It's The Relationship That Makes It Work

It is the lot of clinicians and trainers that the number of male clients is a tiny fraction of female clients. It seems that women are more likely to be drawn to whatever it is that horses offer than men are. In my experience, while the wives are obsessed with riding, brushing, feeding, tack, talking about and loving their horse, their male halves are often equally devoted to their cars, motorbikes, fishing, and sports.  I have never been one of those men. The fascination with sports and cars has eluded me most of my life. I don’t know what that says about me, but whatever you think it means, you’re wrong!


I have thought a lot on the reasons why I like horses so much. I realize it is not just because I like riding or I like training. I like everything about them. I don’t even mind trimming their feet or making up their feeds.  I just like them. I like the smell. I like hanging out. I like watching them play. When I try to distill my reasons for my love of horses that explains why cars and bikes don’t have the same fascination I’m left to conclude it is because I can have a relationship with a horse, but I can’t with a car or a fishing rod. The payback for the hard work that horses sometimes are is the joy I receive from the relationship. It’s the same for with most aspects of my life. The greatest joy comes from my relationship with the people I love and care about, the dogs, the cats and even our chickens and ducks.


Sometimes people lose sight of the importance of their relationship with their horse. We all know the quality of our relationship is fundamental to getting along with a horse, but this often gets foggy during the training process. We have an intellectual appreciation that things go best when our horse is emotionally comfortable and happy to work with us, listen to us and offer a try when things are not totally clear. We absolutely know this. But when our horse is not doing as we would like and appears to be plotting against us we focus on fixing the disobedience and lose track of the direction our attempt to deal with the problem is taking our relationship. We look at what we need to do to address the behaviour but don’t take enough time to consider if that is good or bad for our relationship.


This is a big problem in the training world - really big problem.


When things are not going according to plan we have a propensity to fixate on fixing those things and this is often at the expense of the good relationship we could have with our horse. We think we are helping our horse by fixing stuff, as if the disobedience or confusion is the thing that is getting in the way of our relationship. But most often it is not. In fact, most times it is the opposite. It is the desire to train on our horse and get the obedience established that becomes the obstacle to the kind of relationship we would like to have. Almost always we don’t know we do it and if we did we probably wouldn’t do it. But we become so tunnel-vision about correcting the stop or the go buttons or the lack of straightness or the rushing or the trailer loading, that we bury in the back of our mind how our solution to these problems impact on our relationship with our horse. We see the behaviour as the problem, not what we do about it.


This is often exacerbated by our inability to become emotionally detached when our horse doesn’t get onboard with our idea. Our frustration and sometimes even anger interferes with our judgment, feel and timing and often leads to bad decisions made in an instant that we would otherwise not make if we took the time to consider our options.


It’s easily forgotten that our frustration is no more troubling to us than our horse’s frustration is to them. The difference is that we are doing it to the horse. The horse is not doing it to us. We forced our horse into our world and into the position that caused the trouble, not the other way around. So we don’t have the right to let our horse feel the brunt of our emotions. Keep them buried and out of the way of the relationship.


I am not suggesting that training obedience is not an important part of getting along with a horse. But too often I notice that it takes priority and the quality of our relationship with our horse takes a back seat. We are happy if we get along well, but if not at least our horse is doing what we want – and that’s the important part for most of us. This is a problem because if we don’t get along well with our horse, everything we do will result in either some degree of argument or a heartbreaking sense of futility for the horse.


So I urge people to really consider that when things are chronically not going well with a horse day after week after month that they go back to basics and build the relationship. That should be the priority. I don’t mean to pamper and baby them, because that does nothing to aid a relationship. But be clear and go back to basics where things are less combative. Get things where your horse no longer dreads seeing you arrive with a halter over your arm. Start from there and go slowly fixing each step where your horse’s emotions begin to sour.


There is no higher achievement than to have a good relationship with your horse. If you don’t have that, then you don’t have much no matter how many ribbons and medals you have. Fix the relationship and then build on that to get where you want to go.

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