Learn to Love it All.
By then I was sitting on the stallion in an empty arena. Our teacher, Manolo Mendez, had left several minutes ago saying something about needing to inspect the size of the horse’s stall/paddock, wondering aloud if it might be too small or maybe the footing too soft. At that time, I couldn’t see how that mattered at all in my desire to refine our half-pass, but I didn’t know Manolo well enough then to do anything but wait.
He finally came back to finish our lesson, but we never got to the half-pass on which I was fixated. In fact, we barely rode much. With a studious look, Manolo talked about the soles of the horse’s hooves, his eating habits. He wanted to make sure I never let the saddle slide forward over his high withers. And so on. I fought distraction to listen to all this non-riding advice. I knew I had a dismal left half-pass and some late flying changes, and I wanted to fix them as soon as possible. All this attention on abstracted details seemed off the mark. Noting my youthful impatience, Manolo put his hand on my arm just then, looked at me, and altered my course as a trainer. He swept his gaze around the facility and grounds, then said: the trainer is in charge of all this. With gentleness and respect he reminded me: YOU’RE the trainer. In other words, a good trainer has more than just a riding passion. She also has a horse care passion. How the horse lives matters as much as his training.
Like many trainers, I have always held a deep love of riding. Every single day I swing up in the saddle brings me a sigh of contentment. A deep place in my spirit hums with pleasure when I manage to ride a perfect half-pass. My insides smile and glow when the horse lifts his back and carries me on elastic trot strides. Riding has always been the finest meditation I know. It both calms and enlivens me, makes me focus and balance my physical and mental efforts. By comparison, the other parts of horse-keeping felt like tedium to be gotten through to earn my ride.
That riding lesson over a decade ago set my riding passion on a whole new course.
Last week as I spent several minutes stretching and massaging some accumulated tension from a young mare’s back, I chuckled inwardly remembering that introduction to Manolo’s approach. Today I feel like an entirely different incarnation of that trainer sitting at a standstill in the center of the arena, befuddled how my instructor was connecting my horse’s living arrangement to his half-pass performance. Today it makes all the sense in the world.
Slowly and with discipline, I have come to love all these non-riding parts of being a trainer because they all contribute to how well my horses can or cannot use their bodies. And the better they use their bodies, the more rewarding our rides. Our training sessions now start as soon as I drive in the driveway to our barn. I note anything amiss, observe the eating attitudes or standing postures of my horses. I look at the stance and energy and tone of their bodies. As I walk each one to the grooming area, I pay attention to the rhythm of our strides, watch his expression at being saddled. How tight do his shoulders feel when I lift a hoof to clean it? How supple do his neck muscles feel?
In comparison to the heady thrill of an extended-collected canter transition, these details pale. But they count so foundationally in the horse’s performance. I have learned to love them the way anyone in quality relationships learns to love the day-in and day-out routines that maintain them. Often these smaller, less exciting responsibilities determine far more of our success then the moments that fill us with raw joy.
Trainers will always have their personal strengths and weaknesses, areas they excel versus skills that require more work. But good trainers, in their scope of working with horses, learn to love it all.