openness” is in this context.
In an article on PsychologyToday.com, Ingrid Clayton, Ph.D., states that to” be open” means the following:
“For starters, I think it means that we refrain from shutting down possibilities before they’ve had a chance to breathe… ‘No’ feels like a safe choice. There’s nothing to risk and I stay in my comfort zone.” Ingrid Clayton, Ph.D.
Sound familiar? Some examples in your Horsey Life might be:
- You’ve always ridden hunt seat, but your friend suggests you try balanced seat or dressage to help improve your balance.
- You typically buy one brand of fly spray or shampoo, but someone tells you about a brand you’ve never tried.
- You’ve always ridden the same horse at your lesson barn and your instructor wants you to ride a different one
- You always ride in a ring and a friend invites you on a trail ride
All of these scenarios offer some risk (as does getting out of bed in the morning)’ however, staying safe has its own risks – ie burnout or boredom – for you and your horse.
I’m definitely not suggesting that you should decide to go out cantering in a field if you’re not yet established enough in the canter for it to be safe, but there’s a difference between being safe and being stuck. Being safe is realizing that any activity with horses carries some inherent risk and preparing accordingly – i.e.wearing a helmet, not riding alone, letting someone know where you’re going when you go out on a trail ride, (and when you expect to be back). Staying stuck is letting the degree of risk escalate to the point where nothing new feels safe.
As humans, we’re evolutionarily programmed to avoid risk; running when a saber-toothed tiger approached was a matter of life and death. Fortunately, most experiences with horses don’t involve that level of risk. Taking small steps outside our comfort zones is how we grow, as a rider, and as a person.
The benefits of being open to new experiences don’t just affect you, they’re also beneficial to your horse. As a dressage rider/trainer/instructor, I understand the importance of geometry and precision. I know how to plot a perfect 20-meter circle, I know how to ride into corners and make transactions at the letter rather than somewhere in the vicinity of the letter. I also know drilling on the same thing day after day after day can be about as stimulating as watching grass grow. If you’ve ever watched (or scribed for) 32 Training Level rides, you know the depths of hell that unprepared riders can drag you into (a rant for a different post ;-).
If you’re bored stiff watching the rides, imagine how bored the horses are having to drill on them day in and day out. Your horse needs some variety in his work for both physical and mental health. Trail riding can offer fresh perspectives. Trying out a different discipline (i.e. hunt seat, saddle seat, stock seat), can be fun and help you learn how your position affects the horse.
Don’t let “no” become your default setting. View each new opportunity as a bridge to a broader experience. You don’t grow as a rider (or a human) by being afraid to cross the bridge into a new experience. It’s time to be open.
Welcome back! If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that we covered the first two steps of the process, Be Still and Be Curious in the posts Monday and Tuesday. If you haven’t read them yet, visit part 1 HERE and part 2 HERE. OK, everybody ready? The third step to better understanding your horse is:
The human race is becoming a lot more impatient. Studyfinds.org reported on research commissioned by Bic, famous for pens, razors, and lighters, that showed most respondents’ patience for things like waiting for ink to dry on a card or waiting for a kettle to boil, (it was a British study), could be measured in mere seconds. Instagram, Instapot, Instant Rice – the ever-shrinking time we’re willing to wait for anything could end us up in an Insti-tution!
Glance back over your day and try to remember times where you waited for more than 2 minutes. For anything. Kind of hard, isn’t it? We deal with this frenzied pace all day – and then we go to the barn to spend time with our horse. Patience is probably the last thing on your mind.
Following this scenario, you arrive at the barn, you’re stressed and want to get tacked up, and ride so you can work on the new exercises you’re introducing to your horse. He was doing a super job yesterday, and you want to take it to the next level today.
So you get on.
And it sucks.
Your horse apparently lost all memory overnight because he obviously has no idea what you’re asking him to do. What was easy yesterday just ain’t happenin’ today. You’re frustrated, he’s frustrated. The whole thing is heading to Hell in a handbasket and you’re ready to take up crocheting instead of riding. Then you could just sit at home evenings with a bottle of wine and feel satisfied.
Take a deep breath and resist the urge to just go home and spend quality time with a bottle of wine. This is where the learning begins.
Enter patience. Patience doesn’t just refer to waiting for 20 minutes while your horse takes his time eating his dinner, and then another 5 while he licks out the bucket. True patience doesn’t just refer to your relationship with your horse, you also have to practice it with yourself.
You’re probably discovering a theme in this series – it’s not him, it’s you. And if you want to improve things, you need to learn to be patient with yourself.
It’s hard to be patient with your horse (or your kids, or a traffic jam) when your internal dialog starts complaining that “this is taking too long” when you’ve spent 10 seconds on a project. (Even crocheting doilies doesn’t happen that fast).
Horses are here to teach us things we wouldn’t otherwise discover in ourselves – like stillness, curiosity, and patience, and spending time with them offers plenty of opportunities to practice.
Your ride not going as planned? Your horse threw a shoe right before the long trailride you were going to take (and 1 day after the blacksmith was at the barn)? Great – another chance to practice patience!
So flip the way you see things – instead of getting angry or frustrated, view this as an opportunity. Horse not getting the exercise he’d done perfectly yesterday? Take it back down to something he learned a week ago or a year ago. Give him (and yourself) a chance to have a positive experience. Pulled a shoe? Spend the time you were going to be riding on grooming, hand-grazing, or ground manners.
Don’t worry, his short term memory will return. He’ll give up spooking at the mailbox he’s been walking past for the last year. He’ll sail through the new exercises flawlessly.
It might not happen right away, but with patience, you’ll appreciate the journey and the end result will be even better.
But be patient, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Welcome back! Today we’re on the second step in our journey toward better understanding our horses. (If you missed yesterday’s post, you can read it here). Today’s step is Be Curious
Being curious is vital to learning, and retaining, new information. Think of it this way: if you can’t stand golf, but your spouse watches the golf channel all the time, are you likely to learn more about it? Probably not. I don’t know about you, but being curious about something is the first step to learning about it.
We started to develop this a bit yesterday when I quizzed you on how well you know your horse. If you don’t know his vitals, or how he reacts in certain circumstances, your desire to understand him better should spark curiosity which will, in turn, spark full-fledged learning.
Once your curiosity has been piqued, there are a couple of different ways to learn:
- Direct learning – learning directly from your horse. This type of learning involves you spending time with him – groom him, lead him, pet him, ride him, observe him. Start with yesterday’s skill of being still and go from there.
- Indirect learning – learning from an outside source such as books, YouTube videos, your vet, your instructor, etc. Curiosity will serve you well in indirect learning. There is a LOT of information available, and not all of it is safe or helpful or applicable to you and your horse at this time. Be curious about the source of the information as much as the information itself. For instance, forums tend to be attract people who have strong opinions on how things should be done, and they’re not afraid to share them. Just because they’re vehement, doesn’t mean they’re right. Which brings me to the third kind of learning.
- Discernment. Might does not always equal right, especially when it concerns the health and safety of you or your horse. If you read something online, is it written by a vet or a reputable trainer? If you’re watching a YouTube video, is the information being presented in a professional manner?
Any time you feel uncomfortable during an indirect learning situation, either about the way the horse is being handled or the amount of drama in the video, listen to your instincts. I’m not saying those people are wrong, just that they may be wrong for you and your horse where you are right now.
Curiosity is a great starting place for learning. Be curious about what your horse is telling you and see where it leads.
Tomorrow – step 3 is Be Patient.
See you there!
Have you ever had your horse do something totally unexpected? (If not, I’d love to meet your horse!!) It seems that just when you’re on cruise control, everything’s humming along smoothly – bang. Weird response from your horse. A sudden spook at… who knows? A shift in behavior, a habit that’s just starting to annoy you. I hate to be blunt, but chances are it’s probably not your horse – it’s probably you.
Please understand, there could be medical reasons for a change in behavior, so be sure to check with your vet to rule out any physical issues. Sometimes a change in behavior is due to pain or other health issues, and that’s not what I’m covering here.
So – I dropped the bombshell, it’s not him, it’s you. Take a bit of time reflecting on this. How well do you really understand your horse, physically and mentally? Being the (allegedly) higher life-form in this relationship, it’s up to you to learn his language and behavior before you expect him to understand yours.
- What’s your horse’s normal T/P/R (temperature, pulse, and respiration)
- What do your horse’s legs feel like before and after work? Is there heat, filling? Are there old “jewels” like windpuffs or splints? Are they changing?
- How well is he drinking – especially in the hot weather we’re experiencing this summer (at least we are here in VA!)?
- How quickly does he eat his breakfast and/or dinner? Is he a picky eater or an equine omnivore?
- What’s his typical overall behavior? Is he a type A or more of a cool dude?
These are just a few of the things you should know about your horse. If you can’t answer any of these questions, learning the answers is a good place to start. Record his health data – whether in a notebook or in an app. By taking a few minutes every day to analyze and track this info, you’ll catch any changes earlier rather than later.
Ready to jump in? Here’s step 1, Be Still
Step 1 – Be Still
It’s hard to learn anything when you’re not paying attention. In the case of understanding your horse better, not paying attention typically takes the form of distraction. Here are a few things to avoid:
- Thinking about what you need to do when you get home
- Chatting on the phone while you’re with your horse (the exception for this is a call to the vet).
- Working on the wrong part of the puzzle i.e. – when your horse is muddy, don’t think about getting rid of the mud, view it as getting your horse clean. Your different focus will be noticed.
So, what does an “un-distracted” visit with your horse look like?
- Leaving your phone in the car or the tack room, unless you keep it with you in case of an emergency. If you do keep it with you, turn off the ringer, don’t answer any texts, and resist the urge to pull it out every time you get a ping, ding, chime, or rhyme. Assign special ringtones for your family so you’ll know when the call could be important and you need to answer it.
- Leave the outside world outside the barn. I shared this exercise in an earlier post to help you do just that. For some more great exercises check out my 10-Minute Toolkit.
- Breathing, relaxing your body, and just being with your horse.
There is a time to be “busy” and strive for goals, but this isn’t it. Let your only goal be to learn about your horse, how well you understand the way he communicates with you, and how well he understands when you communicate with him.
Ready? Head out to the barn, and let the learning begin.
Next up: Step 2 – Be Curious
We’re all getting tired of being quarantined. We wonder when things will get back to “normal”. This pandemic has made life feel like we’re in some suspended animation. We can’t make definite plans, we can’t spend time in groups, and some of us weren’t able to see our horses for months.
I have a cure for the Pandemic Doldrums – follow along with my 5-day series: 5 Steps to Better Understanding Your Horse. It kicks off tomorrow, Monday, July 27.
In this series of posts, I’ll walk you through 5 simple steps to improving your understanding of your horse, which, in turn, will lead to clearer communication.
If you want to get a jump-start, download my free guide, The 10-Minute Toolkit – a Collection of Quick Exercises to Help Overcome Feelings of Frustration, Fear, and Failure, in the Barn & Beyond.
I’ll see you back here tomorrow!