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The world of thinking people creates thinking horses…

Anyone who has heard me teach or read articles I’ve written are by now familiar that I use the term “It’s the thought that counts,” as a way to sum up the mental availability we are seeking in our horses. But, we cannot achieve that in our horses until we find it within ourselves. Just the words “mental availability” can overwhelm a lot of people. What is that? Why do we want it? It all stems from years and years of riding (without knowing it) being mentally unavailable and riding “shut down” horses. They looked okay, they tolerated me, sort of, and they performed to the least the minimum necessary levels, so why “rock the boat?”

I had never approached a horse before a ride and had thought, “Where’s your brain today?” As I worked on the ground or warmed up a horse I never noticed things like his ears, the worry lines above his eyes, the wrinkles from stress on his bottom lip, his inconsistent breathing, the inconsistency in the size of his steps, the tightness in his back, if he was moving as if he were on a tightrope or more like he’d had a few beers, if his tail was clamped down against his hindquarters, if the muscles along the underside of his ribs was engaged in a resistant manner, if he was turning left but “quietly” leaking out towards the right, the degree of his “heaviness” or subtle resistance against my aids because eventually he’d get the job done. And for me, whether it was racehorses to Three Day Eventing horses to Jumpers to Dressage horses to young horses, as long as I kept one leg on either side and we managed to “survive” any negative portion of the ride that was good enough. I had no standard other than performing “close enough” to the ideal (which was a very broad spectrum to measure the quality of a ride by.)

It NEVER occurred to me that the note I was finishing on today was going to affect tomorrow’s ride. I never imagined I was there to HELP my horse, but rather it was a dictatorship, which sadly too many times led to constant badgering from me towards my horse on all of the things he WAS NOT doing right. I NEVER assessed my horse from the ground before the ride. Fussing, fidgeting, pawing, and spookiness were all NORMAL parts of working around horses, right?

There was never room for my horse to have an opinion, because they only opinion I ever saw was not a good one, such as when he refused a jump or behaved like an “idiot” on the trail with a group of horses. It never occurred to me that there could be a quality TWO WAY conversation.

To me training with the mentality I’ve described above was an uphill battle as you can imagine. Theoretically we all talked about the ideal ride, the soft, light, balanced, supple and collected horse, but reality included whips, spurs, martingales, severe bits and other “torture” devices so that we could manhandle the horse into eventual submission. If this didn’t work, the animal was deemed a bad horse, and you got another one.

So long story short it took a lot of re-evaluating everything I thought I knew and having to spend many hours assessing, questioning and thinking about ME and what I was doing. For me it will be a forever ongoing process, which is exciting because you never know how “far” on the journey of quality time with the horses can bring you.

And this all brings me to a funny little story; it’s moments like what I’ll describe below that makes it all worth it. The occasions that catch you off guard, the ones where an accumulation of the hours, energy, and effort pay off with simple experiences that leave you smiling with that warm and fuzzy feeling for a long time.

I was heading out of town and was moving all of the horses off of the property to another facility where they could be turned out for the week I’d be away. But instead of hooking up my big trailer, I figured I’d make two trips with the smaller trailer which is a slant load with dividers.

I’d already loaded two horses that were waiting patiently with their dividers closed and the main rear trailer door was left open as I headed out to the infield to catch several other horses to be moved. I noticed one of the loose horses in the field Pico, a colt that had been orphaned that I’d adopted years before, went galloping up towards the trailer area and a pasture I’d left open. Not thinking much of it I caught the two horses I planned on moving and headed back to the trailer and was just thinking, “I wonder where Pico went?” as I didn’t see him. As I came into view of the trailer from the rear, there was Pico who had self loaded himself. He wasn’t just standing in the trailer, but he was lined up as close to the divider (ahead of him) as he could be so that I could easily shut him in with the next divider. I laughed out loud and while still standing outside of the trailer I asked him to look at me, which he did, and then asked him to come to me, he promptly took one look, and then dramatically turned his head to line up straight staring out the window in front of him. Ok, fine, he was going anyways so what would it hurt?
"Pico" at 3 months

So without a halter or anything else on him, I shut Pico in with the divider, loaded the remaining two horses and was on my way. I arrived at the next facility and began unloading horses. By the time I got to Pico I slipped in under the divider and threw a lead rope around his neck, opened the divider and slowly back him out, one step at a time, asking him to pause and stay focused on me and what we were doing rather than getting distracted by the horses running around loose and making noise in the pasture next to us. So one step (literally) at a time he unloaded and quietly was turned out in the pasture.
"Pico" at his first Ranch Roping age 4

I didn’t for a moment ignore the obvious safety issues and all that could have gone wrong by doing what I did with my horse; but this was balanced out by years of creating a trusting relationship with two way communication. I had a sliding scale and bucket of “tools” to communicate to Pico with. This came from the time and effort I’d invested in working with my horse in order to create a foundation with which the underlying fundamental was that anything I presented, no matter if we had done it before or now, my horse had to stay mentally available to try. This in turn led to a building of the horse’s confidence and ability to make his own decisions, in this case self loading into the trailer, and not just keep the natural “follow the herd” mentality, but at the same time being able to maintain availability towards me as we unloaded by waiting and for me to offer when and how he moved in and outside of the trailer.

Now I know there are plenty of horses who load quietly and of course plenty who don’t. But my point was how many people have ever created the opportunity for the horse to make a decision- and feel good about it- while the horse still retained the ability to hear what the person was communicating rather than just completely taking over? For me that’s the point. No matter what is presented, whether we’ve done it before or not, (Pico had never done this before) my horse needs to participate and think of how to behave reasonably with an intentional manner. It’s those scenarios that build the confidence for a horse like Pico to come up with the idea that he too, wanted to go, wherever the trailer might have been going. The two horses in trailer weren’t even his pasture buddies and there were other horses loose that he could have easily stayed out grazing with. But HE made a choice to participate. And moments like that, are the ones that make it all worth it!

As the song says “Little moments like these…”


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