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!