Releasing Rewards

I recently ran a quick, informal poll on Facebook.


17 yes votes, 4 no votes, with some voters explaining their answer in comments.

In checking the people that voted, I can affirm that all of them were, indeed, “horse people” – the majority of them lifelong equestrians.

Now, we’ve all heard the joke about discussing things in the horse world: if you ask 2 people, you’ll get 3 opinions. And, sure, there are various ways to clean stalls, braid, even store tack, all with similar successful outcomes. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

There are countless semantic disputes, as well. Chestnut or Sorrel? Sock or Pastern? Or, just ask people to explain words like “impulsion,” “collection,” and, surprisingly, what is and what isn’t a leverage bit. Who knew physics could be subjective? ūüėČ

Some of these debates are amusing, some are downright stupid, but some are troublesome because they aren’t a semantics debate at all, but a fundamental misunderstanding and misuse of a word or term.

And, when it comes to the welfare of animals, I don’t think there is a lot of room for misunderstandings and misuse.

Stu Buck

Stu: You call it a buck, I call it an artistic display of my feelings.


With that said, let’s talk about why releasing rein pressure isn’t actually a reward.


What is a Reward?

Well, Merriam-Webster says it is:

¬†…a stimulus (such as food) that is administered to an organism and serves to reinforce a desired response.

In terms of animal training, a reward is a positive reinforcer. Why is this important? Because Operant Conditioning is happening all the time, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

For those that need a brush up on the 4 Quadrants, here is a simple breakdown:

  • Positive Reinforcement is the¬†addition¬†of something pleasant or desirable (to the learner) in order to increase a behavior
  • Negative Reinforcement is the¬†removal¬†of something unpleasant or undesirable (to the learner) in order to increase a behavior
  • Positive Punishment is the¬†addition¬†of something unpleasant or undesirable (to the learner) in order to decrease a behavior
  • Negative Punishment is the¬†removal of something pleasant or desirable (to the learner) in order to decrease a behavior

For those that prefer a more visual approach, here’s an equine-based graphic, from¬†Fed Up Fred.

Fed Up Fred 4 Quadrants

One thing that I’ve noticed that many people struggle with is the difference between Negative Reinforcement and Punishment (both kinds). Put simply, the goal of Negative Reinforcement is to increase a behavior, whereas Punishment is designed to remove/decrease a behavior.

It’s also important to note that pleasant/unpleasant can be highly individual. For example, Stu really enjoyed playing with the water from a hose. He liked it on his face, he liked lipping at it, and he would constantly move towards a running hose in order to push his head into the stream. But, we’ve all met horses who are not comfortable with water, or certainly not comfortable with water running onto their faces…such horses would not find access to a running hose a reward!


So….what is rein pressure, then?

Well, let’s break it down, shall we?

Does a horse, in his natural state, seek out the presence of a bit, with pressure applied, in his mouth? No. When was the last time you saw a horse stroll into Dover to purchase a bridle? I’d wager never.

So, it’s fairly easy to say that rein pressure, in and of itself, would not be considered a reward.

Without delving too deep into learning theory, I think we can say that rein pressure is, at best (and this is fuzzy) a neutral stimulus, and, more often, an aversive stimulus (something the horse wishes to avoid).


What is the release of rein pressure?


The word¬†release¬†is so relaxing, inviting, and pleasant to our ears, isn’t it? When I hear it, I think of the release of tension through a lovely massage on a spa day.

However, we’ve already determined that rein pressure isn’t something a horse naturally seeks out for pleasure, and, arguably, is probably something a horse would prefer to avoid.

And, if you replace the word release with the word removal, and hold it against the 4 Quadrants, which one(s) does it line up with?

Ah, yes. That word that elicits explosive reactions from people. Negative.

But, is it Negative Reinforcement, or Negative Punishment?

  • Negative Reinforcement is the¬†removal¬†of something unpleasant or undesirable (to the learner) in order to increase a behavior
  • Negative Punishment is the¬†removal of something pleasant or desirable (to the learner) in order to decrease a behavior

I’d say that, when used compassionately and ethically, the release of rein pressure is Negative Reinforcement at work.

For example, in¬†cession de m√Ęchoire, pressure is applied to the corners of the mouth via the bit. When the horse’s mouth becomes mobile, pressure is released. The desired outcome is that the horse continues to have a mobile mouth. We have removed something undesirable (pressure via the bit/reins) in order to¬†increase the desired behavior.

But, as we can now see, the release of rein pressure is not a reward. It is a negative reinforcer. 


Who cares? Why does this matter?


Look, you may not care about this. And that’s your deal. I can’t change your mind. But, if you’ve read this far, and you’re still reading? That encourages me!

At the end of the day, we have to remember that horses don’t¬†have¬†to be ridden, and people don’t¬†have¬†to ride.

And, if you call yourself a compassionate, fair rider/trainer/etc.? Then you owe it to yourself, and your horses, to understand how learning occurs. Otherwise, you’re….well….


Sadly, all too common a mindset…


I am not an animal rights activist, but I am a staunch supporter of animal welfare. And animal welfare needs to encompass more than just food/water/shelter. I think much of the equestrian world believes that expensive vet care, fancy stalls, and lots of treats and “love” are indicators of fair and respectful training. In many cases, said things are used to excuse less-than-ethical behavior by trainers and riders.

At some point, you have to wake up and realize that deep shavings and hugs do not change how a horse learns, nor do they make up for ignorance – willful or not.

But, I get it. It’s hard to question parts of yourself, especially if it means realizing you might have to change the way you think or operate. It’s the backfire effect, and none of us are immune to it!¬†

I am not saying that all Negative Reinforcement is wrong. I’m just saying that we need to respect how a horse learns, and not fall into the trap of calling an apple a birthday cake.

With that in mind, I’m sure your pony would love an apple (or a birthday cake?), so head out there and give him one, from me!


Someday, somehow.

It’s a few days shy of 5 months since I lost Stu. It still feels like yesterday.

In fact, it still doesn’t feel real, some days.

It’s hard to believe I’ll never again see this big hunk of bay attitude trotting up to me in his paddock, or feel his goofy Roman nose pressed against my chest in his version of a hug.

I have been blessed to know a great number of horses, in my lifetime. They have all taught me something, and I have loved each of them. But, there are some that stole away more of my heart than others. Stu was, obviously, one of those horses.

I have always been drawn to the difficult horses. No, don’t roll your eyes, I’m not talking about the hot-heads that just need a quiet seat and soft hand to express their jaw-dropping, innate brilliance. I’m talking about the ones with personalities that rub people the wrong way, the ones that are too dull, the crabby ones, the aloof ones. The ones that frustrate people because they “aren’t a joy to ride,”or because they “aren’t talented enough to be worth the time” it takes to draw out their inner superstar (two real quotes I heard from people, recently).

Stu was one of those horses. When I adopted him, I was made aware that he wasn’t the trainer’s favourite horse, nor had he really clicked with anyone. I was also jokingly advised that he would probably be sorted into Slytherin, when he turned 11. The best description of him, though, was that he was a horse to go on a “horseman’s journey” with, and that suited him perfectly. I’ll never forget how, after I dismounted from our trial ride, he shoved his muzzle into my chest and stood there, stock-still, for many long seconds, and I swear he was looking right into my soul. It was that Black Stallion moment that I’d never believed in.

The first couple of days in my training journal were filled with self-doubt and worry, as I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing right by him; his ego seemed as endless as his talent. But, he always greeted me at the gate of his large pasture, and he had a work ethic that matched mine. There was no quit in that boy. Even at the end, he fought so valiantly for his life that the surgeons and I were amazed at his sheer force of will that kept him on his feet.

Stu reminded me of how deep my well of knowledge is, and made me remember how to dig deeper still when faced with a challenge. He helped me celebrate the small victories, but never lose sight of the big goals. He showed me how to quickly get over the small stuff in life, and demonstrated that confidence is a way of life, not a temporary state. He forced me to keep learning, keep trying, and keep my passion at the forefront of my life.

So, here’s to you, Stu. Your star burned just a little too bright for this earthly realm. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry we didn’t have more time together. But, I promise you I won’t forget you, and that I’ll keep the lessons you taught me close to my heart. I’ll do your memory proud with every horse I work with in the future. And I know I’ll see you again, someday, somehow.


How do YOU listen?

I keep seeing the following quote posted on¬†social media, lately. Every time I see it, I take a moment to evaluate recent interactions with people, to see how I could’ve improved my communication in each situation.


I’ve also heard the concept of”listening to listen vs. listening to answer,” talked about in many leadership workshops, over the years.

Today, though, it dawned on me that it really applies to riding and training, as well.

When your horse has a disagreeable moment, do you immediately reply, or do you take a moment to listen? After all, we know that horses use their bodies to speak to us. I’d say that most of us do our best to evaluate our horse’s health when¬†something seems amiss.

But, do you listen to fix those problems, or do you listen to understand why they happened, in the first place?

Your horse is struggling, so, like a good owner, you have the vet out. They discover a lameness issue, so you immediately treat the problem. After a period of rest and rehab, your horse seems normal, once more.

You pat yourself on the back for being so attentive to your horse’s needs, for picking up on a problem so much faster than less-educated riders. And you return to¬†your schooling regimen.

This scenario plays out over and over again, all over the country – it’s industry standard.

But, here’s the thing: you listened and answered, but did you listen and understand? Did you determine the root cause of the issue? Did you consider the fact that it might be your training¬†methods, riding technique, and/or horse management routine that¬†caused the problem?

I doubt it, because it makes us uncomfortable to think about it. After all, we love our horses, and we subscribe to all the latest “gentle” and “correct” practises. We don’t believe in rollkur, we use a French-link¬†snaffle, and we have padding under our crank nosebands. Our jumpers have fuzzy figure-8’s, colour-coordinated Ogilvy pads, and our hunters follow suit – albeit in more subdued tones. We use what the pros use, we do what the pros do, so clearly our methods are above reproach.

Well, I have a challenge, for you. The next time your horse tells you something is wrong, break out of your safe zone of preconceived notions and your trainer’s opinion, look outside the box, and evaluate everything with an honest eye. Then, allow yourself the room to make changes, if needed.

After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. Isn’t it time to¬†get off that crazy carousel?


Horze Venice Bridle Review

Let me just say that I started out skeptical of this bridle, but I’m glad that I kept it. I’ve had it for about 3 months, now.

When my favourite Nunn Finer bridle was basically stolen from me several years ago, I didn’t see the point in replacing it as I was horseless at the time. However, when Baby Stu came into my life, I realised it was time to bite the bullet and plunge into the world of online tack purchasing.

I knew I didn’t want anything super fancy, nor did I have a need for anything other a plain cavesson. I also knew I wanted it to be brown, with¬†buckle closures, and I really wanted a padded crownpiece with an ergonomic design.

I searched online for several days, mostly lurking on CoTH to read reviews. I’d been strongly leaning towards SmartPak’s Plymouth Elite bridle, but it didn’t come in brown, and I was trying to stay under $100 since it would just be my schooling bridle.

Then, thanks to Facebook’s data mining (lol, funny but not), I suddenly started seeing ads for Horze bridles. One, in particular, kept catching my eye – their Venice bridle.


Horze Venice bridle, horse not included (boo).

It met most of my requirements, and I really loved the stitching detail on the crownpiece. The reviews were mixed, but that’s to be expected with cheap tack.

List price was $79.95, and I received a 15% off code for signing up for their mailing list, so overall total (with 3-day shipping) was $87.91. It shipped within 24 hours of purchase, which I appreciated.

My first impression upon taking it out of the shipping bag was disappointment. It was soft and flexible, but also felt and looked “plasticky,” for lack of a better term. I seriously considered returning it.

I’m dating myself a bit, here, but my last horse’s bridle was under $100, stiff out of the box, but oiled nicely and wore like iron. It was a beast, and I often wish I’d never let it go with my horse to his new owner. It might’ve been plain, but never once did it feel like anything other than nice leather. I guess I need to accept the fact that the Good Ol’ Days of cheap tack are over!

However, Stu arrived 3 days later, so my impatience triumphed over my disappointment, and I decided to keep it so that I had something for him to wear.

I didn’t oil it, as the plasticky feel gave me serious pause. I still haven’t oiled it! Instead, I used some Higher Standards¬†on it, which did soften it and take away a¬†tiny¬†part of the plasticky sensation.


Stu wearing the bridle for the first time – his first impression was “damn, I make this look good!”

Stu has kind of a weird head, and although the MMSC assured me he wore a horse size. I was worried that he might lean towards cob, but this bridle fits him just fine. I found the throatlatch to be pretty generous – in that photo, you can see it’s on the second hole, but even on the third hole it’s still suuuuper roomy. The cheekpieces seemed average to me, and the browband might run a tiny bit big, but it’s definitely not on the small side. the padding on the crown and browband is nice and squishy.

There is a metal button with Horze’s red Z logo on it, on the left side of the browband – I don’t care for that touch, but I also haven’t been bothered enough by it to try to rip it off, or replace the browband, so there’s that. However, it was NOT visible in the website photos, even though they seemed to show the left side of the bridle, so that was a bit misleading.

The buckles weren’t overly stiff or overly soft, and they’ve improved with use. I can’t comment on the noseband as I’ve never used it.

It’s been about 3 months now, and the bridle has definitely grown on me.¬†I take my reins off on a regular basis, and I will say that on one side it’s hard to push the bight all the way into the keeper, but it’s not a huge deal to me. I’m a PC diehard, so I clean my tack after every use, and the bridle has darkened/lost some of the red hue, and softened even more. It still has that hint of plastic to it, but on the bright side it doesn’t seem as susceptible to dirt jockeys, even though Stu is a filthy yak these days and manages to get dirt and dust on everything, Pigpen style.

For an $80.00 schooling bridle, it’s not all that bad. Would I look to Horze for my show bridle, in the future? Probably not – I think I’ll stick with the traditional big brands that we all know and love. But, for future schooling bridles? I might!


Stu’s Fam!

So, let’s talk about Stu’s fam! For starters, his JC name is String Music, and he ran one whole race….where he was dead last until the homestretch, and only passed some horses because they faded due to actually exerting themselves. 

Anyway. Stu’s sire was Street Cry.

What a chunk…

Street Cry won the 2002 Dubai World Cup, the 2002 Stephen Foster Handicap, and placed in the 2002 Whitney Handicap, but he’s probably best known for siring both Zenyatta and Street Sense. He stood at Jonabell Farm, with a $150,000 stud fee, then later stood at the Darley Stud in NSW. Oliver Tait, Darley’s COO, said that he produced “easy horses to train” that were “tough, willing, and genuine.” He was euthanised in 2014 due to a neurological condition, though I’m unsure of the exact condition (would love to know). He sired 7 Grade I winners prior to his death. 

Street Cry goes back to the well-known, polarizing Mr. Prospector, via his sire, Machiavellian. 

The infamous Mr. P.

Mr. Prospector was fast, sired gobs of foals, but is also vilified for passing along crooked legs and soundness issues. With that said, he’s sired some sound ones – Fappiano is a great example of a TB that a lot of us “like to see” in a pedigree when picking a prospect. 

With that said, Machiavellian’s dam, Coup de Folie, was sired by Halo, who was by Hail To Reason, two names I very much like seeing in a pedigree! Granted, they are very far back in Stu’s lines, but I was still pleased to see them. Her dam was by Hoist The Flag, another nice sporthorse name, and by Natalma – who was Northern Dancer’s dam, too. 

Halo / Hail To Reason – both droolworthy, even if Halo was batshit. 

Stu’s damline starts with Contralto, a 2002 model with one start. I can’t find anything on her, other than that, unfortunately. However, what’s so exciting about her is her sire, A.P. Indy.

I see a lot of him in Stu...
A.P. Indy was the 1992 Horse of the Year. He won the Peter Pan Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths, then went on to win the Belmont in 2:26, and eventually the Breeder’s Cup Classic, which was the final race of his career. His dam, Weekend Surprise, also sired Danzig, a name I wish was in Stu’s pedigree. A.P. Indy went on to sire horses such as Pulpit, Rags To Riches, and Bernardini. His sire, of course, was Seattle Slew
Seattle Slew – 1977 Triple Crown winner.

Contralto’s dam was Note Musicale, who was by Sadler’s Wells – yet another great name in a sporthorse pedigree.

Sadler’s wells – such a looker.
Sadler’s Wells won the Irish 2000 Guineas, the Eclipse Stakes, and the Phoenix Champion Stakes. He later went on to be the leading sire in GB and Ireland 14 times, and sired 323 stakes winners! His name is found in several UL event horse pedigrees. 

Two other names way back in Stu’s family are Buckpasser (1966 Horse of The Year), Secretariat (though that’s not surprising, haha).

Of course, you always have to look at the horse in front of you, but there’s something fun about researching bloodlines. 


Willful Ignorance is Destroying Horse Sports

Willful ignorance.

There are a variety of
definitions for this behavior, and it’s pretty self-explanatory, but I think my favourite comes from
Margaret Heffernan, who writes (in her book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril)

that we are sometimes blind in situations where “we could know, and should know, but
don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know

Willful ignorance happens all the time. I’m guilty of it. You’re guilty of it. It’s human nature – we like to be comfortable. The most distressing example of willful ignorance/blindness probably happens within families in regards to child abuse. Once cases break the news, we ask “how could they have been so blind?” Well, willful ignorance is sometimes the reason.

But, what does this have to do with horses, and horse sports in particular?

When I was younger, there were 2 ways to increase your knowledge about horses and riding: read books, and take lessons/learn from someone in-person. I did both of these things, of course, as did many of you, I’m sure.
However, the books were relatively few in number (compared to today), and you either played roulette at your local tack store, ordered a title that looked interesting from one of the few mail-order catalogs that existed, or your heard about a book via word-of-mouth and you ordered it from a local bookstore. We didn’t have the luxury of surfing around Amazon or any other online retailer, back then. Most of my books had photographs in black and white, if they had any images at all – and they were from film photos, not digital ones!

Trainers were sometimes found via the good old phone book, but were also often suggested via word-of-mouth, and by how well their students rode. This is true today, to some extent, but the biggest difference is that it was much easier to hide abusive practices and improper training techniques before smart phones and the internet came along.

Nowadays, though, information is available 24/7 via the internet, and even the quality of books has improved. Smart phones allow us to capture data in the moment, and make it immediately available to the rest of the world. Knowledge that I might not have been able to find at my public library in the 80’s and 90’s is now available for free, and instantly, at the click of a mouse. This is cause for celebration, certainly!

So, with all of this easily accessible information, with all of the videos and photos that we can reach for free online, why is it that horse sports seem to be going backwards in terms of animal welfare and rider/trainer knowledge?

I know I’m not the only person to notice this, but it’s not standard dialogue at most, if any, barns. And I believe that’s because 99% of riders and trainers are willfully ignorant. Let’s apply Heffernan’s definition a little closer to home:

We all could know how the horse’s muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments all work together, and what that means in regards to training methods.
We love our horses, so we should know this information in order to preserve their mental and physical health.
But we don’t, because it’s easier for us to keep using incorrect and potentially harmful methods instead of admitting we might be wrong, and it’s less work to keep using the same method than take the time to expand our knowledge.
And, at the end of the day, none of us want to admit that we might be harming our horses, because that is an uncomfortable proposition…it makes us feel better to ignore this possibility.

Ouch, right? Even worse, is that many people, when presented with reports and information, still turn blind eyes to the problems with their methods via the backfire effect. My favourite one of late is people that continue to argue for the use of certain training gadgets, even when presented with the basic physics that make their very arguments invalid.

All one has to do is look at the recent Adelinde Cornelisse and Parzi situation to see willful ignorance in full-force. It was way easier to shower her with praise for a “great decision” than to call her out for trying to compete an ill horse that was clearly not okay even in the warm-up, because doing so would be uncomfortable for everyone involved – not just Cornelisse herself, but supporters of dressage, in general. It’s never fun when your sport comes under scrutiny for welfare concerns. But, sometimes it happens, and the right thing to do is face the concerns openly and honestly, not sweep them under the rug via spin doctoring.

This sort of behaviour is all over the horse world. It ranges from minor/innocuous (ex. the concept that polo wraps can actually provide support, etc.) to major/abusive (ex. rollkur, LDR, bloody mouths, bloody spur marks, etc.). And I believe it’s one of the reasons we keep seeing so many strange things in the horse world, these days.


But, here’s the good news.
It doesn’t have to be this way!
You have the power to change. Yes, you! And, you have the power to influence other people to change, too, by setting an example and challenging them to do the same.
Double-jointed snaffle

Stop simply parroting things you hear other riders and trainers say or recommend. Question everything!

Have you been using a certain bit for years, and you either can’t remember why, or you use it because you -know- it’s a good bit?

I challenge you to do research on bits and bitting, and – here’s the clincher – to be open minded to ideas and information that are outside your comfort zone. You may walk away from your research feeling the same as you did when you went in. But, be open to the concept that at the very least you’ll walk away with some new knowledge, and you might even have a new point of view on equipment.

The trick is to dig deep! Don’t just read the first “article” you find about French-link snaffles (since that’s the “gentle” bit of the moment), because it’ll just tell you what you’ve been saying for years, and that’s not the point. Keep looking. Keep searching. Don’t just look for information about bits. Instead, research the anatomy of the horse’s mouth, learn where the nerves are in the horse’s face, challenge the claims that bit manufacturers make, think about how you apply rein aids and what effect that has on the bit in the mouth.

Once you find some information, check and see who wrote it. Are they selling a product? Who funded their research? Is the research credible? In other words, be cautious.

It’s going to feel like a stretch. It might feel gross. It will probably feel like a lot of work.

Be open. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very firm in my beliefs when it comes to training methods and equipment. But, on the same hand, I’m also constantly searching and constantly testing my beliefs. It’s the only way to fight the willful ignorance trap.

You might be sitting there, saying “Why bother? my horse is happy, I’m happy, we’re getting good scores, he’s sound….there’s no need!”

If that’s your mindset, well, I can’t change that. I do, however, have to reference Albert Einstein to end this post, though.

You owe it to your horse to know how his body works, and to actually know how your equipment effects him, instead of being a sheep that repeats things you’ve been told by trainers, manufacturers, and other riders.

Stay thirsty for knowledge, my friends!


¬†Okay, so the meme is a little goofy-looking, but it’s still got a great message…

Forget just UL riders – I challenge everyone to do this! And the two
fingers have to be in the location in the photo, not in the natural
hollow/depression formed by the horse’s face. You know, the place where
most people check, where it’s easy to shove fingers into and claim the
noseband is loose? Yeah, not there.

It’s important to remember
that the cavesson lies practically on top of the infraorbital foramen,
which is where one of the branches of the trigeminal nerve emerges. 

Additionally, for those of you that use flashes/drops/figure-8s/etc,
these nosebands lie nearly right on top of another branch of the
trigeminal nerve, which emerges from the mental foramen on the lower
part of the face.Horses also need mobility in their jaw to allow
for normal swallowing, which is a great indication of relaxation.
Because the body is made of connected parts, tension in one area easily
reverberates to the rest of the body.

So, for those of you already riding with loosey-goosey nosebands, I’ll up the ante: take the noseband off, especially you “dressage” riders. The whole point of dressage is lightness and harmony…what better way to show this off than be removing what should be a superfluous piece of tack, in the first place? #ditchthenoseband

Part of our job as riders/trainers/horse lovers is
understanding what powers these beautiful animals, as well as taking
responsibility for the equipment we use and how we use it. It is vital that we don’t lose sight of the ethos of horsemanship.


I was at a horse show, recently, and overheard someone complaining that their horse had “turned into a jerk,” once they went into the ring. The people listening laughed and commiserated with the rider, and I think one of them even scolded the horse in a teasing fashion.

Now, bear with me, here. The rider was being relatively light-hearted, and she certainly didn’t mistreat her horse in any way, at least not that I saw. We’ve all had bad rides, and we’re entitled to complain, aren’t we?

The complaining isn’t the problem. It’s the mindset that’s the problem. Even if it’s said in jest, a statement like this is a bit concerning.

Of course, there are many riders out there who rally behind the flag of The Horse, reminding all of us that horses don’t have to do any of the things we request of them, that we should thank The Horse for being so willing and forgiving, and that we should always look to ourselves before blaming The Horse for (in our eyes) unwanted behaviour.

The problem is that I keep running into riders that repeat this mantra, yet turn around and label horses as jerks, failing to take responsibility when things go wrong during a ride.

There are many reasons why this happens. One of the major ones is probably a chain reaction, where this sort of blaming mentality is passed down from a trainer to a student, who then becomes a trainer, and passes it along to their students, and so on and so on.

I think the root of the problem runs much deeper than that. I think there’s an obvious lack of accountability in society today – all you have to do is open Facebook and you’ll see a tidal wave of posts blaming others for problems, yet how often do you see someone take responsibility for their own actions, via social media? My guess is never.

Workplace problems are blamed on bosses and coworkers, marital stress is blamed on the other partner, canine behaviour problems are blamed on the dog (this is a sneaky one, but isn’t it remarkable how so many dogs out there today are “rescues” that were “abused” and this excuse is used to cover every issue from aggression to inappropriate urination?). The list goes on and on, but it’s a slow waltz to a melody of pointed fingers.

Knock this shit off. Grow up, acknowledge your faults and shortcomings as a rider, as a friend, as a lover, as an employee. And then DO something about them.

Your horse – and the people in your life – will thank you.

Old Memories

Wrote this back in 2006 – found it in my files, recently….

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I heard from my childhood best friend, today – we learned to ride together. I stumbled across a photo of us sitting on a brown and white pinto named Puff, who seemed so gigantic when I was six, but in reality only jumped the gap from pony to horse by one inch. We look like little ragamuffins, both wearing a hodge-podge of makeshift riding gear, things that our mother’s lovingly scoured stores for in an attempt to feed our ravenous appetites for all things equine. Somehow, I ended up with black leather riding boots, that had handsome, brown leather tops ‚Äď the kind you would see in the foxhunting field. But we’re riding Western. And I’m wearing my bicycle helmet. And a childish, crooked-tooth grin that revealed my secret: my soul’s elixir stank of the heady scent of a horse’s sweat, sounded like the dull thud of hooves against earth, and carried the bright sheen of earthy tones – chestnut, bay, buckskin, grey. I’ve been drunk on that dusty and sweet concoction since I was two.¬†

Everything I did invariably led back to horses. Instead of playing with dolls, I played with Breyer models, and my most treasured possession was a Playmobile Riding Stables set, complete with truck and trailer. My trusty steed was my mother’s broom, and I would don my battered, second-hand, black velvet hunt cap, before galloping across the concrete trails of my neighborhood. I insisted my room be decorated in horse motifs, and practically every stuffed animal I owned had four hooves and a tail. I was infatuated.¬†

Later, after moving from state to state, I finally landed the weekend “job” that I had longed for as a young child: every Saturday, from as early as my mother would drop me off, until as late as she’d let me stay, I got to be a Barn Rat. There were several of us, actually, all awkward yearlings trying to find our place in the big herd, some too tall, some too short, but all of us vibrant and running on the exuberant energy of youth. We’d scrub all the tack in the barn, taking the bridles apart and then teaching ourselves how to put them back together correctly, asking the older girls what the different bits were called. It was all fun to us, but the knowledge we gained was priceless. After every piece of leather in the tack room was shining, we were allowed to roam around the barns, sneaking a carrot to our favourite friends, and climbing into stalls where the inhabitant was napping – well, napping until we curled ourselves between their massive legs, leaning back against their warm barrels like they were giant pillows. Or, perhaps we’d race each other to the jumping field, and take turns cantering over the fences in perfect form, prancing and rearing, cavorting like energetic show horses. Those of us that were more daring would make the long trek to the front pasture, and provoke the old longhorn steer that lived there, squealing with laughter as he’d start a lumbering charge at us. We always made it over the fence in time.

Later, though, we were rewarded for our toils of the morning. If you cleaned a saddle, chances were that later that afternoon, you’d be riding in it. One free lesson for every Saturday spent scrubbing leather. Naturally, we all had our favorite mounts, but the amazing part was that among our little pack of Barn Rats, there was never any bickering on who got to ride who, because none of our favorites ever seemed to clash. Megan would ride Cal, Kristin would be up on Obie, I’d be zipping around on Little Bit, Vanessa would be fighting a stubborn Dolly….for an hour each Saturday, these horse belonged to us. We’d proudly fetch them from their stalls, practice our quick-release knots when we tied them to the fence, and then march into the barn to collect our gear. Standing martingale first, over the head, then the saddle pad, always make sure it’s nice and smooth, with no wrinkles. Those of us that were still waiting for those last few inches had to get help when it came to lifting the streamlined English saddles onto our mount’s backs, and it was a given that every single horse was going to hold their breath when we tightened the girth. In the winter we learned to warm up the cold metal bits by holding them under our armpits for a few minutes, or putting them under our shirts; in the summer, we’d dunk them in cool water before slipping them between our horse’s teeth. Buckles, straps, keepers…after a while it becomes a routine, and you don’t have to stare at the mess of leather on your partner’s face in confusion. Two fingers under the noseband, a hand’s width under the throatlatch, unbuckle the halter and grab your helmet: it’s time to ride.

Chubby legs wrapped around even chubbier bellies, stirrup leathers had to be wrapped twice around stirrups in order to accommodate for short riders, tiny fingers struggled to keep closed around the rainbow-reins. We knew little to nothing about influencing our horse’s way of going, save for changes of gait. The main focus was heels down, eyes up, and straight backs. Somewhere in the clouds of dust and flicking tails of a crowded arena, we learned how to negotiate traffic by passing and making circles, how to read the warning signs of a horse that might kick, and how to cope in sticky situations. We all waited with anticipation for our instructor to tell us to canter, because then, for a split second, we were all jockeys on Thoroughbreds, jostling for position at the lead. Of course, we might have been short enough to be jockeys, but we probably couldn’t have handled a high-strung Thoroughbred, and then there’s the fact that you can’t really be in first place if you’re all traveling in a giant circle. But we didn’t care. You get to fly when you canter, during that breath where all four hooves are off the ground. The rhythmic grunts and snorts of the horses, the creaking of the saddles, the lulling thumps of the 1-2-3 footfalls…it was intoxicating. It still is.

If we were lucky, we’d get to jump. Well, it was jumping to us, at least. 18″ seems like an Olympic sized fence when you’ve just barely learned how to sit your horse’s trot without bouncing right off it’s back! Bless those school horses, the mares and geldings that forgave our mistakes and safely carted us over crossrail after crossrail. They lent us wings and allowed us to soar for a brief moment, while they slipped confidence and courage into our pockets when we weren’t looking.¬†

Fifteen years later, not much has changed. I pay for my lessons now, and the only tack I clean is my own, save for the few times I’ve helped a friend ready her things for a weekend of showing. I reached the pinnacle of school horses, and went on the hallowed land of Owning My Own Horse. He taught me things that lesson horses couldn’t. Together we stood at the foot of the mountain that is Dressage, looked each other hard in the eye, and somewhere, somehow, we met in the middle and eventually ended up climbing that obstacle together. I learned how to jump actual courses on him, not simple outside-inside-inside-outside lines, but real courses, with tight turns and long stretches of galloping in between. The fences were higher, too. Officially we only made it up to 3′, but there was this one time, when no one was around, and I set up a rather wide 3’9″ oxer…I swear, after that one jump, he thought he could jump the moon, and the little stuff (read: things under 2’6″) was a waste of his time. It isn’t the height of the fences that matters, though. It’s the quality of the jumps, and the trips that get you to each of them. That’s another life-lesson our horses teach us. But…who’re we kidding? The thrill of launching over a big oxer is ten times more potent than any drug, prescription or non.

I hadn’t planned on this turning into some huge, rambling sprawl of words. But it did. So I’ll end it with an excerpt from a favorite poem of mine, by Ronald Duncan.

Where in this world can man find
Nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy,
Or beauty without vanity?
Here, where grace is laced with muscle
And strength by gentleness confined.

He serves without servility:
He has fought without enmity:
There is nothing so powerful,
Nothing less violent;
There is nothing so quick;
Nothing more patient

….Ladies and Gentlemen:

The Whole Picture

It’s amazing to me how sometimes Seemingly Unrelated Things in your life may in fact be Super Related Things.

Back in February, I decided I was done moping around and making martyrish remarks about the fact that I had been out of the equestrian world for years. I contacted a local trainer/barn owner, and was able to take a lesson on a very kind and patient Trakehner gelding. It was the first time my butt had touched an Dressage saddle in about 5 years, and I was ecstatic.

I was also terrified.

Seems a little strange, doesn’t it? Horses have always been my one great passion in life. I have dedicated countless hours to pursuing knowledge and experience in the equine world. But, while my soul took a sigh of relief at the simple prospect of swinging up in to the tack, my imagination was suddenly running wild in the opposite direction.

At first, I tried to dismiss my anxiety, thinking that acknowledging it would only make things worse. I did my best to ignore my increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and upset stomach. Cowboy Up, right? My very first English riding instructor was a former cavalry officer, and riding lessons with him were an exercise in discipline and guts. I learned at a young age to stuff my feelings and put on my game face. Ignoring my sudden and unfamiliar anxiety wasn’t working, though, and things started to get worse.

The butterflies turned into killer bees, and I soon found myself standing on the mounting block and shaking with fear, unable to actually put a foot in the stirrup. When I would finally get on (after minutes of mentally berating myself for being a coward, mind you), I would be as rigid as a board and would have to stand at a halt for a few long minutes while I attempted to get control of my breathing.

My anxiety continued to worsen, and finally got so bad that one day I made the 40-minute drive to the barn only to turn around and drive right back home without even getting out of my car. I was physically ill, and was experiencing such pervasive nausea that I went so far as to take a home pregnancy test (it was negative, of course).

I started seeking advice from other horse people, spent hours reading online articles on fear, and took another lesson with my trainer that simply consisted of us riding together and talking. The lesson helped me considerably, mostly because continually talking meant my breathing was regulated, and it gave me something to focus on other than the all-consuming fear that had taken over my brain. I still wasn’t fully relaxed and confident, though, and the anxiety was back full force the next time I went riding. The nausea kept getting worse and worse, and had become a 24/7 symptom.

Since ignoring it didn’t work, and reading online articles didn’t fix anything, I attempted to “figure out” the root of my anxiety. The only thing I could logically come up with was my weight. Because I was 30 lbs heavier than the last time I seriously rode, I decided that it was my weight and fitness level that were causing me such distress. So, my new mantra became “I love myself where I’m at, and I’ll love myself where I’m at tomorrow.”

Something still wasn’t quite right, though. The nausea just wouldn’t go away. Some days I might be able to trot a circle, but other days I was still unable to simply walk without hyperventilating.

Then, at the end of March, I quit my job.

As abruptly as a power outage, all of the anxiety I was experiencing disappeared. The nausea stopped within minutes of my resignation – so abruptly that I was consciously aware of it. I went to the barn the next day and didn’t even bat an eye at the 40 mph wind gusts that were gracing the area. I didn’t stall out at the mounting block. I trotted all over the damn arena instead of staying on a safe 20m circle at one end. My horse spooked at some barrels that tipped over, and instead of panicking/getting off/avoiding that end of the arena, I simply laughed and walked him over to the barrels so he could investigate them to his heart’s content.

So, what the hell happened? Why did I suddenly go from Nervous Nellie to Xena, Warrior Princess?

It was my job.

See, my job situation had become uncomfortable, to put it lightly. My supervisor had said several inappropriate things to me, and there was a business trip was looming in the distance that I was dreading because it meant he and I would be alone together. Things got so bad that I made the decision to quit, even though I didn’t have a new job lined up.

Now, I’m not a psychologist. I can’t explain why my job anxiety decided to manifest as a fear of the thing I loved the most. All I know is that it did happen.

It’s funny, because many horse people seem to make a hobby out of looking for correlations, whether they make sense or not….

He hates me because all of his blankets are pink.”

She’s dull today, so she must’ve worn herself out in her paddock last night.

“He kicks out at the whip, so someone must’ve abused him before I bought him.”

Your horse is snarky all the time? Probably ulcers. Have you had him scoped?

Seriously, though.

Horse is fussy under saddle? We check teeth, saddle fit, bridle fit, bit fit, have the chiro out, evaluate feed and supplements, call the vet and ask about ulcers. When our horse colics, we wrack our brain trying to come up with a reason – too much feed, not enough feed, wrong kind of feed, poor hay, too good of hay, not enough turnout, turnout with the wrong pasture mates, barometric pressure, new horse on the property, old buddy left the property, the sun is out, the sun is hiding, it’s raining, it’s snowing….you all know what I mean.

I wonder, though, how many of us take the time to think about how our life away from the barn may be affecting our life at the barn. Riding takes a special blend of physical skill, mental prowess, and emotional stability. If just one of those is off-kilter, it’s like riding a tricycle with a flat tire. If more than one is causing you trouble? Better call AAA!

So, the next time you’re hitting a brick wall with your horse (metaphorically, I hope!) take a few seconds of reflection on your entire life. Is there something giving you trouble in another arena (pun intended)? It may not be logically/directly related to your horse, but chances are it could be impacting your riding in a very big way. The good news, though, is that once you’ve identified a problem, you can fix it! The old adage “Plan Your Ride & Ride Your Plan” works surprisingly well for situations of the saddle, too. ūüėČ