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We Are Flying Solo

May 9, 2011

Today's Horse Is Not Yesterday's Horse Is Not Tomorrow's Horse

Talking to a friend the other day.  She was having an SFH day & fancied herself failing at progressing with her partner. I think this is something we all struggle with.

angry man graphic
I told her to take a deep breath. It's dressage. We generally always feel like we're failing at that, so it's totally normal.

If your shoulders ache & you feel like you want to scream & you call your horse very nasty are in good company (or at least my company, whose quality may at times be questionable, but is, on occasion, quite entertaining).

The Hard Lesson That Forward Is Sometimes Backwards

It is easy to get lost in the details of training.  The one thing you can count on is that it will never proceed in a straightforward, linear fashion.

We think, "Well, I have taught Dobbin skill X (say, not trotting around like a freaking giraffe), so Dobbin should therefore perform skill X whenever I ask him to." The knowledge has been implanted in his pea brain, so let's move on. Right?

Assume Stands For...?

Dobbin will, some days, spontaneously forget that you have ever ridden him.  The next day, you will swear he is the second coming of Ravel.  The day after that, well, he will probably be lame, so you won't have to worry about it.  He is a horse, after all.

doing it wrong photo
We, too, may spontaneously forget how to ride.  I may be cursing Solo's very name wondering why he won't stay soft in the bridle.  Only to find that my arms are clenched in a steely death grip & I'm leaning forward.  Oops.

How, then, are we ever supposed to make progress in light of this maddening, meandering "process?"

Take Heart

  • You are NEVER alone.  Every single person out there trying to teach a horse something is going through the same thing.  If they say they haven't, they are a flat liar.  And it doesn't just happen once.  It happens over & over & over & over.  And then it happens again.
  • Patience posterThe very fact that your horse displays resistance can mean that you are challenging him.  This is a good thing!  You cannot make progress unless you push the boundaries a little.
  • Staying patient & riding through are EXTREMELY hard skills to master.  But they do come with practice.  Solo is a jedi of the redheaded temper tantrum & he can raise my blood pressure to the stratosphere.  But I have more tools than he does; I have flexions & transitions & laterals & all kinds of instruments of sandbox torture that will eventually either distract him or wear him out.  All I have to do is...

The horse you are sitting on will change every single day.  If you try to ride Yesterday's horse today, your chances of success are slim.  As soon as your butt touches that saddle, you have to ride Right Now's horse.

assess adapt evolve and repeat
The Answer?  Adapt

Very often, I go in the arena, thinking, "Well, Yesterday Solo had some really nice canter transitions, so today we'll add lateral work at the canter."  Only to find out that Today Solo has forgotten how to do a downward transition without snatching the bit out of my hands.

I must then alter my ride plan to set up Today Solo to succeed.  Tomorrow Solo might suddenly remember lovely transitions but decide he's just not feeling shoulder-in.

In biology, we call this adaptive management: change the plan on a continuum, based on feedback from the data you have now.  The more data you gather, the more you tweak & tailor your plan.  It prevents us from becoming mired in a static process that "seemed like a good idea at the time."

Be willing to adapt to the Today Horse.  Never be afraid to ask for help.  And never forget to step back & breathe.

If It Was Easy, We'd Run Out Of Blue Ribbons

Horse training is a little bit science, a little bit art, a little bit luck, & a whole lot of trial & error.  Each horse is different; what is easy for one may be very difficult for the next & they all have their unique quirks alongside moments of brilliance.

one day at a timeSo take it one day at a time.  If you feel yourself getting hot under the collar, take a break, take a breath, take stock of who your Today partner is.

The horse doesn't know what your original goal was.  So far as he's concerned, you were planning on taking a quiet hack through the field all along.  Bingo: you both win!


  1. love your attitude towards things! I tend to forget others are goign through the same things I am, and I feel like I am aloneI'm glad to hear someone put it together in words so constructively!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post. What a great reminder. Thank you thank you thank you!

  3. It's like you wrote this post for me. Thanks.

  4. No I think she wrote it for me :)

  5. I get would you tell my husband?! He thinks if we get a great left lead canter today, tomorrow we should move on to something new :)

  6. The breathing part is the hardest.

  7. I agree, lh, it is my greatest struggle. The good news is that it is guaranteed that if you are screaming bad words, you are definitely not holding your breath.

    Kelly, trying printing it on the back of the sports page, maybe?

  8. I'm going to agree with Amy and SprinklerBandit and say this post was like you wrote it for me! I feel like we've taken a large step back in our training, but at least I'm following your advice. It's nice to know we're not alone, thanks!

  9. This came at just the right time. I've had one 'setback' after another lately and really it's just the process that we sign up for when we start training a horse. I find that it's really helpful to look back further than yesterday (or last week or last month) and realize that accomplishments have been made while you weren't even looking.

  10. Hmmm, I am seeing the trend even here -- we ALL experience setbacks ALL the time. But that doesn't mean we haven't made progress over the long haul. We are trying to communicate with a big, dumb animal that doesn't speak English and is afraid of funny-shaped rocks -- so I'd say overall, we do pretty damn good.

  11. Wow, this makes me feel less crazy! LOL!!!
    What an awesome, awesome reminder and I'm literally going to bookmark this post to re-read on days that I need to. Thank you!

  12. Great post. I love your humor!

  13. Well said.. and, if you're riding a mare... absolutely true...! Thanks!

  14. So I opened my mailbox today, and found a large envelope from Solo!! I must say, for having no thumbs, he has very neat handwriting!

  15. molly, that's why he took so long -- he kept messing up and having to start over.

  16. Boy, this makes me feel LOTS better :) My talented mare has a tendency to over-do and dramatize anything she thinks is hard or really different the first time, complete with snorting, squealing and head shaking. I've had to learn to try to be patient and clear and let her figure things out, rather than giving up or "helping" too much. And then I swear, it's like a light bulb goes off over her head, I'm sure she's thinking: "that's it? that was EASY and COOL! what next?"