“Oh, if life were made of moments, Even now and then a bad one–! But if life were only moments, Then you’d never know you had one.”“Moments in the Woods”, Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim
For too many people, riding and training horses is about goals. The first ride. The first show. Moving to the next level. The year-end championship. It’s completely understandable that many approach horses in this way. Western society, in general, teaches us to be goal oriented. From being asked “What do you want to be when you grow up” as a child to “Where do you want to be in five years?” at your first job interview, we are frequently prodded to set goals and march toward them. Goals are a good thing to imagine, but life can often get in the way of achieving them. Sadly, when goals are applied to horses it can result in pushing toward those goals at their expense – especially since they can be so easily bullied. For me, life and especially working with horses has always been much more about the “moments” than any specific goal. Today I had a moment. Actually, I had two different kinds of moments.
I think many parents will tell you of the moments they treasure from their children growing up. The first word. The first step. The first day they went to school. Those “first” moments can and should be a treasure. Too often with horses, people miss the importance of those “first” moments. The first ride or the first show might stand out. But those are actually a compilation of a lot of work on the part of the horse. We certainly take a lot of credit for getting there. The risk of being the first to sit on a horse, or the effort it takes to get them to their first show feels like an accomplishment for us. But what too many riders miss is what most parents feel – the joy for the child at their accomplishment. With horses as with young children, accomplishments come (sometimes quite literally) in tiny steps.
One of my moments with Chase today was one of those “first” moments. We have been working on our communication, especially on the ground. I’ve done some in-hand lateral work and we’ve worked on the basics of bending in-hand and under saddle. We have a simple response for turn on the forehand from halt under saddle. Today I decided it was time to put that all together and ask for leg yield for the first time under saddle. It took some patience and waiting for him to sort it all out, but sort it out he did! We got our first step of a true nice leg yield.
In normal riding circles the goal of leg yielding might have been an actual figure with a beginning and end. This typically leads to a bit of a struggle, with horse and rider trying to sort it out. Because the rider has a goal, the horse has no moment that says “Yes! That’s it!” No moment of accomplishment. No moment to register cause and effect. Just a struggle to understand what is being asked of him, sometimes by a rider who has a similar struggle. If, instead, you break every new thing down to “moments” and acknowledge when those moments occur it provides both of you the opportunity to reflect on what happened.
With Chase, that first step was rewarded immediately. Some time later, in the other direction, I asked again and this time it came more quickly. I acknowledged that moment by rewarding him again, to make it clear that his try was right. So effective is this approach that a little later in the ride, without having asked again, I attempted to demonstrate the aids for leg yield to my mother and was rewarded by three easy and correct steps! I had the feeling that he would have gone on as long as I asked, but I had no interest in abusing his good will. In fact, I’d only intended for one step and ended up with three simply because I was so surprised by the promptness and lightness of his response. A moment of demonstrated understanding from him became a moment of celebration for me.
The other type of “moment” typical of working with horses are those preview moments when you suddenly feel what the future holds. It might be the first time your horse offers a perfect bascule over a fence. Or the first steps of collection you feel. These moments can be fleeting as they require not only learning on the part of the horse but also physical development to sustain them. Riders tend to underestimate the amount of physical effort it actually takes for a horse just to carry them, let alone in an improved level of balance, a precise way of moving, or over an obstacle. In fact, I get quite tired of the old saw that all we are doing is restoring to the horse under saddle what they can already do without a rider.
Yes, the rider adds quite a burden – but most horses do not actually do the things when free that we ask of them under saddle. A horse may “passage” when feeling very good (though I’ve known many who never did), but it is typically with a head in the air, tail over the back, and not in a specific tempo. Horses certainly do not execute half pass or shoulder-in while loose. The point being that while there may be roots of what we ask horses to do in some horses’ behavior, under some specific conditions, for brief periods of time, it simply is not true that we are only teaching them what they can already do, but with a rider. That is the same as saying that a person with natural talent for dancing is ready to dance with the Bolshoi! Everything we ask our horses to do under saddle takes both physical and mental effort, and it is easy to squander their good will by ignoring that fact.
The preview moment I had today occurred in just a few steps of trot. On the lunge Chase is reaching a state of carrying himself in a long arc, base of neck and chest slightly lifted, with a lovely cadence to the stride. The strides are so fluid as to show no blocking or negative tension in any joint of his body. It is becoming more consistent on the lunge and it puts one in mind of a metronome, so perfectly measured is the cadence. I have loved watching him develop that trot, looking forward to the day I could ride it. Today, for the second time this week, I felt just a few of those strides. So amazing was that feeling that it is certainly tempting to push for more. But I know that he cannot yet sustain it under a rider. I was also tempted, on both occasions, to try for it again. But I know that it is not yet there to request. He is offering those moments because everything happened to come together for a moment – balance, tempo, connection. I know from experience that for a while those moments of preview will be all that I get. I will love every single one – like I loved advent calendars as a child, each door building toward Christmas day.
As humans we are often not patient when we can see what we want within our grasp. Going back to our culture, it often tells us what we can have what we want if we just strive for it. But when you are dealing with another sentient being, you definitely run the risk of running over their feelings if you insist on getting what you want on any kind of time table. I only did the one set of trot today because I’d already introduced the leg yield with such surprising success. My intent was to use the trot to give him a chance to move his body differently after that work. That I also had my preview moment was a gift – and I accepted it as such, refraining from demanding that I be given more.
Horses can be amazingly giving (and forgiving) souls. It is not only in their best interest but also in our own that we take the time to recognize all the different “moments” along our journey with them. Celebrate those little first steps along the way. Have your goals, but keep them soft and without deadlines. Not only will you find more joy along the journey, but you will build a better and more trusting relationship with your horse. I’ve been accused of anthropomorphizing when I say this, but horses can enjoy the work. If you have a good relationship, they do try to please you. You being happy can make them happy, if you share the celebration. But that comes not in you winning a prize and slamming them on the neck. It comes in recognizing the effort they put out at every step along the way, and stopping to appreciate those little moments of achievement as they happen.
Be good to your horses!