Most of my time is spent working with young and inexperienced horses, which means every single day is different — new challenges arise, new equine opinions develop, and there’s a constant feeling of two steps forward, one step back.
As a serial planner, I like to know what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it. I have to fight that urge to have everything mapped out, as when working with horses, almost nothing goes ‘to plan’.
There are days when I fully intend to back a horse, only to realize they’re exceptionally cranky that day, or an unusually tense horse as a result of a windy day interferes with our goal of developing a flying change.
Of course, learning to work despite challenges that arise is critical — no atmosphere will ever be perfect, and you certainly can’t control what’s going to happen. I am a firm believer in helping horses develop emotional control as a way to ensure continued progress despite challenges. (You can read more about the concept of emotional control in my previous article!) That said, it’s just as important to set yourself — and very importantly, your horse — up for success. Forcing a tense or unwilling horse to learn something new will only hinder the learning process itself, making the work unproductive… or destructive.
My students can confirm that I frequently talk about managing expectations. Considering the larger environment in which you’re working and keeping the bigger picture — of your progress, and steps towards your goals — in mind will allow you to remain flexible on the days when things don’t click in the way you anticipate.
Instead of forcing that new flying change on a spooky day, try to set a new goal for the day. Maybe you aim to instead find relaxation in a flat ride. Setting a more realistic goal for that particular day allows the horse to find success, even if it’s not the expectation you first had. The ride is still a productive win, while continuing to move forward towards what you originally had in mind. Rewarding and celebrating the horse overcoming something that they perceive as difficult will further develop the partnership in a way where they learn they can (and want to!) cooperate even when other factors aren’t ideal. This will help you nail that flying change the next time, with or without distractions.
Progress is not linear. It’s a long and windy path, especially when working with animals. Learning to allow myself to be comfortable with changing plans in order to productively work with horses in training has allowed me to meet my horses where they are that day. Meeting my horses where they’re at has allowed me to come into and out of each training session positively, while still moving in the direction we’d like to go without compromising the horses’ curiosity, softness, and willingness to participate.