Horsemanship: When you give your horse a voice, remember to listen

It can be easy to try and impose things on your horse, expecting them to listen. But when you’ve always given them a voice, and an opportunity to tell you their worries, you should also make time to listen. A lesson in ego, connection, and listening to my horse.

Taking on the Warwick Schiller journey of horsemanship changes people and horses. I’m part of two of his most active groups on social media and there is a huge mix of people in those groups. Everyone from the most experienced, the eventers, the dressage riders, the trainers, to those that have rescued a horse and never owned one before, or like me, are in that transition journey of applying it all on your own for the first time.

One thing I have learnt so far, and I haven’t been on this journey that long, is that when you give your horse a voice, you must also remember to listen when he’s trying to communicate with you.

I’ve had a rough couple of days with my horse, at no fault of his. In both instances, I’ve ended up in tears, a mixture of wishing I could progress faster with him, feeling like I am failing him, feeling like I am rushing with him, and sometimes lacking my own confidence.

Wishing to progress faster and then feeling like you’re rushing is the biggest oxymoron of them all. Particularly these last few days, everything has felt really hard. And that made me cry too. I gave myself a 5-minute pity party in the tack room, brushed off the dirt and kept going with the day. But I still feel sensitive, which is why I am writing this post now.

Taking on a young horse will have its challenges and it will also have such profound development and connection and engagement that you forget those hard times. I needed to remind myself of the small wins I still did achieve today, and remember I haven’t failed him at all.

On Friday, he had his first shots ever. Other than the temperature check he was very behaved for the vet and responded well. He had Hendra, tetanus and strangles and got a microchip implanted, so a pretty big day. Like us humans, he’s probably feeling a bit off about it all. And I don’t blame him. But I am still very proud of his calmness with Dr David and how well he processed it all.

And then comes yesterday. Yesterday I wanted to ride him. It’s the end of the week – I’ve been hauling my husband from appointment to appointment after having reconstructive knee surgery, all the chores are on me and I am trying my best to prioritise them as needed. I start my new flexible work schedule trial next week, and I already feel bad that my horse isn’t being ridden everyday like he was at his trainers. But every day I try and do something with him. Sometimes we go for a long walk around without tack, most times we put all our tack on and walk. Sometimes we try something new like go to the neighbours, or sometimes we try and run a bit in the front paddocks. Sometimes we lunge for 10-20 minutes, and sometimes we just hang out. I try not to put too much pressure on repetitiveness, and also try and teach him that not everything is work, and sometimes not giving him an expectation to achieve is also good for his mental development. But every day we do something, and something is better than nothing.

But yesterday he hit threshold, and I tried to push him through that instead of paying attention to his signals the first time. The neighbour behind us was burning off, and he’s ‘scary shadow man’ at the moment, meaning Moose was just not having a bar of it. All day he kept facing the smoke he can see through the paperbark, not really eating or drinking as much because he was so focused on what was happening behind him. It was the afternoon. The other neighbours opposite James’ property (our neighbour) were going on the road with their dirt bike. Another noise stimulus he wasn’t coping with. Somewhere off in the distance, someone was using a petrol chainsaw, and the wind yesterday was grotesque and unusual meaning sound was coming from everywhere. He wasn’t processing it well, and I wasn’t listening. I had my blinkers on that I wanted to ride, and that was all I saw.

I had him tied to the cross tie and he walked forward as I tried to tack up. He was reaching for a grass pile and moved forward to the end of the rope length and pulled and I just lost it. I pushed him back and hoisted the saddle off. I undid his tie to the cross-tie area and marched him into his paddock. I was so mad. He turned away from me instantly. And I walked inside, crying.

I told my husband what happened in tears, and he said, ‘it isn’t his fault’, and that sat on my nose for a minute. It isn’t his fault. No, it isn’t. It’s my fault for not doing something else instead. It’s my fault for thinking he would be ok, when maybe he was having an off day. It’s my fault for expecting too much from him.

I posted on Instagram, an absolutely beautiful pic I got of him and made a comment about how I failed him by not listening to him. And it was a stark reminder that, just like we have puppies and medium aged dogs and senior dogs who all have differing levels of knowledge and education, I have a young horse. He doesn’t know all the rules yet. He’s allowed to react how he reacts when something alarms him. It’s my job to lead him through the fear and teach him its ok. And instead I lifted my energy in a bad way and took it out on him.

Well, that afternoon I felt so bad. I had so much guilt –  like I’ve never experienced before. I went into the paddock and he was very wary of me. And I don’t blame him. He stood a distance away from me, and had one ear pinned and one ear toward me. I walked up to him in a gesture of good faith, stuck my hand out and requested his engagement. He touched my hand with his nose, and then pulled away, and then touched it again. I leaned in and gave him a really big cuddle and started crying, rubbing his shoulders which is a thing I’ve started recently to try and encourage better bonding and release in tension. I kept saying, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been angry at you. I said it in my head and out loud, hoping he would feel how sorry I was because I know he doesn’t understand my words, but understands my energy.

He let out a big sigh and leaned into my cuddle and just stood there. His ability to instantly forgive me is something I deeply craved and appreciated, because it’s a human skill I can’t even do. I put his rug on, gave him a treat and feed and left him alone for the night.

So, this morning, I tried again, but earlier than normal and before everyone got up to make noise. I had a renewed sense of optimism – had thought long and hard about my riding plan and what my lesson would be about. Richard, ‘scary shadow man’ was already up burning off. But it was a small fire and not overly visual from where we were. I first unrugged him and gave him breakfast and let him wander around a bit. I got all his tack out and ready. I brought him back to the tie down area, brushed him down, and cleaned the two front feet. I then lifted the two rear (which he and I haven’t done yet!) – so this in itself was a HUGE achievement for us. I then put his rugs and saddle on, and it just looked off. The saddle pads looked far behind, but the saddle looked like it was angling toward his shoulder. I did it up lightly thinking I would fix it properly before the ride, something I double and triple check. I then put his bridle on, which was an effort because it is so clunky and I’ve tried my hardest to work with it and it’s just awkward.

And I know that he can do all these things with ease with his trainer because I have seen it and have so much video of it. He stands totally still when being tacked, drops his head for bridling, doesn’t move away from the mounting block when in the arena. So, I am not doing anything different to his trainer and am trying to replicate some of those processes the same way so he’s not in arms thinking about it.

We went on our walk and he let out a couple of good big exhales, you know the kind when they’re working. So, I knew he was happy to be out and about, and very happy to show his dedication to the lesson. We walked the route I wanted to ride, which I do before every ride. And this time we introduced an arena walk, as I wanted to start introducing him to arena work first, then leisure ride afterward. And of course, ‘scary shadow man’ and the fire were there, but he wasn’t paying any attention to it, certainly not like yesterday. I took him back to the cross-tie space and undid the girth and started again. I fixed the saddle and pulled the saddle pad forward but it still looked a bit weird. But I checked every spot, he had enough space, nothing was rubbing or chafing. He did turn his head each time I tightened it right by the end, but he does tend to do that a bit anyway even when I am taking rugs off – he’ll look back at me and want to touch my hand. So, I always let him.

I took him into the area where the mounting block and my whip are. I lunged him on the lead rope briefly and he seemed slow, but I thought nothing of it. I then positioned him to mount, and he moved right as my foot went into the stirrup. I positioned him again, he moved again. This happened 5 times and the whole time I tried to keep calm. The last time I tried, he moved back, and pulled away, which was unusual. So, I got the lunge rope out and gave him a lunge, about 5 minutes either side. He was connected to me the entire time. During that time, my husband came out to ‘help’ – by holding the lead rope. But I was already frustrated.

My husband immediately said, “he doesn’t look the best.” I stopped – again I missed something. He said, “you know not to push it. He had his vaccine on Friday, maybe he’s lethargic. He looks really really tired, and has sleepy eyes.” Now my husband is not a horse person at all so if he could see it, why couldn’t I?

Why didn’t I twig on to the fact that he had his shots on Friday and like us, when we get shots, sometimes we feel a bit weak and tired. Sometimes we want to just stay in our pyjamas for a few days and eat junk food. And then the saddle – it was weird. I don’t know why it was weird, but I double and triple checked it. It was sitting properly, it wasn’t too forward. I checked against previous pics I had as I’ve never previously owned a stock saddle so am still not super sure of it, but it looked totally fine.

I knew he could do the route I had walked him on. I knew he had nothing to be afraid of – we’d already done half this route many times before and he showed no fear or concern during our walk. I wanted to ride. But also, something inside me said, people that push it when they shouldn’t because of their own ego are the ones that get hurt, and fall off, and thrown forward, and have broken bones and sore backs and can’t ride at all because they’re recovering. And then they develop fears about riding. I have read so many stories in my Warwick Schiller groups about exactly this and I knew, deep down, today was not a day I should ride.

I took him back to the cross-tie area and untacked him. I stood for about 5 minutes after that just giving him a cuddle and a shoulder rub. Unfortunately, there is no grass at the moment so he has to be on his bale, so I took him back to his paddock and gave him a treat. That was the end of our training for the day.

It’s easy, through your own confidence and knowledge, to feel that your horse is capable of achieving something. I knew he could do the route I planned today. I wanted to work on some turn on the forehand – he can do it, but could do it a bit tighter, so I wanted to work on that. I wanted to keep practising our straight lines and our leg yields, our bends around the trees and introduce the arena paddock. But even if that ride didn’t go as planned, or in this case, not at all, I had to realise what we did achieve. We extended our training session and included more cohesive structure to our learning. We introduced something new. We picked up all our feet with no hassle, and we had a very successful vet check a few days earlier. These are still really good achievements!

My own impatience and need to move things forward needs to be taken down a notch or two. I am learning. My eagerness may not always translate to him in the same way, and I have to always remember that being a good leader is also about listening to what he says he needs, not just me making a blanket decision that we should do something a certain way and it must be so.

Maybe my tears were at my own frustration of letting him down, when I should’ve listened. Maybe it was my inner voice trying to get me to pay attention because I otherwise wasn’t. Regardless of the medium – there is always a message to be heard and a lesson to be learnt.

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