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.
-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.
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.
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.
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?