Updated: Feb 16, 2021
One of my favorite songs is Micheal Jackson's “Man in The Mirror.” Micheal brings light to the fact that change only happens if the person in your mirror changes. This is something that I see daily teaching horseback riding lessons. The horse is the mirror and the human has to change if they expect their horse to change.
Just a few weeks ago one of my students said: “I'm really focused today and I'm determined to get it (the rising trot I think).” Then towards the end of the lesson, she said “Gypsy (her steed for the day) is really being good today. Riding seems much easier.” I replied, “the horse hasn't changed, the rider has.” And that was it. The rider had changed her mindset and got focused, balanced, and confident and the horse felt it and rewarded it.
I see riders battling barn sour horses,horses that rush, won't move, won't stand at the mounting block, or any number of other issues and I do my best to coach them through the issue. When nothing really works I get on the horse to try to assess the situation. I do the same things but get the result I was wanting. What's different? The person. The mindset of the person, the timing of the person, the confidence of the person. That's what changes. The horse mirrors its rider.
With horses; the right timing, the right principles, and the right mindset will get you far. Understanding that the horse can not be forced into learning, should not fear you, and is another living being with the same need for comfort as humans; is critical. It has taken me a long time to come to these conclusions and to live by them.
I have done terrible things to horses because I lacked knowledge, fitness, and or patience and I was taking it out on them unknowingly. It is so easy to say he’s barn sour, won't go forward, won't stop, won't stand at the mounting block, won't put his head down, won't jump. But it is so hard to say “he wants to go to the barn because he doesn't want to be with me.” “He won't go forward because I have pushed him too far.” “He won't stop because I have scared him into rushing everything.” “He won't stand at the mounting block because going for rides is not fun for him.” “He won't put his head down because I'm not a good enough rider to teach him how and why.” “He won't jump because I'm asking him to do something neither of us is ready for.”
These things mean we have to look in the mirror and see the true problem. They mean we have to slow down and think. They mean we have to go back and fix what we have done. These are all terribly difficult for the human mind to accept when it can simply blame someone else. Someone who can't defend themselves.
At the beginning of August last year, I took on an OTTB as my next project. She is a lovely soul and I have grown to admire her. However, she is a project. She is 4 years old, off the track, and a mare. That means she is a high energy, untrusting, and highly opinionated individual. I decided at the beginning of her reign that I was going to give this horse as much time as she needed and help her through life to the best of my ability.
It is coming on 7 months with her and she has taught me a lot about letting horses take their time. She needed time to get her weight in order and fix her feet first. She got it. She needed time to work on the lunge line and go on long walks to build muscle. She got it. She needed slow progress daily with kind hands and understanding aids to help her find relaxation, rhythm, and balance in trot, canter, and eventually ground poles. She got it. She needed days (and still needs them) of patient work to load on the trailer with confidence and relaxation. She gets it. She needs work on desensitizing and tying. She gets it.
Now 7 months later, I have a fat, shiny, sound horse that wants to be in my company, is beginning to understand lateral work, stretching long and low, cantering in the correct lead, loading in the trailer, tieing to be groomed, jumping ground poles and small 12in jumps with rhythm; relaxation; and balance, and so much more. It only took 7 months. This, to me, seems like a very short time to have achieved all of this….now (not always had I thought this way). Compared to the life ahead of my sweet mare, 7 months is hopefully nothing (long live the queen!). However, I think many people would say 7 months was a long time and our achievements are trivial. I also think that that mindset is the problem with horse training today. Owners, trainers, and riders rush everything trying to go faster, jump higher, and do all the things neither the horse nor the rider is ready for. Either for fame, fortune, or both. Usually fortune (as in everything “on the cheap”).
What we humans do not yet understand is that if we do it correctly from the beginning (we refrain from rushing things) we will save lots of time and money and have our best shot at fame (if we so choose or just a happy horse and rider which seems more valuable than anything).
Now before this gets any longer, I will wrap up my point. I used to think my quality of horse was getting better, but the truth was their quality of owner, trainer and rider were getting better. The horses have not changed. I have. I no longer blame the horse. Whatever the horse has done I could have prepared them better with the right education or right environment or maybe it was no one's fault and it just happened, but it is never the horse's fault. Look in the mirror and you will see what needs to change. Change your mind - think positively/seek guidance. Change your fitness - workout/eat healthier. Train your patience - do not scare the horse/do not blame the horse. This will allow you to love the horse in a way you could not imagine. In truth, it will allow you to love yourself in a way you could not imagine.
The horse is, after all, your mirror.