Over the last while, I’ve been sharing snippets of my progress of working with my horse, Dee. Dee is the first horse that I have started under saddle myself (or am in the process of!), and there have been some really interesting questions come up about how it is I am managing my mindset and dealing with any uncertainty or what if scenarios that might arise. Two such questions popped up this week in response to a Facebook video I posted; knowing that they are relevant to so many of us (all?!), I’ve decided to answer them specifically in this blog.
Let’s get into it…
Do you consciously think about any uncertainties as you progress through with him? What goes through your mind?
Whenever we begin something that we haven’t done before, it’s natural that there are going to be uncertainties. Uncertainty in and of itself is not the problem; all that really presents to you are the options that are available and the possible scenarios that might arise as a consequence of actioning those options. The “problems” come about as a consequence of lack of action and indecisiveness.
If we were to divide it up, there are two types of uncertainty that would typically arise in relation to training or working with our horses:
- General uncertainty: A lack of clarity about the overall plan moving forward and where to take things
- In the moment uncertainty: When a situation presents itself in the moment and you are unsure how to move forward, such as a response from your horse that is new and outside the zone of what you have dealt with before, or something similar.
Uncertainty is welcome because it invites an intentional pause. It allows us to step back, assess what the situation is and realign with our intention. It’s also an opportunity for growth and exploration around a skillset or experience that hasn’t formed a part of our understanding in the past.
We can avoid general uncertainty by having a clear idea of our path forward, and what is required of us to get there. General uncertainty is something that we can eliminate well away from our horses; it comes with an understanding of where it is you are now, coupled with a knowing of what needs to happen in order to move to the next stage.
It also requires that we adopt a mindset of collaboration and a dedication to ongoing improvement. I have purposely assembled a team around me whose knowledge and support I can draw on during the moments where I am unsure or need the next step along outlined for me. I listen to them, I implement their suggestions and constantly express how appreciative I am of their help.
Ambiguity inevitably leads to frustration and confusion, both in horse and rider. In order to cultivate an atmosphere of confidence and trust, you don’t have to have all the answers, but you do need to have a clear understanding of what your intention is and have taught your horse the answer to the question before it is required. The establishment of a common language and a dedication to mutual understanding ensures you stay empathetic and compassionate to any misunderstandings that arise- to yourself, as much as to your horse.
Uncertainty in the moment gives me the chance to step back and reflect on what it is that is going on.
Am I asking him to do “x” thing in a way that is clear and fair?
Does he know the answer to my question?
How can I break this down to even smaller steps?
For the most part, answering those questions softens the edges of the situation and creates momentum in a forward direction.
If it doesn’t, I don’t ruminate or brood for too long. Instead, I reach out and ask question of those more knowledgeable in this situation than me, and then focus my attention on what needs to happen next time around.
As a disclaimer: there will always (and forever!) be those moments where the plan that you have for the session is not appropriate for what your horse is presenting you with that day. And that’s ok. You can still hold your intention in alignment with your higher vision of where things are going, whilst maintaining your attention on what needs to be worked through in the present moment. That’s a natural and welcome part of the dance of training.
Do you have ‘what if’ scenarios in your head and a get out plan? Is it not so much that you are afraid, but more mindful preparation?
For me, that What If’s are an expression of our self-protective functions and can be useful if we use them constructively. Where we go off track with the What If’s is if we fail to understand them the motivation behind them and instead allow them to flood our brainspace with future projections that immobilize and impair us.
The facts of my situation are that I am working with a big, young, powerful horse who hasn’t been ridden before. There are a number of very real What If’s that I need to pay attention to in order to make sure that it is a happy and safe experience for both of us. I understand that even with the most meticulous preparation, things happen and there are no guarantees, but that’s something that I know to be true about life as a whole also.
The What Ifs are nothing more than a call to get prepared. The way that I approach this is to only go as far as the next good step. What that means is that with everything that I am doing, I ensure that I have understanding and relaxation at that stage before I move onto the next thing. If I don’t, I don’t move on.
This means that my training trajectory is more like a ChaCha than a swift movement from A to B. For instance, before I get on, I make sure that I have a calm and relaxed horse at the mounting block. If I don’t, I don’t get on; I only go as far as the next good step. On Tuesday of last week, for instance, we were working on the trot, and on Wednesday, I planned to build on the work from the day before. What happened, however, was that Dee was anticipating moving off as soon as I put my foot in the stirrup, so we stayed put. Our work that day was mostly at a standstill.
This approach keeps my attention firmly in the moment and has prevented me getting to any situations where I have required a “get out” plan, simply because I haven’t moved to a place where I’ve allowed either one of us to get over-faced or overwhelmed. What I do have though is patience. I am willing to take as long as it takes for things to be good and for relaxation to appear. One of the biggest disservices I think we do ourselves is not to allow ourselves that time and instead to have fixed expectations about where we should be at certain points. We have to let all of that go.
That said, I know that if something were to happen out of the blue (like he got a fright from something totally random), I have the capacity to bring him to a stop. This is an important function of the What If’s. I’ve paid attention to what they have showed me, learned what needs to happen in the event of, but redirected my focus to what I need to do and who I need to be in order to create beneficial experiences for both me and my horse.
Intention in alignment with the higher vision, attention to the moment, and only going as far as the next good step.