Six weeks after my right knee was replaced I was ecstatic! For years I knew each ride could be my last. My new knee gave me the ability to do things I hadn’t done in years. Instead of moving away from riding, I was moving back. I considered new options, plans, and possibilities with excitement and gratitude. To my surprise, fixing my knee didn’t solve every problem.
The photo is my first ride post-surgery. Bo was a trooper but I got a dose of humble-pie.
Fixing Old Problems Often Creates New Ones
I suspect most former athletes with new joints from long-term deterioration probably discover the same thing I did. Fixing the biggest problem didn’t eliminate every problem. In fact, it created some new ones. Years of compensating for rotten knee(s) built a solid history of bad habits. After seeing the reality of my circumstances on video I scheduled a session with a dressage trainer to help me retrain my brain. It wasn’t giving me accurate feedback of what my body was doing.
My brain told me my hips, knees, and ankles were correct and balanced on both the right and the left. Wrong.
My right side hung useless from the hip down. Horses always tell me the truth, so I know miscommunication originates with me. I couldn’t fix myself, so coaching became a vital element of my return to active training.
I had several working goals when I met my riding coach. First, I needed objective eyes to help me correct my body and balance. Next, I wanted to learn more about classical dressage.
Part of my first lesson included an arena exercise with Bo, one of my amazing grays. Something went terribly wrong. I over-cued with hands and legs and never got the result I wanted. Bo always tries to do as I ask, so I knew he wasn’t the problem.
Horse issues are 99% caused by people. But what did I do wrong and how was I going to fix it?
Bo was getting the short stick of the lesson. My bad. Once awareness hit, I ended the exercise and apologized to Bo.
Baffling Bo with Completely New Bridle Skills
Nothing is more important to me than maintaining right relationship with God, my horses, and with other oh-so precious folks. Like you, I also like to set goals. Sometimes goals compete, creating conflict. The trick is recognizing the conflict before the war is already over and someone was forced to surrender.
Two highly qualified dressage trainers worked out of my training facility for a couple of years. While there are similarities, real differences exist between training a dressage horse and a stock horse, regardless of whether you ride western or hunt seat.
For me, the greatest difference involves bridle skills. Dressage teaches horses to seek contact with the bit while I promise mine that there is a place of perfect peace with absolutely no pressure on rein or bit when they are correct.
Dressage sees perfection as constant bit contact. Perfection to me is no bit contact at all.
On a side note, this is how I think of walking the Narrow Path. When we’re completely in God’s will there’s no pressure, no pulling, and perfect peace. That’s what I promise my horses.
Punishing a Try Kills Motivation
Bo knows that rein or bit pressure means he isn’t doing something right. It’s frustrating to try your best but fail anyway. (Who can testify?)
Punishment for trying your best kills motivation. I don’t need the guilt of dishing it out when it was totally undeserved. Punishment, or domination, is the last tool to pull from a tool box overflowing with better options, experience, and worthiness, and NEVER to be used unless a horse intentionfully declares war.
I found myself perilously close to the line, over-cueing even though Bo did everything he could. If you need context, it’s like people who speak different languages screaming at one another thinking that louder promotes greater understanding. That’s the stuff of comedy skits or satire, not horse training.
Or speaking of spiritual matters to people who have yet to meet the Holy Spirit. They don’t understand because they can’t understand. Louder doesn’t help.
Horses are versatile if you give them half a chance. I didn’t.
Not only did the exercise require Bo to be on the bit, but to extend, collect, and do power moves he’d never been taught. I threw a whole bunch of new stuff at him and asked him to do the exercise longer than I should.
The right thing is asking him, “What happens if” questions, experimenting, trying different options without insisting there was one right answer. But no, I asked him to perform the maneuvers.
I HATE that I went there, but there was no lasting damage done. Awareness slammed me in the heart. When I chose between listening to the coach and being a worthy leader to Bo, I chose wrong. Once I realized what I’d done, I backed completely off, quieted, and rode Bo with the sole purpose of getting him lined back out and telling him what a great horse he is.
No one gets it right every time.
When I got home I broke down the exercise into its parts. You can only teach a horse one new thing at a time. The foundational skills can be put together in an endless variety of combinations, but those skills have to be in place before you call upon them. Doing otherwise sets your horse up for frustration, anxiety, or retaliation. None are his fault.
Horses can learn to distinguish between styles of riding. My first real show horse knew that a bit meant he was performing and a hackamore meant he was working. He ponied babies and yearlings, chased cows, bushwhacked across the desert, and carried me to a Top Ten in the Nation. The consistent message always was, “Give the right response and you won’t be bugged by bit or hackamore.”
Bo is bred to work cattle. None of my six horses are good dressage prospects. They could certainly learn all the maneuvers but would never be competitive no matter how well they performed.
Even if your horse ran as if both his life and yours depended on it, you probably couldn’t win the Kentucky Derby. Even if Bo gave his heart to the most skilled dressage trainer (which counts me out) he would only do well at beginning levels. Bo is built for comfort and power, with more muscle and less extension that what’s needed for competitive dressage.
Choose Relationship above Performance
I pitched my goal of pursuing classical dressage out the window. There’s no way I’m telling Bo that the last seven years were a lie. Maintaining my relationship with him is more important than any rule of competition or lesson plan. All the skills he didn’t already have for that arena exercise are useful, and we’re moving ahead with them. After another lesson or two I had the tools to bring my body and brain a little closer together. I’ll be working on that messy relationship the rest of my life.
If you’re too heavy on the reins or too aggressive with your spurs, stop and reassess your goals. Sometimes you need to change the objective of that day’s riding session, change your training method, or simply slow things down and take smaller steps.
It’s all about relationship. Always.[Originally posted in 2012.]
Obstacles and challenges are fun and useful tools. I use them to build transformative relationship with horses. You can, too.
Discipleship with Horses – Practical Guide to Using Obstacles, Exercises, and Simple Cues to Get the Results You Want
One reader said, “I picked up one of your books several months ago. It’s called, “Discipleship with Horses.” I’ll admit I’ve been hesitant to start reading it, as I was sure it was just going to be another “how to” train your horse with natural horsemanship principles. I’ve been a student of Parelli for the past 20 years, and figured it would be more of the same stuff. WOW, was I wrong!! It is so good I can hardly put it down. So many spiritual insights, that are answering questions for me. I’m not even 1/2 way yet.” – Sabra Alvarez