By Jonathan Field
Fun! It’s the reason so many of us are drawn to horses. It seems obvious... so why write an article on it? Because often fun seems to be forgotten by both horses and riders. The deep trenches created around countless arena rails are the telltale signs of hundreds of laps carried out and the drudgery that accompanied them.
I want to share with you some ideas on how to have more fun in order to bring out the best in you and your horse. Horses are universally known for being playful and, by watching them in a pasture, you can see how playing, racing, and chasing are key elements of their lives. When I see the exuberance and focus horses have with each other, I think of how I can get my horses to be more like that with me.
It is our responsibility to determine the approach we take when we are working with our horses. Our attitude is the single most important factor that will govern the amount of enjoyment we and our horses experience. Our attitude and how we respond to our horse is the key that unlocks the door to excellence.
Let us consider the opposite of fun: frustration, fear, or even anger. The frustrated, fearful, or angry person cannot bring out the potential in horses because of these negative emotions. The first prerequisite to having more fun is to get control of our own emotions in order to change our response in situations when things don’t go as planned.
Human nature causes people to be focused, determined, and goal motivated. While these are good qualities to have, they can cause people to get locked on to goals they are trying to achieve and become very sharp and restrictive to horses in the process. This can lead to the flight instinct of the prey animal taking over. Horses then become more herd bound, flighty, and over-reactive to every little thing. While I stress the importance of safety and control at all times, it is important to differentiate between a strong leader and a ruthless dictator. I encourage riders to look at their emotional response when something does not go as planned and try to change the way they look at the situation.
I like to have an attitude that allows me to freely play. That means to play or train without consequence in the typical sense of the word. I will not allow myself to become personally frustrated or place blame on my horse when I do not achieve the desired outcome. I consider my horse’s reaction to what I am asking of him to be feedback for what I need to do next. Rather than becoming angry or upset, I become more vigorous in changing my approach until the horse understands. Often you’ll need to take a step back for a moment. Think about how to approach the situation instead of reacting. Sometimes you may decide to do what your reaction would have been, but the key is that you choose. When riders blame their horses, get frustrated, and then discipline their horses, it leads to a terrible downward spiral. Horses do not rationalize discipline and consequence in the same way that people do.
Do Something Different
Start small with something just a little different. I want to encourage you to change your routine to teach your horse to be more flexible. On a daily basis it is amazing how much you can make a difference and have your horse look at you and ask “what are we going to do next?” with the simplest things. For example, when you are leading your horse, you could do it from the other side or have him follow behind you. You could groom and tack your horse in a different spot. I want to encourage people to be less predictable. Avoid doing the same routine day in and day out.
Here is another example that you could try for a bit of fun: the next time you put your horse in a stall or a pen try backing him into that area. First teach your horse to back up by the nose, then back between an obstacle like two barrels, and finally back your horse into the stall or paddock.
Remember your chosen attitude is key here because these new ideas you try won’t always work out perfectly each time, and if you have the wrong attitude, it certainly won’t be fun for you or the horse. Don’t have a time limit or expectation that it’s going to work on the first try. You may need to do this over several days and build up your horse’s confidence.
Then when you have achieved this, look around the barnyard for other things you can try.
After starting small and developing the right attitude towards play, I encourage my students to try something bigger. Here is the story of Lynn McTaggart:
Lynn is a retired sheriff from Los Angeles, California who took up riding recreationally later in life. When I met Lynn, she was dealing with a very pushy horse and her only goal at the clinic was to get this horse to stop running her over. After solving that problem in the first half hour of the clinic, Lynn was up for more. Lynn took the lesson of fun to heart and began small. With each new clinic she attended, she was challenged to try something new: one time, it was to jump a ditch. She became so nervous about this small ditch, that we began referring to it as “Lynn’s Canyon.”
Photo: Liz Duncan
Lynn made it her goal to jump bareback. You can sure see the fun that she is having in achieving this goal!
After achieving her goal of jumping the “canyon,” Lynn was ready to move on to something else.
Riding bareback had always been a fear for her. She decided to commit herself to learning to ride bareback in order to become a better rider. Just when she thought she was getting pretty good, she came up to my ranch for a camp. I had set up a small cross country course.
Lynn saw the course and set a goal to jump a log bareback. It was all she could think about all week and on the last day of the camp, we caught a picture of her going over her first jump bareback! Was she ever ecstatic!
She beamed for the rest of the day. See the smile on her face as she completed this goal? It is clear that she had fun with this one!
Here is the secret: fun lies in how we perceive a situation and the attitude we choose to take on the way to achieving our goals. Lynn is an inspiration and I hope her story helps you to see things a little differently each time you are with your horses.
Everyone will have a different idea of fun. For some it is a competitive achievement, for others it is personal feat, and for many it is as easy as trying something a little different from what they are used to. Keep in mind that it is not the end result that matters so much as how you go about getting there.
Change It Up
A change can be fun but it is also practical from a training point of view. Over the years I have had the privilege to study with some of the best trainers in the world and the one thing they have in common is that, while they are focused on the details of their discipline, they have a feel for when a horse needs a change. I’ve seen gold medal horses go for a trail ride or play with some cattle. This could be looked at as cross training. However, I’m not talking about something that formal; sometimes a mental change of pace is what is so valuable.
Photo: Liz Duncan
Sometimes, when I go past this rock by my indoor I like to ask my horse to put her front feet on it, just for fun!
My horse Hal is a great example of how a change of pace can keep a horse balanced and positive. Hal has travelled thousands of miles in a horse trailer all over North America. Like all of my horses, he gets off the trailer in a new place without a problem. He eats and drinks along the way. To anyone who sees him, Hal would seem just fine. Like most people and their horses, I know Hal like I know myself and I can see that all the travelling takes its toll on him. With the hours in the trailer, and the artificial environment of the stalls, noise, and crowds, Hal can become a bit sullen and more tired than the other horses. If I don’t give him a change and look for some fun, he can become resentful and tense. For me, travelling and performing are not more important than Hal. I try to create balance by going out of my way to find enjoyable things for him to do while we are on the road: sometimes this is finding a nice quiet place to graze or taking him on long walks in the evening when everyone has gone home. I try to balance the time on the road with the best quality of life I can provide.
I encourage you to try one new thing a month with your horse or your education. These new activities are not meant to take you off your path, but to indirectly help you to reach your goal. Choose something you would like to do and would have fun doing, but where you are not attached to the outcome, so that you can have an attitude to freely play with something different.
Here are some more ideas that may kick start your imagination to come up with your own ideas. Always keep in mind your experience, your horse, and the environment or challenge, as these three elements will determine your success and safety.
Some ideas are:
• Ride bareback
• Push a big ball around
• Find some friends and play a game of beach ball polo
• Drag a log through a maze
• Western riders try English; English riders try Western
• Set up a trail course with gates and other obstacles
• Take a lesson in another discipline
• Go audit a clinic from someone new
• Learn about liberty
• Side pass over a log or a barrel
• Hang out in the pasture for the afternoon and just enjoy each other’s company.
When trying something new, you can guarantee it won’t always work out the way you plan. So when it doesn’t work, your response is very important. Don’t get frustrated. Try again in a little different way and see what happens. Remember to be safe as you add variety!
Try something new and play with these exercises. See if you can develop the attitude that can allow you to have more fun!
Main article photo: Liz Duncan - This step up adds extra challenge as we back through the gate!