Do you ever wonder what it is about horses that we love so much? Why are we willing to make physical, emotional and financial sacrifices to keep horses in the forefront of our daily lives? What allure does the horse have that makes you willing to rise at daybreak seven days a week to feed him and brave the cold winter evenings to ride him? The activity of riding is understandably fun, good exercise and exhilarating all at once. But I would like to address the understated reasons that horses are so beneficial to our growth and development both emotionally and spiritually.
If you visit a bookstore, you can find shelf after shelf of “self help” books that are meant to help you become a better person. After reading one of these books, it occurred to me that having horses in my life has given me the opportunity to grow in all of the areas mentioned in the book. Here follows some character traits that we all would do well to improve upon and how the horse helps us to accomplish that in a way that is so understated, that many times we don’t even recognize him as our teacher:
PATIENCE- Being around horses requires infinite amounts of patience. It is like having a child that is perpetually 2 years old. He can never quite fend for himself, always depending on you for his every need. Trying to communicate effectively when neither of you speaks the same language is a challenge. You are accustomed to communicating verbally and he lives by watching the body language of his peers. It is nothing short of a miracle that he can learn to decipher the language of the legs and hands of the rider and translate that into a beautiful dressage movement.
HUMILITY– How many times have you heard there is nothing like a horse to make you humble? Just when you think you have mastered the half-halt, two strides later the horse acts like he has never heard it before. The horse reminds us that we are not always right and that there is no place for ego when it comes to being a good rider. We must always remember that the horse has a choice of whether or not to cooperate and it shouldn’t be taken for granted that he puts his gentle spirit in our hands.
EMPATHY- the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. Many times it is difficult to remember that our agenda is not necessarily the same as our horse’s and no matter how much we try, the horse always pushes the pencil last. The great rider is able to avoid serving his own interest at the expense of the horses thoughts and feelings.
FORGIVENESS– when you are at odds with your horse over something, you must make a correction and move on instead of dwelling on the mistake. If you had a rough ride the day before, you can’t bring a grudge to the next ride. If your horse doesn’t live up to your expectations at the show, you can be disappointed, but you have to be strong enough emotionally to move on and start the training again with a fresh positive attitude.
EXCELLENCE-The way you do anything is the way you do everything, and riding is no exception. You have to discipline yourself to give 100% of your best effort each time you ride your horse. The success of your horse will be proportionately related to the amount of effort that you put in to his training.
POSSIBILITIES– each time we ride our horse, we should imagine what all of the possibilities are for his success today and in the future. Thomas Edison once said” If we did all the things we were capable of doing, we would astound ourselves”.
Our horses are capable of teaching us these qualities without ever uttering a word. How fortunate we are to be able to spend time with an animal that embodies all of these qualities with such dignity and grace.
There are many parallels with being an effective parent and being a good partner with your horse. One of the most important aspects of good parenting or good riding is consistency. Horses, like people, want to know what the boundaries are and what is expected of them. Just as a child will question a parent, horses will challenge a rider’s position as the “alpha” partner in the relationship.
Most amateur riders have to work a full day before they have the luxury of riding their horse. That means bringing all the stress and pressures of the day to the barn with you and chances are, it will have a negative effect on your ride. You must discipline yourself to leave your emotional baggage at home and greet your horse with a peaceful but eager mindset. Your horse can provide you with a wonderful hour of enjoyment when you close out the rest of the world and focus only on being a good partner.
Listen to what your horse is telling you. Notice as you tack hi up his mood and mannerisms. Give him 10 minutes or so to walk on a long rein at the beginning of the ride. Remember that this is probably the only time he gets to interface with you in a 24-hour period.
When it is time to go to work, the horse must be either on the clock or on the buckle. From the moment you pick up the reins, you must give your full attention to the horse. You must be aware of where all of your body parts are as well as the horse’s. The first priority is to develop a harmonious means of communicating by riding your horse in a way that lets him feel balanced and comfortable. From that platform as the ride progresses, you can change the horse’s way of going to suit the training goal for that day.
You should always approach your riding with a plan, yet be flexible enough to know when your plan needs to be changed. Horses are very much alike in that they prefer to be on the forehand, they never choose to bend to the inside on a turn and they possess a strong flight instinct. What makes them individuals are their personalities, their conformation and how they respond to training. It is your responsibility to know what type of approach works best when training as well as what their conformation strengths and weaknesses are and how that affects their ability to master the new balance you are trying to create.
This is a partnership, not a dictatorship. Your horse’s opinion does matter, although they don’t always know what is best and sometimes you have to be more like a parent and guide them to the right decision. You have to make them feel that their vote counts, you just have to limit the choices so that they vote for the right thing. It is all about setting your horse up for success. Think ahead and orchestrate the training session so that he makes few mistakes. Remember that mistakes are a normal part of the learning process and cannot be avoided entirely. The crime is not in making the mistake, but instead, not learning from it. Help your horse celebrate the things he does well and not dwell on things that were difficult. A certain amount of struggle outside of his comfort zone is necessary for him to grow and progress.
Progress in dressage is in small increments. Sometimes until it accumulates, you don’t recognize it’s happening. Just like when you walk on the beach, you don’t notice the moment that the tide went from low to high, you only notice it when the water starts lapping at your feet.
Hold yourself accountable 100% of the time and realize that your horse’s future rests in your hands. It is your duty and responsibility to protect, nurture and develop such a wonderful, noble and humble creature that has agreed to serve your interests with no motive of his own.