A Rider's Vigilance and Discipline

At every clinic, I meet people that have a lot of talent to be good horse people. I see in them an ability to not only have the physical aptitude to apply their knowledge, but they also have a good sense of awareness and feel when working with a horse. They are very capable of seeing what is going wrong, why it is going wrong and what needs to change to help their horse. But for some reason, despite the diligent work they have put into their horsemanship, the improvements I expect to see from one clinic to another don’t always meet my expectations or theirs. I know they are putting in the time and I know they have a desire to see improvement, but the dream and the reality don’t always come together.


It was maybe 3 or 4 years ago when I was home, taking a break from clinics, that I had the crazy idea to ride one of my own horses. It was both a shock to me and a shock to my gelding, Riley. I was riding in the paddock when I noticed my wife had come out to see what I was doing. I guess she was as surprised as Riley that I decided to saddle up and ride and maybe she was checking to see if I had a brain embolism.


After a few minutes of watching, Michèle said, “If that was a client’s horse you wouldn’t let him do that.”


I can’t recall what it was that I was letting Riley do, but I do remember turning to her and replying in a whiny little boy’s voice, “Yeah maybe, but it’s Riley.” As if Riley was the cutest and smartest horse in the whole wide world and made of chocolate.


I knew at the time and I know now that Michèle was right. I was letting something slip by with Riley that I would have definitely addressed with somebody else’s horse. Why? Because I knew I could with Riley and because I was being a lazy arse.


I have thought a lot about that day. When it comes to working hard I have always been a minimalist. Some have called me lazy, but I prefer to view myself as a more highly evolved member of the species. It is my ambition to not die from overwork. The problem with that philosophy comes when others depend on me to not be lazy. By not being vigilant and mindful in my session with Riley I was failing my horse. I made Riley the victim of my lack of self-discipline. I had the skill and the awareness, but I was just being lazy.


Since that day, I have tried very hard to not repeat my sins when working any horse - whether a student’s or one of mine.


However, I see the same vice in many people who attend clinics. Usually while at a clinic, their work ethic and self-discipline are very high. Yet, it falls apart for so many when they are alone at home and the teacher’s eyes are not on them. For some reason, when we are not paying money to be picked on and terrorized by our teachers our vigilance and discipline become secondary to our need to have a pleasant ride. I am convinced of this because so many people I see are much more capable than their horse’s performance would indicate.


I realize there are many factors that contribute to the problem. I think many people are like me and they own a nice horse (like Riley) that generously forgives their lack of discipline. Other people struggle to find the confidence to push the boundaries when the guiding hand of some expert is absent. And of course, the biggest problem for most people is to find the time to be consistent in the work.


But having said all that, the point I want to make today is in regard to a person’s discipline. Awareness and feel are no help to us if we don’t have the self- discipline and vigilance to use them all the time in every session. They are like money – it’s nice to have but bloody useless if we don’t use it.


As a teacher, I struggle to know how to motivate people to have a high degree of vigilance and discipline if it is not naturally present in every sweat gland. Sometimes serendipity takes care of it by giving a person a horse that requires these skills in order to minimize visits to the hospital emergency room. That tends to motivate people to dig deep. But when a person has a “Riley” horse in their life, what is a teacher to do?


To be honest, I have found only two approaches that have successfully driven people to greater discipline and consistency.


The first is for the people who have the skill but are unmotivated. Basically, they are being lazy. My strategy has been to call them out for their laziness. I have told people they are just bloody lazy and if they don’t use the talent they have I can’t help them and they have achieved as much as they ever will. I hate doing that. A couple of times it has led to tears (but I tried not show my tears too much). I always feel like an ogre and worry I have ruined their confidence. But each time it has always worked out well. People seem to take it as a challenge and when I see them again 6 months later the changes have always been amazing. This is always a last resort for me and I still feel worried about putting people in the naughty corner and coming down on them so hard, but so far it has never been a mistake.


The second approach that I have used successfully is to work the student’s work to demonstrate what their horse is capable of doing and then guiding them step-by-step through the process. For some people, this approach seems to excite them to try to achieve what I was able to achieve. They doubted their horse's ability to make a change, but when shown what it could be like they step up. They challenge themselves to make a difference and both the owner and the horse turn out winners.


I have even on occasion made bets with people that if they achieve a certain goal by the next clinic I will buy them a bottle of wine and if they don’t succeed they owe me a bottle of Scotch. So far I am several bottles of wine down and am still waiting for my first bottle of Laphroag. But I am more than okay with that.


What I have learned from these experiences is what I learned from Michèle critiquing my ride on Riley. Despite being a more highly evolved individual than most humans, I am trying to get in touch with my more primitive instincts and work harder at being vigilant and disciplined in both my horsemanship and my teaching. So my message to all of you other highly evolved people is try to be more like the less advanced of our species by not being lazy in your horsemanship. We owe it to the horses.


Photo: Thanks to Ben Moxon and Sari Maydew who kindly gifted us the rainbow halter and lead, Riley and I were able to ride in support of equal marriage rights for all.

Obstacle Challenge -Breaking It Down

The idea of teaching horsemanship using man-made obstacles has always seemed problematic to me. I’ve seen a lot of people working horses over poles, tarpaulins, see-saws, bridges, gates, pedestals etc. It is definitely fun for the people and gives horses a break from the monotony of working in an arena. But I have long questioned its usefulness as a training tool.


Some people think working over and around obstacles will better prepare their horse for the varied and unexpected situations they might find on a trail. Other people use them to overcome the boredom that so many horses and people experience in their daily workout. Recently trail obstacles have even become a competitive sport, so for some negotiating obstacles is a way of being rewarded with blue ribbons and accolades for their excellent training..


Then there are the people who see obstacle training as a way to stretch a horse’s comfort zone and achieve a better connection and relationship with their horse. This is the group that I hope will come to clinics and this is the group that I want to talk about today.


Last Friday I taught my very first trail class and we were lucky enough to have available a venue that offered a wide range of obstacles with varying degrees of difficulty.


I have to admit I did not come to the idea of teaching this day with enthusiasm (in fact, it was more like kicking and screaming). I had to be talked into it. The reason why I approached the day with trepidation is that in the past when I have watched clinics of people working on an obstacle course, good horsemanship was a secondary thought. Even with all the best intentions of the clinician and the riders, when faced with an obstacle a horse did not want to cross, the focus quickly became doing what was necessary to get a horse to traverse to the other side of the obstacle. It just seems to be human nature. A competition is set up between successfully achieving a task and presenting the best horsemanship possible. So a lot of “making a horse do something” tends to be used in the obstacle training I have witnessed at clinics. If you see it from that point of view it is quite understandable why I was less than enthusiastic about the idea.


Nevertheless, I agreed and I realized that it was my responsibility to make sure the training did not descend into a competition between the rider’s wishes and the horse’s needs. I needed to make sure the training was a joint partnership where all views and all opinions were considered and compromises were possible. I didn’t want it to be a match of wills between riders and horses resulting in an outcome of winners and losers. I only wanted human winners and equine winners.


I developed a plan on how I would approach the teaching. The first and only priority was to ensure that the training was of benefit to the horse and rider. I wanted the both of them to come away having learned something that would benefit them in the rest of their training and education. It needed to expand their education and more importantly it needed to positively add to their relationship. If those criteria were not met, I figured the experiment was a failure.


With that in mind, I set out some strategies that I tried to impart throughout the day. Here is a short list of the mains points I wanted each rider at every obstacle to consider.


*  How to break something down into small chunks.


*. How to block what you don't want, and allow what you do want.


* How to go slow and slow down a horse's emotions.


* How to focus on the horse's thoughts and emotions and not the job and allow everything to fall into place rather than make it happen. Get the thoughts and emotions taken care of first and the rest is easy.


* How a little persistence goes a lot further than a lot of insistence.


 *How training to negotiate each obstacle was the same process as improving trot transitions or bridling problems or teaching shoulder in.


The final point is particularly important.


From a horse’s perspective, there is no difference between learning to walk over a scary object like a bridge than learning to walk into a trailer or line up next to a mounting block or bend around a circle or teach flying changes. It’s all the same and the principles underlying these things are always the same. To me, this is the pivotal point I tried to impart. If you can practice the principles of good horsemanship in the arena, then you can apply those same principles to your obstacle course, your trail ride, your jumping, your games training or your cow work – it’s all the same.


We are talking about doing another urban trail day next year. I think I will approach it with less apprehension than I did last week because I have learned the value of such a day is entirely dependent on how I teach it. I realize now that the failure of past playground training clinics that I have witnessed has really been a failure of the approach to the teaching.


But having said that, we should never forget that it behoves the rider to take seriously the idea that successively negotiating an obstacle is far less important than using it as a means to improve focus, clarity, and softness. There is nothing to be gained without those three elements being the top priority.


Video: The video is from the obstacle clinic where a horse is being taught to cross a suspension bridge. It shows the elements that culminate to help a horse deal with difficult tasks – breaking down the elements into simple tasks – slowing down the horse’s mind – being absolutely clear – giving plenty of time.


Ripplebrook, Victoria 3 Day Clinic

Rules Of Training And Riding For The Uneducated Horse

Just the other day I was teaching how to move a horse’s forehand across. The rider questioned my suggestion that she does not use outside leg against the girth to encourage the shoulders to step away from her leg. Considering the greenness of her horse and the lack of understanding to follow the inside rein or yield off a rider’s I felt using her outside leg would complicate and muddy the clarity of moving the forehand. My explanation did not quell her confusion, so I asked her why did she want to use her outside leg. Her answer was simple and echoed the thoughts of many riders I encounter. “Well, that’s how it is supposed to be done!”


Everything the rider had read and been taught by instructors told her that in order to move the shoulders across a rider should apply outside leg against the girth. So why would I tell her otherwise? Had I lost my mind? Did I not understand the basic rules of moving a horse’s forehand as laid out by all the experts?


I hadn’t lost my mind and I do understand the teaching principles of past masters.


When I was about 14 years old I read Podhajsky’s classic book “The Complete Training Of Horse and Rider.” I read that if I did ABCD a horse would canter on the lead that I wanted. Then if I did EFGH the horse would swap and canter on the opposite lead. Fan-bloody-tastic I thought! I tried it and it didn’t work.


Was Podhajsky lying? Was he an idiot? Was I a terrible rider? It turned out none of those things were the reason my horse didn’t canter on the correct lead or change leads when I asked (well, maybe the last reason was a dim possibility).


What I didn’t know and what the student at my clinic didn’t understand is that the books of esteemed masters and the instruction we both had received were not talking about the horses either of us were riding that day. Their wisdom was intended for another horse that had excellent education on how to follow the feel of a rider’s reins, seat, and legs. Neither my horse nor my student’s horse fitted that category – YET.


I sometimes read on riding forums the sage of advice of members how a horse needs a little more inside leg or the straightness problems of a horse stem from a rider’s shoulders not being perfectly aligned or a forward problem a rider is struggling with can be cured if only they looked more ahead instead of down.  The advice given could be the right advice IF the horse understands those things. But when a rider or trainer receives such instruction it presumes the horse has also received the identically same instruction.


My point is that the rules of riding and the rules of training are not rules. They are recommended guidelines for the education and riding of a horse. But they are not rules and they are almost meaningless if a horse has not been educated in those rules. Consider for example the way dressage teaches to ride a corner with inside leg and outside rein in order for a horse to carry themselves balanced and straight around the line of a corner. A horse does not know automatically know what to do when a rider applies inside leg. If they are on the green side of educated applying the inside leg will almost always indicate to a horse they should go forward with more energy. Yet riders interested in keeping to the rules of most dressage instruction will bring their horse home from the horse breaker and start riding the corners and circles with their inside leg applied. Then they have to get stronger on the reins to ensure their horse doesn’t rush the corner. What the hell is a horse to think? But that is how we are taught in dressage to ride a corner. No instructor ever told me to use inside leg on one type of horse and not on another type of horse. It was always “inside leg to outside rein” on every type of horse.


A horse does not give a damn about the man-made rules of riding and training. Stop trying to make every horse look like a round peg to fit into round holes. Some horses are shaped like square pegs or rhomboid or hexagonal or triangles. It takes work and training to make them into round pegs so that one day they will be able to be ridden in accord with the rules of the experts. So don’t ride them like they are finished and fully educated horses that fit the mould of the finished and educated horses the experts are talking about. It only results in confusion for them.


Photo: Alois Podhajsky was a former director of the Spanish Riding School and published The Complete Training Of Horse and Rider in 1967.

On My Way - Fall 2017 American Clinics