Leaping off my discussion of the trajectory of progress, I sped into a world of thinking, how do we achieve progress? Moreover, what can we, as riders, do to ensure we are moving in a direction that we like?
When I visualize the rider I want to be, how ever many years away it may be, what can I do to be that rider? It requires a foundation, a plan. Or in cooking terms – ingredients and a recipe to complete.
A phrase we hear commonly in horses – progression is not linear.
I completely concur with this statement, and I can vow the number of times my riding has taken dips and turns that have felt like regression, but overall have shifted me into a more complete and capable rider.
Case in point, Larico. Larico was a fiery dragon of a 20-something year old. He was imported, had an interesting history that made him quirky, and did not suffer fools gladly.
Sensitive, but dull. Particular and heavy. His preferred ride was exact, he like shorter distances with uphill balance, but even if you set him up perfectly, he’d still throw you for a loop. If you had anything other than a driving seat, you were S.O.L. (Kids, don’t look that one up).
He made me a tough rider, but he also made me a very niche rider. For months after moving on from my favorite dragon, I could not see a distance that was not short. I did not trust longer (or even regular) distances due to his clever abilities to plant his feet.
At the time, I felt this horse ruined me. Each horse I stepped on and manhandled from the onset would grow my guilt. I needed softness back into my riding, and my time with Larico had not encouraged that approach.
The delicate hunters I used to ride were overburdened by my fighting hands and driving seat.
It was not until months past my last ride on Larico did I realize the truth. This horse expanded me.
It was not linear, I did not immediately feel myself capable of handling more personalities, but that is what happened. After Larico, I rode much more confidently (albeit aggressively). Before I was a backseat Sally, now I was driving the car.
Sure, I allowed bad habits with him. But he did a lot of good for me too. Rather than the pushover I once was, I became the decision maker. I was emphatic with producing straightness and quality of strides that before I would mull over to avoid confrontation.
Even my personal life felt it. Two of my most difficult phone conversations I’ve had (a breakup and rejecting a wonderful job offer) I actually held from Larico’s back. Don’t call while riding folks. But I also needed to feel strong and brave.
Because Larico put me through a trial by fire, I knew I could handle it.
My progression after him was not a positive sloping line. I puttered. For many months. Even today, I am still breaking the habit of driving with my tailbone.
Reaching my conclusion, progress is not linear in horses. The frustration of being too far one way, or having a shortfall in another dimension can be exhausting. Progress does not rise continuously.
But is there anything that is effortlessly upward? I am struggling with the answer to this question.
Knowledge perhaps, as our experiences and know-how grows to levels that enhance our expertise. But I’d argue the quality of your information may cheapen (or worsen) your knowledge.
So I am still searching for something linear. But for now, we can enjoy the twists and turns.
I was killing time before getting on Q today and decided to watch the lessons at the ring. I love doing this, and it reminds me of my high school days when I had no hurry and could spend an entire day watching my trainer’s lessons. I rarely get to do that these days, so it’s a treat.
This time, I did not watch my own trainer, but another trainer who rides out of the facility. This woman is an accomplished rider, and while her style can at times be eccentric, I do respect her greatly.
Why are you hedging, you might ask?
Well, I did notice a specific and very common trend with this trainer. This trainer to student behavior is one that I have seen and repeatedly been the recipient of when I was growing up.
During a young teen’s lesson, this trainer was being hard. Her commands were tough, shouting, and exacting. I did not disagree with her corrections, but the manner of them would certainly be on south end of pleasant.
Then, the parent comes to pick her up.
And rather suddenly, the entire tone of the lesson changes. Rather than a laundry list of corrections, the trainer moves to asking exploratory questions and notes of praise. “You cannot jump until you correct your hands” to “You are doing so well with this young horse.”
Again, not disagreeing with earlier phase of instructions, but merely observing how the one parent can alter the color of the conversation.
To a certain extent, it’s expected that a parent presence will elicit a change in the trainer. When your *real* customer shows up, you have to reinforce that they are not spending hard-earned money foolishly.
I remember this as a kid very distinctly, mostly because my parents did not often stick around to watch my lessons. When they did have a weekend day free and would watch a lesson, the flip-flop was stark. I disliked when they watched. My trainer acted oddly. Maybe even disingenuous.
Until this weekend, I had yet to witness this phenomenon as a bystander, and I do think it exemplifies how much of a people business this is. Yes, it’s about getting the right horse flesh in your barn, managing and bookkeeping, and ensuring you have a well-trained staff.
But the horse industry is customer service. And until kids pay for lessons themselves, the parent will always be an ultimate decision maker.
I wish parents stuck around for lessons more. A partnership with horses is so rarely understood outside of horse people, and the more exposure, the higher the likelihood that a parent will “get it”.
Moreover, I wish trainers were more consistent. If you are going to be the tough yeller, own it. If you are going to be supportive and flowery, own that. Admittedly, trainers need various tools to work through diverse issues. That includes a spectrum of approaches – soft and hard.
The distinction lies in addressing the same core problem. To vary the tone of instruction within the span of an hour smells worrying. Especially if that change occurs after parental company arrives. That’s fishy.
Loaded question, I know. Why cannot we all ride perfectly, have our horses react perfectly to the amount of pressure we elicit, and have them execute perfectly to those cues?
Well, there are many reasons. For one, we are human and horses are horses. If you are thinking *no duh* and doing a facepalm, I dare you to keep reading. A point will be made, eventually.
Beyond the unavoidable things that happen to divert us from perfection, what’s wrong with striving for it?
Perfection has a lot of weight to carry. It means that every component of the picture has the same amount of attention to detail.
In the context of horses, this means not jumping a course of crossrails until you master the transition to the canter. And before you produce an uphill, engaged, and straight canter departure, it means building a connected, marching walk.
Before you even step in the saddle, you must command your horse successfully to stand quietly at the mounting block. Before reaching the mounting block, your horse must walk respectfully next to you, listening to your body, hand, voice as you lead them.
I could go on. Perfection is hard. Perfection is work. Perfection is unachievable.
Why strive for something unattainable?
This is my new state of mind lately with horses and work. If we use an excuse that it will “never happen” to be perfect, then why bother trying to improve?
Asking “what’s the point” is defeatist. We all have room to grow. To focus on the shortfall we will always have limits our potential.
Be healthy in your mindset, strive for perfection, and celebrate your progress.
/ end monologue
How do you all handle the idea of perfection as it relates to horses?
It’s no secret that the world is moving to cities. As we migrate to our high-rises and skyscrapers, land becomes increasingly expensive as most of our public spaces will be converted into vertical architecture.
We cannot put horses in skyscrapers. Though at the Royal Agricultural Fair, there is a two-story stable building which has always given me pause. As well, I do know some carriage horses in New York and other large cities reside in multi-story buildings.
This is far from the ideal circumstances for our performance horses.
So this begs the question, how will increased city living change the way we ride our horses?
More with Less
This is the key driver forcing all of the below listed after effects. My suspicion with increasing property values is that horses will have to be managed on less land. That means larger scale barns, smaller turnouts, and meticulous scheduling.
Getting a horse moving will become increasingly reliant on treadmills / hot walkers and other “simulated” turnouts. Gone will be the days of endless lush green turnouts for solely two horses.
Our horse care professionals will need to accommodate for less variety of footing and likely less of “freeform” exercise. We will see more injuries related to inconsistencies in work frequency and loading; fewer related to turnout-related freak accidents.
Increases in horse proximity and activity may lead to higher instances of ulcers.
Horses that are given strict schedules may flourish (high-level of detail on care and training) or flounder (over drilling until submission). With greater time spent in a stall, owners may spend more on enrichment objects and activities for their horses.
With the mounting pressure financially, some barns will not be able to afford to be a mid-tier facility. Stratifying the divide between “us” and “them”, the elitism of the sport will be positioned to intensify.
Living in close proximity to others has shared advantages of public services, transportation, and culture. We gain so much from interactions with diversity and enabling a pooled set of resources.
Horseback riding is not a typical sport. You cannot shove it in the basement of a gym, and rest laurels on the comradely of people. Our equipment requires special storage, care, and attention.
As we adjust to the new normal, this will present real shifts in our industry. In my suspected future, what do you agree or disagree with? What did I miss?
I had a situation at work recently that called into question my authority. I am not a hierarchical role-based person, so I laugh off most of this behavior and allow others to worry more deeply about it.
But it did (as life-events often do), make me think of horses.
There are horses that question your authority regularly. These are one that trample you in-hand, resist pressure, and act more predatory. This questioning of leadership can be dangerous for us horse lovers, as the 1,000lbs animals must submit to a level of respect in order for us coexist and work together.
Horses follow other parts of my life in that they are treated delicately when possible. Rather than be an aggressor, I prefer to work with the animal and coax them into performing / behaving to my expectations. Much of consists of positive reinforcement and soft touches.
My stance intensifies though once a line is crossed. The line is strict, if a horse is endangering me or someone around me (by biting, not respecting space, bucking, rearing, etc.) the answer must be swift and certain.
All this contributes to higher authority. If there is no hard line on behavior, a horse can toe across the line and act outside our established guardrails.
Oftentimes, this reminds me of a halflinger who I used to teach lessons on. This pony was beautiful, the type of Barbie horse you dream of with a palomino body and feathers on her legs.
But she was lazy as all heck. And her behavior was not outright dangerous, per say, but she would not at all respect a leg aid from someone shorter than 5 feet tall (which was hilarious, because she was a medium pony, at best).
We’d call her dull to the aids if it were just that she was slow to transition upward. But this mare would, at times, just refuse to move then would act offended when you finally did convince her it was a good idea to move forward.
She was clever, and many students ended up red in the face and frustrated due to this pony insolence. The pony did not respect her riders, and while it is a light-hearted example, it shows relationships complimented with a healthy amount of authority are more… successful? Advantageous?
Biddable horses are willing. They trust you. They want to please. Their natural state is to join their goals to yours.
So while I do not like to demand and decree in my professional life, I admit its importance in my horse-loving life.
What are some times when horses have pushed the boundaries with your authority?
Never do I generally provide a warning for my thoughts, but the rain has been nothing but stormy and recent life transitions has me looking back. Consider this a warning.
I had a horse in high school that was too good to me. I mean that in the most honest, not-at-all humble way ever.
This horse did not stop. Ever. Even if the jump was on fire. Even if I was hauling on his mouth. This horse lept over everything, and all we had to pay in return was a touch of sass. A little buck after a big jump. Nippy in the cross-ties, that sort of thing.
While I am not a subscriber to the theory of heart horse, this horse would hold that honor if I ever bestowed it on one of my past rides. He was a spicy, brave, difficult, forgiving liver chestnut trakehner. And I loved every bit of him, especially the ragged bits.
When push came to shove, we simply could not afford him anymore. With no resentment, I do not envy my parents’ position, telling a sobbing child that they have to take away her best friend.
I could write for decades on Riley (and likely will continue to), but my loss of him is most interesting to me at this current juncture. Already in life, I have allowed many things to cycle in and out, but the loss of Riley rocked my foundation. My sense of security was at the barn with him, 5 times a week. He appears as a horcrux, something that split my soul, part of it may always reside elsewhere.
Once I was able to rebuild normalcy, which took probably a full year before I could even unhide all my photos of him and not cry upon sight of him, I had a new battle-tested composition.
Other breaks in my heart, both horses and people, hurt and continued to build my tolerance for departures. Confidently at my age, still young by definition, I am borderline blase about those who enter and leave my life.
It is not horses specifically that did this, I have them to thank for everything about my sensitive and sympathetic tendencies. But I can look at the systemic requirements of ownership and sigh a bit.
The years of leasing, years of letting go, and years of never being able to financially hold on to the horses I loved. They have changed me.
It has made me strong, but also formulaic.
How has losing horses contributed to your overall sense of self?