It never gets old. Maybe it owes to some obsessive wiring I have, but I could find satisfaction schooling shoulder-in every day. The finesse and precision and challenge of it never tire me. Fortunately for my horses, though, I’m prudent not to indulge that satiating sameness day after day. I’ve come to accept this as a crucial element in responsible stewardship of horses.
So much of the time without realizing it, we humans repeat exercises and training concepts more for our own sake. But we convince ourselves we’re doing it for our horses. For instance, I had a student who swore her Quarter Horse gelding was afraid of tarps. She believed the sight and sound of the plastic startled him. So she set about walking over, around, and near tarps on a weekly basis, long past the point her horse had grown so bored with them that he shuffled over them half asleep. My student still insisted on the consistent tarp practice, failing to recognize that it was for her own sake, and a phobia she had developed, not for her horse.
Another student committed to refining her groundwork with her horse well past it being already very solid. Almost daily, she put her horse on a 12-foot line and trotted her around in circles ad nauseam, changed directions, made more small circles. After six months, the horse could have done it in her sleep. The mare was uninterested, un-challenged. Some days she acted out; other days she offered hardly any effort. I encouraged my student to see that it was time to leave behind this foundational phase of training and move on. Otherwise, negative outcomes can result from horses performing by rote. The clever ones can begin entertaining themselves with games that turn in to behavioral problems; the quieter ones can become duller, detached.
I make this point not to poke criticism. I, too, catch myself wanting to practice the same exercise or routine with militant regularity until I catch that I’m doing it for myself and not for my horse. This brings up an open-ended philosophical conversation about training horses. Mainly, do we have a responsibility to continually engage our horses and leave behind exercises that have grown comfortable like a pair of bed slippers? Or is it okay to focus on the same things again and again?
It might be that there is no overarching imperative to this question. Where a person stands on this might be entirely individual. But what matters is that we DO stand on it. To be a clear and responsible leader for your horse, you need to have a plan. That plan needs to take an honest look at your approach to your riding and training. Do you tend to focus on things that you need or desire or have made habit? Or are you always assessing and adjusting the arc of your horse’s development?
In my own personal approach, I say, yes, responsible stewardship involves helping our horses to the next step and the next and beyond, improving them in every physical and emotional way we can. This means, as difficult as it can be, leaving behind each training stage as you out-grow it. On this point, I want to cite the succinct advice of jumping trainer and Olympian Peter Leone. He summed up what I view as an ideal approach to owning, training and enjoying horses. In his book “Show Jumping Clinic” he writes:
“It is our job to establish a routine and at the same time make the daily ride interesting to our horses. Always try to reinforce with routine and stimulate with the unexpected. Each ride should combine a mixture of expected daily exercises with unexpected questions.”
When I first read this a few years ago, I felt a clear commitment rooting in me, one that requires daily focus. By sticking to this philosophy, we avoid the behavioral challenges and performance plateaus that result from boredom, disinterest, or dullness. While I still enjoy schooling shoulder-in whenever the horse might need it, I avoid schooling repetitively or comfortably past any point of value. I encourage you to reflect on this in your own riding life.
Jec Ballou utilizes foundational dressage movements to enhance your riding experience across any riding discipline. She is a proponent for understanding proper movement through an environment that prioritizes kindness to the horse. www.jecballou.com.
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