What We Know

Find a field. Photo by Holly Covey.

I’m sitting here, waiting on slow internet, wasting life minutes, and I always think about my horses, and what I can do when I get home, and what I should work on when I ride today, etc. And, of course, thinking is often dangerous with an eventer … and I wonder, what do I really know — I mean REALLY know — about my horses and how to train them?

When you have a super lesson with someone, even if it’s a friend or nobody special bigtime Team rider, and have a breakthrough, you think, “Ah ha! This is it! I’ve unlocked the secret of the universe!” because that’s how it feels to have a lightbulb moment in your riding.

Taking a quick trip down memory lane, a lot of my lightbulb moments have come NOT in the clinics with the BNTs. But most have come very unexpectedly at unlikely times. At home, schooling in the rain. Sitting on a cold bench in the wind listening to a coach patiently work with a frazzled rider in the warmup ring at an event. Cantering around aimlessly schooling a cross country course on my own. It’s like you get into some kind of zone where the advice all of a sudden makes sense.

I wonder if all along the horses ALL have Grand Prix, Advanced level, or five-foot jumping in them, locked away, and our job as feeling, thinking riders is simply to unlock the locks and find the talent. I know that isn’t actually always true, but I am not sure if my horses don’t know that.

I have a horse that four years ago we thought would only make a foxhunter. Then we thought he’d be a great showring hunter. Now he’s loving — LOVING — the dressage. It took a solid month of INSISTING he go on the bit, and at times, I was really sure if I was doing the right thing. But once he finally understood the meaning of what I wanted, he embraced it. Really embraced it. Offering to go on the bit. Looking for the contact and the assurance. Looking for the support. Seeking my help to balance. I was very unsure — about 50/50 — as to whether I should continue in the first month of working on him. Then once we gradually started to trust each other, it became clearer and clearer that it was what I needed to do.

I don’t know why I persisted, being so unsure. After all, the last time I was unsure I fell off and tore my knee to shreds and cost me a year of rehab. This time I had a little nagging thing in the back of my mind that just kept me to task every time I rode him — ask ask ask, it said — and the horse responded. It’s hard to do that. I didn’t know what the outcome might be. I hoped.

Horses offer these snippets of understanding, these tiny moments of correctness, probably more often than we all know. We are too ignorant or blockheaded or insensitive to see or feel them, and for that, we ask their forgiveness regularly. (Peppermint treats help with that feeling, my horses report.) I wonder what we really know about them, and I wish that I had the book or manual for each horse I ride. What a great day it would be to sit on a horse and know exactly what to do.

There are a couple of things I can offer. Marilyn Payne said in a podcast about judging dressage tests, that “horses can only think of one thing at a time.” I try to remember this every time I ride through my gate to my arena. And another saying from a dear friend who has been messing with horses as long as I have: “You have to be a student of the Long Road.” I remember this when I am frustrated with not getting a result from an aid. And another, from a late friend, which has been long quoted among us oldtimers, “make mistakes going forward.” I think of this when I feel like I am in slow motion and not going anywhere.

So the answer to “what do we know?” is it’s all there, we just uncover it as we go. The horses have it in them. We have to find it. The answer is not buy another horse, try draw reins, change the trainer. The answer is in us. Go somewhere, study, listen, ride by yourself out in a big field and talk to your horse and tell him your secrets. He will let you know what you need to know.