Friday, February 26, 2016


This took awhile to write since it doesn't necessarily cast me in the best light.  But since it's something I have to work on every day, it's going in the blog.


"Behavior is a form of communication, not something to control." ~ Lorna Jean King 1995

One adorable pony that's determined to make me a better communicator

This is a fantastic quote.  My first thought was to have this tattooed to my forehead, then I realized that would mean everyone would see it but me.  Damn it.

It's a hard pill to swallow, coming around to the idea that we're not supposed to be controlling our horse's behavior.  I want to control him, so badly.  It's part of my personality, the desire to control everything around me and remove chance from the equation.  When we start out, it's all about learning to control these big, powerful beasts.  When I'm teaching those first up/down lessons, I bluntly tell them that they have to take control.  I can't do it for them, I'm standing on the ground.  The only one that can do it is them.  In a world where a key stroke makes a change, learning to manage something with a mind of it's own is a shock for most kids.

Then the kids grow up.  They get stronger, more confident.  Being able to turn and stop is taken for granted. They can control the horse.  Now that they can do it, they believe they should be able to control any horse.  It's not true at first, but with experience and training, more and more horses are within their skill range.  For the most determined and the most experienced, they become the rider that can control the difficult ones.

I remember that phase.  I remember seeing a school horse that was out of line and thinking that I needed to get it's behavior under control.  I would get on with the mind set that I needed to set the tone, the pace, keep control at all costs.  My way or the highway.  It was a point of pride that I could control a difficult horse and ride through their temper tantrums.  But it wasn't the right mind set.  It was a clench of the jaw when the horse refused something, a dull burn in the gut, a tightly clenched crop.  There was anger.  I had to win and the horse had to submit, an angry litany in my head.

I wasn't a cruel rider, but I did not accept behavior that was outside of what I wanted.  Horse's that didn't do what they were told were bad and needed to be corrected and made to go the right way.  I knew there were sometimes reasons for acting up, like weather changes, but I didn't care.  They weren't allowed to do that.  Ever.  It was black and white and so very simple.  I thought being a good rider was having complete control of the horse.

I'm not 100% sure what bumped me out of that phase.  I was there a long, long time.  From the age of 13 as a pony jock right up until I was working at the h/j barn in my twenties.  I think it was my Hellbeast that taught me that no matter how good you are, there will always be a horse that's better.  He could unload anyone, absolutely anyone.  Best riders in the barn had complete respect for the fact that Allen could unload them at any time.  It was by his grace that you were allowed to ride.  You did not fight the Hellbeast.  I tried at first and it ended badly every time.  Scary kinds of badly.  Gasping spectators and fleeing pedestrians badly.  You asked and you took any warning shots from him seriously.  He was always polite enough to warn you before putting your ass in an oxer for being an idiot.  We had our arguments and sometimes I had to push the point, but there was a big difference between going in to win a fight and going in with finesse to get an end result with him as a willing participant.  I had to accept the fact that 'winning' wasn't the goal.

Out for a stroll with the Hellbeast who was not, in fact, a headshaker.  His photos show up in a lot of Practical Horseman articles since I let the photographer keep the rights from a photo shoot we did and he was super attractive.  I love seeing him pop up in my reading a decade after the photo shoot.

There are only three emotions allowed in the saddle:  patience, love, and a sense of humor.  Anger, frustration, and fear are forbidden.  By the time I got to mi papi, I didn't have that angry need to win as my default setting.  I had matured (or a parade of TBs beat it out of me, whichever).  It flares up sometimes, usually in ground work.  I'm so picky about ground manners.  I feel my jaw clench and my thoughts snap to the pattern of 'I'm in charge and you will do what I want!'.  It's not a discussion of herd dynamics and him respecting my space, it's the feeling that I have to prove to him (or someone, who even knows) that I have control.  It's bad news bears territory.  It's the type of thing that makes horses like Theo shut down and strike out.  It's an active act of reprogramming my own mind to try to stop that pattern before it gets too far.  If I hear the word win in my own head, I have to stop, take a breath, and turn away.

 Must walk away, even when being blatantly taunted

I tell this to teens in the throes of taking control and they tell me I've gone soft.  I hear myself in their words.  At their age, I would have said the same thing.  I wasn't ready to accept the fact that true control is impossible.  I struggled against it and got frustrated.  My horse is about 10X my size and ridiculously strong.  At the end of the day, I can't control him.   I can suggest and manipulate, punish and reward, but I can't get off and throw him over the fence.  Gods know I've thought about it.  It has to be his choice.  Whether he chooses for positive or negative reasons is my part of the equation. 

Am I putting away my spurs and whip?  Hell no.  I'm at a massive physical disadvantage, I have to even up the equation somehow.  Am I going to accept Theo's temper tantrums when asked to do something hard?  Nope, there's a difference between communicating and being a bully.  Am I going to stop using the chain shank?  Ha!  I like my toes and shoulders intact, thank you very much.  I have the frontal lobes so I have to be in charge of strategy and forward planning.  I am the leader because I am the one equipped to manage life in the modern world.  Horses communicate and establish dominance through physical contact.  I'm not going to start biting Theo, my parents paid thousands of dollars to get my teeth straightened out, so tools will remain.  But I no longer strive to be at over 50% of the relationship.  I'm quite content at 50%.  Every behavior tells me something and it goes both ways.  He knows certain behaviors get crest scratches and treats while others make me growl.  The flip side of this is that every behavior I get from him that I don't want is telling me about how the situation needs to be changed.

If Theo is curling, humping his back, and stomping his feet, something is wrong.  He doesn't need to be punished, he needs to change tracks because he's hit his limit for the current exercise.  If he's suddenly wide eyed and looking around for danger, it's usually my fault.  I did that in my ride last night.  I thought I heard the ice on the roof start to slide and had a mini-panic.  Big ice slides off of the indoor never end well.  Theo didn't care about the sound but he certainly cared about my sudden fear reaction.  His head popped up, eyes wide, and started looking for what had scared me.  It took us five minutes to get it back together.  We both had to get our pulses down and let the adrenaline ebb.

Especially as I uncover the sensitive princess Theo actually is, I have to remind myself every time he acts out that I am specifically encouraging this.  I can't communicate with him if he never gets his turn to talk.  If I want the cuddles and stretching out to reach me, I have to accept that there will be kicking out and head tossing as well.  That's how Theo communicates.  Every day, I have to remind myself to take a breath and not snap on him when he does something irritating.  It's 50/50, and if I snap on him, he can snap back at me.  And he snaps a lot harder than I do. 


  1. Very thought-provoking post! My young WB gelding is teaching me all about this right now, so the words ring very true to me :)

  2. Love this post. I have travelled the same path as you. I tried to control Irish and it made him worse. Then one day he started to act up about ice slding off the roof and I just 'yes dear' and kept what I was doing. He just stopped frigging aroudn after that because there was nothing to fight.

  3. This is a really hard lesson to learn. I'm definitely still learning it, and you pretty well summed up what often goes through my head (and I'm sure others as well). I often have to remind myself that we'll always be more successful and have more fun if we are functioning as a partnership, and doing things because my horse has chosen to do what I'm asking, and not because he is made to do it.

  4. A partnership is way preferable to a dictatorship. Thanks for the honest post :D

  5. No shame and thank you for sharing! This is important stuff; some folks never manage to learn it and everyone else has to relearn it many times over.

    I'm not riding currently, for various reasons. But when I was...the more horses I rode, especially of the sensitive acting-out type that I used to most think needed to be controlled or contained, the less I had *any interest* in having arguments and the less important apparent misbehavior seemed. I guess individual mileage varies, for humans and horses both! And I have no idea which direction causality ran. But the type of horse that I enjoy riding, when I gave 'em a chance, didn't really seem to take advantage of "getting away with anything" and always trusted me a whole lot more -- and behaved better -- when I just kept being their calm happy place and giving 'em chances to do it right, instead.

    I always cringe when I hear somebody told to "get mad at" a horse. I get that it works for some folks as a proxy for "be clear and ride confidently and actually, y'know, give an aid now and again." But I wish there was a better way to clearly and concisely send that message; I don't think being angry has any place around animals. We're only human, so it's gonna happen, but encouraging it? No.

    1. (I meant to say, my anger feels really similar to yours. Learning how to shut that off while mounted was -- and is -- a long, difficult, but totally worthwhile (but ongoing) process.)