There is no shortage of gurus in the world. Want to learn yoga? I got “About 315,000,000 results (0.52 seconds)” when I searched “Learn Yoga Online” on Google. The same is true of horseback riding instructors, horse trainers, and equestrian coaches – over 1 million results for “best coach for horsewomen”. Although I coach horsewomen (and showed up near the top of the first page in the Google search), I’m not going to tell you I’m the best life coach or confidence coach for you, or for any horsewoman. I’m good, and more than happy to help you get the quality of life you’re looking for, but your best coach is right out in the field – it’s your horse.
What You Can Learn from Your Horse
You want to be a great horse owner. In order to do so, you need to develop a deep understanding of 2 things – your horse, and yourself. The best way to understand a horse is by learning from a horse. Your horse will teach you his language, his likes and dislikes, his fears, quirks, favorite scratching spots, and whether he prefers peppermints, carrots, or apples (or loves all 3!) Strangely enough, the best way to develop a deep understanding of yourself is to partner with your horse as your coach.
I think Buck Brannaman said it best when he said the horse is a mirror to your soul. Horses don’t worry about the same social norms that we humans do – things like hurting someone’s feelings, only showing positive emotion, or not showing any emotion at all. Horses stay alive by cutting right to the important stuff. Like where to find the best grass in the spring, a good roll in the mud always feels better just after a bath, and the fact that peppermints come in nice crinkly plastic wraps, (truth – if I want to attract the attention of either of my horses, I just crinkle a mint wrapper or yell “Peppermints!”. Works every time). OK – so that’s not the important stuff that keeps them alive, (although it does improve their quality of life) – the stuff that keeps them alive is who, what, and when to fear; and who, what, and when to trust.
“The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Buck Brannaman
Trust is huge for horses. Think about it – they are prey animals. Throughout their evolution, they’ve learned that a likely attack could come from a predator jumping on them from above – and yet – they let us climb on their backs. And humans are PREDATORS! That, my friends, is trust! When horses trust us, they literally trust us with their lives. They look to us for companionship, but also for a strong partnership and leadership.
So, what can we learn about ourselves from our horses? We can learn to trust ourselves. Horses follow instincts instilled in them over millennia. What we forget, is that humans have an inner knowing as well. Sadly, in most cases, it’s been civilized out of us. We’re not taught to listen to our own souls. We’re taught to trust everything and everyone except that quiet voice inside that says – “This – this is right. This is how it’s meant to be. This is who you are meant to be.”
Watch your horse. Spend time with him. Does he ever worry about how to be a horse? He doesn’t need to. He knows. We need to strip away all the trappings and reconnect with our essential selves. We need to listen to someone we can trust. Trust your horse. Trust that mirror to your soul. He knows who you are at that level. Let him show you. All you have to do is look into his eyes and believe what you see in the mirror.
A little Learning…
As so famously said by Alexander Pope, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” This danger rises exponentially when horses are part of the equation. If you don’t want to be the bad example that becomes lore with your great-grandchildren, try a few of these suggestions to ensure your Horsey Life is long and healthy.
When more is better.
There are definitely some instances when more is better. Getting to know your horse – his particular personality traits, his normal appearance, and attitude. Having that knowledge will make it much easier to spot a small problem and prevent it from becoming a large problem!
Regular safety checks also fall under the “more is better” category.. Having a simple routine to check your horse in the pasture every day (if he lives out like mine do), can help . My simple field-check formula can be remembered as “22400 Gut”.
- You want to check your horse’s 2 eyes, (are they swollen or gunky or extra runny?)
- 2 nostrils, (Is there abnormal discharge?),
- 4 legs, (are they cool and “tight” with no obvious lameness, abnormal swellings or heat?),
- 0 swelling (insect bites, tick bites and hives show up on my Thoroughbred mare much more frequently than on my 31-year-old Dutch gelding. Knowing your horse’s body well will help you identify a new swelling – not one from an old windpuff he’s had for 8 years.
- The last 0 is blood. You definitely don’t want to see blood; however, blood will often make the problem easier to pinpoint!
- Trust your gut. If you know your horse really well and you know he’s not quite right, but can’t put your finger on what it is, call your vet. I’ve had horses for 50 years (literally), and I have never been sorry that I called the vet with some unexplainable attitude change – I just knew something wasn’t right. Trusting your gut (instinct) on this can literally save his life.
My 31-year-old Dutch Warmblood was definitely “not quite right” one day last fall. He wasn’t lame, he wasn’t coughing, there was no swelling, no bleeding, but something was wrong. When I called my vet, she had me check his temperature, which was 104!! She’d seen half a dozen or so horses with these same weird symptoms. All of them were sick for a few days and then just got better. 2 days into this high fever, he developed bright orange mucus coming from one of his nostrils. It was bizarre and a bit frightening – a 30-year-old horse doesn’t have as strong an immune system as a 10-year-old horse, and I was very worried. Fortunately, his recovery followed the same trajectory as my vet’s other clients and within 5 days of starting antibiotics, the fever was gone, the mucus was gone (it really was gross), and he was back to being his own incorrigible self. The moral of the story is that if I hadn’t picked up on those subtle symptoms of him being “not qI do advise (to myself as well as you) that you check it for several days over the next week or so so you have a baseline temp. That will give you the knowledge of what’s normal for him.
If you’re going to the barn or going trail riding on your own, make sure someone knows where you are. Just checking in with someone is a good idea any time – (Remind me some time to tell you the story of the message that never got delivered, leading to a missing person’s search, and a State Police car waiting for me in the driveway when I got home. It’s funny now…) Better to have that safety routine. I would text my daughter when I got on a horse if I was by myself. I told her I would text her back in xx number of minutes/hours. It made both of us a little more comfortable knowing that if something did go wrong, at least I wouldn’t be lying in the middle of the field with a broken leg…
Common sense often isn’t
Have you ever read the warning labels that come on chain saws, blow dryers, and other common items we encounter during out day? If you haven’t, I urge you to go to the closest small appliance or tool at hand, and read it. On a blow dryer, “Don’t use in the bathtub” and “Don’t use when you’re asleep”… I think one of my favorites was on a chain saw advising the user to not use it near their genitals… wow… and you seriously thought operating a chain saw near your genitals was a good idea… why, exactly??
All of those warnings come, in part, because we live in a very litigious society, and the manufacturers of these items need to cover their own arses if (or should I say when) someone idiot decides to use a chain saw near their genitals. “Probably a good thing Lorena Bobbit only had a carving knife…”
So, because horses don’t come with those handy little warning labels, my advice is this: don’t do stupid things on, with, or around horses. Just don’t. I don’t care how sweet your horse is – he is a prey animal and will react with his flight instinct if he’s frightened. I don’t care how long you’ve been ducking under your horse’s stomach to grab the girth. Unless you live in an area with no insects, remember the big horsefly that lands on his back leg will garner more attention than where your head is at the moment.
Just use your (all too often un-) common sense. Remember the chain saw warning when you’re about to take your green horse out on a trail ride alone when you know he has a big spook…
Just don’t do it.
Stack the deck in your favor
There are things you can learn (and do) to help keep you and your horse safe and happy.
- Spend time really learning about your horse. The more you know about him, the less you’ll be surprised by an unexpected spook or buck
- Put a bucking strap on the front of your saddle. Doing so shows that you are one of those rare breed, a person with common sense! They’re an inexpensive way to help stack the deck in your favor.
- Wear a body protector vest. Whether you go with an “active” (these are attached to the saddle with a cord. When the rider falls and the cord breaks, an air canister is activated giving you excellent protection. There are also “passive” vests which are made with heavy foam blocks covered in a tough material. They’re designed to limit blunt trauma damage to your torso from a fall.
- Wear a helmet – I’ve heard it all – you hate helmets, you get helmet hair, they’re hot, you never fall off… if Olympian Courtney King-Dye had been wearing a helmet on that March day in 2010 her life would have looked very different. But because she was riding a horse that was such a good boy, she figured she didn’t need it for what was supposed to be a brief ride. Despite being a “good boy”, the horse tripped and he and Courtney fell. She suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which damaged all 4 lobes of her brain.
In an interview with The Horse Magazine, Courtney recounted the series of events that unfolded that day.
“My accident happened in March, 2010. I didn’t fall off, and my horse did nothing naughty. He just tripped over his own feet and fell, and my head hit the ground hard. Hence my motto: expect the unexpected. I was not wearing a helmet, and my brain sheered, or bounced around, in my skull. I was in a coma for a month. I had to relearn to do things like walk, talk and eat.).”
Don’t take stupid chances with your life.
Till next time, Love Your Horse, Love Your Life, and Love Yourself!
What can you do to become the owner your horse deserves? Ditch this one word and head toward your goals!
If you’ve been following along with this series, you’ve already learned about Knowing Your Why, Understanding Yourself (and your emotions), and the steps to Clear Communication with your horse. Now it’s time to talk about some of the work that goes on behind the scenes when we’re setting and working toward our (realistic) goals. Yay. Just what you wanted, right?
Setting goals can be a driver that helps us improve in all areas of our lives, including our Horsey Life. (Read how I engineer a path to my goals in this post.)
If you’re anything like me, setting goals always seems to end up with large amounts of “should”, “why can’t I” and “WTF’s wrong with me?” I should be back riding by now. I should be showing again. I should be a size 8 and be flexible enough to bend over and put my hands flat on the floor. I’m batting 0/3.
I do want to say right here that I have achieved some important goals, both horse-related and in “real life”. But those goals I listed above? Not so much. Let’s take a little stroll through my broken, abandoned, and unrealistic goals, and see where things start to unravel.
We’re going to visit the soft underbelly of goal setting – beating yourself up when you fall short. That’s due, in part, to setting unrealistic goals for ourselves. We’ve all done it at some point in our lives. We set these ridiculously high goals for ourselves, only to watch them crash and. burn as a consequence of our self-sabotaging behaviors. But ditching just one word from your vocabulary will do more to help you achieve your goals than the best planner/goal setting software/sticky notes with positive messages stuck on your bathroom mirror ever can. The banished word?
It’s a simple word. One syllable, six letters, no weird silent consonants – but it’s a minefield rife with soul-sucking pitfalls.
According to Oxford Languages, the definition of should is: “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.”
Obligation, duty, correctness, criticizing. Wow – doesn’t that sound like a fun way to be motivated? All I have to do is think the word and I feel myself begin curling into the fetal position. I have enough things on my plate – I sure as hell don’t want to tarnish my Horsey Life with any “shoulds”. Ever notice that “should” is almost always associated with a goal that’s: 1. Unrealistic, 2. Not really connected to our Why, and 3. Something that someone else thinks we “should” do.
- I should ride every day. (When I’m working a 60 hour week and it’s rained for 11 days straight…)
- I should spend more time grooming my horses. (When by the time I get to the barn, there’s not a lot of daylight left, so grooming consists of cleaning hooves and grooming where the tack will go.)
- I should enjoy the time I spend with my horses. (When I have a migraine and any setting other than a dark, quiet room makes me want to vomit).
- I should make more time to spend with my horses. (When … well, when life happens!)
Sound familiar? I don’t know about you, but taking that one word out of each sentence creates an entirely different feeling. To go one step further, substitute “get to” or “Able to” for the word “should”.
- I get/am able to ride. It may not be every day, but how lucky am I that I have the opportunity at all!
- I get/am able to spend more time grooming my horses. Making a few tweaks to my schedule means I get an extra 15 minutes at the barn every day and my horse is loving the extra grooming!
- I get/am able to enjoy the time I spend with my horses. I know that when I go to the barn, it’s better for everyone that I’m not dealing with a migraine or any other condition that makes my time with my horses more of a chore than a joy. I allow myself to be human and not go to the barn, or just handle the basics when I’m not up to par.
- I get/am able to make more time to spend with my horses. I’m doing some batch cooking, asking my husband to take over some of the things that limit my time in the barn, etc.
I don’t know about you, but those sentences make me want to spend more time at the barn and with my horses!
Yeah, Yeah I can hear you saying. That’s fine for you, but I have to yada yada yada (fill in your excuses here). I work too many hours. My family doesn’t understand me. I don’t have enough money to buy one of those awesome $200 saddle pads/take more riding lessons/compete in horse shows.
You may hate me for saying this (I know I can get pretty pissed with myself when my “higher” self brings this up), but every situation in your life right now is because of a choice you made.
That’s a hard one to swallow, isn’t it? It takes away all of that lovely blame we can send toward the circumstances or relationships we’re experiencing at the moment. I’m not going to get into a whole discussion of this right now (because it’s a book, not a blog post), but there are literally thousands of books, coaches, YouTube videos, podcasts, etc. who will explain this to you if you decide you’d like to learn more and move past the shoulds, the blame, the frustration and the resignation you’re currently experiencing.
So while we might want to try to dump “should” from our vocabulary, there’s a word we could add that we rarely use in relation to ourselves. Grace.
In 9 Ways to Extend Grace to Others, author Dawn Klinge suggests acts like Let It Go, Forgive, and Watch the Way You Speak. While Klinge’s post suggests these examples as ways to offer grace to others, they’re just as appropriate (but much more difficult) as ways to extend grace to ourselves. We always find it easier to beat ourselves up than to let it go – move past situations of the past that we carry with us like a heavy cloak of darkness and guilt, forgive ourselves (another way to release some of the guilt we all lug around), and watch the way we speak to ourselves.
That’s a lot to think about. We’re learning a new way of thinking about our goals, our relationships with our horses, and more importantly, with ourselves, and that doesn’t come overnight… or over a weekend… or a week… or… well, let’s just say that this learning process continues throughout our entire lives. And we
should get to see every moment as an opportunity for grace.
Until next time, Love Your Horse, Love Your Life, and Love Yourself!
Can you hear me now?
If you’re like me, you’ve got a constant conversation running through your mind. (Please tell me it’s not just me!) From things I need to do to hoping it’s going to rain to making sure I bring a mask when I clip Laddie (yup, I’m allergic to horses…) – it’s a wonder I even have time to speak with other people, much less the mental bandwidth!
The main trouble with this is that, in being buried in our own ramblings, we sometimes don’t engage fully when we’re speaking with someone. We’ve all had times when we tune out of a conversation and start thinking about what to cook for dinner, then suddenly realize the person we’re speaking with has paused and is expecting an answer, right? Awkward! Sometimes it works the other way, where you start a conversation only to have your mind hijacked and taken down the nearest rabbit hole, leaving the other person backing away quietly and glancing around for the nearest exit.
Now, consider your conversations with your horse. It’s likely you are doing most of the “talking”, either with words, body language, (or peppermints), but are you sure your horse is understanding? Since we’re the more highly “evolved” being (don’t get me started on why I prefer most horses to a fair amount of people…), it’s up to us to make sure we are being understood. As I mentioned in the last post, first you need to become self-aware and understand yourself before you can expect to be understood by your horse.
Listen to learn, talk to teach.
That was one of my Dad’s favorite expressions (along with “A good teacher answers the questions, a good student questions the answers.” My Dad was brilliant.) Well, in our conversations with our horses, we need to make sure we’re listening exponentially more often than talking. He already knows how to be a horse – there’s nothing you can teach him about that; however, if you want him to learn your language, you have to learn his first.
It can be frustrating to wait for him to understand a new exercise, and at times we may find ourselves increasing the volume and repetition of the request rather than taking a step back and figuring out why he didn’t understand it in the first place. It’s like waiting for a file to load on a computer.
How many times do you hit the enter key (usually uttering a bit of colorful language under your breath) because it just won’t load the damn page? Here’s a hint (both for your computer and your horse) – every time you click enter (or repeat your aid to your horse), it’s like hitting the reset button. – it just keeps sending him back to the beginning of the thought process, and it can make him anxious (and sometimes a bit cranky – but, can you blame him??)
Here are a few tips on how to become a better conversationalist with your horse, which will, in turn, help you become the owner he deserves.
- Ask once. Just once. Give him an opportunity to think through your request before you start asking over and over again. If it seems like his mind has wandered, ask him something simple just to get his attention back on the work at hand. It’s hard for him to focus when he’s gradually falling asleep at the end of the lead rope!
- Reward all tries. If you’re asking him to yield his hindquarters and he takes a step backward instead, don’t punish him – horses honestly don’t do things that frustrate us “on purpose”, it’s typically because they don’t understand our request. Spend a minute and think about your aid to the horse – if he didn’t understand, how can you present the request again in a way that’s clearer to him.
- Clear the static. Have you ever tried to tune in a radio station, but the connection so full of static that you could only understand every third or fourth word? Welcome to the world of how your horse can feel about your aids. I can’t tell you the number of lessons I’ve taught where a student told me that the lesson horse they’re riding is much better than he was a few weeks earlier. I’d then explain that wasn’t the horse who improved – he’d always been a good horse, it was the student being clearer with their aids that made it easier for the horse to understand them.
Give it a try! Next time you’re with your horse, and he doesn’t understand something you ask him, follow the steps above and you might just see that he was a good horse all along.
Until next time – love your horse, love your life, and love yourself!
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.