When Enough is Too Much: Reflections on Joy, Moderation, and Gratitude

Baby Monarch, beginning training, age 3

Baby Monarch, beginning training, age 3

I was thinking about my most recent post, “Achieving Goals,”  in the context of “Character Forming,” by Cavaliere Attitude.  See:  http://cavaliereattitude.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/character-forming/

Setbacks would seem to be inevitable in the course of training.  Winter set in before I could remedy the setback I experienced this fall. Watching Monarch grow up, I’ve noticed that he would rather trot than use any other gait.  In the field, at play with other horses, even at feed time, his preferred mode of travel is trot.  Teaching him to canter under saddle was a challenge.  His resistance manifests as a buck.  He’s been checked by vets and bodyworkers; he’s not lame or sore.  Last year my goal was to develop smooth and balanced canter transitions.  Beginning last February, when I had access to an indoor arena, through the better part of last year, I pursued that goal. Working on my own in the winter, with my gifted trainer in the  summer, and taking two clinics in the fall, the canter became more rhythmic, more forward, more collected and the transition became balanced.  I thought Monarch’s resistance was finally a past memory. Then, on the last day before my trainer left for her winter sojourn in NZ and after a fabulous schooling session, we pushed him too hard and the buck returned.

Horses are generous, sensitive souls, who give completely of themselves when they allow us to ride and train them.  Training must be done with joy, moderation, and gratitude.  When I asked for “one last canter,”  I knew immediately I had violated the tenet of “moderation.”  I could have better focused to accurately read our state of being.  I could have said, “no, I think he and I are done.”  I could have better concentrated and prepared him for one more canter.   Now my trainer was gone, and I set about to solve this setback on my own.  I needed to address the issue promptly: a day off to rest and a schooling session the following day.  From Monarch’s response, I knew he felt that I had violated not just the “moderation” tenet, but the “gratitude” tenet as well.  Throughout the schooling, I worked on developing rhythm and suppleness to get him into a smooth canter. Each time I asked, he bucked. Rather than rewarding the buck by backing off, I pushed him through the buck into a canter circle.  Repeating the transition, the bucks diminished to kicking out with the hind leg, and finally to a quiet, if unenthusiastic,  canter transition.  As a reward, I praised him, we rested in the walk, and he got to stretch his back.  Then we changed direction, reestablished rhythm & suppleness, and I asked again for a canter transition from trot.  And the cycle began again: buck, kick, canter. We did many trot/canter transitions that day, each cycle beginning with a buck.  I was very aware of “moderation,”  so when I felt he let go of his resistance, I stopped the canter work, praised him, and did some lovely trot work to end on a good note.

The next day my back was very sore. Over the years, I’ve sustained injuries, and I’m not young anymore. I have a back condition that I exercise to keep supple.  To help both of us, I took him away from the school for a relaxing trail ride.  Through the pain in my back and the regret in my heart for making a poor judgement, I felt discouraged, back to square one where I had left off the previous winter.

Fall didn’t last much longer. I rode him a few times, (with bucks) before winter set in. The bucks grew fewer and less opinionated, so I think we were working through our “discussion” about Monarch’s dislike of canter work. Then winter set in with a vengeance- bitter cold & snow for two months. It’s still stormy, but not so cold. The arena thaws during the day. I’m getting a space mucked, so I can do some groundwork.

Yesterday, we had a lovely ground session. My goal was to reestablish a sense of partnership.  Without a way to separate horses for a liberty session until a full thaw allows the paddock gate to close, I chose to do some horsemanship with lead and halter.  Monarch was responsive to those simple activities, so I thought I’d ask for some walk-trot transitions.  The other day he offered some lovely collected movement, so I thought I’d see how he was feeling.  I hadn’t planned to ask for more because a lead rope and halter only allow for a small circle.

He was quite responsive, so I thought we could play with the size of the trot steps.  I could make the circle larger by walking with him, so I asked him to lengthen his step.  Instead he offered a beautiful collected canter, fluid and balanced.  Best of all, he was relaxed!  Thinking about “joy, moderation, and gratitude,” I praised him for his lovely canter and returned to the trot game.

I brought him back to walk and then to trot.  As I shook the dressage whip to encourage him to lengthen the trot, he became upset and responded with a rear and a buck. Using my NLP coaching practice, I responded with calm curiosity.  Is he upset because he’d rather canter than lengthen the trot?  Hmm, that’s an interesting switch.  Is he upset because I asked too strongly with the whip?  I’ll bring him back to walk and ask more quietly.  Is he out of condition?  Do I need to better establish my leadership role?  As he reared, I said in a quiet voice, “no, that’s not what I asked.” The quiet reassurance settled him; almost immediately his focus and willingness returned to me. Back to walk, then to trot, now lengthen.  With a quieter whip movement, I asked for a lengthened step, and again he reared-bucked.  Again my calm response, helped him to quickly settle. “No, that’s not the right answer; I asked you to please show me how you lengthen your trot.”  I brought him back to walk, asked for trot, then asked ever more subtly to engage, and he lengthened. I praised him profusely.

When the trot had consistently improved, I thought I would see whether he would give me another collected canter. Though I was a bit reluctant to ask, wanting to avoid an argument, I felt he was prepared to canter. With quiet intention, I asked for canter.  The transition was very relaxed, and the canter was beautifully balanced. By setting him up for success, I felt I was building his confidence.  We did a few canter transitions on both hands.  I gave him lots of praise, rubbed his hairy neck, and released him from the halter.  Instead of heading back to the barn, he stayed with me.  I walked away, and he followed.  He was respectful about my space and waited for me to encourage him to come closer for another rub.  Only when I left the arena, did he return to the barn.

Monarch has been mine for the past ten years, since he was two.  He came to me out of a field of yearlings and two year olds.  He hadn’t been handled, but sensed in me a kindred spirit.  Originally, I went to his farm to see and ride an older, more trained horse.  I didn’t plan to buy a young horse that needed to  grow up before training could begin.  I didn’t pick Monarch; he picked me.  As I think back on all that we have accomplished over the past ten years, I realize that we have come a long way. Monarch has been “mas-o-menos” resistant in the canter throughout his training. The episode last fall is a set back, but we are not losing ground. We learn each day. I will continue to muck my arena to have a bigger schooling area. I will continue to connect and bond with my horse. I will continue to use creativity to solve challenges in the training. I will continue to use groundwork to build his confidence in the canter. Then I will take him to my friend’s round pen for our renewed mounted canter work. He seems to feel safest there, and I want everything to be calm when I mount and ask for canter.  When he settles into consistent canter work in the round pen, I will return to regular schooling and dressage training.  A cowboy once told me, “the slow way is the fast way.”  Monarch teaches me to “make haste slowly,” as I practice “joy, moderation, and gratitude.”


7 comments on “When Enough is Too Much: Reflections on Joy, Moderation, and Gratitude

  1. Zen Doe says:

    What a lovely account of “making haste slowly”. It’s so hard for human beings to learn this lesson, driven as we are. There’s so much practical wisdom in a horse. I always leave the round-pen feeling that I’ve worked harder on myself than the horse has worked! Thanks for the great article.

    • Thanks, Zen, for your support. You might look at the earlier post to get context for this one. I believe each time I ride I learn more than my horse. They seem to be the Masters. Have you ever read Alois Podhajsky’s wonderful book, “My Horse’s, My Teachers?” Here’s a quote for today:
      “‘I have time’ should be the guiding word especially of dressage riders during the entire course of training and remind him of the fact that the goal of the classical art of riding is to be attained only by the gradual increase of demands.”
      (1965; translation: T. Ritter)

  2. Zen Doe says:

    No! I’ll look for that book TODAY! 🙂 Thank you!

  3. HI CHER,
    I LOVED this article. I felt every move as you were narrating what was happening. That is truly a lot of love and patience from both you and Monarch. I was so happy to read about his positive progress and expression of love for you and of course, your love for him. Sensational.

  4. I’ve never rode horses but this seems similar to teaching children. ” Where attention goes, energy flows”

    • Yes, absolutely. I was a teacher for 25 years. There are so many parallels teaching children & training horses. As I work through the Solo Schooling book study, I make many connections between the learning & brain-based research and the ideas postulated in the book.

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