Old Humans, New Tricks?

Horse people can be so impatient. They want their skills and their horses’ training to progress on a predetermined schedule, often based on a competition calendar or a chronological list of some kind.

This is a mindset I used to endorse, but which now just makes me smile. (Sometimes grimace, sometimes chuckle.) Why? Because I know that developing a physical, mental and emotional partnership with a horse is a process, not an event. You can’t just complete a set number of lessons or schooling sessions or shows and then declare that you are “there,” that you are now an accomplished horseman or horsewoman.

You can try, of course, but I’m betting your horse will have something to say about your personal milestone. And it might just not be what you want to hear.

When I ran a traditional lesson and training barn years ago, prospective clients almost invariably asked during our first conversation, “How long will it take before I can jump?” That usually came after they had told me at length how many lessons they had taken with which trainer or how many times they’d been on a dude-string trail ride or some such. At first I made the mistake of trying to give them an estimate based on what they had told me about their past experience. (This was before I learned that almost everyone inflates his or her experience at first!)

After I wised up, my standard answer was, “Anything from six lessons to six years.” That tended to be followed by a moment of mutual silence, which I generally followed with a laugh and the statement that although I was joking, I was also serious. This led to an explanation that every rider and every horse progresses at a different rate, and that my focus was on teaching good basic skills to keep both members of the partnership safe, sound and happy. The people who just wanted to run fast and jump high never called back. A good number of the sensible folk who actually wanted to learn to ride as well as they could showed up and generally did stay safe, sound and happy. Seemed like a fine business model to me, and it still does.

This approach does, however, present more of a challenge than you might think. Over the years a number of older riders, those lovely folks who take up riding in their 40s or 50s or even 60s, have lectured me about my firm insistence that they practice and master all the basic skills. One particularly prickly older gentleman got quite heated during a session in which I was focusing on improving his abysmal sitting trot despite his wish to lope circles at varying speeds. He informed me in no uncertain terms that at his age he didn’t have time to trot around and around until he was no longer bouncing on his poor horse’s back like a sack of potatoes. (Okay, my words, not his!) He was only interested in practicing the skills he needed to go work cattle. I was being unfair to him, wasting his precious riding time on things he didn’t like to do.

My response was that while I understood his sense of urgency, it wasn’t really relevant. The one who was putting up with his rotten seat was his horse, and she didn’t care how old he was. In order to work with her, instead of hindering and annoying her, there were certain things he needed to learn. And he couldn’t learn the advanced skills without mastering the basics any more than he would have been able to read classic literature without first learning the alphabet.  “See Spot Run” before “War and Peace.”

Your horse doesn’t care that a month from now there’s a show, a cattle drive, a group trail ride or your 50th birthday. All he knows is that today, in this moment, you and he need to come together – body, mind and energy – to build on what you learned yesterday and the day before and the day before. Learning is a progression – one thing leads to another leads to another. That’s true for horses and for humans.

And it’s not a straight line, either, no matter what some calendar or checklist might indicate. During the good times, it’s one step forward at a time. In challenging times, it’s one step forward, three steps back. It takes as long as it takes. And if you skip a step along the way? You might get away with it for a while, but I guarantee holes left in the basic skillset will come back to haunt both rider and horse one day.

The Benefits of “Beginner’s Mind”

I just love teaching adult beginners to work with horses. Their sense of awe and wonder at things that are part of my everyday life and work really keeps me seeing with fresh eyes. Everyday interactions with my horses can’t become mundane when students are finding so much to captivate them.

Novice horse enthusiasts have a whole new language to learn when they come to work with the four-legged teachers. For anyone who has spent years at a desk hunched over a computer, getting back in touch with your own body is quite an adventure. Add the horse, the master of body language, into the mix and the lessons are endlessly varied and quite fascinating. And even people whose lives and work keep them in touch with the physical can find insights and new depths in the incredible subtlety of horse speak.

The path from being afraid of horses to riding competently can be enlightening and empowering.

The path from being afraid of horses to riding competently can be enlightening and empowering.

What, you mean the horse will respond to my tone of voice or energy level? And respectful requests are generally met with more patience and compliance than are demands? And when I figure out how to align my intention with my posture and movement, the horse seems almost to read my mind? Cool!

When grown-ups can come to a new activity with open minds and open hearts, allowing themselves to explore and enjoy new ideas and experiences, they gain so much. Let’s face it, by the time we’re adults, most of us have mastered the skills we need in our everyday lives – or at least learned to fake it well enough to get by just fine. We do our jobs, we manage our households, we participate in our relationships, and we run the risk of becoming stale and stuck.

Taking a break from all that familiar competency to spend time in the “beginner’s mind” can be very freeing. Really, how long has it been since you tried something you were bad at, just because you had never done it before? What did you gain by taking the time to study and practice and get better? Even if you didn’t ever really master the skill, or you decided it wasn’t quite the thing for you, wasn’t just doing it was good for you on many levels?

I do think that lifelong learning keeps us young and interesting and keeps those synapses from going all stale and mushy. Brain cells are like muscles, once you get to a certain age. Use them or lose them! So bravo to all the adult beginners out there, being brave and adventurous enough to explore the wonderous world of horses.