The Not-So-Scientific Training Challenge

If you have spent any time trying to train horses to accomplish physical goals, like moving more athletically, chances are good you have discovered that some individuals are more willing than others. Much as I would like to offer science-based explanations for this, I believe a lot of it owes to a less scientific trait that we’ll call ‘personal space.’

During recent clinic observations, I heard author and trainer Mary Wanless use this term to refer to a horse that was tickly in his back muscles. This made it difficult for his rider to help him travel with his back consistently engaged. The horse would offer a few quality steps followed by several unbalanced ones. His rider worked hard at getting the position of her seat and legs just right to influence him, because generally the better we improve our cues, the better our horses respond. Occasionally, though, as in the case of this horse, that equation isn’t fail-proof. As this rider sat deeper in to the saddle, the horse canted his body in ways to avoid her influence. In other words, he didn’t want her in his personal space.

So, was this particular horse being difficult? Was he confused? Or maybe even uncomfortable? In my daily life teaching horses to use their bodies more optimally, I often encounter their unique personal spaces as either an impediment or accelerant to what I’m trying to do. I define personal space here as an individual’s guardedness against contact or stimulation to his physical body.

Depending on temperament and past training or injuries, some horses have a much stronger sense of this. With these horses, training progress is often not linear. It requires more time and finesse. It can seem repetitive or frustrating to a rider, who asks herself: “Why is my horse not doing (X) today?? I thought we mastered this yesterday!” Mastery with these horses vacillates between fully owned and partially realized.

To be clear, I don’t intend the concept of personal space to give us reasons to not ask these horses to use their bodies in the ways we wish. I bring it up instead to help ridersbe more patient with the process. With most horses, physical progress is measurable daily. They respond comfortably and willingly to the tasks we undertake to make them more athletic, functional, and healthier.

Other horses, those with a strong personal space, can only be measured month to month. They initially wiggle away from, rather than respond to, our cues. They fidget in the postures that should bring them relaxation and ease. They tighten their bodies against any kind of stimulus rather than gain better alignment. My own horse, Corazon, has been my most convincing case for personal space and its influence on training.

As a breed, Andalusians tend to freeze up their backs rather than allow movement to swing through them. On top of that, Corazon is clever and sensitive and very adept at taking care of himself, which translates to not always offering up his body to be shaped as I’m trying to. Some days are harmonious, easy, and successful. Other days, though, feel like a constant negotiation with me reminding and convincing him that engaging his back really IS good for him. This can get frustrating.

When I feel that frustration, however, I remind myself that this trait, this protection of his personal space, is what makes Corazon such a strong horse and what keeps him not prone to injury. He is incredibly sure-footed and aware of his surroundings, he adapts quickly to situations that could otherwise escalate and cause harm. One time, I found him rubbing on a strand of barbed wire that I didn’t realize was in his pasture and saw him begin to get tangled up in it. Immediately, he paused, adjusted his neck motions, and carefully removed himself from harm. I stood there amazed, knowing most other horses would have started scrambling and cut themselves badly.

I remind myself of these instances when I struggle with Corazon’s personal space. This helps me see that, rather than be a struggle, his self-preservation is actually a gift to both of us. I cannot get caught up thinking his training will be as sequential as the timelines offered in books and training manuals. As I navigate his personal space, our progress can seem circuitous, lurching, or just plain halted. And that’s okay. In fact if there is any truth in the notion our horses mirror us, I have to admit that my own personal space is pretty big, too.

Checklist

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If you appreciate compelling stories about increasing safety while decreasing human failure when performing complex tasks, I highly recommend the book The Checklist Manifesto. While much of the book addresses the fields of surgery, aviation, and skyscraper construction, I found it very relevant to horse training.

Among other cogent points, author Atul Gawande presents studies that show human error can be greatly reduced when clearly stated protocol exists to follow. Interestingly, one of the key steps of successful aviation and surgery checklists, he believes, is each team member introducing himself or herself at the start of a task. This seems to have the effect of better working together as a team rather than a group of individual specialists operating on their own. Especially during mishaps and emergencies, this becomes important.

I got to thinking about how, if at all, checklists might improve the safety or outcomes of horse training/riding. I’m not entirely sure how they might apply in all scenarios, but I could think immediately of one where they could assuredly reduce accidents: trail rides. Many wrecks that riders have on trail rides could be prevented by 1.) more conversation pre-ride about expectations and goals for the ride, 2.) checking gear, and 3.) making sure their horses are mentally in the right space. I propose the following checklist for riders to use at the start of a trail ride with friends or barn mates, regardless how well you might or might not know each other. I recommend not proceeding on the ride until the following steps are counted for:

1.) riders introduce themselves and horses, voice any concerns, and state goals for the ride (ex.: “This is my five-year old gelding; he has trail experience but mostly only in open grasslands, not on narrow paths; he can be excitable when encountering other horses on trail. I’m hoping to do a walk-only ride).

2.) check to ensure girth is tight
3.) confirm that you can keep your horse’s attention on you for at least 10 sustained seconds.
4.) State the designated route, potential hazards (i.e. a spooky herd of goats at mile 2).

These steps might sound too simple for seasoned riders to implement. But pause for a moment and think about how many mishaps you’ve heard about on trail that could have been avoided by riders operating together more as a team.

Getting riders who plan to ride together talking to each other is a big piece of this. It sets a tone, prevents timid riders from “saving face” and not speaking up, and clues all riders in to potentially challenging dynamics. The simple steps above also allow any rider to note when perhaps someone else in the group is not able to keep her horse’s attention and to say something. Maybe the group can hold up and wait while this rider does some groundwork or takes a moment to settle her horse down. If nobody says anything, the likelihood that this horse acts up and causes trouble for the group increases. You might have your own step or two that you want to add to my proposed checklist, which is fine. I would argue that consistent practice of this kind of tool will help out many horses and riders.

The Perfect Horse

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What is the perfect horse? We trainers should have the experience to define one, to measure challenges versus desirables. After years of hands-on work and education, envy over other trainers’ successes, and hours flipping through trade journals or watching YouTube videos, we can pick the perfect horse from a crowd. Or can we?

A few years ago, a friend of mine bought a promising weanling that we hoped would become my horse for the future, a prospect with gobs more talent than some of my clients’ horses I’d been wrangling the past several years. “Paris” had the pedigree for dressage excellence, and a trainable temperament to make good on all that promise. During her first two years, sport horse judges confirmed our dreamy impression that Paris was exactly the horse I wanted and needed– capable of high performance, beautiful, athletic, and sane.

Finally, I could lay to rest the what-of and if-only thoughts that had nagged me professionally, in which I fantasized about the trainer I could become with the right horse. Really great rider-horse combinations need talent on both sides. For years as a professional, I gave so much sweat and effort and reputation to horses that were difficult, un-sound, or just plain untalented. At the end of every day, I always felt like the other side of the rider-horse combination was a dead-end.

Now, with Paris, I began to imagine myself alongside other trainers in glossy magazine photos atop enviable mounts. Here was a horse I could pour my skills in to and watch them take shape, bloom. I watched her as a two-year old float across the ground on the end of my longe line and began mapping out our future show career with a tingle of excitement. Her long agile legs, three of them splashed with high stockings, swung effortlessly each stride. Her natural rhythm propelled her around the arena with strides of perfectly suspended arcs. I began indulging daydreams about future schooling sessions that included canter pirouettes and tempi changes.

Paris spent the winter before turning three at home growing up more before I planned to break her to ride. In the spring, my friend called to say something was wrong with the young mare, but she couldn’t quite explain it. Overnight, our young superstar had developed an erratic goose-stepping movement in her left hind that sometimes froze the leg in a lifted position. After a full year she had not matured out of it as the vets hoped she might. The left hind still snapped and jerked and swung sideways every step. Eventually diagnosed as the generic neurological condition of stringhalt, vets suggested surgery while adding that it most often minimally corrected the problem.

Since the vets agreed she was not lame nor in any kind of pain, we opted to skip surgery and break her to ride anyway even though her dressage career looked hopeless. Except for her snapping left hind leg, Paris proved straightforward and easy to train. She took to riding with ease, progressed quickly through her fundamentals and introduction to trail rides. She was the kind of horse that gave me energy as a trainer—the sort that never feels like a job– rather than draining me. I looked forward to working with her every day.

As I write this, I reflect on a student I met in a clinic recently. She started by telling me how much she enjoyed her brown gelding, but then began listing, almost apologetically, his shortcomings. He could be pretty stiff on the left lead; he was clumsy over cavalletti, sometimes he twisted his poll to resist the contact. I could tell these things frustrated her, but I could also see in her eyes the gleam of pure affection for this horse. In light of how solid their bond appeared, I thought her complaints were trivial. I urged her to not think of them as failures or shortcomings of a less-than-perfect horse. Trust me, I said, every horse has something that needs work. There always exists something to fix: a trailering aversion, fear of trail-riding, a bone-rattling canter, a soundness issue.

There are perfect horses, yes. But there are not flawless ones.

It would be false or me to pretend that there have not been times when I wished Paris were less complex physically, or fantasized what I might have accomplished by now if we did not have to contend with a neurological condition. Sometimes that old familiar sliver of self-pity pokes me, imagining that other trainers have all the un-complicated horses. But then just as quickly it fades. My thinking clears up.

Were I the type of rider to fixate on dressage levels and awards and notoriety, then, yes, Paris’ career took a disappointing turn a few years ago. But I’m not that kind of rider, which my wise friend knew when she bought Paris as a weanling with me in mind to be her rider. She bought exactly the horse that suited me: beautiful and curious, kind and sane, willing and athletic. She bought me the kind of horse I could create and show harmonious, classically correct dressage movements on, as well as fly down the trail and ford creeks. Paris is still that horse, random stringhalt moments be damned. She was, still is, and will continue to be the perfect horse for me.

Age and experience do not bring more preferences to be added to the description of a perfect horse. They land you at the acceptance that a perfect horse, as with any partnership, is one that is not only enjoyable but that leads you to a better version of all your capacities as a trainer. So. What is the perfect horse? It’s the one that suites you, individually.

Learn to Love it All.

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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.

Oh. NOW I get it.

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His frustration towards me bordered on rabid. He wrung his hands and hurled instructions at me in less and less gentle manners. And unfortunately, the more peeved he got, the worse I rode. Honestly, I WAS trying to execute the 15-meter counter canter circle he wanted, and to understand its purpose, but in that moment I flailed. My instructor’s annoyance grew to a level I recognized, being a coach myself. Instructing students of any kind involves numerous encounters of this difficult equation: a coach trying to convey a relatively simple skill that, for whatever reason, the student finds nearly impossible. It leads to ample brow-furrowing for both parties.

I finally did conquer the nuances and purpose of that counter canter exercise, although it was many moons after the fact. My poor trainer never got to witness my fledgling competence. Too bad, too, because I imagine he might have slated me as an impossible learner by then. Similar accomplishments have come sometimes years after a trainer tried in vain to help me with an exercise. Occasionally, a coach has honed in on a particular concept in our sessions while I missed the point entirely, only to awaken to its profundity years down the road. After any of these later-than-hoped for revelations, I think about running home to call a coach from months or years previous and announce “Guess what?!—it turns out I’m NOT hopeless!”

Anyone who has been a student of a complex sport like dressage can relate to this. It’s probably sheepishness that prevents us from actually calling those former coaches. After all, who wants to admit that her learning curve is so steep? Now that I’m in the shoes as coach, though, I’ll admit these calls would be pretty great to receive. As a teacher, I often believe that if I explain exercises clearly enough, then voila, results happen. When I feel like I have said something exactly right, complete with illustrative imagery, but the results remain absent I get distressed. Especially when working on relatively simple concepts with students, I’ll panic: what on earth am I not explaining right? I try a dozen other ways to explain it. Still nothing. I explain it louder, and maybe get a little rabid. And then, it’s true, I start to consider if the student might be hopeless.

But then, wait! A phone call comes years later to say the problem was not in the instruction. It was the individual learning timeline of the student. I explained things clearly enough. The student just needed to go simmer on it at a cellular level. Look at that—neither of us is hopeless!