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!