When Goals Match Reality, Dressage-style

After watching me struggle with a mare that was difficult in every way, the great Manolo Mendez put his gentle palm on my shoulder and offered his advice. At the time, it sounded like one of those Zen koans that Manolo frequently riddled to those of us desperate to possess even a fraction of his equine enlightenment.

“See, you need to know where you want to be with this mare next week, next month, next year. Simple. Then train for next week, next month, next year.”

Was I not already doing that?, I argued. In fact, I felt very clear on where I wanted this mare to be. I wanted her to walk, trot, and canter around the arena without flinging herself side to side agitatedly. I wanted her teeth-clattering, tail-swishing surliness to disappear for good, the sooner the better. Simple.

Later, of course I understood the depths of Manolo’s comment and in subsequent years have re-lived the wisdom of its layers. When most training programs are stuck, their remedies lie in identifying the minutiae of each step leading forward. Or at least that is my best translation of the riddle. Usually this involves the keen sense of being able to locate measurable day to day goals. I tend to be a big picture person, the kind who stares off into space and daydreams entire scenes and scenarios. I’ve never had a mind that niggled around populating these scenes with details. There is an explanation for why I majored in Philosophy rather than engineering. Isolating measurable goals, though, requires the ability to break a big picture down in to parts. It means separating tiny step A from baby step B from achievable step C. It means scaling all the way back from the visualization of yourself on the Olympic podium to this week’s measurable contribution towards that big picture: convince your horse to stop spooking in the corner between C and H.

And, honestly, getting to this step requires a sharp recalibration of our ambition in any given moment. Many times, the measurable goal for today or this week seems too, well, beneath us. We yearn to aim a little loftier, to utilize our whole toolbox of skills. This, as my fellow trainers will attest, is where a sense of humor can make all the difference. Without it, I imagine a professional in this sport will struggle with longevity.

A well-heeled dressage student watched me school a young horse last week during one of these recalibrations. In her tall polished boots, she leaned against the arena railing careful not to snag the front of her tailored sweater. I guessed that she hoped to glean something insightful or inspiring by watching me train for a few moments. Maybe she expected to witness the refining of a shoulder-in or half-pass. Instead she found me trying to establish reliable brakes and steering on a large wobbly gelding. Puzzled, she leaned closer, squinted her vision to bring us in to clearer focus.

“So…what are you working on with that one?” she asked. Inherent in her question was the assumption that, surely, I must be practicing something more sophisticated than my own survival.

“Right now, you mean?” I blurted, my face punched in a grimace. My underarms bloomed with sweaty effort. “Right now, I’m trying to keep from being killed up here.” Albeit not very dressage-specific, this was no embellishment. My sole aim included both the horse and I seeing the end of our twenty minute session unscathed. With this positive outcome, a new inch of progress would be acquired. Tomorrow we may be able to stop and start on cue. Next week, who knew, we may be able to steer a reliable circle or two. I could envision a clear path that led someday a year or two from now to refining a shoulder-in or half-pass. But for right now, I knew clearly where I wanted this horse to be today, tomorrow, next week, next month. And none of those included a shoulder-in.

My student readjusted her sun visor, examined her cuticles, and then seemed to decide that I was keeping secrets. After all, when is a trainer ever not working on some impossible-to-understand technique? Well, trust me, I cherish the ability to work on those difficult techniques but arriving at that point involves a very clear path of mini steps followed logically and clearly. And many times, I might add, a recalculation of what of where we might want to be with where we are right here in this moment.


Breed Biases

One of the great joys of horse ownership is the skewed regard with which you get to view your personal steed. Believing in his or her superiority is a deserved perk of the debt load that often accompanies an equestrian lifestyle. It also grants you membership to a condition I call breed bias. Much like pledging a sorority or fraternity, this mind state involves a combination of pride, delusion, and acceptance of unexamined facts.

Throughout our recent history of creating breed registries by emphasizing particular traits and characteristics, we have admittedly assisted in the evolution of some fine horse flesh. We have also, however, narrowed our perspective in interesting ways. We have created entire groups of horses that we assume possess identical ways of thinking, behaving, and training.

This perspective begins when a person buys a new horse, who we’ll call Prancer, and then begins palling around with other owners of the same breed , who we’ll call breed X. The new owner is told immediately about all the exceptional traits of breed X. They learn how unlike plain ordinary horses breed X is, how they require specific farriers and saddle types, and how they should only be trained by someone expert in X breed. At this point, Prancer’s owner might wonder: isn’t a horse a horse? Or are the different bloodlines really like separate clans? Soon, Prancer’s owner joins the X breed club, buys all kinds of special equipment, outfits, and farrier services. She wonders how she got along for so many years previously just by treating every horse she encountered like a horse. Now she knows better. She will now regard them as the Morgans or Arabians or Friesians that they are.

Let me clarify, members of particular breed groups DO share traits as a general rule. For instance, I most often equate angst-ridden head flipping dressage performances with Thoroughbreds, and dull plodding ones with draft crosses. Yet there are always exceptions and surprises like the occasional Arabian who just plain never spooks, the rare unfriendly Friesian, some Quarter Horses that do not like cows, and so on.

I point this out because I often witness the generalized rules of breed specialties stretched in liberal ways. Years ago, a breed registry that I’ll leave unidentified promoted the slogan “Born Broke,” essentially promising that this breed of horse sprung from their dams’ wombs fully obedient and mostly trained. Generally speaking, most of these horses possessed a relatively calm demeanor but that is not the same thing as being broke. And I should clarify that there were PLENTY of them that did not fit the description of calm or broke. Unfortunately, the biased rhetoric stuck. Scores of amateur owners bought the hype. They paid their money and joined the clan.

Their first clue that “Born Broke” was a generalization rather than a firm rule should have come when they went shopping for bridles and bits. This same breed promoted a special bit designed and produced exclusively for their members. It looked like a cross between barbed wire and bicycle chain. It lacerated the palm of anyone who tried to hold it. Conceivably, if someone needed that kind of apparatus in a horse’s mouth to control him, the horse missed being born broke and likely will NEVER be broke.

Several years ago, I met an Andalusian breeder here in California who swore her breed never bucked. She honestly believed they lacked the genes responsible for this natural behavior. Other lowly breeds?, sure they bucked, but not Andalusians. Another student was adamant that every single Morgan in the U.S. preferred sugar cubes over carrots. It was just a “Morgan thing,” she promised me.

As a rule, I prefer not to apply generalizations across breeds because it prevents preconceptions from steering my training. If you’re aiming to build on the traits a horse shares with his breed and he does not possess any of those traits, your approach won’t go anywhere. It might not be very hip in our brand-oriented culture, but I find it best to just treat a horse like a horse. Quite frankly, many breed truisms are not very true. And just to make this point, I’m going to go turn out my Andalusian who for the record bucks like a pro.