Unemotional Riding: A Relationship Without Aggression or Fear

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

Horses are very good judges of character. They have a way of letting you know when you are out of line. There’s a reason that they started mustang gentling programs for inmates in prisons across the country. Horse training is a practice that demands a clear head and daily commitment to being a “good traveler” for the sake of your relationship.

 

Achieving any level of success in equestrian sport will require patience, a rare virtue in today’s culture. This has been a personal struggle for me for years. I am not a patient person by nature, and I find that many of my rides are underpinned by frustration. Occasionally I can sense when my temper is rising up to the surface and blurring my conduct when things aren’t going right and my training session is starting to go to pot. I can’t be the only one dealing with this constant thorn in my side–at least I hope that I’m not the only one that isn’t a serene and certified anger free yogi when it comes to riding.

Frustration can become a toxic presence that hangs like a cloud over your relationship with your horse. We all know that feeling of turning your horse out after a truly horrible ride. Internally, you wonder whether you should blame yourself or your horse. Was it the saddle? Inadequate warm up? Cold weather? Is he just being a brat? Was I being too rough with him?

No matter the reason, frustration in your riding can really poison your day. You watch him wheel and gallop away the second the halter drops and you feel that sick, sinking feeling that you are lost, stuck, and angry–with yourself, with your horse, and with this moment in time in general.

All frustration stems from a lack of understanding and perspective. We feel frustrated or angry when a situation or individual doesn’t live up to our expectations.  It manifests itself in either outward or inward expressions of aggression. An outward expression might be pushing your horse harder or forcing him into a small circle when he pigroots or hops up, a kind of “I’ll show him!” philosophy. An inward expression of aggression might appear in the form of insidious negative self talk-“why did I let this happen? If I was a better rider, my horse wouldn’t be behaving like this”.

It’s not that we consciously orient our training to favor punishment and negative reinforcement; rather, it is a deeply rooted human behavior pattern. Anger, like fear, is a completely natural response to perceived danger or threats. We are programmed to protect ourselves, and as predators we are often more likely to react with the “fight” response.

Luckily, as they say in anger management classes, anger is a choice. Through positive reinforcement and cognitive restructuring, you can set yourself and your horse up for frustration-free riding. The best professional riders learn to cultivate a state of unemotional riding in which they can work with a horse objectively and look past bad behavior to the bigger picture, the journey if you will.

Something that has greatly helped me in my journey is trying to eliminate dichotomous language when I talk about my relationship with my horse. I strive to avoid phrases that create space between me and my horse:

“Show the horse who is boss!”

The word “Boss” makes me cringe a little. If we are really being honest, we must admit that no one really likes their boss. When we crown ourselves with this term, we are placing ourselves on the receiving end of our horse’s resentment and irritation. It is still possible to be a leader for our horse, but we know that good leaders lead through service and mutual respect. I believe that it is possible to teach your horse to be a good leader as well. It is important to focus on forming a partnership, not a chain of command.

“I win, the horse loses!”

 Win/lose terminology creates a relationship where one party will always be disenfranchised and frustrated. No one wants to lose. The most successful relationships are built on a win-win training philosophy and the undying conviction that there is room for both individuals to work equally as hard and be equally satisfied. This partnership can be achieved through positive reinforcement. Simply put, instead of waiting for the horse to mess up and consequentially punishing him, wait for the horse to perform the correct behavior and reward him profusely. This makes riding and ground work like a team game, where both individuals are working toward the same goal.

“Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard!”

On the surface, this almost biblical mantra seems like sage advice.It is one of the most repeated guidelines among horse professionals today. I petition that we eliminate this phrase from our collective equestrian vocabulary, or at least amend it to read “Make the Right Thing Easy.” The problem with this philosophy is that when you make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard, you invariably end up focusing almost exclusively on the wrong thing. Your horse gets the most attention when he is doing the wrong thing and your frustration and effort continue to expand while you focus on doing hard things and hustling your horse all over tarnation. Why even mess with the wrong thing?! Horses, like children, will seek behaviors that they get rewarded for, and conversely they will cease behaviors that do not elicit a response.

If your horse is continually doing the wrong thing, just STOP. Don’t worry that stopping is rewarding your horse for the wrong behavior. Your horse’s mind is in constant flux; he has a great capacity to change both bad behaviors and good. As the great George Morris says, whenever you ride, you are either schooling or unschooling–there is no in between. When you are equipped with the right skills and knowledge, it is easy to mold behavior patterns to what you want. Reorient your training to fixate on correct behaviors. For example, if you are working with a horse that won’t load, don’t swing your horse around and lunge it to death when it won’t load. Instead, reward every centimeter your horse moves toward the simple and singular goal of the trailer ramp.

 

The only truly effective remedy for “riding gone wrong” is to stop and regroup. If you feel that your horse is losing patience with the new skill you are trying to teach, or you find yourself growing more and more tense and frustrated, halt right where you are. Sometimes that means literally stopping your horse in the middle of the arena (or walking a small circle if your horse insists on moving) and taking some time for deep breathing exercises and reflection. However, sometimes difficult and problematic rides require more decisive action. I have a few rides when I was literally on the verge of tears and I had to dismount, tie up my horse, and go scrub the water trough or sit down and drink some coffee before I was ready to get on again.

When you stop to take a break, avoid thinking in terms of “what did I do wrong?” and think more constructively. Ask yourself:

What is going RIGHT?

What can I experiment with to make this better next time?

Where can I go back to patch holes in my training to improve this particular skill?

Never be afraid of scrapping your plan and going back to “baby stuff.” The training scale is so sophisticated that if you go backwards a few steps and reevaluate where the holes in your horse’s training may be, it will automatically and drastically improve the more advanced skill you were striving for when you ran into problems. For example: going back to leg yield will improve the half pass, lengthening and shortening stride in the walk will improve both your collected walk and free walk, and walk pirouettes will improve canter pirouettes. There is no shame in going back to foundation skills; this is the mindset of many professional trainers.

Happy riding! I wish you all joy, peace, and understanding in your equestrian journey.

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