Training the Results: How You Might Be Sabotaging Your Horsemanship Goals
A Lovely Story
I’ve seen it a few times in my life. A well-meaning horse lover becomes inspired or enamored by an example of excellence in horsemanship. Maybe it’s a tackless exhibition ride. Or maybe it’s a liberty work display that showcases what is possible with an amazing relationship between horse and human.
It isn’t at all wrong to find these demonstrations inspiring, or to aspire to that level of horsemanship ourselves.
Where the problem arises is when a trainer tries to train the results that were so inspiring without laying the necessary foundation. This does a fundamental disservice, and can be outright physically dangerous, to horse and rider.
I’ve called this “Hallmark Syndrome” or “Disney-itis” before — the novice equestrian falls prey to the storyline of the average horse movie. You know the plot. A (usually troubled) child/teenager becomes obsessed with a troubled horse who no one can connect with and is in danger of being put down/auctioned, etc. because of its dangerously erratic behavior. The child/teenager, usually in violation of a wiser persons mandate to leave the horse alone, begins secretly working with the animal, and is eventually discovered to have formed a miraculous bond with the animal. The story usually ends with the duo handily winning a prestigious competition.
Sabotaging Your Goals
I actually like this story, to a degree. I’ve read The Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague my share of times. I waited for weeks to see the old Disney Channel original movie “Ready to Run” on the TV Guide so I could punch a blank tape into the VCR and capture it. “Flash” was another favorite. There are shades of these themes in “National Velvet,” and I broke the binding on two copies of that book. “Second Chances” and “My Friend Flicka,” I could go on for days. This is the stuff that the fantasies of horsemen are made of.
But it is important to recognize the fantastic element of the story. Instances of this plot playing out with a happy ending in real life are ridiculously rare. Far more often, it turns out in a case of green-on-green equals black-and-blue.
A human-world analog would be tossing an elementary school student who has barely managed addition into an undergraduate calculus class and expecting him to earn a passing grade. Or to throw a YMCA rec league baseball team into the World Series.
What is the antidote?
If a horse isn’t solid in his understanding of the basics, no amount of pushing for him to understand more advanced concepts is going to make it “click.” If something as simple as walking in-hand across the barn yard without wigging out is beyond your horse’s capacity, I can guarantee that a bareback and bridleless ride is going to end in disappointment at best.
It isn’t glamorous or sexy. It isn’t always easy. And it is deceptively simple. So is a brick. But, one at a time, bricks come together to build a mansion. And it can happen faster than you think it will.
Here is a short, short list of the basics that will sabotage your horsemanship if they are not ingrained to the level of habit.
Non-Negotiable Basics To Build On
Accepting Touch (Whole Body) This means that you can groom and handle your horse’s entire body normally without him flinching, dancing away, giving dirty looks, or threatening to defend himself.
Accepting Equipment This means that your horse allows you to fit him with the equipment that you need to use on a regular basis, whatever that means to you and your situation.
Yielding to Pressure Respectfully This means that your horse moves his body forward, backward, left, and right when you ask him to. He should do this willingly, no side-eye or dragging feet, and also without overreacting with flinching, dancing, or bolting.
These three raw basics are the minimum for living with your horse safely. To a degree, mastery of them never ends. But if you don’t basically expect these behaviors from your horse, if you aren’t “surprised” by your horse’s resistance to any of these basics (because we all sometimes have “off” days where we need to go back and revisit doing simple things), you are sabotaging your team by moving on to more complex challenges.
Taking the Lesson Beyond The Barn
As a final thought, I want to encourage you to consider the universality of this idea. When something is not going the way that you want it to, when your goals, in any sphere of life, are not materializing, no matter how hard you are pushing and focusing, what do your basics in that area look like? Are you throwing maraschino cherries onto a bowl of melted room-temperature former ice cream?
You want to get in shape… you are going to go farther by making a basically healthy diet and exercise into routine habit than by agonizing over whether you need foam rolling in your life.
You want that raise or promotion at work. Are you nailing your current job responsibilities? Is doing the simple stuff to your 100% ability your habit?
You want to expand your business, but you’re plateauing at a place where you just can’t crack that next level. Are your staff 100% on their basics? All of the teambuilding workshops and company events in the world can’t make up for shaky basics in operation.
Your problem may be more basic than you think. It may be more basic than you want to hear.
Show and tell time… have you ever come down with a case of Hallmark Syndrome? How did your experience turn out? Share your experience in the comments!
In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss practical steps you can take to un-sabotage your riding and horsemanship goals. Until then, you should be riding, too!
I can’t believe it’s time again to show some more Link Love! Read on down for a peek at some of what is going on around the horse world, from news items to helpful articles and thoughtful pieces. Here’s what’s been keeping me glued to my screen this month!
A Jumper in a Buck Brannaman Clinic
I love reading the stories of experienced horse folks discovering new areas of the horse industry and stepping out of their comfort zone. Congratulations to this brave rider on pouncing on the opportunity to learn from a legend. (Horsenation.com)
I feel like there is so much material floating on the interwebz related to the World Equestrian Games in Tryon this month… I can barely sift through it all, much less summarize or distill the biggest takeaways. This article from Dressage Today does a damn fine job for we who watched from afar.
Here is another fascinating article on the heels of WEG Tryon, this one more critical of the event as a concept, returning to the marketing and branding issues that seems to plague equestrian events in the larger sporting world. Excellent food for thought and perspective for folks who focus less on show jumping or are too young to remember world champions past and previous organizational systems. (Horsenetwork.com)
Sometimes trips down the YouTube Rabbit Hole end up rather fruitful. I don’t see much of the steeplechasing world, but the strength and endurance required astound me, to say nothing of the nerve of these riders! In an industry of risky activities pursued in the name of fun and sport, steeplechasing takes the cake in my book.
This particular video features a much smaller field than, say, the Grand National… but the action is nonstop, everyone appears to walk away more or less unscathed, and the commentary is absolutely priceless.
And that’s it for September! It’s been a wild month, for sure! The next edition of Link Love will be coming to a blog near you in a few weeks; until then, remember, you should be riding!
Beyond the Barn: Six Real World Lessons Learned from My Horses
One of the most remarkable things about horsemanship is the way that it teaches humans life lessons that extend far away from the barn and the saddle. The real world lessons learned from my horses have been invaluable to me, and I don’t know a single rider who can’t say the same. They improve our relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. They allow us to empathize with the people around us, and demonstrate the power of hard work and humility. The lessons that our horses teach us can fill a resume, even if the context is far from the barn.
Lets dig in and explore six real world lessons I learned from my horses. I’m sure that they are lessons that you’ve learned, or are learning, too, even if you don’t realize it.
The first of the real world lessons learned from my horses is work ethic. The capacity of horses to teach positive work ethic is rather obvious, but still, it cannot be overstated. Even youngsters learn quickly that, as large and powerful as the horse is, he depends on his humans completely for his care and needs. And these needs are not trivial, physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Physically, the work of Horsekeeping is nothing to sneeze at. 5 gallons of fresh water weighs 41.7 pounds. Even a small horse will drink 2-3 of these daily. The average 1,000 lb. horse produces around 50 lbs. of manure a day. Bags of feed weigh in at 50 lbs. and up. Square hay bales can run anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds. Keeping just the basic staples available to your equine partner is a workout. And it must be done, no matter the weather, no matter what else is on the calendar.
Mentally and emotionally, the work required of the equestrian is equally demanding. Horses demand that we learn constantly, and the pool of knowledge is bottomless. We need to learn the basics of equine anatomy, parts of tack, types of feed, grass, and hay, all of the things that allow us to take proper care of these magnificent animals. We need to learn veterinary skills, at least on a basic level. In the saddle, we need to learn how to move with the horse, and more subtly how to influence the horse through our riding. We need to learn how to think like a horse, how to empathize with him, to understand how he “ticks.” Eventually, we need to learn how to say good-bye.
There is nothing like a horse to teach humility to a human. They have a way of knocking you down a peg or two exactly when you need it most. Sometimes the knockdown happens literally. Sometimes it is more figurative. But the lessons in humility will come, not as a matter of “if,” but “when.”
When the knockdown happens literally, it is pretty obvious. Maybe you thought you and your equine partner were ready to tackle a task or a movement, and you weren’t. If you were a little bit not-ready, you get resistance from the horse, and hopefully you don’t push the issue and go back to building your foundation. If you were a lot not-ready, well… hopefully the ground is soft, my friend.
The ultimate simplicity of the barn is another teacher of humility. Even in the twenty-first century, even with all of the busyness and goings-on, as thick as all of the instructional books and tack store catalogs are, the barn is still a fundamentally simple place. We’re all there for one reason: the horses. The tasks and activities of caring for them are the same no matter what chaos reigns in the wider world. Even if the economic fate of nations hangs in the balance of your decisions in the office, when you get to the barn, Lightning still needs his oats, his fresh water, his exercise.
This is a subtler kind of humility to take with you back to the real world. It reminds you that, whether you are a minnow in a pond or a kraken in the ocean, small and simple doings are still what make the world go ’round.
The Power of Unintended Consequences
Sometimes our actions have consequences that we don’t necessarily intend, good or bad. This is one of the more subtle real world lessons learned from my horses. Dealing with, and especially the act of formally training, horses shows the power of unintended consequences beautifully sometimes.
On the negative side, sometimes something that we teach a horse gets generalized into a behavior that we don’t want to encourage. I’ve seen several horses taught how to “count” by stamping a front hoof who also developed lovely pawing habits. One ride years ago, when the flies were particularly annoying, I allowed one of my horses to pause throughout the ride to drop his head and rub the pests away against his legs. By the end of that ride, he had trained me to let him get within a muzzle-snatch of a bite of grass. Shadows of that “trick” still crop up from time to time.
This lesson ties back to the lesson of humility. Sometimes, especially dealing with a “problem horse,” the unintended consequences of an attempt to correct a behavior can make the situation worse! Horsemanship is a game that is incredibly difficult to bumble your way through and come out unscathed and without doing some form of damage to the horse. It demands that you know what you are doing, or have the close support of someone who does know while you are learning. It also demands that you think a process all the way through before getting your hands dirty. Otherwise, you risk doing more harm than good.
The lesson of good sportsmanship is one that comes more readily to riders involved in competition, for obvious reasons. Competing successfully forces the rider to set her ego aside, get in the ring and show the horse. The rules of the class, no matter what the class or discipline is, are based on safety for horse and rider, and on training and riding that promotes the longevity and improvement of the horse. That is not to say that there are not corrupt judges out there, or a dark side to every discipline, or riders who are in it for the winnings alone. But the bones are largely good, and at the end of the day a good horse in partnership with a good horseman who is applying the other lessons of this article will be fairly successful in the show ring.
Equestrian sport demands that the rider apply these kinds of lessons to be a good sportsman. Poor sportsmanship in the show ring implies a rider who is forcing the horse, forcing herself, disrespects the other competitors in the ring, or the judgement of the show officials, or the time and effort of the (often volunteer) folks who are helping run the event. Because most equine events are judged on an individual basis, versus team sports, poor sportsmanship finds a spotlight as what it is pretty quickly.
There’s nothing like working with a 1,000 lb. nonverbal herbivorous prey animal to challenge your teambuilding!!
My favorite aspect of this lessons is the complete depth with which it is taught. This isn’t your corporate retreat’s teambuilding exercise. Good luck getting your nervous horse to step up and do a trust fall. Horses teach real teamwork. It isn’t chatting about how you trust each other and how responsibility will be delegated. The rider needs to earn the horse’s trust and respect minute to minute. She needs to prove herself as a teammate, as a member of the horse’s herd. The makeup of the team depends on what is acted out. The team is being constantly negotiated from the bottom up.
This is far more akin to how teamwork works in real life. Corporate retreat style teambuilding exercises have their uses and can be helpful in their way, but when they are only used as a surface-level game, the team stays shaky. Horses teach us that a team depends on each member coming to the game every day, participating willingly and authentically. Buzzwords, catchphrases, and fluff don’t build a stable horse-human team. Being competent, willing, fair, and humble does.
Leadership goes hand in hand with teamwork. You don’t get very far working with horses without either. Like the lesson of teamwork, horses teach the lesson of leadership on a deeper, more functional and pragmatic level than any self-help book. The horseman has to walk the walk of leadership, not just talk the talk, otherwise the horse will assume the leadership role in their herd of two. This arrangement can become downright dangerous in short order.
Motivational speaking doesn’t mean much to a horse. Staying calm and steady in moments of uncertainty means volumes. Consistency, communicating, and connecting in the horse’s terms are vital, or your equine follower cannot understand you to follow your lead. The same applies to being a leader in the workplace, or in your other endeavors. Without these skills, all of the buzz words, pep talks and teambuilding exercises in the world cannot make people, or horses, follow you.
What lessons has your horse taught you? Are there things you’ve learned from your horses that I haven’t listed? Have you had an experience, horse or human, that really drove one of these lessons home for you? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments, and thanks for reading!
I recently posted an article about mindful horsemanship, and also an article exploring horsemanship considered as a martial art. Since I’m one of those annoying people who can’t encounter new data without relating it back to the context of horses, this week, I’ve got a yoga video to share with you. Yoga and equitation isn’t a new or revelatory combination, but this particular video struck a real chord with me.
Part of my morning routine includes practicing along with a short yoga instructional video on YouTube. I have a couple of favorite channels that I typically gravitate toward, usually looking for a 10-15 minute flow. The goal of this part of my routine is to get the blood flowing, muscles activated, and my mind and body coordinated to start the day.
Without further ado, here is the video that prompted a “click” in my rider’s brain. It’s a short one, so if you’re reading this in a context in which it would be classy to do so, go ahead and yoga along. I’ll wait.
All video credit goes to Yoga with Adriene — massive shout-out to her for her fine work and excellent instructional videos!!! Seriously, check her out on YouTube.
Finding Your Seat Out Of The Saddle
Did you catch the references to finding the sit-bones? To plugging into the earth? How about the ears-shoulders-hips alignment moment?
Easy Pose is exactly how we need to think about sitting in the saddle! The amazing thing is… finding your horseman’s seat is not at all the point of yoga. But, at the same time, the end result of practicing Easy Pose as Adriene instructs is to achieve the same alignment, connection, and grounding that so many of us seek in the saddle. Practicing this pose is going to jump-start your feel and muscle memory for that grounded-but-stretched-upward alignment.
Namaste in the Saddle
In the saddle, finding the Easy Pose as shown in the video is effectively finding the basic neutral dressage seat. Cue lightbulb. More broadly speaking, yoga helps equitation in several ways.
Alignment and Balance
Adopting any yoga pose is a physical challenge to your body to move and stretch while maintaining correct posture and alignment. Just as in the Yoga with Adrienne video above, correct posture and alignment doesn’t change when you throw a horse into the mix. Practicing correct alignment, posture, and balance out of the saddle directly translates to better equitation. Similarly, poor posture while just standing around, or sitting at the computer, will carry over into your riding.
Another side effect of yoga practice is strength training. I am no physical therapist or personal trainer, but I observe a similarity between the kind of strength that the rider needs and the kind of strength that the yogi needs. It is a “holding” kind of strength, a subtle sort of strength that holds stability in movement. In contrast, visualize a power lifter, or maybe a football or rugby player where the strength manifests as brute force.
The most important part of any yoga practice is, hands down, the breath. Movements and transitions between poses are guided by the breath, which is the constant touchstone throughout the practice.
Feel tension? Breathe into that part of your body.
Mind wandering? Focus on your breath.
Challenging pose? Breathe through your discomfort. Now, DON’T try to breath through pain. That would be counterproductive. But, for the mild discomfort of adopting a pose that is on the edge of your physical ability? A stretch or position that challenges the boundary of your comfort zone? Bringing your focus to your breath instead allows you to keep on with the practice and be challenged by the stretch or pose, rather than giving it up totally.
Tethering focus and movement to the breath helps us as riders in the same way.
Breathing, especially deep and slow breathing, like that used in yoga, essentially forces the rider to relax mentally and physically. Consider moments in your riding, or life in general, when you are tense or worried. What is your breathing like? The answer is probably something like short and shallow, probably with brief spans of holding your breath. Have you ever gotten a “stitch” in your side? Especially in gaits like sitting trot or canter? That is a side-effect of unconsciously holding your breath in tension. Bringing your attention back to your breathing will wash the tension out of your body. It’s the first step of the Training Scale, for rider as well as horse. Since the horse mirrors the rider, a tense rider is going to create tension in the horse.
I don’t think I need to explain how a tense mind hurts your horsemanship. Fear and anxiety cripple many riders, keeping them from progressing as horsemen, or even keeping them from riding altogether. Returning focus to the breath relieves tension from the mind as well as from the body. In moments of fear and anxiety, when the “what ifs” take over and keep us from really riding, a few deep breaths relax the mind and bring it back to center.
Horses, in their phenomenal sensitivity and sympathy, mirror our mental and physical state, even before we step in the stirrup. Practicing, even dabbling, in yoga and bringing those techniques to the saddle brings a number of benefits to the rider. It improves our body awareness, and helps us find correct alignment in our equitation. It improves our strength and flexibility. Finally, it gives us the tools and habits to tie mind and body together through the breath, allowing us to relax and center our focus in ourselves, and by extension in our horses.
I’ve taken some of these yoga lessons to the saddle before, but adapting a more formal pose to horseback is an experiment. Easy Pose was a profound success, and a lightbulb moment for me connecting yoga and equitation.
I recommend starting every ride with a moment of quiet, and find your horseback Easy Pose first thing after mounting. There are two major benefits here. First, and most obviously, you’re finding your correct seat and position before you move off. Second, and less obviously, you’re starting your mount’s experience of the ride with a moment of calm and peace that he craves… and also setting his expectation that we stand still for a moment after mounting. 😉 When you have a moment of tension, of fear, of frustration, come back to your rider’s Easy Pose and feel the alignment come back, the rooting upward reach of your position, and the regulation and deepening of your breath.
Many many thanks to Yoga with Adriene for the excellent video and in-depth explanation of Easy Pose. You’ve jump started many of my mornings, and with this particular video forced me to deconstruct my equitation, an effect that I’m sure you never considered. If you haven’t, you really should try riding. Namaste.
For young hunt seat riders embarking on a show career, the show ensemble can be one of the bigger investments. A source of particular confusion, especially for non-horsey parents of passionate young riders, is the issue of what kind of hunt seat riding boots to invest in, and when?
For general riding purposes, the style of footwear you choose is a matter of personal preference. Basic guidelines are, what is safe, and what is comfortable. Look for something with minimal tread, a defined heel block, and enough freedom through the ankle to allow you to drop your weight correctly through the stirrups. In short, if it won’t let your foot slip through or get trapped in the stirrup, and doesn’t hinder your position, it will suit for general schooling or leisure riding.
Once you enter more formal settings like horse shows, however, tradition plays a role in the boot choices that you will need to make. Correct turnout (the rider’s attire plus the horse’s conditioning, preparation, and grooming) forms a portion of the score in every judged riding event.
Paddocks or Talls: What is the Difference?
First of all, I want to quickly run over the types of hunt seat show boots out there. For industry newbies, or for unfamiliar parents of young horsemen, just keeping track of the types can be tricky.
Paddock boots are ankle height leather (or synthetic) boots. They can either lace or zip up, and are available in brown or black.
For show ring purposes, paddock boots are worn with jodhpur pants that have elastic loops at the feet (like old-school stirrup pants) and garter straps at the knees to hold the jodhs in place during the ride.
Tall boots are knee height, available in leather or synthetic material, and also available in brown or black, along with myriad leather types and textures from the traditional to the exotic. For general show ring purposes, plain black leather is ideal. Tall boots can either pull on and off with boot hooks and a boot jack, or can be zippered up the back. Some tall boots have elastic gussets and other features to increase comfort and ease-of-wear. Tall boots also merit some special storage considerations in the form of boot trees to help them keep their shape.
While paddock boots are worn with jodhpurs and garters, tall boots are worn with breeches. High socks made of thin and stretchable material, usually in fun patterns, make the boots easier to put on and take off.
Field Boots or Dress Boots?
Just to add to the confusion, tall boots come in either field or dress varieties. The upside is that it is fairly easy to distinguish the two – field boots have laces at the ankle, and dress boots do not have laces at all. For the vast majority of hunt seat riders’ needs, field boots are the more appropriate choice. Dress boots are more common in the dressage arena, and even in that sphere field boots are appropriate for the most introductory level riders.
Which Hunt Seat Riding Boots Should I Choose for the Show Ring?
The simple answer is that younger youth riders show in paddock boots with jodhpurs and garters, and older youth riders and adults show in tall boots.
But then the answer gets less simple… how old is old enough for tall boots?
Guideline #1: Age Alone
Once a rider reaches 13 years old, they are typically moving into a new age division, riding against other older (but still youth) riders, often leaving behind the ponies for larger mounts. With these considerations in mind, a 13 year old rider in paddocks will stick out, and not in a good way, against 16-17-18 year old riders in talls.
Guideline #2: Height and Build
Taller, leggier, and more “maturely” built kids often present better in tall boots. Often, these kids are already riding horse-sized mounts versus small or medium ponies, and tall boots at age 12 may even be a sensible choice. Just bear in mind the issue of future growth spurts — you don’t want to be replacing tall boots, even synthetic ones, on an annual basis.
As a general rule, 13 years and 5 foot 2 inches are the numbers to balance — under 13 and under 5 foot 2, stick in paddocks. When the rider hits one of those numbers or the other, it’s probably time to go shopping for tall boots.
Common Questions about Hunt Seat Riding Boots
“I’m over both 13 years of age and 5 foot 2 inches… do I only get to ride hunt seat in tall boots now?”
For the purposes of showing, yes. Schooling and otherwise, wear whatever footwear floats your boat! I personally love paddock boots and half chaps for casual riding. Really, that’s the way to compare the two options; paddock boots as casual and tall boots as more formal. It can be very appropriate (even traditional outside of the middle-class of western culture – check out Britain’s Prince George’s shorts for example) for a student to wear shorts and sneakers to school and social events. It’s a lot less appropriate in the traditional workplace for an adult to wear such clothes. If I show up to my office in shorts and sneakers, I’m too casual.
“My child definitively should be in tall boots this year, but boots are EXPENSIVE, and I’m not sure if they are done growing yet! What if I invested in half chaps to go over their paddock boots instead until they are finished growing?”
Short answer… no. Unless you are doing extremely small and local shows, half chaps in lieu of tall boots are not appropriate. Even in the extremely local small schooling show it is iffy. Certainly not in any kind of association or rated show.
Tall boots are definitely an expense and an investment – I feel your pain! The best routes to take are to buy used, buy quality synthetic, or both, until you and your child are sure that the last major growth spurt is behind you. Don’t feel the need to dart out and order a pair of custom Venetian leather field boots for a 14 year old. Take advantage of local tack swaps, eBay, Craigslist, and other venues to find folks looking to size up or upgrade, and selling their used boots. There are some great deals out there.
Synthetic boots are an ok compromise, especially at that extreme small and local level, however I do recommend investing in good used leather if you can. Not only are they more appropriate than synthetic, especially in shows of any size at all, but they also have resale value when the time comes to trade up in size or quality.
What has your paddock/tall boots experience been like? When did you make the transition from paddock boots to your first pair of tall boots? What do you prefer to ride in from day to day? Drop us a line, share your story in the comments, and don’t forget that you probably should be riding!!
Well, here we are, 6 months into this project! I’ve learned a ridiculous amount over the past half-year as I’ve DIY’d my way through launching this blog. 6 months isn’t a very long time in the grand scheme of things. And this is an extremely small blog yet, with only a tiny handful of pageviews. This blogging adventure is really still just beginning.
“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” – Jordan B. Peterson
Achievement #1 is actually starting the blog! At first, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, or whether I would be able to keep up with the project consistently. I even worried about running out of topics! Well, sometimes I still worry about that… but for the moment it has been a non-problem.
Achievement #2 is you, dear reader! Like every blog, this one started at square zero. Zero pageviews, zero presence. The very fact that you are here, reading, is proof of progress. This is a great point to say, thank you!!
Achievement #3 is that, small as it is by every metric, ishouldberiding.com is already a success. By that, I mean that it is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It is helping me focus my thoughts, ideas, and gameplan for my own horsemanship while exercising my writing muscles. At the same time it seems to also be helpful to the folks who are reading, at least based on most of the comments. My initial goal was to help others while I help myself. I believe that that is happening.
Goals and Thoughts for the Future
I have several goals for ishouldberiding.com into the future. Some deal more with the admin and technical side of blogging. I’d like to get an email subscription list rolling, and to continue to tweak and refine and improve the experience for you, my deeply valued reader.
Additionally, I’m rolling around ideas for future products, from free printables to possible more in-depth items for purchase. But that is for much further down the road… very much still in the brainstorming stage.
I’d love to dip my toes into doing some product reviews, maybe some affiliate marketing. But, I want to ensure that the integrity of the information remains. I like promoting stuff I like… crap, not so much.
Finally, I will continue to create blog content that is helpful and useful, to me as well as to you.
Slow and Steady
I’ll refrain from adding “wins the race” to that heading… if there is a race, I certainly haven’t won it, and I’m not sure there even is a race at all.
But progress is progress. This website has gone from square one with zero pageviews a day to reliably getting a handful of views each week and good positive feedback.
I’ve slowly dipped my toes into a number of ancillary parts of blogging, like promoting my posts on Pinterest and Facebook. I still struggle with marketing myself and my work… #introvertstruggles… but I’m getting better at it. There is always more to learn, to tweak, to improve.
Well, dear Reader… what do you think of the road so far? What do you like about ishouldberiding.com? Dislike? Want to see more of? Less of? Please share, and help me to help you! And now I’m off to the barn… I should be riding!
The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship
The moment that mindfulness as a concept is having seems to be extending into a full blown movement. It’s difficult to cross the threshold of the internet without running across the idea applied to some context or other. But what does mindfulness mean for riders? What is the place of mindfulness in the barn? Can approaching our horses with a mindful attitude improve our horsemanship?
For the Uninitiated… What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of bringing full attention and to the task or process at hand. It is acknowledging distractions, but not allowing them to distract. It is total engagement with one’s present occupation. Being mindful is being totally present in the moment. It is experiencing and responding to your thoughts and environment without dwelling on the past or worrying about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness is about embracing what you are doing in its totality, without diluting that totality with things that don’t matter or apply.
Anything can be done mindfully. Meditation may be the ultimate form of mindfulness… being mindfully mindful, if you will. Meta-mindfulness. But the concept is applicable to any task. You can eat mindfully, work mindfully, play mindfully, etc.
What Mindfulness is Not
Sometimes mindfulness is better understood in contrast to what it is not. Mindfulness is not multitasking. It is not simply going through the motions while your mind wanders off to other topics.
What Does Mindful Riding Look Like?
Mindful riding is something that we owe to our horses. We expect our horses to give us their full attention and effort. This is only really possible for the horse when we return the favor.
Riding mindfully means that we engage fully with the horse and our ride. We take steps to reduce the baggage and distraction that we bring to the barn. We leave the phone in the tack room… or at least silence the ringer and notifications. The rider is wholly engaged with the horse, returning always to breath and feel and rhythm in the same way a meditator constantly redirects attention to the breath or to a mantra.
Again, to contrast, the opposite of mindful riding is sitting astride the horse in the center of the arena, clicking away on the phone. It isn’t plodding down the trail on a group ride chattering about politics with the other riders. Plodding lazily around the ring, letting your mind wander while your horse sets the velocity doesn’t count as mindful riding, either. That isn’t to say that either of those examples is terrible or abusive, or that they don’t sometimes have their place. Only that they tend not to foster the emotional, mental, or athletic growth of horse or horseman.
How Can You Incorporate Mindfulness Into Your Horsemanship?
Practice Mindfulness Away From The Barn
Practicing mindfulness away from the barn makes it easier to adopt a mindful mindset in the barn. Seems simple, right? Intuitive, even.
There are a number of free or cheap apps available for short guided meditations tailored for the newbie. YouTube has a wealth of channels dedicated to yoga videos, many as short as 5-10 minutes. Tai chi is another excellent low-impact and mindfulness-fostering practice to dip your toes into. Dedicating just a few minutes a day to practicing can provide benefits.
Less formally, you can practice mindfulness by trying to live its definition. Choose an activity that you normally do, say, eating, and commit to doing it mindfully. Silence your phone, eat at the table, off of a real plate, and only eat. But even though you’re only eating, really embrace the experience. Let yourself fully chew and taste before swallowing, rather than bolting the food to get to the next thing. Don’t try to multitask, don’t rush to get on with it.
So, how do you know when you’re being mindful? I find that when I “click” into a mindful frame, I lose track of time. That 10 minute yoga session is over in 3. I get barn chores that would take half an hour done in 15 minutes. I look up from the blog post I’m writing and find that it’s suddenly dark outside my window. Call it “flow,” call it “the groove,” call it what you want, working mindfully seems to help trigger the effect.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Leave the phone in the tack room. Unless you ride solo and it is your “safety buddy” for an emergency, in which case put the thing on silent. You don’t need to be checking it for phantom chirps every 10 minutes. And you don’t need it actually chirping, either.
Make the most of riding lessons. Much like a guided meditation, your instructor can keep you on-task and focused on your riding. If you don’t take lessons regularly, consider scheduling a few with a good instructor as a general refresher and an intensive immersion in your horsemanship. Riding or auditing in clinics is also a great option.
This is my favorite tip… set an alarm. With my day job, I have limited time to spend in the barn, especially in the mornings. Assuming that I don’t want to arrive at the office smelling like a horse, that is. I set myself an alarm for 5-10 minutes before I need to be back in the house cleaning up. That way, I can completely engross myself in mucking, grooming, groundwork, riding, etc., without worrying about losing track of time or breaking my flow to check my watch.
Make a Plan… And Stick To It. Flexibly.
I’m a big fan of Warwick Schiller. One of his trademark quotes is “stick to the damn plan” (STTDP).
Going to the barn with a gameplan gives you focus, something to guide your mind to task. Think of it like your mantra for the day’s meditation.
That is not at all to say that, when you get to the barn, if the situation is such that you need to adjust your plan, you shouldn’t. If you intended to polish your half-pass, and your horse tells you that today the focus needs to be on walking past the new red folding chairs lined up along the rail, by all means, adjust your plan. But stick to the plan that you’re working.
Embrace the Entire Process
Mindful riding is more than just riding. If you distractedly multitask when you tack up and warm up, it will be hard to ride the workout in a mindful way. Similarly, you don’t want to scramble and slap your untacking and post-ride routine together either. Really commit to bringing mindfulness to every facet of your horsemanship.
Part of embracing the entire process is accepting that you will struggle to be mindful, especially in the beginning. Like so many other things, it is called “practice” for a reason. Think of every time you catch yourself distracted and unmindful, and bring yourself back to mindful task, as a “rep.” Mindfulness is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to develop.
Benefits of Mindful Horsemanship
Mindfulness in the barn brings a number of benefits to your horsemanship. Most particularly, though, is the benefit of meeting the horse on a more even footing. A mindful mindset is much more similar to the horse’s natural state. Sure, horses get distracted, but their distractions are a result of being mindful of their surroundings. Contrast that to some very typical human distractions… that driver who cut you off and flipped you the bird in traffic this morning…. that donut you didn’t need to eat between breakfast and lunch… the growing to-do list for tomorrow… All that the horse is distracted by is the present.
Meeting the horse on this playing field allows the horseman to become more effective at communicating. This effectiveness allows us to improve our feel and timing, to understand the horse and his wants and needs and distractions, and to meet the horse, understood as a horse, as himself. This is an invaluable tool.
Furthermore, riding mindfully allows us to connect our purpose in riding to our present. This may seem super woo-woo and meta, but consider how powerful of a tool that this can be to overcome fear in the saddle, or to get over a training plateau.
What’s In Your Mind?
Do you practice mindfulness in the saddle or in the barn? How do you do it? How has it changed the way that you ride, or approach horsemanship? Or are these ideas that you might take with you to the barn for the first time? Share your comments and stories below, drop us a line, and remember, you, like me, should be riding!!
An excerpt from the book Horses Came First, Second, and Last by USET coach Jack Le Goff on schooling the jumping horse over cavaletti. Excellent explanation of cavaletti setup for introductory work to more advanced gymnastics, and also a discussion of the benefits of cavaletti work for horses and riders at all levels.
How Studying Biomechanics Enhances Your Dressage Training (Dressage Today)
Biomechanics of horse and rider is one of the subjects that consistently humbles me. This field of study never fails to remind me how much more there is to learn, how much more subtle my understanding could be, and how much more I could help myself to help my horse.
Lovely, lovely write-up on McLain Ward’s illustrious longtime mount. I typically don’t follow showjumping that closely, but… this is Rothchild. Happy retirement, fella; time for a well-deserved rest on those laurels.
For all the bittersweet might-have-beens surrounding the rest of the 2018 racing season after Justify’s retirement, the Travers Stakes was still an excellent run. Check out Catholic Boy in the video below.
Horse Training: We Should Know Better, Do Better (HorseTalk.com)
Like the article on biomechanics a little farther up in this post, this article forces me to be humble and put on my thinking cap. The ideas here about perception and how we frame what we know into what we do are edging toward the deeper end of the philosophy pool… but apply to far more than just horsemanship. Read, don’t skim, this one.
Disengaging the Hind End in 3 Simple Steps (Differential Equestrian)
Here is a great breakdown on how to disengage a horse’s hindquarters under saddle. This exercise should be in the toolbox of every horseman. While engagement of the hindquarters is vital for athletic maneuvers, the ability to disengage them at will is crucial to basic control.
Have you ever come across a horse whose behavior posed a serious challenge to your horsemanship skills? Maybe a horse that could be described as dangerous? How do horses become this way? Are some horses just born with “attitude?” What is a dangerous horse? How do people, for better or worse, influence the behavior of the horse? And, the million dollar question… can “bad” or “dangerous” horses be made better? Safer to be around?
What is a Dangerous Horse?
Interacting with horses is inherently dangerous. Even the sweetest, kindest, best trained horse in the world could kill a human in a moment of fear or confusion.
The solution to that problem is to take steps to mitigate obvious risks. Things like wearing a helmet, being aware of the horse’s blind spots, and cultivating situational awareness go a long way to preventing accidents.
But what about when the horse is not necessarily the sweetest, the kindest, or the best trained?
Three Kinds of Dangerous Horses
Dangerous Horse #1
Dangerous Horse #1 is only dangerous because he is a horse. He weighs 1,000 pounds plus, he is a prey animal, and he has a mind of his own. By his nature, he will always be a potential danger to the smaller and weaker creatures in his world. Dangerous #1 is the lesson pony, the husband horse, the bombproof packer. This is the horse that, except in the most extenuating circumstances, can be relied upon to be reliable. He is worth his weight in gold.
Dangerous Horse #2
Dangerous Horse #2 is dangerous because the people in his world do not necessarily have the tools to coexist with him safely. His level of dangerous-ness depends heavily on the situation.
This danger runs along a spectrum; a horse that is a #2 to a new rider might be a #1 to a seasoned rider. Even a seasoned rider may encounter a horse that is a #2, because there is always more to learn. Most often, though, Dangerous #2 is the horse that is good natured and well handled, but green, or the horse that has a known and manageable quirk or two. On the average, most horses in the world fall into this category.
Working with a #2 is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you put yourself and your #2 within the learning curve. It’s ok to be challenged by a horse. If we only work with bombproof horses, we won’t become bombproof riders. The trick is in approaching the #2 horse with the appropriate attitude, knowledgeable assistance or backup, and precautions.
Dangerous Horse #3
Dangerous Horse #3 is the horse who must be handled with extreme care and caution by all. This is the “problem horse,” the habitual bucker, rearer, bolter. This horse might even show outright aggressive behavior, like charging or striking at humans.
With the exception of the untouched wild horse (which I would also initially place in this category), this type is fairly rare. This is the horse who, through nature or training, behaves in a way that puts its humans at risk, no matter their skill level. There are a further two subsets of this type of dangerous horse.
Some #3’s are created by humans. Perhaps the horse began as a #2, and was purchased or adopted by someone who could not cope with his needs or quirks, or establish themselves as an effective herd leader. Possibly, ineffective training has taught the horse that bucking or bolting gets a release of pressure. Or maybe the horse is simply in unrecognized pain or distress… a #1 or #2 who just cannot cope quietly any longer. This horse has either assumed a position of dominance in the horse-human hierarchy, or is behaving out of defense – fight or flight.
This sort of dangerous horse might still be rehabbed or corrected. A skilled and subtle enough horseman might establish a healthier and safer relationship with the animal. A source of pain or discomfort might be located and treated. This is the ideal outcome; maybe not a Disney story ending where a preteen rides the untrainable horse to victory, but at least the horse might be helped to become a more reliable citizen for the right person.
The Perfect Storm
Dangerous Horse #3 could also be a product of fate, so to speak. A perfect storm of physiology and environment that creates an unfixable (or nearly so) pattern of behavior. The example that comes to my mind is from the documentary “Buck” (which I very highly recommend watching if you have not already done so). For horses in this position, there really are no good outcomes. The undesirable behavior is so ingrained that the horse may never really be relied upon to do otherwise than he does. In these cases, sometimes difficult decisions must be made “for the safety of the public.”
Am I Dealing With A Dangerous Horse? How Do I Know?
There are a few ways to recognize whether you are in a dangerous situation with a horse. First, do you find yourself surprised or caught off-guard by your horse’s behaviors? Do you find yourself managing behaviors instead of fixing them? These are subtle signs that you may be over your skill level with a particular horse.
Have you been hurt or injured repeatedly by the horse? All riders fall, but if every trip to the arena with a particular horse includes an 8 second ride… Are you routinely crowded on the ground? Stepped on? These might also be symptoms of an unsafe situation.
The role of fear shouldn’t be discounted in evaluating your situation. All riders struggle with fear to some degree, but if there is a particular horse that you “don’t turn your back on,” or a horse that you wouldn’t climb aboard for all the tea in China, that is your brain telling you something valuable. It’s worth listening.
Helping Dangerous Horses
Do No Harm
Like trying to help people in difficult situations, helping troubled horses should always be undertaken with care. First rule: Do No Harm. To yourself or to the horse. Check your ego and your expectations at the gate, and don’t dive in unless you know that your intervention won’t make the situation worse. Not only do you want to ensure that you are treating the animal humanely, you also don’t want to mistakenly reinforce the behaviors you’re trying to correct. The horse’s quality of life in the future often depends a great deal on his lack of dangerous behavior.
Basic common sense safety rules and considerations are sufficient for dealing with most horses. Things that we learn on our first day at the barn, like wearing a helmet in the saddle, not crossing directly behind a horse, being aware of pinned ears. These basics are basic for a reason; they neutralize the most obvious and common hazards.
The best way to help a dangerous horse is through education. If you are lacking it, seek it out. Read. Take riding lessons. Most “dangerous” behaviors can be mitigated with enough knowledge and skill, or by approaching the horse or the task a different way. Experience and exposure to good learning opportunities make better horsemen. Knowledge is power.
Even professional riders have coaches. There is no shame at all in taking regular lessons and working with a coach even if you have a steady-eddy type #1. Indeed, there is wisdom in the practice. The best way to learn how to interact more safely with your type #2 dangerous horse is to regularly check in with a more experienced horseman. This becomes especially important if the horse’s behavior catches you off-guard or you are unsure of how to manage it. Sharing your experiences and asking others for feedback and advice can be remarkably helpful.
If you are dealing with a type #3 with serious or ingrained behavioral problems, the first order of business is to get a knowledgeable and experienced horseman on-site. Brainstorming and online advice are probably not going to substitute for in-person evaluation and assistance in those cases.
Despite our love for the animals and the sport, it is imperative that safety of human come first and horse come a close second. Even the tamest and sweetest equine should be handled with care. When a horse is greener or has confirmed problem behaviors, the need for safety-consciousness increases.
Have you ever dealt with a horse that you felt was dangerous? What kind of behaviors strike you as particularly dangerous in a horse? Do you have a “dealbreaker” behavior? Is there such a thing as an “incurable” problem horse, or do you think that there is a way to “get through” to any dangerous problem horse?
Share your thoughts in the comments, drop us a line, and remember, you should be riding!!
For alumni of 4-H or Pony Club, maintaining a horse record book is something that you’ll remember doing as a kid or a teen. The clubs provide the books and the guidance, and the rider adds and updates the data. For those “uninitiated” to the practice, a stable record book provides documentation of a horse, his care, and expenses over time. It can be a daunting task, but is well worth the effort.
Maintaining a stable record book might just seem like one more thing to keep track of in an already busy world… why bother adding another update to your daily routine?
Emergency Preparedness: These kinds of records are invaluable in case of emergency. In a missing horse situation, you have the ideal photos to identify your animal, provide to authorities, or share on social media. If your horse falls ill, you have baseline vitals for comparison, healthcare history, and daily care notes to help your vet reach a quick and accurate diagnosis.
Better, More Efficient Care: No more wracking your brain to remember what dewormer you used last. You won’t have to guesstimate that it’s about time to schedule your farrier. You can predict when you will need to buy feed and bedding next. All of the information that you need to keep your horse and run your barn is organized and contained in one place.
Financial Planning and Budgeting: By tracking your horse-related expenses, you know exactly what you spend on this aspect of your life. You will be able to make wiser purchasing decisions for not only the “wants” like those new polo wraps, but also “needs” like feed, bedding, and farrier work.
Goalsetting: By tracking and recording your horse’s exercise, baseline vitals, show calendar, etc. all in one place, you can create useful and attainable goals for your horsemanship skills and your horse’s fitness and athletic ability.
As you can see, the question is less like “why bother,” and more like “why am I not doing this?”
What is in the record book?
A complete record book includes several sections. Ideally, the record book allows any person reasonably versed in basic horse care to take up the maintenance of the horse if needed. It can also be an invaluable resource for tracking your horse’s care and condition over time. You will have his detailed history at-hand and in one organized location in the event of an emergency.
Basic general information include the names, addresses, and contact details of the humans in the horse’s life. At bare minimum, that includes rider, owner, farm owner/manager, vet, farrier, and likely an instructor or trainer. At a more expansive level, it may include an equine dentist, chiropractor, massage therapist, and horse/farm insurance information. This information should be at the front of the record book, easy to find in case of emergency.
Identification and Horse Details
This allows quick and accurate identification of the horse being recorded, and serves a couple of purposes. First, it is good practice to be familiar with the ways that a horse is described; colors, markings, patterns, breeds, etc. Secondly, in a situation where there are multiple horses on one property, it allows a horse to be identified from the herd.
Animal’s Sex, Color, Pattern, and Markings
This is the most basic way to identify a given horse.
Age, Height, and Weight
This provides a bit more detail, but these facts can be changeable and should be updated routinely. Even adult horses can measure different heights with improved or diminished condition. Copies of any height certificates should be included.
Color photos of your horse are indispensable, and should be updated regularly. The photos should be “conformation shots” that represent your horse clearly and accurately, standing square from all angles, and also show any particular distinguishing features such as scars or distinctive markings. Photos should be updated annually at minimum. If your horse changes color dramatically with the seasons, it is wise to include both summer and winter examples.
Breed and Bloodline
It is also wise to include a copy of any breed registry certifications in this section. If the animal is a grade, it is worth noting as such, perhaps adding a type descriptor (i.e., grade sport horse, grade stock horse, grade pony, etc.). If the horse is unregistered but the breeding is known, include what specifics you are able.
Other Associations and Affiliations
Copies of certification or registration with other associations that your horse is enrolled with are worth including as well.
Baseline information is documentation of what is normal from day-to-day. This is the section of the record book that is the most useful for someone unfamiliar with your particular horse. It holds all of the information that will allow an “outsider” to take up the horse’s daily care without confusion.
This should show the times of feedings, weights of feeds provided (roughage and concentrates, if applicable), and any supplements provided at those times. It is also worth documenting changes to that feed schedule and “menu,” as well as the reasons for making those changes. I include a feed bag tag or label in this area for each product in my horse’s ration. If you have had a hay or pasture analysis done, include the results here, too.
Routine Care Documentation
This area is for tracking vaccinations, deworming, farrier work, dentistry, etc. Don’t fear detail in your entries — include type of dewormer and dosage, size and type of shoes, vaccine injected and dosage. Also track the costs of this care. This is also a great place to record baseline vital signs; pulse, temperature, and respiration. Another item to include here is any specific medical condition your horse may have, and the general support plan for that condition. These would be something like arthritis, heaves, Cushing’s disease, etc.
Emergency Care Documentation
This area is for less routine care. It might include serious injuries or illnesses that require emergency attention from vet or farrier. It might also include less serious first-aid situations that you are able to treat yourself.
Note: It is a good idea to be able to handle basic “first aid” for your horse yourself. Some things just don’t merit a farm call. HOWEVER, I am NOT advocating becoming your own vet, here. Knowing when to bring in a professional is imperative, and it is always better to be safe than sorry!! When in doubt, call your vet!!
You will be much better able to help your vet help your horse if you have immediate access to information such as baseline vitals (in comparison to worrisome readings), medication history including dates and dosages, and feed information. All of these things can assist your vet in coming to an accurate diagnosis and prescribing the best treatment.
Be sure to note the date of emergency care, the nature and symptoms of the illness or injury, care provided, and costs of materials and medication if applicable. This information may be useful to have later.
Conditioning Plan/Event Schedule
If you are asking any type of athleticism of your horse, you should have some sort of conditioning plan. This is where you document your horse’s current condition and the activities that you pursue to improve it. For example, you might note that you are working on flatwork, with a focus on circles and introducing basic lateral work, the number of minutes per session, and the number of sessions per week. This area should also document changes in condition, based on body condition score and changes in vital signs at rest and at work. The key to improvement in any field is to record progress so that you can see it.
You can also add planned events to this area; lessons, clinics, shows, organized trail rides, etc. Note the dates, details, participation costs/entry fees, and outcomes.
This is the “painful” part, and pretty self explanatory. I break my expenses up into “feed/board” and “tack and equipment.” Feed and Board includes routine purchases that are usually pretty stable from month to month. Grain and hay, supplements, bedding, and fly control are on this list. Tack and Equipment are less routine purchases, and I also include things that I purchase for myself like riding clothing and helmets in that section.
If you are lucky enough to earn any income at all from your equestrian pursuits, congratulations!! Maybe you earn some money offering your horse as a lesson mount, or as a lease. Any competition winnings, scholarship money awarded, etc. can go in this area.
I personally keep records for two horses in one record book binder. Sections that typically apply to both horses (feed and board expenses, tack and equipment expenses) I separate under a “General” tab, and each horse has his own tab for his specific information for easy reference. This system can easily expand to accommodate as many animals as necessary.
Formatting: Analog or Digital?
Ah, the eternal question… should you keep your record book in an “old fashioned” book or binder? Or as an electronic file, using an app or creating a spreadsheet?
Digital takes up less space, is easy to edit, and may include the option to keep your records on your phone for near-constant accessibility. However, template options are less plentiful; you will likely need to design your own system. Depending on your level of tech-savvy, designing your system and layout yourself might be a bonus.
Analog may be bulkier, but offers consistent accessibility. You’ll never have to worry about dead batteries, and you’ll still have all of the information even if the power is out or you don’t have WiFi. There are also a number of published planners and diaries as well as Google-available documents that you can print and use as a template, including 4-H Record Books and Pony Club books.
Another consideration is how long to keep your record book. I personally keep a “live” book for each calendar year, starting a fresh one in January. I pull the previous year’s pages out of the binder and “archive” them in the file cabinet with my other horse-related documents. There are merits to starting at different points in the year; a spring kickoff for the new riding season, or wrapping a year in the fall at the end of the busy season both make sense. That really is up to the individual and what works.
Where to keep your record book? The barn is often the easiest location to keep the book for in-the-moment updates… however, unless you are blessed with a barn office/lounge or a climate controlled tack room, the barn is usually where paper goes to die.
I keep my record book in my house at my personal desk. Less immediately convenient sometimes, but I avoid losing info by getting it wet or dirty.
Formal recordkeeping is a habit that I picked up early through 4-H, and is also promoted through USPC and other organizations. There are a number of benefits to keeping detailed records of our animals. We then have a detailed health and maintenance history for reference. We can spot trends and more accurately provide the care we need, when we need to. Tracking expenses allows us to more wisely budget for our equestrian needs. In case of emergency, we have everything we need to help our professional support team help our horse. With all of these benefits, why would you not want to keep a record book for your horse?
Do you keep a stable record book? Did you pick up the practice through a program like 4-H or USPC? Is it something that you started doing on your own? How has your record book helped you make your horse’s life better? Is a record book something that you don’t use now, but want to start? How do you think it will benefit you and your horsekeeping? Share your thoughts in the comments, or drop an email!
Thanks for reading, and, as always, I should be riding!