How Long 'Til We Get There?

"Daddy, how long 'til we get there?" Not all time is created equal. When my kids were little we lived sixty-two miles from town-it was thirty-five miles to the nearest paved road-so I heard that one a lot. Sometimes Larry's IGA seemed like the last stop before eternity. 

Now that the kids are grown, however, I can't believe the way those years flew by. In a like way,
I think time means many different things to a horse, everything from that exact right instant to ask him for a turn to the entire span of his life. There's the time of day; face it, your horse's clock is set for feeding time, and the time of year is important to your horse as well. For instance, mares can experience some pretty wild heat cycles early in the spring and any horse is a little more inclined to kick up his heels when the grass starts to green up (he is a horse after all). 

His time of life matters, too, as in it's far better to start riding your colt as a two or three year old when his mind is wide open to learning rather than putting it off until he's six. By then he may have pretty much decided to pursue a life of welfare. 

Then there's the big one---, the one that's hardest for we humans to grasp because it's mostly about us, the time it takes to effect a real change in your horse/human relationship. There's no short-cutting this one, it will take however long it takes and not one moment less. Sometimes it's a lot farther than Larry's IGA. It's up to you to deal with that. Don't make a New Year's resolution and expect your horse to be on board with it by January second. He's just not going to let you get away with it. 

Look at it this way, whatever the issue is, whether it's stepping on your toes when you're leading him or jigging all the way back to the barn, it's always worked out for him before. To him that means it's the right answer. If one day you finally get mad and correct him the score will still be about 500 to 1 and you'll still have a long way to go. 

Don't blame your horse for it, something or someone (maybe even you) has made him this way. Maybe he jigs because the whole ride has been so unpleasant for him that he can't wait to get home to his herdmates. After all, he's likely spent a lot more time building relationships with them than with you. Or it could be that he's just a high energy horse and jigging back to the barn is his way of letting off a little steam.Either way blaming your horse won't fix the problem, steady and consistent work on your part is the only thing that will. Most horses will take a lot of convincing and some will take more convincing than you've got conviction. That's the straight up truth. 

While it makes the case for starting out on the right foot and staying there, it also means if your relationship is already on the wrong foot getting off it won't necessarily be easy. It's far simpler for a horse to learn something if he doesn't have to overcome a whole lot of something else along the way. I've found it helpful to take a mental picture, a snapshot assessment of where you really are right now. Be honest. You don't have to show this picture to anyone else so why not? Refer back to it every once in a while. You might find some progress. You may not have achieved perfection but progress equals hope. 

I can tell you about one particular case where this trick has really helped get me through. I've been working with a certain horse for a couple of months now. He's where I'd normally have one in about two weeks. He was sent to me as an older, unbroke horse and he had absolutely no interest in making nice. The mental photograph I keep of him comes from the time he kicked me in the leg. Yesterday he sort of nuzzled me. So, you see-hope! One time fixes simply don't apply to horses. Remember, we humans were eating them long before we ever rode them. It's a fact they haven't forgotten. If you think that's silly of them bear in mind that we Americans sent over 85,000 of them to slaughter in 2005. So we must earn, and keep on earning, their trust. It's the only way our horses have to prevent us from taking them for granted. 

Most of us in this business have heard Ray Hunt, a real master horseman, say, "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult." While I wouldn't presume to speak for him, I don't think Ray meant just once. Horses are blessed with a wonderful ability to keep us honest. Patience and persistence are the only things that really impress them. You'll notice that both of these are long-term virtues. Having that once-in-a-lifetime kind of relationship with your horse is truly one of the greatest feelings you can have but you'll have to earn your way to his heart. Like driving to Larry's, getting there can be a long haul. It can take a lifetime...