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!
If you’ve ever set goals or been working on something challenging, you’ve probably heard that it’s important to know your “why”. It’s important for things like fitness goals – having a reason that you’re emotionally connected to makes it easier to go to the gym or head out for a long walk when you’d rather sit and read a book.
Knowing your why is equally important for your Horsey Life. While learning about/spending time with your horse hardly seems as difficult as the last 36 minutes of a 30-minute aerobic class, you need to be completely connected to your why to keep you on course when demands from other areas of your life try to encroach on your precious time spent on your Horsey Life.
Here’s an example, pulled directly from my life over the past couple of weeks. I’ve been busy with an article I’m writing for the United States Dressage Federation’s magazine, the Connection as well as requesting and compiling horse show information for the USDF Region 1 Omnibus. It’s grant writing season, so at my job (I’m the Operations Manager of a small non-profit), I’ve been on deadline with applications, follow-up reports, and budgets as well as doing press releases, social media and web updates along with newsletters to publicize a special event we’re hosting in May. And I had committed to a weekly post here on the Horsey Life.
And then my Mom’s health started to decline.
At 99, it wasn’t totally unexpected, but it meant arranging a trip from VA to CT so I could see her. I’m so glad I went when I did. My daughter and I drove to CT Thursday morning, and Mom passed away Monday morning at 3. My sister and I were there with her. That is a big why. I’m heading back to CT this weekend for her Memorial Service and to spend rare time with my 4 siblings. Family is important to me – another big why. But this year, I’ve added another priority into my life – me.
With everything going on, it would be so easy for me to just do a quick feed of the horses twice a day and not worry about spending too much time with them, but I made a commitment to myself that this year, I was going to start taking care of myself. I’m 61, and if I’m going to live to be 99 like Mom did, I sure want the next 38 years to be the best they can be, and that means taking care of myself. One of the things that’s really important to my physical/mental/emotional well-being is spending time with my 2 horses.
Yesterday, in the midst of entering dressage show information into the Omnibus, billing shows for their listings, and then typing all of the opening, closing, and show dates for March, April, and May into an e-blast (complete with links for each one) and working on the article for the USDF Connection, I headed out into the sunny, warm afternoon to walk the fence line, scrub and refill the water troughs, and spend some time with my “ponies”. It was an extra trip to the barn in the middle of the day – usually, I go a.m and p.m to feed – and every minute of it helped restore a little bit of my soul.
I realized at the end of last year that spending time with my horses was a critical factor in truly enjoying my life, but I had often only been doing the maintenance stuff and it was becoming another item on my to-do list rather than a deep, renewing experienced, so it became a very big why.
So this week, really take some time to figure out your why(s) around your Horsey Life (beyond just the fact that you love horses and want them to be an important part of your life). Make sure you know why they’re so important to you. That deep knowing could sustain you through those times where there are so many other important (and often urgent) demands on your life.
If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride…
I know this may sound obvious, but one of the first things that’s required to make a start on your Horsey Life is… a horse! You don’t need to own one or to go to any great expense in the initial stages, but starting off on the right boot-wearing foot is absolutely vital.
With a laundry list of factors to sort out, let’s start with the most important – safety. This is vital while learning a new skill in which your partner weighs +/- 1,000 pounds. You want to feel comfortable in your learning situation. If the horse you have access to is difficult to handle, or the person you’re dealing with is anything other than patient and kind (both to you and the horse), you’d be well-advised to turn around and head right back out the gate. There’s too much at stake here – not just for your Horsey Life, but for all the other parts of your life as well.
#1 It’s all about who you know
The easiest way for most women to start their Horsey Life is to find a backyard that has horses.
Obviously (at least I hope it’s obvious), don’t touch anyone’s horse without their permission. Horse owners get pretty cross when someone stuffs their fingers into their horse’s mouth and then complains (or sues) when they get bitten.
OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s break this down a bit.
If you have a friend (or a friend of a friend) who has a horse or rides regularly, ask if you could come by and pet/groom/clean up after their horse. Plan on doing something nice for this horse owner like baking them brownies or giving them a $5 gift card to Tractor Supply. Ask in advance if there’s anything you should know/bring/wear, set a time and then DON’T BE LATE. (Don’t you hate it when someone types in all caps? Got your attention though, didn’t I 😉
Equally important as your arrival time is your departure time. Know up front if the person providing the portal to your Horsey Life has an hour to spend with you or just 20 minutes. It’s just minding your manners (your Mom would be so proud!)
This is often the best way to dip your toe into the water trough and see if you suddenly realize that horses on the other side of a fence are amazing, but when you don’t have that handy-dandy barrier, they’re downright terrifying! (Again with the whole looking-like-an-idiot thing – better to have a moment in someone’s back yard than at a public barn with half a dozen 10-year-olds in attendance. Just sayin’).
#2 Ask a pro
The next place on the list is a lesson barn – one that teaches riding lessons, or has pony camp, or something of the sort. The advantage of going public is that many lesson barns are set up to deal with curious Horsey Life newbies. Ask them if you could book a lesson to get a bit of hands-on with a horse. Remember, these folks are professionals, and while they enjoy teaching, they still have to pay the feed bill at the end of the month, so again, be punctual and prepared.
If after a lesson or two of Horsey Life 101, you’re ready to begin riding lessons, you’ll have the advantage of already knowing the instructor and possibly the horse you’ll be riding for your lessons.
Caveat – make sure the barn you visit is reputable (and don’t rely on Yelp reviews to help you decide). Since it can be hard to “know what you don’t know”, ask someone at the local tack shop or feed store, or contact leaders of local horse clubs like 4H or Pony Club for suggestions. These folks are invested in keeping people safe, so they’re likely to be a good source of info.
#3 Happy Trails to You
My next suggestion is to check out a local (and again, reputable) trail ride/dude ranch facility. The horses used at well-run facilities are generally safe, well trained, and used to dealing with novice riders.
It’s a good idea to visit the facility before your ride. Have a look around at the horses, the staff, and the overall condition of the place. If the horses look cranky or not well-cared for, or there are customers riding in shorts and flip-flops, fences are broken and things are messy and disorganized – proceed directly to the nearest exit and ask your friendly 4H or riding club leader to give you another suggestion. If the care of the horses and facility aren’t up to par, standard safety precautions could be ignored as well.
When you find a place that looks well-managed, speak with a member of the staff, be very honest about the fact that you’re a beginner, and see if you can spend 10 or 15 minutes with a quick overview of horse handling 101 before you hit the trail.
#4 Pay it forward
An often overlooked option to get some horse time in is to volunteer at a local rescue or therapeutic riding center. Because these barns generally require a good number of volunteers, you may find that you can get some basic horse handling instruction.
One thing to remember is that not all the jobs you’ll be assigned will give you actual hands-on time with a horse. You might be cleaning stalls, painting fences, or cleaning tack. Do every chore efficiently (and cheerfully), and the people in charge will notice you (trust me on this), and you’ll stand a better chance of moving up the ranks and becoming a side-walker in a therapeutic riding program, or a grooming horses at a rescue.
So whether you start this journey in a small back yard barn or at a large commercial facility, I hope this is a useful resource to starting your Horsey Life.