Improving my horsemanship by getting rid of one thing…

I’ve been thinking about mindfulness lately. Some people call it zen or a flow state. It’s that mental place where you are 100% consumed with whatever is right in front of you. In a podcast I was listening to the other day, the host was talking about getting rid of judgement as a precursor to mindfulness. Instead of seeing how things ought to be, you simply notice how they are, for better or for worse. You don’t get annoyed or sad; you notice the way something is without making a judgment about whether it’s good or bad.

I’ve been thinking about it in relation to horses. So much of our interaction with our horses is framed within a good/bad paradigm. That horse bucks- bad. That horses bites- bad. That horse does what it’s told when it’s told to do it- good. Even with all the supposedly kinder natural horsemanship that’s become popular over the last few years, we still talk about “problem horses” and we still use a lot of language like “being the boss” or “ being in control.”

Let’s face it, when we’re talking about riding horses, we are never, ever really and truly in control. The horse is always able to overpower the human, no matter what tack we try to use to minimize our size and weight disadvantage. The only key to being safe on a horse is getting the horse to be okay with what we want to do. We have to win the horse’s approval of whatever crazy idea we have, whether it’s riding alone through the woods or jumping solid fences from a flat out gallop and landing in a ditch.

Many times the judgements we make about our horses are unfair. The horse doesn’t want to jump or get in the trailer or ride out alone without his buddy, and we call that bad. In reality the horse is being a horse and expressing his preferences. Our job is to make it okay for the horse- less hard, less scary.

It blows my mind the things horses will do for us when we gain their trust. They jump crazy high obstacles, chase cows, race down a track, go into the woods and out into the desert over crazy terrain, and ride around in metal boxes for hours at a time. They do it willingly, which is amazing considering how risky some of those things are for the horse.

Sometimes we forget how much they’ve already given us just by allowing us to ride them. With that in mind, I try to give the horse the benefit of the doubt and be realistic in my expectations. I expect my horse to be polite and well behaved on the ground because that’s a safety issue and I don’t want anyone getting hurt. I expect him to get on the trailer because he was a racehorse and he’s been trailered his entire life. It’s not new to him.

When it comes to riding, I suppose I have requests rather than expectations. I want him to be calm, so I put him in situations that allow him to be calm. As he gets calmer, I escalate what I ask him to tolerate. I don’t throw him into a new situation (like riding alone on the beach) and expect him to be perfect. I expect that our relationship will allow me to keep him under control, but I don’t expect him to not be nervous or excited at all. He’s not a robot.

Back to judgement… when I ride in new situations, I try to be charitable in my estimation of his behavior. A perfect example is an unfortunate incident that happened a couple weeks ago. We were riding alone in the woods and we encountered a loose dog. The dog came at us, playfully no doubt, but try explaining that to a terrified prey animal. The dog’s owner showed up shortly, but did nothing to restrain the dog, and the dog just kept bounding toward us. I should have gotten off at that point, but I kept thinking the owner was going to grab his dog. He never did. When the dog got too close for Baron to deal with it, he exploded into a bucking fit. I sat 3 bucks but landed on his neck on the 4th and then I hit the ground. I was bareback so that didn’t help my sticking ability. As soon as I was off, Baron bolted with the dog at his heels.

I haven’t come off Baron in about 8 years. The last time was over some goats. I have come off him a sum total of 3 times in 12 years. That’s a really good average, and proof that he’s a good horse, because I was a total beginner when I got him.

Instead of judging his inability to deal with a dog as “bad,” I shrug it off and chalk it up to my inability to know when to jump ship. I had an opportunity while he was standing there literally quivering with fear, but I tried to be a badass and stick it out. Plus, I really thought the guy would get his dog. The guy NEVER got his dog. The dog chased Baron a mile back to the barn and I had to run after them both. The neighbors said they saw Baron go by at a flat out gallop. By the time I got back, the dog had wandered off to the edge of the property and Baron was grazing in his usual spot.

This is how I found him.

Years ago I would have been mad at Baron for bucking me off. I would have thought that it was personally insulting. I don’t feel that way now. I put him in a situation he couldn’t handle and I was too thick-headed to dismount and provide him some moral support. Next time I’ll get off.

I don’t judge his reaction as “bad.” It’s undesirable for sure, and if it happened all the time, I wouldn’t be riding him. But once in a blue moon when something genuinely scary happens, it’s forgivable. Horses ARE dangerous. If you ride, you WILL come off at some point.

Maybe your horse does some “bad” things- hard to catch, won’t ride out alone, bucks at the canter, won’t get in the trailer, etc… Many of us view these things as personally offensive, like, “We’ve been training for months for this show and I’ve spent a ton of money on new tack and show fees, and now this crazy horse refuses to get in the trailer and we’re running out of time!” Instead of framing it that way, as if the horse is doing something to you on purpose, view it as a simple fact without any emotion attached. “The horse doesn’t want to get in the trailer.” No judgement of bad or good, just a fact. The horse doesn’t want to. Then you’re able to ask the follow up questions like, “Why doesn’t he want to? What could I have done to better prepare him for this moment? How can I handle this better next time?” You’ve put yourself in a head space where you’re able to reason through the problem instead of becoming exasperated with an animal that’s just being an animal.

Getting rid of judgement has been a good exercise for me in other areas as well, but I think our interactions with horses are excellent teachers for so many hard mental things.

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