Balance and Compromise

A lot of riding, in my experience at least, is about striking a balance and finding a compromise that works for you and your horse. Some days the horse comes out to play and it’s easy, but other days, your horse is ready to pick a fight, or just isn’t as present and willing to cooperate as they may have been the day before.Or maybe you’ve decided to put your foot down and really work on something you’ve previously let slide, and they just aren’t having it. Maybe you’re the one having an off day, and that one leg keeps swinging or the one hand keeps crossing over. One way or another, you probably aren’t going to get everything you hoped from that ride, and it can be tricky to find the balance between quietly insisting that they do something right, and accepting that this is the best your horse (or youurself) has to offer for the time being.

I decided earlier this year that this would be the year I stop making excuses for myself and my horse. I’m not demanding perfection, but no longer will I tell a trainer or a friend or myself “Val doesn’t do x,” or “I just can’t seem to do y” and I won’t compromise by compensating for something we just “can’t” do.

Some specific examples:

-Val hates deep footing. He has a mini tantrum about deep footing every time we have to go through it somewhere. That has led to, “My horse won’t go straight or be reasonable through deep footing. I just ignore it and let him wiggle and then move on.” And that’s how we broke a jump.

Tantrum over cantering through the deep footing on this one side of the arena.

-Val has always been super worried about any kind of consistent contact , and that has led me to always having too long reins, because “He just doesn’t go well with short reins. He’s too fussy when I have a constant feel.” Flatwork is really hard with a loop all the time though.

-And then there’s the fact that he jumps hard, and it’s hard to keep my leg under me, so for a while I told myself that “he just jumps hard and you’re short, so you aren’t going to be able to keep your leg under you. You land soft so it’s fine.” And then I almost fell off a few times (did fall off once) when he dove right after the jump.

And yes, we are functional even with all of those excuses. But in the long run, we’ll be more successful if we start tackling the things that are really hard too. My leg is already much better, and I’m much stickier with a faster recovery on the back side of fences now.

But his canter can be really nice if you just attach floppy side reins.

On the good days, we’re making a lot of progress. Val isn’t happy about going through the deep footing, but he’s doing it better and going straighter, and he’s finally starting to actually step up into the bridle a little more so that I have just the lightest bit of weight in the reins.

But a lot of days, I only get a little bit of the really good work I’m hoping for, and I have to choose which days I’m going to make a big deal out of something. We have meltdowns, and days where just asking him to canter and not run away or fling his head in the air is a lot to ask, especially to the left. We have a lot more meltdowns than the average horse it would seem, and as smart as he is, it’s easy to overload his hamsters.

Those days, it can be hard to know when to back off, and when to be patient and just keep insisting. On top of wondering whether I’m making the right choice between insisting on correct work and accepting good enough work, there’s the constant worry that perhaps the whole problem is me: Maybe my hands aren’t quiet enough, or maybe if I just keep my reins short enough he’d be less reactive, or I’m not asking for something right or or or.

Beautiful cantering of the poles (3 set on a curve, 19′ apart) to the right, several times in a row. We’ve done this exercise several times without issue.

On Saturday, we had a ride where cantering poles to the left that we’d done beautifully to the right led to an actual full on meltdown, and I finally had to downgrade to walking over each pole with a gentle halt between each one just so he wouldn’t blow through.

I never did get him to trot quietly through until I finally got up in 2-point and let him find his own way, after which I called it a day and went for a walk. And I just plain gave up on cantering them to the left, because each time we came out of the turn to them he had a blow up. All in all, I rode for an hour and that seemed like enough. Those days, it would be so much easier to say “he’s just hurried through the poles this way, but it’s ok because he did the exercise more or less correctly.” But the point of the exercise is to bend and push from behind, and I’m doing us both a disservice by letting him cheat by going fast and counter-bending/falling in.

Melting down coming out of the turn and suddenly my reins are way too long so they’re in my lap so I’m pulling weird so he’s melting down so my hands are farther in my lap and on and on.

We had to compromise with a nice left lead canter and getting through the turn without an explosion, and then a quiet easy trot through the poles after going around and around and around. If I’m being honest, that still sounds like making excuses, but I’m mostly sure I made the right choice for the horse I had that day. I’d already lost his brain, and the exercise was something to be stressed about in his mind no matter how many times he did it nicely to the right. He was so stressed out about the whole exercise, he wouldn’t even take a cookie while I was on him.

I think most of us are probably fairly goal oriented just based on the sport we pursue, and I can’t be the only one that has trouble balancing “This is what I set out to accomplish today.” and “This is what my horse can do today.” And more than that, it really can be hard to know just how far to push, and how to find that balance between not making excuses for yourself or your horse, yet still being fair and willing to compromise on their best efforts.

Do you struggle with making excuses for your horse and then having to buckle down to get past things you’ve let slide for too long? How do you determine the difference between a tantrum and a true, can’t-push-anymore meltdown? And am I the only one who constantly waffles back and forth between being fairly confident in my riding and feeling like my horse would be so much better off with someone better than me?

13 thoughts on “Balance and Compromise

  1. You are def not alone here. My ride with my mare on Saturday was terrible. We could not even manage a nice relaxed walk. That is really all I wanted anyway. I had to take what I could get and try not to die over it. I went back out yesterday after work and had an amazing ride. Felt absolutely redeemed. I have been doing the excuses thing because I feel like I do not ride enough…because I can’t. She usually puts her foot..er hoof down when I push too much on something and I generally get the message. We have gotten that communication pretty solid. I generally assess what I have in the both of us that day when I can ride and go from there. Try not to have expectations that can be crushed. Try to make progress in something. The fact is that it is 2 individuals that have days sometimes. We were both having a day Saturday.

  2. Honestly I’ve found that when my horse starts to say no, it’s usually because I’ve either asked too much (in which case it’s usually obvious), or he hurts somewhere. The deep footing thing you’re talking about perked my ears up especially, because every horse I’ve had/known that really struggled in deep footing had something going on in the hind end. The contact thing ties to that as well. Going properly on contact requires a lot more hind end engagement/lifting of the back, so a lot of those evasions can be because of a physical issue. If I hadn’t realized that, and kept pushing him, it likely would have resulted in a meltdown when he got frustrated at being unable to comfortably do what I was asking. Henry has had both of those issues (deep footing and contact), and both have improved greatly as we’ve addressed what’s going on in his hind end. Just a thought.

    1. That is good thinking, and something I’ve kind of gone back and forth on just because it’s inconsistent. He feels really even, and some days he’s weirder than others. It’s probably worth digging into more though, especially since Val and Henry have had a lot of similar issues.

      1. Henry never looked or felt uneven either. I could just tell he was underpowered from the hind end in general, like something wasn’t connecting. He felt “blocked”, so to speak. But like Val, some days were better or worse than others.

  3. Jenn

    Literally JUST had this happen over the weekend with Roger. For whatever reason, Roger decided that Saturday was not his day, so after a “discussion” about spooking in which I almost got dumped (Roger is not normally a spooky horse), I just schooled some flat work in the ring and asked for things I knew he could do: large trot circles and loopy trot serpentines, and large canter circles with trot-canter transitions up and down. I didn’t try trotting/cantering poles, or flying changes, or any walk-canter transitions because I knew that would pick a fight. Luckily Roger mostly returned to earth on Sunday, but he simply could not horse on Saturday. That behavior was totally uncharacteristic for him, so I just chalked it up to him waking up on the wrong side of the stall.

    Like you said, some days you just have to make the best choice for the horse you have under you, regardless of what you had initially planned to accomplish pre-ride. I think Val is definitely lucky to have you 🙂

  4. Karen M

    I have been through a lot of “meltdowns” with Eli … I can relate. Getting through most of it has had more to do with addressing issues with the vet than anything else. We still have bad days, but they are much fewer than in the past. Keeping him comfortable has made for a very willing work partner. I think it’s pretty much a theme with thoroughbreds.

  5. Debbie Follman

    IMHO… you have done the imposible with type A personality horses, persistance is one of your admired qualities, Val seems to be your teenager.. thinking he will listen and hear what he wants and them hands over ears.. you will succeed, i know you will. You are so into the mind of horses… you will find a way, as your relationship grows and he trusts more, he will make an effort, scared or not to follow your lead.. you never imagined you could connect with a certain horse enough to canter tackless… but the trust and the feeling was there.. you both performed for each other.. ( and here i am still trying to get the left lead… after what 17 years? Lol !

  6. I love excuses, but they prohibit growth… in all areas in life. It’s a hard but mature thing to be self aware enough to identify what’s an excuse, and doing so makes everything more possible!

  7. yea i definitely struggle with finding that balance between ‘patient but firm’ and ‘picking my battles.’ on one hand i hate how often i settle for mediocre rather than risk rocking the boat (even when better work is within reach!), and on the other hand, it’s totally counter productive to make a big deal out of insisting on something that, in the grand scheme of things, is only secondary to the greater purpose. regardless, it’s even harder to figure out the right course of action while in the moment too.

  8. I think you have a particularly sensitive guy and you are handling it really well. (If that footing is deep, he should ride in my indoor…) You can’t make excuses, but you do have to keep in mind that he’s an animal and his mood and abilities will fluctuate from day-to-day. Funny, that sounds a bit like humans too! Ha! You are doing a great job at improving as a team.

  9. It can be so difficult to decide when to push for “greatness” or accept that you should just quit on a good note and go for a hack. My guy is very sensitive, so I think that makes it even harder to distinguish temper tantrum from “no I really can’t do this.” I just take it day by day and try to read him the best I can. I also try to read how I am doing that day (am I being impatient, tired, etc?) and decide if it’s worth pushing through. Regardless I always try to end on a good note, even if its just WTC without getting bucked off!

  10. Re: your last phrase: Val is very very lucky to have you. I’ve saved a post that Danny Emerson shared once about how our horses don’t care about blue ribbons or “potential,” they care about grass and feeling safe. I pull it up whenever I have the same feeling of “my horse could do better with someone else” and need the reminder. I don’t think anyone could ever accuse you of not putting Val’s wellbeing first on your priority list and that’s really what it comes down to in my book!
    Re: the rest of your post, I think this is interesting. We have baby TBs at the barn that we’ll have fairly novice riders get on, so the TBs can get used to less-than-perfect riders. Their careers will be as mounts for kids and ammies, so part of their training is learning to soldier through rider mistakes (within reason, of course). It’s such a tough balance though- when to push and say “this is something you have to learn to deal with” and when to say “you’re right, this is too much for you right now.”

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