Horses don’t make New Year’s resolutions. They live forever in the present moment. Prey animals are smart that way.
Humans, on the other hand, love to set a goal this time of year. The most common goal I hear from clients is a desire to build a better partnership with their horse.
That’s my favorite goal, too, but I like to define it a bit more personally by adding something quantifiable. It could be perfecting a transition that’s challenging, or learning a new movement or behavior. It might be tuning up communication skills specifically, so overall response from the horse improves.
So there you are on January first, with a goal and a horse. Where to start?
That’s the easy part, go to the fundamental rule of dressage, you can count on it every single time. Ask for relaxed and forward movement, valuing both ingredients equally. Begin with a conscious warm up, like this one (here) and take the time needed for you and your horse to become supple and willing.
While you are warming up, size up your goal and then hack it into tiny bits. Yes, chop it into bite sized pieces that are easy to train and easy to reward. It will all get put together later; for now think small. This should feel liberating!
Now you are poised for the leap ahead, holding the vision and ready for excellence, but your horse is still grazing back on the planet Earth, still in the present moment. He does not share your dream yet. You have to go back and get him.
I think all good things begin with a healthy lowering of expectation. Does that sound counter intuitive? Lower expectations give us a chance to reward quicker, and more often. Nothing builds try in a horse like being acknowledged with a thank you. Period.
Ask for a tiny piece of the work and wait for the answer. If he gives you even a part answer, get happy and hand out praise like it’s free. Praise with the release of a rein or a lightening of the leg. Praise with an exhale and a kind word. Make praise as common as air. If you want to get more from your horse, you have to set the example.
I notice everyone likes the idea of positive training but finding patience for it is another matter. Is your brain arguing against it? I get that sometimes from clients. We want it perfect, ten times in a row, before we say Good Boy. Well, ick! Who wants to be your horse?
If you feel a need use more discipline, go ahead, but use the discipline on yourself. Find some patience and ask again. Go slow and give him enough time to answer. Don’t do it for him. Let him figure it out himself and earn pride in doing good work. Then reward his pride!
Do you sometimes get the feeling he’s thinking about it, but he’s not confident he knows the answer? Reward that, prime the pump with encouragement for his intention and he will grow confidence in his effort to understand. Action follows fast after that.
Continue to visualize the best, but let your ride be a love fest. When you get to a good place, quit early. Un-tack him and dawdle through a long curry session, regaling him with stories of his best work, planting that good seed in both your minds one more time. Rest in gratitude because this is how to train generosity in your horse: It starts with you.
Expecting a result is living in the future and you have to find a connection with your horse here and now. Lower expectations get you in the habit of gratitude. It’s a happier and more productive place to start.
Humans are notorious for getting bored with the present moment, we think too much and get ahead of ourselves. How do we adjust to the place were we can build partnership with our horses in the present? By starting small and take pride in the positive qualities of your horse, warts and all. Remember that HOW we train is more important to our horses than WHAT we train. In the end, it’s the journey that makes the destination worthwhile.
So, here’s to the best counter intuitive New Year’s resolution: Let lower expectations pave the way for greater partnership and success in the New Year.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.