My New Year?s Wish For Horse People

For many years?both as an equine journalist and as a rider and trainer?I’ve encountered owners and riders who’s reason for riding is, I think, off course. While working with horses and riders at our Phoenix Farm, I urge people to enjoy the journey with their horses and not get too invested in having a specific destination?a single goal?with them.

So many things can happen as you aim for a specific destination?lameness, sickness, school, family or financial issues, just to name a few?that you’re almost pre-destined to be disappointed and discouraged if one or to goals are all that matters.

I urge our students not to judge their success with their horses by the outcome of a few competitions. I urge them to view their riding as a journey toward a distant horizon, a horizon that is impossible for anyone to reach.

So my wish for 2012 is that this message gains a stronger foothold among American riders and horse owners, particularly among those who compete their horses. I would like to see them consider their horses as far more than just the animal they must have beneath them when they show.

I am not at all suggesting that we shouldn’t compete our horses or that we should be less competitive. I’m not suggesting that we should only be searching for some transcendental fulfillment with our horses or that we should be satisfied trying to achieve the perfect 20-meter circle or wandering down some lonely path. But I encounter so many people whose only method of evaluating their partnership with their horse is the color or number of ribbons they can hang on their stall or in their living room.

Riding and training horses can and should be about so much more than that. I think it should be about training and developing the horse as an individual. It should be about teaching him to be an athlete, about teaching him the skills that make him into a trained and enjoyable horse, and it should be about instilling in him the confidence you see in a working horse.

Most importantly, riding and training horses should be about developing and expanding our relationship with our horses. It should be about enjoying the creation and the nurturing of a bond of understanding and trust between our horses and ourselves.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t compete or have competitive goals. But think of them as mile markers or road signs along your journey. Sometimes they?ll tell you to keep going straight ahead; sometimes they?ll tell you to go right or left or to take another path; and sometimes they?ll tell you to stop or to go back. And when they tell you not to keep going forward, it’s not necessarily an indication that you?ve failed.

I certainly have competitive goals with my two mares, Alba and Amani, for 2012 and for farther down the road. With Alba, my 9-year-od Quarter Horse who claimed second place in the classic-format CCI1* at Galway Downs (Calif.) in November, my 2012 goal is, in July, to make the two-day drive to Rebecca Farm in Montana to ride in their classic-format CCI1*. With Amani, my 5-year-old, homebred Thoroughbred-cross, who went well in her first competition season last year, my goal, in November, is the training level three-day event at Galway Downs.

Those goals will direct my work with these two horses this year. I know their weaknesses (at least, I think I do), and I will do exercises and give them experiences to address those weaknesses, physically and mentally, as I keep my eye trained on those two events, looming on the distant horizon.

Sure, I’d be delighted to place well in both these events, and in events along the way. But, honestly, what we do or don’t do in those events is not going to cause me to conclude that they’re a failure or that I’m a failure. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to ask myself what I need to do better.

As I was riding each of them yesterday, I reflected on how much I enjoy both of them and how proud I am of making them into the horses they are. And how much more we have to do.

Alba and Amani are at rather different points along their journeys. Alba is a proven competitor at the preliminary and one-star level. She knows her job, she knows how to do many very difficult things, and she is utterly reliable to ride. I can get on her and go ride her anywhere, over any terrain, and sHe’s the horse I use to pony the babies to develop their fitness and to learn how to go up and down hills and through water and over ditches.

I enjoy riding Alba every day, but I also know that we have a great deal of improvement to make in our dressage and show jumping. Although We’ve been journeying together for more than three years, we have thousands of miles ahead of us. There is still so much for us to learn together.

When I ride Amani these days, I often think back on how far We’ve come in a year. At the beginning of 2011, she was dead green and I was aiming her for her competitive debut, an unrecognized combined test and a cross-country school at Twin Rivers (Calif.). She barely knew how to jump, and riding her across the countryside was a big deal. Now, sHe’s acting like a grown-up girl. SHe’s had numerous competitive experiences and will be making her first start at training level at that same Twin Rivers competition in two weeks.

In her work, and especially in her jumping, Amani is telling me that sHe’s had what I call the ?Ah-ha! Moment,? the moment when a horse understands the point of all the training and understands what their job is?and they like it, can’t wait to do it. I’m looking forward to moving her up to training level, confident that that there are going to be peaks and valleys as we progress through this year and the ones beyond.

But we bred her, we were there to see her born, and then we bottle-fed her when her mother died 12 hours after that birth. Just as with Alba, I’m eager to see the many places we’ll reach along our journey and I will savor the things we teach other as we climb toward that distant horizon.

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