Beyond the Barn: Six Real World Lessons Learned from My Horses

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.

real world lessons learned from my horses

Work Ethic

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.

real life lessons learned from my horses work ethic
Photo by Tim Bottchen on Unsplash

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.

Humility

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.

Photo by Sarah Bedu on Unsplash

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.

horses fighting unintended consequences
Photo by Hans Veth on Unsplash

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.

Sportsmanship

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.

show jumping rider sportsmanship
Photo by Gene Devine on Unsplash
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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.

Teamwork

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.

teamwork dressage lusitano horse and rider
Creative Commons Stock Photo courtesy of luda-stock.deviantart.com

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

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.

Stock photo courtesy of Pexels.com

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.

Conclusion

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!

Yoga And Equitation: A Lightbulb Moment

Yoga And Equitation: A Lightbulb Moment

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.

Yoga and Equitation Graphic

Background…

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

mindful meditation
Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash
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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.

“Holding” Strength

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 Breath

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.

WEG 2010 - Dressage Qualifying
By Jean [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Conclusion

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.

Are You and Your Horse Ready? 3 Crucial Stages To Preparing for Winter

Are You and Your Horse Ready? 3 Crucial Stages to Preparing for Winter

I know, I know… it’s still August. There is still summer left to enjoy. Thank goodness for that. Preparing for winter is the last thing that I want to think about. You probably agree.

Preparing for winter girl feeding horse

But, before you know it, fall (and winter… grr…) will be upon us again. And now is the time to start preparing for winter. You don’t want to be caught with your pants down, especially if you live in more northerly latitudes! Read on for tips and tricks to make the most of the time you have left to prepare for the changing seasons!

Pre-Season Inventory

Stock and Source Consumables

The most important thing is to ensure that you have adequate fodder stocked or reliably sourced for the winter. If you, like me, live in a latitude where your horse’s primary roughage source will be hay for several months, you need to have enough now to get you as far as next year’s first opportunity to cut more. After September or so, what has been harvested is all that there will be for the year. Hay and similar locally harvested forage will only become more expensive and more scarce from now until early summer next year. Also consider your bedding type and sources. Depending on your material of choice, bedding may also become scarce or higher in price later in the winter months.

Finnhorse stallions lunch time
By Sini Merikallio (Flickr: Finnhorse stallions lunch time) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Equipment Check

Now is the time to get your winter gear out of storage and check everything over.  You want to be sure that you have what you need in good fit and state of repair before you need to use it. Hopefully when you put these things away last spring, you didn’t store anything that needed repaired or replaced, and you used a storage method and location that kept your gear away from pests, molds, and other hazards. However, best laid plans and all of that… There is still plenty of time to arrange for repairs or order replacements before you’ll really need these things if they did not survive off-season storage unscathed. Be sure to inspect your horse’s winter weight blankets and rugs, and also your own winter weather clothing and footwear.

'Cavalli della Madonna' im Marstall des Klosters Einsiedeln 2013-01-26 14-11-05 (P7700)
‘Cavalli della Madonna’ im Marstall des Klosters Einsiedeln 2013-01-26 14-11-05 (P7700) © Roland Fischer, Zürich (Switzerland) – Mail notification to: roland_zh(at)hispeed(dot)ch / Wikimedia Commons

The major seasonal change is also a great time to audit your equine first aid kit to ensure that all supplies are stocked and within date.

Since summer isn’t quite over, autumn can be a great time to stock up on items for next year as long as they are nonperishable. Consider taking advantage of end-of-season sales on fly masks, summer sheets, some fly sprays and traps (check shelf life), etc. If it will keep through the winter, grab it while the prices are good instead of when they are re-released in the spring.

“Winterize” Your Horse

This is a great time to touch base with your vet. You can schedule any fall-specific vaccinations that are recommended for your area, and also a general once-over for your horse. A fecal egg count can be worth the investment to help your vet help you coordinate an appropriate deworming program for the season and your horse’s needs.

Horse in snow
Photo by Erin Dolson on Unsplash

Early fall is the best time to start adjusting your plan for your “special needs” horse for the winter months. Harder keepers get harder to keep without fresh pasture. Easier keepers get rounder by the day with lessened exercise. Hard frozen footing makes your arthritic senior a bit stiffer. Increased confinement can bring on or exacerbate a number of health conditions. Taking steps to support your horse before the seasons change is a vital part of preparing for winter.

Give yourself time to make any needed dietary changes gradually. Consider scheduling a dental exam/float this fall so your horse starts the season getting the most out of his teeth. Consult with your farrier about the best program for your horses feet given your winter needs; will you carry shoes through the winter months? Will you switch to borium, or to studs, to increase traction? Pads to better absorb shock on frozen ground? Or is barefoot a better bet for you?

Bring your Barn into Winter Mode

The Tack Room

Like you did last spring, deep clean and safely store seasonal gear that you won’t need through the colder months. Your storage should protect your equipment from dust and dirt, as well as pests and rodents. If you take a winter showing/riding hiatus, this is the perfect time to break down tack for the most thorough possible cleaning and inspection. Winter can be a good time to send tack out for specialty repairs, like stitch work or reflocking.

Form a gameplan for cleaning bulky fabrics like sheets and blankets. Most household machines won’t handle loads that size, and many laundromats have policies against horse blankets. Now is the time to find a service that will accept your barn laundry, or do a last deep-scrub with the garden hose while it still gets warm enough to dry blankets outside.

If you’re in a climate that freezes, collect your liquids and store them in a warmer location before the temperature in your barn drops too low. Not only does this prevent messy burst containers, but some products lose their effectiveness or consistency after a freeze-thaw cycle. For liquid products that you use regularly throughout the winter, like waterless shampoos or liquid supplements, invest in a tote to carry them conveniently from house to barn and back until they can live safely in the barn again.

Pasture and Buildings

This is the perfect time to give your infrastructure a general once-over and make any basic repairs and improvements to carry you through the winter. Replace or reset wobbly fence posts before the ground freezes. Check your barn for gaps or drafts, and for adequate ventilation. Cobweb removal can be a war of attrition, but take the opportunity of total turnout for one last dust-raising deep clean while you can. This will not only look tidier, but reduce the risk of fire.

Winter horse
Photo by David Preston on Unsplash

Also check your wiring before you plug in electric buckets or trough heaters. While you should enlist a professional electrician to make repairs, your own sharp eye can spot potential hazards ahead of time. If you haven’t already got them, ground-fault-interruption (GFI) outlets are a small price to pay for peace of mind. These are the same outlets installed in bathrooms for safety around water.

Brace Yourself: Winter is Coming

While preparing for winter is a lot less exciting than preparing for spring, a little extra time now is well worth the effort. By following these steps you’ll set yourself and your horses up for a more comfortable winter season. You’ll have less stress, and more time to enjoy what the colder months have to offer: check out this post on Beating the Winter Blues for lots of ideas to not only survive, but thrive in your horsemanship goals this winter!

In the meantime… it is still August… and there’s a lot of summer and fall to go. Like me, you really should be riding.

Riding With Purpose: What Drives Your Horsemanship Journey

Sometimes the horsemanship journey requires the horseman to go a little “meta.” Riding with purpose is one of the best ways to anchor ourselves mentally and emotionally. This purpose can solidify the foundation of our horsemanship by reminding us of the basic reasons why we do what we do. All of us started down this pathway, and choose to stay on it every day, for a reason. An awareness of that reason provides focus and purpose, and guides us forward on our horsemanship journey. Revisiting basic purpose helps overcome training plateaus, find courage, and recognize progress made.

Riding with purpose
wiki-commons

Maybe it has been a while since you considered your purpose for horsemanship. Maybe it is something that you have never drilled down to defining at all. Every rider is unique and has their own background and story, but here are some very general categories to get you thinking.

Riding with Purpose: Partnership

One purpose you might have is the partnership aspect of riding. There is little more rewarding than working in harmonious tandem with a creature that outsizes you tenfold and speaks no human language.  Perhaps that is the nut of the equestrian bug itself.

When the partnership element forms the root of your purpose, you find yourself focusing on that element of your horsemanship. You likely derive a lot of satisfaction from improving your communication. Additionally, you probably have a “trainer streak” that draws you to teaching horses new movements or polishing their understanding and skill.

Partnership is something that all horsemen should strive for, and necessarily forms at least a part of all riders’ purpose. If it didn’t, why go into the horse industry? Are you a masochist?? I kid…

Riding with Purpose: Building Better Riders… and Horses

Some of us find our purpose in the athleticism of equestrian pursuits. We find fulfillment in honing our own physical skills and abilities, and in building better athletes of our equine partners. We revel in our ability to ride a jump with enough strength and balance to give a full following release of the reins. Or our control and subtlety of seat to influence our horse with whispered aids. We take the No Stirrups November challenge head-on. For the riders who find purpose in the athleticism of the sport, horsemanship provides a venue for improving physical fitness.

Related to this is the purpose of physically improving and conditioning the horse itself. There is great pride to be had in the transformation of a young or green animal into a strong, fit athlete. The process can be intensive, encompassing a mastery of equine biomechanics, cardiovascular fitness, nutrition, and strength training. Some horsemen embark on the process of breeding stock. Responsible breeders to remarkable time and expense to select the perfect crosses and bloodlines to produce superior offspring.

Riding with Purpose: Challenge

This purpose can also overlap with the athletics, to a degree, but not necessarily. Horsemanship is by nature a deeply challenging endeavor. Even “just a trail rider” often pursues challenge in finding new trails to explore and new obstacles to traverse.

The obvious challenges come with competitive riding. No matter what your skill level, budget, tack, or breed, there are innumerable avenues to get into showing and competition. At these events we can test our skills against discipline, breed, and association standards, against our own previous results, and against other riders. Many horse enthusiasts find formal competition highly rewarding.

Organized riding clubs often provide opportunities for friendly competition. Schooling shows, organized and judged trail rides, and mileage challenges are often more accessible to the average rider, and can be just as rewarding to participate in. For younger riders, 4-H and Pony Club offer a framework to learn and progress through “levels” of horsemanship. The materials used by these organizations are readily available, and can be an excellent personal challenge for a non-member rider looking to test their skill or create a goal.

Riding with Purpose: FUN

This purpose is something that should come along with any of the others. If being around these magnificent creatures wasn’t fun, why would we bother with the time, expense, and occasional pain (physical and emotional)? At the end of the day, it is all about the fun and joy that your pursuit of horsemanship brings to you. Something about the pursuit of horsemanship sparks joy in you.

When to Revisit Your Purpose

There are times in every rider’s career when revisiting or rediscovering their purpose can be beneficial.

Fighting the Fear Monster

Every rider has struggled with fear. That is an axiomatic truth. And no wonder, given what it is that we do. Fear can be a good and healthy thing, keeping us safe from the consequences of doing something truly stupid. Other times, fear is less rational, and prevents us from enjoying comparatively safe activities.

When dealing with fear of the enjoyment-robbing variety, revisiting our purpose is a powerful tool. By focusing on that purpose, and our reasons for riding, we can muffle the inner lizard-brain voice that stops us. Our purpose has motivating power to it that often outweighs our fears and worries. This allows us to recapture more positive emotions in the saddle.

Stuck on a Plateau

The nature of horsemanship, as a progressive discipline, means that all riders will at some point hit a plateau in their riding. We might feel like we aren’t improving, at least not as tangibly, as we used to in the beginning. Maybe a movement or a skill is eluding us. Maybe we feel stuck in a rut. Revisiting or redefining our purpose can help here, too.

The reason that purpose gets us off of training plateaus is it takes us back to something more basic, and lets us see the grand scheme again. Meditating (as formally as you like) on that larger purpose relaxes us, and allows us to see what the next step is, or a new track to take. Sometimes our purpose helps us pivot or tweak what we’re already doing. Sometimes allowing our purpose to get us off a plateau takes us into a whole new discipline or focus. There is always something more to learn in horsemanship, and revisiting our purpose in general terms does wonders for helping us see where we can go from here.

Finding Motivation and Defining Goals

Another useful feature of understanding our purpose is the way that our purpose influences and helps define our goals. Defining our purpose is a powerful motivator. Because they have a foundation, our goals tend to materialize and become clearer when we have a clear purpose behind them. Without a basic purpose, our goals tend to be fuzzy and indistinct, and therefore much harder to attain. When our purpose is clearly understood and defined, goals have a way of making themselves.

Conclusion

Despite the slightly woo-woo and meta feel of focusing on root purpose, the exercise of defining purpose can profoundly help our riding and horsemanship. While our purposes are as individual as we are as riders, knowing what they are is crucial to focusing and moving forward on our horsemanship journey. Without purpose, our progress stalls and stagnates, and we can lose sight of what brings us to the barn every day. Horsemanship without purpose becomes a chore… and none of us needs more chores. Horsemanship is an art, and all art, amateur or professional, is built on purpose.

How do you ride with purpose? What is your purpose in riding and horsemanship? Has understanding your purpose helped your riding?

Becoming a Beginner Again… Sort of…

This one is for the folks returning to horses after taking some time off. Maybe “real life” took priority for a while, or a couple of decades. Or maybe you had an injury, or are perhaps coming back after pregnancy. Maybe you haven’t been completely out of the game, but riding has taken a drop on the priorities list. But no more — you’ve realized that you should be riding, and you’re making your comeback! Go you!!

For better or worse, no matter how much reading or rail-sitting you’re able to do to keep yourself involved, the fact remains that time off, especially prolonged time off, brings even the most seasoned rider back a few levels in ability when they come back. This can be frustrating, but isn’t a “bad” thing per se. It is expected, and something that is best accepted, embraced, and worked forward from. It is okay to be a beginner again.

Beginner Rider Happy Little Girl
Stock photo courtesy of Pexels.com

Factors that Bring You Back to “Beginner” During a Break

This situation can sometimes be harder than coming to horsemanship as an adult greenie. Adult greenies have their obstacles, for sure (fodder for another post?), but the returning rider carries many of the same obstacles along with the memories of their former abilities. You have expectations of your body and emotions that reflect your younger equestrian self, not your current place.

This mismatch between expectation and reality doesn’t just apply to folks coming back after a break of decades. Even skilled teenage riders who step back to focus on higher education and starting a career, return to the sport in their mid to late 20s can find that the intervening 4-5 years have wrought major changes to both body and mind. You’re still young, maybe still relatively fit, but you’ve seen a bit more of the world and have more responsibility, more experience overthinking. Everyone who has ever set toe into stirrup understands what I mean when I say that riding will show you muscles you didn’t know you had. Those muscles don’t really get exercised by any other activity, and are hard to keep riding-fit during a break.

Beginning Doesn’t Mean The End… Obviously, or Not So Much

I say “obviously,” because the beginning is by definition the start. It is no doubt disheartening to discover that while your mind and understanding of the sport is thinking about intermediate-plus riding theory, skills, and movements, your body will barely allow you to balance well in walk.

This is a tougher mental obstacle than a lot of folks expect. It can really knock you down a peg, make you feel like a failure, like a shadow of your former self. But that’s the thing… you are a shadow of your former self. Just like your even-more-former-than-that self was a shadow of your future self. And, to quote Gandalf… “that is an encouraging thought.”

Grant Yourself The Grace to Be Where You Need to Be

This is a sort of wonderful corollary to the idea of riding the horse you have today. Extend the same grace to yourself, and ride as the rider you are today. Think of yourself in the same way as you think of your project horse. Turn your attention to your foundation, and build back up.

Confident Body

Pick up some beginner riding books. Not necessarily kids’ riding books, but beginner riding books. I’m a big fan of the US Pony Club Manual, along with the classic Centered Riding by Sally Swift, but there are literally hundreds of resources that fall into this category. Remind yourself of the very basics of good riding. Start at the very beginning, and test yourself for holes and gaps. Make sure that what you know in your mind still translates to your body. Try to step back from yourself, treat yourself as if you were your nit-picking instructor, building a new rider into a capable and confident horseman, and putting the best tools and advice in place to guide that transformation.

Find a nit-picking instructor. A nit-picking beginner rider instructor. Explain at the outset that you are a formerly experienced rider, but that you are coming back to basics after time off. Ask them to really drill you on those basics, of correct and effective position and seat and aids. Even if your time away hasn’t truly brought you all the way back to square one, you will find gaps in need of attention. As these gaps are addressed, your skill and confidence will bounce back.

This idea is exactly the same as bringing a horse back into condition after an extended layoff. You wouldn’t expect even a Grand Prix schoolmaster to come cold from the paddock after a season off to step off into a connected, rhythmic, active piaffe first thing. You would no doubt start that ride by showing him the tack and testing his acceptance of the most basic parts of being ridden. The piaffe is still in there, but the horse needs to work back up to it, both physically and mentally. We as riders need to recognize that we need the same process to come back from time off.

Confident Mind

If your confidence hasn’t exactly weathered your time away from the saddle untarnished, grant yourself the grace to set yourself up for success as much as possible. Don’t necessarily rush out and throw the close contact saddle on the forward and scopey jumper that you rode in the past. Acknowledge your present self, your present needs. Maybe start with a Western saddle (if you formerly rode in any of the “English” disciplines), and let the tack help set yourself up for stability, physically and mentally. Start with a levelheaded, been-there-done-that mount, at least for the first few rides. Even if your confidence is intact, you will probably still need a horse that will forgive your antics re-learning balance in the body, stability in the leg, and softness in the hand. As your basics re-solidify, your strength and stability in body will support your mental and emotional confidence.

Allow Yourself to Reclaim a Beginner’s Joy

The most helpful things to revisit as you make your comeback are the reasons why you began riding in the first place. Before you became absorbed with competition, before you had to prioritize the practical in your life… try to reclaim the headspace of the person who was first drawn to these magnificent animals.

Living in that unbridled joy around horses again can dramatically ease the tension and drive the reintroduction of horses and riding into your life. Focusing on the simple joy of being around and with the horse lets you shed baggage you didn’t know you carried. Suddenly the rider you were doesn’t matter anymore. Suddenly you don’t compare yourself to other riders. You are just present with the horse, enjoying his company and the gift of time spent building partnership with him again. And isn’t that joy the reason why most of us started riding in the first place?

Conclusion

Have you ever been in the position of rebuilding your skill or confidence after time away from the saddle? What tools and tactics worked well for you and your horse? I look forward to your comments! For now… off to the barn. I should be riding.

 

Riding Inspiration: Make it Elegant

I am a quote junkie. Sometimes. I don’t exactly have a collection of quote-a-day calendars, but I have a bullet journal, and when I run across a nugget of wisdom it lands on a daily page so it doesn’t get lost forever.  For some reason, my stash of quotes doesn’t include a whole lot of equestrian quotes… it seems like most horse-y quotes out there are of the more romantic type, rather than containing solidly useful advice that I can take to the barn. So it was with this one, attributed to the great Charlotte Dujardin. I originally discovered it perusing Stacy Westfall’s blog, in her 2 post series (find Part 1 here) on attending Ms. Dujardin’s masterclass.

“Make the impossible possible. Make the possible easy. Make the easy elegant.”

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro — Photo Credit/Source: Alex Livesey/Getty Images Europe – Zimbio

I absolutely love this sentiment. It goes well beyond the barn and riding, but given the usual route of my train of thought and the source, that is the field in which my ruminations upon it have naturally rested. Since the quote has been on my mind, I thought a written meditation on it would help solidify its meaning and application.

title image elegant riding
Stock photo courtesy of Pexels.com

Make the Impossible Possible

So many times in riding, progress seems impossible. For the beginner, getting into the saddle or finding balance in walk is the hardest thing in the world. For the timid rider, or the rider coming back from a shaking fall or an injury, maybe impossible means even setting foot in a stirrup. Up the scale of boldness, experience, and skill, maybe an impossible thing is nailing that shoulder-in, that flying change, that pirouette. Every rider has an impossible thing. The good news is, there is a fine line between impossible and possible… to get a little bit more quote-y on you, dear reader:

“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says “I’m possible!”” — Audrey Hepburn

This first admonition of Ms. Dujardin’s is perfect in that it sets the bar at possibility only. There is no mandate of excellence, or of perfection at this stage, only to make a thing simply happen. It invites us to make progress in our own time, and to break an impossible thing into as many bite-size chunks as necessary. All that is needed is the grit to keep trying and the humility to recognize when you need help or to look at trying another way. But making an impossible thing possible is only the beginning of the journey.

Make the Possible Easy

The next challenge is to make the now-possible thing easy. This is where mechanical practice comes in. Possible implies repeatable; if it happens once, it can happen again. The key to making possible easy is in repetition. Once the barrier of impossibility is broken, a thing can be practiced until it can be done at will.

Again, this concept invites us to work at the pace we need to work. That impossible relaxed walk can be cultivated until getting on and walking isn’t a big deal. It becomes a simple thing with time and practice.

Make the Easy Elegant

This is the difficult part, and what separates the riders from the horsemen. And, to a degree, it happens concurrently with making the possible easy. It is easier to practice a skill mindfully and well from the beginning of building a skill than it is to build sloppy technique that is easy to perform.

Why not stop at easy? Why worry about making riding elegant? If you don’t show or compete, it might be tempting to leave technical excellence and elegance of execution as an afterthought. If it can be done and done without dramatics, who cares what it looks like or how elegant it feels?

The thing is, even if you don’t compete, horses THRIVE on subtlety. They are incredibly perceptive of their world and the creatures that inhabit it. Your horse will thank you if you whisper instead of shout. Or, at least if you whisper before you escalate to shouting. Excellent equitation translates to excellent communication and excellent balance. If we have excellent communication and excellent balance with our horses, we can coexist more harmoniously in all aspects of horsemanship.

Beyond Riding

One of the things that I like most about this concept and the way that it is phrased is that it aligns beautifully with the Four Stages of Learning concept. When you start any new skill, you begin in a state of Unconscious Incompetence (“any idiot can do that” mentality). Over time and with practice and guidance, you move up the chain to a state of Conscious Incompetence (“I suck at this”), then to Conscious Competence (“I get it now,” or the “Lightbulb Moment”). At the top of the pyramid is the state of Unconscious Competence. This is the point where a skill becomes second nature, even… Elegant.

This pattern applies to any new skill you embark on. Art class is a great illustrator. Most people look at a Jackson Pollack and think “I could have done that.” You might even think that you’ve painted the next masterpiece of modern art once you’ve tried your hand for the first time. That is Unconscious Incompetence. Think of your first day at a new job. You probably felt at least Consciously Incompetent at some things. As you learn and grow and progress in any sphere, you climb that pyramid until you are Unconsciously Competent at what you do. You don’t have to think about it anymore, your trained intuition guides you correctly.

Final Thoughts

How are you going to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant today? In or out of the saddle? Do you have any particular equestrian (or otherwise!) quotes that stick with you or have made you think? Perhaps even changed the way you ride or work with horses? I would love to hear your thoughts or stories in the comments section. And remember — you really should be riding!