Life Lessons I Learned from Working with Horses: The Joy of Balance
December 10, 2020

Through more than 3 decades of teaching horsemanship, I have discovered that it is important to seize moments of opportunity which are presented to us every day. I have learned much from working with horses and their riders over the years, lessons which I have applied to every aspect of my life, and which I hope will bring you value and insight as well.

I often ride one of my horses while teaching. In any activity, our horses are constantly showing us their individual personalities. They are unable to hide who they are and how they feel, presenting us with the most honest version of themselves possible.

Each horse/rider combination has needs that are based on their individualities, needs, and preferences. This combination of differences and similarities helps us to discover how to communicate better and to improve the relationship between horses and humans as we work together.

During any lesson, the horse I choose to ride has a specific role. I may choose a horse with a confident, strong personality in order to assist a student’s greener mount technique, or I might choose one of my novice horses in order to help them learn from my student’s more experienced horse while training. I need to be aware of what both sides need in order to bring their best attributes to the table and to add the most value for both of them in a lesson.

Here is an example of how one energy can assist another. In one particular lesson, I was training outside in an empty field, with the adjoining fields holding the horses’ respective herds.

My student had an Irish Sporthorse mare, named La Costa, who was a physically and mentally solid horse, and an expert at conserving her energy. This horse was a super comfortable horse to ride. La Costa required her rider to bring a blend of relaxed yet vibrant energy to each session, as riding her with any hint of a dictating, forced agenda would only result in the most minimal response, barely visible at all.

In this session, I had chosen to ride my Pintabian gelding, named Raffi. He is high energy, with some describing him as a ‘Type A’ personality─a label given to most high-energy breeds. One of his struggles had been his herd boundness. The combination of this struggle with his high energy, supernatural athletic ability, and endurance made for some interesting “conversations” throughout our relationship.

To begin the lesson, both my student and I worked our horses in hand to connect with our individual horses. We then both mounted our horses, and I continued to teach as we began the process of our breathing and grounding seat checklist.

(Some context: I had moved a new mare into Raffi’s herd about one week prior to this lesson. In that time, the new mare had begun to call to him. Raffi was gradually learning that it’s not always necessary to engage in conversation with his herd mates while working, but this is a lesson we had regularly visited with increased success, especially as I continue to master my own calm, confident energy. Raffi’s athletic, compact body was consistently trying to navigate in the direction of his herd─as as result, standing physically and mentally still in these moments was often difficult for him.)

Back to our lesson. My student and her mare halt, and I begin to chat about the dynamics of the moment. Raffi, a Type-A busy-mind that was working very hard to attend to his herd while also listening to me, was having many successful quiet moments but mentally struggling.

In that moment, I knew I needed to attend to Raffi with strength and resolve in my own mental stillness, all while being physically centered and grounded. To achieve this, I took the time to ride him with a purposeful walk, engaging his mind with athletic movements, then pausing with deliberate halts. While doing this, I was describing the what, why, and how of the process as I was riding to my student.

Suddenly, a natural pause occurs mid-lesson. I described my observations to my student of La Costa’s behaviour up to this point in the session. Calm, confident, and occasionally looking to her herd, she was standing still with eyes soft, muscles relaxed, and (of course) conserving her energy. She had no thoughts in her head and instead was focused on simply being in the moment of stillness.

La Costa had the ideal energy for a Raffi-type personality that day, demonstrating the benefit of being still and in the moment. On the same note, La Costa could also learn from Raffi’s lively energy in some situations. As we continued our lesson, I rode in front of La Costa and watched as she followed with more purpose in her gait.

As a seasoned horse trainer and riding instructor, I believe it is my responsibility to make lesson choices based on the best interest of the horse. My first responsibility is to address the needs of the horse. Over time, my students learn to observe their horse and begin to understand the reasons for their horse’s behaviours. Our horses will always provide teaching moments…if we are willing to watch and learn alongside them.

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