When it comes to training your horse, it can be all too easy to develop “tunnel vision”. You can become so focused on your competitive goals that you lose sight of what makes you and your horse happy.
HERE’S A TOO-COMMON STORY…
Things are going well with your horse; you have been learning and progressing. He is sound and you are confident, and you are both happy. You decide to put some competitions on the calendar. You are excited and become laser-focused. Your rides get more detailed and precise.
You spend countless hours training, and start keeping your horse in a stall more so he doesn’t play around and get hurt. You are doing well so you start entering more classes and going for championship or year end points. Your instructor suggests some different equipment to make it even easier to get a better result. Your horse is feeling a little tired so you add some supplements. He starts kicking out when you pick up the canter, and “getting after him” doesn’t seem to work so you try a chiropractor, body worker, and then a new saddle.
Eventually, your horse colics. You are losing confidence and doubting that he is the right horse for you. He starts pinning his ears when he sees you, and you are working harder and harder to get less and less out of him. It’s not fun anymore.
At the end of the season, your horse is sore and has ulcers. You feel as if you can’t ride and wonder what went wrong.
LOSING SIGHT OF THE BIG PICTURE
Don’t let the above scenario happen to you! It can, if you lose sight of the big picture. The highly specific focus you need for performance can work against you unless you remember to balance out your horse’s life.
If you are advancing your training in a specific discipline (whether or not you are competing), you have to remember that your horse was born a horse. Horses just want to be safe, comfortable, able to move, graze and be social, and have enough variety in their lives to keep things interesting. We humans are the ones who decided they must be jumpers, dressage horses, reining horses or driving horses.
Having specific goals is a great way to measure your progress. But the goal of a horseman in any discipline is to have a happy horse that understands and can be successful at what we choose to do with him.
Top training facilities often model a very narrow focus. They may even call themselves “jumper barns” or “dressage barns”. Horses get little or no turnout, and are always alone. They go from the stall to the grooming stall to the arena and back to the stall. The only thing they “do” is the sport they are in. Problems such as weaving or cribbing can become commonplace. Sadly, this can be seen as “normal”.
This is not a normal life for a horse. It may be a short-term scenario, but it’s not a long-term management style.
CREATING A HAPPY ATHLETE
As a horse caretaker, you need to take responsibility for preserving balance in your horse’s life, and your laser-focused training sessions should be just one small part of that life.
Your horse cannot balance his life himself — you need to do it for him. It’s helpful to have some guidelines:
Start with happiness. Know what makes horses happy, and what makes your particular horse happy. All horses, by nature, want to feel safe and comfortable. They want to be able to graze, socialize, wander, and investigate things.
If you and your horse are happy, you can better harmonize. Take care of your partnership. Solve the areas where you and/or your horse feel tension or anxiety around one another. When you do that, you’ll experience higher quality communication, which will enable you to better apply the techniques necessary for your specific sport.
At the end of the day, you want your horse to feel happy, and to understand and get along with you. You want to be successful doing your exercises so you can be confident and progressive in your sport.
SEEING THINGS FROM YOUR HORSE’S PERSPECTIVE
Pretend your horse is writing his autobiography. What would he say? How would he describe his life with you? Would it be a comedy or a tragedy? Playing this little game can help you take a best guess at what life must be like for him.
At the very least you will discover what you already know, deep down — that you need to change or improve. You are your horse’s life manager. He cannot do it for himself. It is very possible to have a happy, healthy horse that loves his life and excels in his sport. You just need to keep your — and most importantly, your horse’s — life in balance!