Dial it in baby
During my days of riding on a small island in the BVI, I was blessed to work with several Paso Fino horses all day long. What a life, right? The mornings were always the best time for me because it wouldn't be too hot for the horses or me to work out in the blazing sun. By 11 am, I wanted to be finished with any hard work for the horses. After that, I worked on exercises that required less energy from them. Sometimes hosing them down and bathing them was the extent of our afternoons together. In the early morning hours, that was when we had time to work on the fun stuff! After morning chores and everyone had their breakfast and supplements for the old guy, I would saddle up and get riding. I look back on that time and realize I knew nothing about training horses, but boy, was I ever so excited to try. I haven't changed a bit.
Off I went with this one sweet boy who had a history of bolting with people. I actually watched him bolt with a visiting trainer and fall because she had to stop him some how or he might have ran her right into a tree. She used a one rein stop and he just flipped. I thought to myself, "holy cow, did that just happen?" I was so happy when she got up and said she was ok, and I looked him over and he was ok too. Well, later on, it was just me, no other trainers and I thought, I'm just going to listen to this horse. What does he need from me? I noticed how much he would tense up if I squeezed my reins just a fraction. I noticed he would tense up when I asked for a stop. It was weird to me and yet, I knew if we didn't get through this, he may bolt and run through the "bush" with me aboard his back, or worse, someone else. I studied my ass off watching cowboys talk of a soft feel, listening for the change, and doing what's good for the horse. At one point, I didn't think I was good enough to do anything for this horse but take good care of him and that would be as far as it would go. I watched videos of trainers who would actually ask a horse to bolt - really egg them on in the round pen and then turn them into the wall. I thought about all of this for a long time while this horse and I would take long walks up the mountain together. I would let him eat a little grass. We would stand there and listen to the waves of the ocean come in and go out. Just the two of us up there. We spent many hours walking together just like people do with their dog. And then one morning I showed up at the pastures and said to myself, "this horse has a lot to offer. He's smart, kind, and with support, he can get over this. He needs to trust me and I need to trust him." With that, I saddled him up and did not put a bridle on him. We went into the round pen and warmed up a little. He was a saint. He did everything I asked with the tiniest of cues, just like we had been practicing. I got on him and rode him around the round pen without a bridle. I asked for a stop with my body and he stopped. I asked for a turn with my leg and he turned. I asked for a canter, and he did - even though he's gaited, he can still canter. I remember breathing in deep and he let out a big sigh. I opened the gait and said, "Alright boy, I trust you, let's go up the mountain." He was game for this and went out of the round pen like we had done it a thousand times. As we walked up the mountain along this long dirt road, he was as relaxed as a old horse on a sunny afternoon. I kept quiet and let him relax into his gait. I asked him to stop and gave him enough line so that he could eat grass. He dove into that grass like it was brownies on my birthday. I could sense he was incredibly happy about this. We got about a half mile away from the pastures where he lived and then we turned around. At this point things usually went south for this horse. If I remember correctly, somebody thought it was fun to let him gallop home and so he was technically just doing what someone else had encouraged him do to. The problem with that was he was taking things into his own hands and forgetting about the rider now. Then the rider would get nervous because of the change in his energy which would in turn make him even more nervous. All those nerves out on a mountain trail, alongside the ocean on an island where there wasn't easy access to medical attention created a recipe for disaster in a rider's mind - and apparently his mind too. So, we turned around and walked about ten feet and stopped to eat some grass. I praised and praised him for his relaxed posture pointing in the direction of "home". We'd walk some more and do the same thing, over and over for that half a mile back to the pastures. It was a very nice ride. We did that exact ride every day for two months. It was so much fun for me. No bridle, no bit. Just him and me.
I developed such a connection with this horse that we started doing some incredible riding. I loved to hear his 4 beat gate along the dirt road. I loved how we weaved through the palm trees at a speed I never thought I could ride. He was incredibly fast and would do anything I asked. I had never experienced that kind of connection with a horse before. I was always under the impression that the types of horses that did that kind of work for a human had someone spend thousands of dollars for trainers and had the pedigree of champions. Boy, was I ever wrong about that. It had nothing to do with those things. It was all about time and connection, listening to each other and the willingness of both of us to try something different. Being "dialed in" could be about anything where honest, humble focus is required. My search for this connection has led me to Magic - my current heart horse. Once again, when him and I ride, there is no other way to describe it, we're dialed in. I spent years training Magic and it was worth every minute. I love how much we trust each other. He knows without a doubt that I would never put him in a bad situation. I know he would do the same for me. The next time you want to spend time with your horse, ask yourself, "what's one small step I can take today to make our connection stronger?" You might be surprised what comes to mind. For me, there is nothing like it in the world. If you own a horse, I promise, once you feel it, you will never be the same. :)