Managing expectations. Why is this important? As always in these blogs, life is blended with horses because to me, they are the same thing but also; good Horsemanship is basically good life skills. Balancing expectations with reality can be make a world of difference.
So many of the lessons horses are trying to teach us are just good life skills that are applicable no matter if you ever touched a horse or not. In this way even the most base beginner can have something of value to contribute to the landscape of Horsemanship in the 21st Century, if they are someone with unusually evolved life skills! I hope that gives any self professed beginners or ‘Horse Ignorants’ hope!
One of my absolutely favourite sayings can be a bit hard to hear. It is rude, crass and can be easily misunderstood. At risk of being misunderstood I am going to make a play for it and write it here boldly:
Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It doesn’t work and only annoys the pig.
No doubt the inventor of this phrase was employing humour in order to make a point both blunt and vital. Accept things for the way they are! Be aware of your environment and those who are in it. Do not expect people, horses or places to perform for you in ways which are outside their range. You will probably piss them off if you try.
The most powerful example of this that comes to my mind is someone I will refer to as Person X. I use gender neutral anonymity out of respect for this person and their journey, and thus will call them X, merely to illustrate my point.
I was once approached by Person X who employed me to help them in their horses training. We were keeping our horses at the same stable, which I did not own nor operate but did run lessons and training programs there. After seeing my success with my own horse and with other clients X approached me and started taking lessons.
X was a full time parent of three, the youngest not yet 2 years old. X was returning to riding after a long sabbatical and so was their horse, a lovely middle aged mare. This mare was healthy and sweet natured. She has a good solid conformation and was pretty much your average recreational horse in type and manner of the area- Poland being where I was at the time. She was neither fancy of breed or movement, nor did she display any outstanding talent beyond being sweet and kind and forgiving and open. A perfect family pet and recreational companion! X too, displayed all the objective, logistical behaviours of a recreational horse owner- something I respect very much! There are many Sport Horses or Working Horses who could be so lucky to be treated so well and so lovingly as most recreational horses! X was balancing a busy family and work life with horses as the hobby. Coming 4-5 days a week to the stable because of close proximity but not always staying for very long, sometimes just long enough to give an apple and depart. When X came with time to spare to work their mare it was rarely for longer than 45 minutes to an hour and in that there was plenty of down time, grass munching, scratching etc. Total ‘active’ moments never usually amounted to more than 20 minutes. As a rider, X was of a naturally nervous, fidgety and apprehensive disposition and not terribly athletic, but still game enough to give everything a go. X and their horse would go for slow rides to the forest with some brave yet hairy canters but everything seemed to be pretty low key and relaxing. X genuinely wanted to improve her riding, or so it seemed. Lucky mare! Sounds great huh?
‘My horse throws her shoulder at every corner!’
‘Sorry, pardon me?’
‘Her shoulder. She THROWS it out of alignment at every corner. Can you fix it?’
‘Erm. Yes but…’
‘See?! She did it again. There! Every corner her shoulder falls on the inside. My old trainer said that this is very bad for a horse. We should fix it.’
‘Ok. Are you absolutely sure your horse is aware enough of her shoulder that you are trying to train? Often this is just a body awareness issue. I know that is a non-typical response from a trainer but it does say on my website: ‘Horsesmanship from a Unique Perspective’ and I live by it! There is always a logical reason for these things.’
‘Ha! I am pretty sure MY horse knows she has a shoulder!’
‘Ok. Well. Can I suggest first some body awareness exercises for your horse which do not create a situation where your horse is always ‘making mistakes’. We can educate your mare to be more aware of her body. We can check first all of her training to date and movement basics and then we can work on her sho…’
‘Again! She did it AGAIN. See? It is SO annoying! She is crazy I do not know what to do she makes me so crazy every time she throws her shoulder and I am trying to get her to hold her shoulder in and she just won’t do it and then she starts running like crazy and…’
‘Sorry but I need to stop you there. Shoulder placement is something typically refined in horses at higher levels of their training. Shoulder in and haunches in are not introduced to a dressage horse until medium to upper levels and I do not think your horse is there right now. I think this issue will melt away if we go back a bit, check all of her basics and then go forwards. We are just lunging her in circles at a trot right now! This is sort of a basic exercise. If she is struggling in a basic exercise the way to fix it is not to practise a more advanced exercise but to check her basic training and make sure it is rock solid. If a horse cannot maintain that circle at a trot without huge intervention from us with multiple tools or aids, I believe the horse is missing some basics in their foundation training. You know I will never coerce a horse through tools, gimmicks or tricks. I won’t take a shortcut and manipulate her shoulder with you today. Let us slow down and check the basics first. I might be wrong…’
‘What basics? What do you mean?’
‘There are 9 basics for a riding horse. It’s very simple. A horse should do all 9 in a straight forwards and easy manner without major intervention from the rider. Personally, I will not start the horse in dressage or detailed movement training until they have shown clear and relaxed mastery of the basics. The ten basics of a saddle horse are;
8. Stand Still
9. Back up”
‘Urgh she did it again… jesus christ. We should do some gymnastics with her shoulder down under saddle or in groundwork. We should have her on a contact and make sure she is not throwing her shoulder!”
“Ok, well then I am not your trainer for this moment perhaps because I won’t do that to your horse today. In the future, absolutely. Not today. If I work with a horse I want to establish all basic elements under saddle on a more or less loose rein first, before I ride double handed. At this early stage, if a rein is used I use a single rein when moving forwards, to turn and even to stop, to keep things simple. Double handed riding comes after mastery of the basics… if you train with me that is! I try to respect their body and their mouth in this way. I like a horse to be going under saddle calmly in all basics with minimal aids both in training and out on the trail, before I start introducing real dressage concepts to them and detailed body manipulations such as isolating body parts, like shoulder placement, poll flexion, conflicting aids etc. I do not think this is an issue of dressage; your mares falling shoulder. Because you do not practise dressage with your horse currently, you are still riding the basics, which is great! This mare is a recreational horse right now, not in regular or programmed work. This is an issue of basics not being totally solid, in my opinion.’
‘Hmmm. So what should we do to fix it? See, she did it again. EVERY time her shoulder falls!’
‘First we should stop. Stop putting your horse in exercises which create a problem for her and for you and definitely stop repeating things that are not working. Find something your horse CAN do and go from there. Then we can begin the slow process over this winter to check all her basics…’
The rest is fairly self explanatory. This conversation myself and X had that winter night, under the dim glow of halogen lamps in the indoor riding hall in central Poland was a pivotal moment for me. I found I could stand with someone I liked and respected and who was willing to employ me and say ‘No’ on behalf of the horse. ‘No’ followed by another option which stayed true to what I felt was right by the horse. I stood with X going in circles, our breath was misting up in front of our faces and our conversation was constantly interrupted by X and their non-stop single lunge lining. X’s mare was getting increasingly upset as she struggled to hold herself together and was soon steaming in the frigid air. You could see her trying, yet she couldn’t manage to keep her body together through the movement, and almost imperceptibly fell out through her left shoulder at every revolution. The ground was perfectly flat, competition grade silica sand with fabric cushioning scraps running through it. The arena was perfectly lit. The mare was healthy, had been regularly checked by a vet and physio and was free of pathology. The mare had a full topline, great feet, a saddle that fit and riding mostly bitless. She was middle aged and sweet natured yet here she was, struggling with a basic- trot. My speech to X was said clearly and slowly yet X was only half listening to my words as she relentlessly repeated her exercise expecting a different outcome.
Needless to say- did this mare get the revision on her foundational training I advised? No. X went off and got themselves a local dressage trainer who did dressage and only dressage. I carried on with the other horses in my program. Within 3 months X and their mare were trotting around the stable, their brow furrowed and reins tight, trying to contain that dumping shoulder, which continued to dump, dump, dump on the inside in 9/10 corners.
I just shrugged MY shoulders, and moved on.
Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It doesn’t work and only annoys the pig.
I wish there was a nicer version of saying that because I really do not want to imply that I am calling X or people like them pigs. Even if I was calling them pigs, that would not be a criticism in my eyes. I am a vegetarian since 8 years and even when I ate meat I specifically avoided pork. Why? I believe pigs to be incredibly intelligent and sympathetic animals. When dissecting a human and pig brain the anatomical differences are quite negligible and I have always found pigs to be peaceful, adorable and honourable creatures. I should be so lucky to have a pig sty in my future garden, to spoil a great fat hog with scraps from my table and belly scratches. What joy! No, pigs are fabulous. But you wouldn’t ask a pig to stand on stage and sing the second act of Madame Butterfly. It would be inappropriate. That would not a happy pig make.
When I was consulting with X I genuinely made a detailed assessment of the context of that horse and horse owner. I asked what were their goals, lifestyle, and background. What did they want from their horse life and did this match up with their habits in horse life? You cannot have a highly trained horse without being able to put in serious man hours and possibly invest in some quality coaching with a professional. I made recommendations suited to the context they presented. If X presented as aspirational, they were currently at status Recreational but wanted to take their riding to a higher level, ok no problem. I would have had the same response! Let’s double check all basics and then get busy with lovely details afterwards! Alas, X was neither willing nor able to modify their own habits, yet expected their horse to perform at a level not appropriate to their own personal input or their horses current training status.
Did I just lose you? You are welcome to read that last part again if you need. If not, let us press on a wee bit deeper. Well done for reading this far! It is a meaty blog I know but something had to fill my hours on a bus ride to Malaga!
I use this real life story of X as an example because it is the perfect explanation for the classic situation: Horse Life Dichotomy for 21st century; Upper/Middle Class Horse Ownership. One hundred years ago or more, a horse had a specific career. They were expected to perform certain jobs and their training was specified for exactly that career. In this way, the horse and the human have evolved together for thousands of years. Human civilisation was quite seriously built on the back of the horse.
War horses were not commonly expected to make milk deliveries on weekends and a bakers carriage horse was not boxed off to affiliated FEI dressage competitions twice a month on Sundays. Of course, there will have been exceptions to this with particularly adaptable horses that could do many things but as a general rule horses were bred and trained for reasons and purposes that were specific and tailored. Horses, in my opinion, might have been less confused.
Today, the horse industry has had a total about face from our ancestral heritage. Thousands of years of Horsemanship clarity has been abolished by the invention of the motor car and other advancements in technology that made the horse largely obsolete in modern industry. Yet simultaneously, the wealth and stability created by modern industry grew a worldwide middle and upper middle class. Horse ownership was no longer the pastime of the wealthy and idle, or the necessity of the working class. Middle class horse ownership was born. It is here to stay!
A middle class person finds themselves above the poverty line but still aspirational for more (perhaps). They have just enough time and just enough disposable income to consider investing in a hobby of their childhood dreams, horses! Riding lessons commence as does investing in new and exciting books and forays into the vast library that is YouTube. Advancements are made and taste preferences are discovered, English or western? Natural or classical? Those that keep going consider buying a horse of their own. They check their budget and fabulous, they find a livery that works and a horse they like! Bang, they are now a horse owner! They cannot be with their horse all day everyday (though they want to), because they are too busy earning money to pay for the whole endeavour. So they become weekend warriors and evening absentees from their home life. Horses become bookends in the life of a middle class owner not because they want them to, but because logistics demand they must. So, what’s next?
These horses are now expected to be beautiful AND have excellent conformation (Believe me the two do not always co-exist). They are expected to be both calm and reliable yet exciting to ride and forward going but easy to stop always, safety first. They do Adult Riding Club on a Thursday, Dressage show on a Saturday and next month they are going to a horse archery clinic in the next town. Every now and then a jumping urge overcomes the owner and the horse starts taking on jumps of increasing heights but on weekends they are expected to be safe in the forest and tolerant around dogs, cars and roads. These horses and their owners might have aspirations for long distance treks in the summer but during Christmas they are left in mostly muddy paddocks and eat hay and sigh for a solid 3 months, whilst their owners carve the turkey and open presents that voided their horse budget until the Spring.
Need we wonder why we have problems?
I am not advocating against the middle class horse owner. I am probably one of them! I am not advocating against encouraging our horses to be versatile nor am I against horse people with enough mental plasticity to try their hands at many different things with their horses.
I am advocating for the horse. Horses need clarity. Confusion is one of the biggest hurdles I see between horses and their owners. Horses need to KNOW WHAT IS EXPECTED OF THEM. We need to know what our horses are capable of. The truth is, if a horse has totally solid basics, after that you can do almost anything with them and take them in almost any different direction. Sanson has his 9 basics. With or without my hands, bitted or bitless, in the training area, deep in a forest or on the hard shoulder of an alpine road, he has his 9 basics. He can walk, trot, canter, gallop, left, right, stop, back up and stand still without much fuss or debacle or overthought. He has proven that he has these 9 basics consistently, meaning 100% of the time. From there I have tried with him dressage all last autumn and winter, jumping 1km of fallen trees in forest, 8 hour mountain trek (last Thursday), trick training, positive reinforcement, pressure and release, natural horsemanship, round pen work and more. We even used to train in a cross country paddock and I am considering introducing a neck rope for bridleless trekking. All of this he has taken in his stride and adapted to pretty quick. I would never have done all of that unless we had our 9 basics 100% of the time without any fuss.
Want to know how much work it takes to get the basics consistent? Depends on the horse. But still, take a number. Guess how many hours a week it would take? Then take those hours and triple it. Then imagine doing that for at least 1 year. Then you might be getting close to understanding how long it takes to get the 9 basics 100% of the time.
Ok, now I have overwhelmed you. Fair enough. But wait, don’t leave yet! Here is the good news:
For 99% of horse people, aspiring to master the basics and nothing more is the most noble and joyful thing you could do with your horses for the rest of your life!
If you never ride anything more than basics with your horse who bloody cares?! The high levels of performance are for people who have the aptitude, time and passion to go into professional careers with their horses and those people are around 1% of the horse people population by my reckoning.
Do not get confused and think that if you are a backyard owner with a single horse that you are LESS THAN or SHITTIER THAN that 1% who can devote their whole lives to horses. No! You are your horses hero, Backyard owner and recreational basics aspirant! If you can devote your spare time to helping your horse have solid basics and if it takes you ten years to do it, fabulous! Do it like a prayer, like a devotion! You are giving that horse a life that is ten times lovelier than quite a lot of horses owned by the 1%, especially the horses optioned for professional careers that don’t make it! You probably saved one of those! Help them feel solid and safe in their life with humans and don’t you dare feel ashamed of it. I adore you for it and will champion you for it!
Person X and their mare ticked every single box on the recreational horse context list. Yet X, over the 1 year I knew them, would consistently expect and demand high levels of body awareness and performance from their horse, from myself and from a list of 3 other trainers they cycled through. I do not mind saying that they needed a reality check in more ways than one. I came to feel sorry for the mare. Although she was happy and healthy I pitied her. Not because she was treated badly- because she absolutely wasn’t- but because she would never find her owner or her trainer balancing EXPECTATIONS with REALITY. She would never be able to find her true self and purpose in her life with humans. A recreational horse expected to be as good as entrance level dressage horse? I think she was happier being a fabulous pig in the mud.
And she really did not feel like singing after all.