The difference between a trainer who will succeed and a trainer who will fail in this situation is one simple fact… Recognizing when something is not working, and knowing when to quit.
I’m not talking about giving up. No, I’m talking about recognizing that point in your ride where things stop being productive. Being able to recognize when your cues are about to start coming out of a place of frustration rather than teaching. A successful trainer has to be able to stop themselves and say… "I need to take this horse back to something he knows and is comfortable with, let him do it correctly, and end for the day.” Then recollect your thoughts and create a new game plan for tomorrow.
This is exactly the point I hit with Disco the other day, and looking back on it, it was my fault I hit that point in the first place.
Let’s start from the beginning of the ride that day, and I am going to walk you all through what led to us getting stuck, in hopes that you may then be able to prevent yourself from getting into a similar situation. I also want to preface this with the fact that Disco in this entire ride never did anything dishonest or even wrong for that matter. Horses do not do things out of malice or spite. They do not wake up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning. Yes, sometimes they have better days than others, but its usually because of how the rider sets them up for the good days vs the bad, and that is exactly what happened to Disco and me.
I have been pretty busy the last two weeks. I’ve got a handful of client horses, and a handful of sale horses who also need to get worked daily. As we only got the lease for this property in December and we are a business that is just starting out, we do not have a staff yet. Occasionally we have some great students and friends who help us, but for the most part everything on the entire 36 acre property with 18 horses is done by myself and my business partner Jessi Werner of Phoenix Equine Services. On top of all of that, my own horse recently came in from his field with a torn hind suspensory, and so my go to lesson, show, and pony horse for breaking all of my babies is stuck in a stall. But as all of you know, there is no rest for a horse trainer.
Despite the thought that there is not enough time in a day to get it all done, somehow it always manages to get done. Even if it means riding Disco at 8:30pm. If I’m going to leave a horse for the end of the day, it is usually him because I know if I leave him for last I will still always get on him. One because I know he has a looming date in October that gets my nerves sparking on a daily basis, and two because I always try to end on a good ride, and Disco is pretty reliable in giving me one.
Well earlier this week I had one of those days when it just seemed like there was too much to get done. 8pm rolled around and Jessi and I were getting on our last horses. I on Disco, and she on one of her client horses. It was the end of the day, and as I saddled him, I was just going through the motions. I was not thinking about what I wanted to get accomplished that ride. I was thinking about the fact that I had to get him ridden. Mistake number one! Always have a plan for your ride. Even if your horse isn’t in training, your ride will never be productive if you don’t have an idea of what you want to accomplish. Don’t get me wrong, I wing it sometimes. Hop on and decide, “oh lets do this today,” but even then I usually stop and think to myself about where the horse is in its training and what really needs to get done in that ride. Well, I saddled Disco, bought him to the indoor, and again went through the motions. We went over basics that he has been excelling at and refining over the last few weeks. Trot Stops, Turn Arounds, Leg Yields, Two Tracks (yes western horses do these too), etc. But as I asked him for a lope, even though he was balanced and not yanking on my hands, he was going faster than I wanted. The only thing I could think about in that moment was; “You should be loping slower.” So I started to go through things I have done with other horses, adding in circles in the corners, loping squares, adding in stops and rollbacks to get him to focus on my seat to determine how fast she should be going. All things that we have done at the jog, but I hadn't yet asked him to do at the lope. But it was all becoming a bit overwhelming for Disco. He started to go to extremes in the rollbacks, either rushing them, or he would get his feet stuck completely. He was overreacting to my aids (he is a really feely horse, which is a REALLY great thing, but it is not yet as honed in as it needs to be), and the ride began to get sloppy. As things began to fall apart so to speak, I kept drilling him. All I wanted was for him to take that stride or two slower so that I could quit for the day.
Mistake numbers two and three! I put an immense amount of pressure on Disco and myself to fix something so that I could just be done for the day; when we have not really worked on it yet. On top of that, when he was not getting it (because I didn’t have a plan) I continued to keep doing the same thing over and over. Have you ever heard that quote that is supposedly one from the mind of Albert Einstein... “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Well that is exactly what I caught myself doing.
I was frustrated, Disco was confused, and the ride continued to spiral. He started to hang on my hands and not move off of my leg. He was telling me wholeheartedly “I don’t understand, just take away some of this pressure and let me think.” But my tired brain had me a bit greedy. I forgot that he has been kicking butt since only coming back into work in March, after the six months off from the tendon injury. I was expecting things of him rather than supporting him when he needed me to help him find the right answer. Mistake number four. Don’t go into a ride with expectations.
So there we were. With four big no no’s (Riding without a plan, trying to build Rome in a day, drilling without sense of changing something that is not working, and expecting a result rather than rewarding a try) flashing like police lights behind me and I was not pulling over. When I asked for another stop he slammed on the breaks (rather nicely I will admit, although it was the lope I was concerned about not the stop), and I could feel the heat building beneath the saddle. He was starting to pant, and he was just anticipating me to sending him off the other way. It was like looking into the rear view mirror, seeing you are being tailed by a cop with is lights on, and saying “crap, was I speeding?" Immediately I felt my stomach in my throat, knowing I probably pushed a bit too hard. Not physically too hard, he is fit enough to do what he was doing, and I never crossed any lines, I didn’t hurt him. But in my mind I knew that I had lost my chance to gain anything out of that ride before I even asked for that first stride of the lope.
I never like to end a ride like that, but I knew that my mind in that moment was not in the right place. So I tied Disco up to the wall and texted a good friend of mine, Kevin Meyer. My first message to him was rather agitated. I was still holding a grudge from an unsuccessful ride. I will be going to Kevin's clinic this coming weekend in NY, and I said to him something along the lines of “We could be at an interesting point in the training process by next weekend.” As I vented about what happened I felt more and more guilty for setting my amazing horse up to fail in that ride. It was not so much anything Kevin said that made me see that the entire thing was set up to fail from the beginning, it was putting it all out on the table and reading my own words to him describing what happened. So I went back in, got on Disco, and at a walk just asked him to do a nice turn on the hind quarters both directions, a stop and a back, and then I put my arms around his neck and loved on him. I breathed in the dried sweat in his mane and I told him how good of a boy he was. I got off, hosed him down, and put him up for the night with the thought that tomorrow I would be a better trainer for my horse.
The following day I got on Disco first before I worked with anyone else. Before I even put a foot in the stirrup, I had the plan that all I wanted that day was to have a quiet and positive ride. I would review my basics, do some trot work, and when I got to the lope I wasn’t going to ask anything drastic of him. I just wanted him to depart quietly, it did not have to be in frame, move forward at his normal comfortable pace that is between that large fast circle and small slow circle of a reining pattern, and make a few clean turns across the arena. Without any fuss, he did all of the above in a 20 minute ride, so I quit on him for the day.
Have I gotten Disco to consistently go at that slow lope yet after that ride? No I haven’t. But I know it will come in time. Hopefully it will come by October, but you know what, even if it is not consistent by then, that is ok. Unless you are willing to cut ethical corners, there is no way to force a horse to learn something in any set time frame. You have to set that horse up for as much success as he can achieve in the time that you have, and when the time comes, show the horse you have on that day and nothing more. I stopped myself before cutting that corner this week. One thing that I take pride in as a trainer is never having crossed that ethical line, but as humans we are emotional and driven beings. It is impossible to have no emotion while training horses, but it is up to us as trainers to recognize when we need to put ourselves in check. I hope that more trainers in every discipline start doing the same thing. Too often, timelines and paychecks allow trainers to get greedy. They forget that what our horses allow us to teach the allows us the privilege to make a living in this business, not a right we can just take from them.
Here are some fun photos of Disco around the farm this week. Saying that he likes to be a lighter shade of brown is a bit of an understatement. And I still have no idea what is going on in the video below.