train ’em up

There has been a consistent theme through all the Hawley clinic’s I’ve attended — and not just themes I’ve written about explicitly, like precision, rhythm, or strong basics.  Something a little more hard to put my finger on.

For example, one of my lesson mates biffed the approach to an oxer and hit it on an odd stride, but her horse went and even if he didn’t do it perfectly, he did it. Hawley was like good!, you did it.  When another rider said she didn’t think she could do the angle because her horse was so green, Hawley didn’t accept it (and with the right ride, the horse did the angle just fine).  When I couldn’t seem to get a rhythm or the correct lead on the circle of death, Hawley didn’t want me to break out of the exercise to fix things, but to fix them from within the circle.

WHYYY did i not train him to do this on purpose?

And to all of these small mistakes she said “there’s no other way, but to train them up”.

I didn’t hear Hawley give a long explanation for this, though I think I’ve heard her do so in the past (and stupidly didn’t write about it! wtf past Nicole?!?!).  This statement seems to be a bit of the riff on the old “if you’re not making mistakes, you are not doing anything / trying hard enough / learning / pushing yourself.”  Sure, we want to train our horses to be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, cleverer.  But if we only ever put them in situations where they will never have to  be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, or cleverer, they will never learn to how to become those things.

By extension, it means that if we aren’t giving ourselves opportunities to fail, we will never become better, smarter, quicker, stronger, or cleverer.  An interesting corollary to screwing up with confidence.

Along with this, I noticed that Hawley  has a different attitude towards horses than many of her students (clinic students?) seem to.  When we did screw up, she applauded us for committing, and frequently told us to pat our horses and make a big deal over them when they made the correct choices.  That wasn’t really new.  But when someone apologized to her and said she felt so terrible making her horse put up with her (admittedly very honest and reasonable) mistakes, HB was like “So? Give him an extra handful of grain tonight. That’s what you have him for.”


I’ve not attended a lot of clinics with big name trainers, olympians, or fancy riders, so I’m not sure if this is pervasive in the professional levels, though I imagine to some extent it must be.  And this is also not to say, in the least way, that she is not a kind, respectable, incredibly savvy horsewoman and rider.  Just that, perhaps, being all of those things on a professional level means that you cannot necessarily afford all the soft squishiness that tends to accompany amateur riders.  It’s a little less “this hairy beast is my whole heart” and a little more “we have a working relationship”.

But it’s true!  We have this giant, expensive, oversized pets to have fun and learn on.  If I’m doing those two things, what am I doing this for?  I feel far more awful when I’ve been making mistakes of hubris with Murray, like pushing him for something I thought we should be ready to achieve “just because”, than when I make an honest mistake, like riding him in a saddle that didn’t really fit for a year.  And as much as I appreciate his quirkiness and silliness and the feeling of connection we have both in the tack and out, he’s not the shoulder-to-cry-on-best-friend-through-thick-and-thin that some people profess their horses to be.

broseph just isn’t that into cuddling

I’m not trying to be more like Hawley or distance myself from my horse thinking that it makes me a better or more accomplished rider. (OKAY YOU CAUGHT ME I’M ALWAYS TRYING TO BE MORE LIKE HAWLEY!) But it is interesting to think about where, on the relationship spectrum, Murray falls in my life.  He’s no Ellie, that’s for sure, but I value him more than I do my chickens.  (A lot more, and not just because of price/size/weight.)  I will never, ever be able to sell him, but that’s not really because of our relationship… But I don’t want to, either, because I value our partnership and everything he has to teach me.

I do want to know where you fall on the spectrum — from “pony would sleep in my bed every night if I could” to “this is nothing more than a business arrangement” — and how you think it influences your riding.

18 thoughts on “train ’em up”

  1. This part: “But when someone apologized to her and said she felt so terrible making her horse put up with her (admittedly very honest and reasonable) mistakes, HB was like “So? Give him an extra handful of grain tonight. That’s what you have him for.”” My trainer is like this and I love her for it. It’s easy for me to get very down on myself when I start making a lot of mistakes, and I worry about ruining my very genuine horse. My Trainer has taken me aside more than once and said “He’s an amateur horse. This is his job. He’s got a pretty damn great life, I think he can figure out how to pack you around for an hour a day.”. And she’s right. They’re both right. You can love your horse in that silly affectionate way and still expect them to cover your ass when they need to. I’ve gotten a lot better at separating that… we can be sweet and cute and I can love him to pieces, but once I’m in the saddle he has a job to do. And to be honest, the more I expect him to always be there to help me out, the more he is. He’s becoming trained to know what his job is and what’s expected of him, regardless of what dumb monkey shit I might do. So to answer your last question – I’m both. I don’t think those two mindsets have to be mutually exclusive. Granted, it takes some effort and discipline on the part of the rider to say “Ok yes we’re great friends, but now it’s time to get down to business.”.

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    1. I think this is where we have struggled in the past. I don’t necessarily need my horse to be my bestest bud, but drawing the lines of “business time is here and it is NOW” has been hard for me regardless. As I do it more consistently, I find it easier to slip into that role. (So evidently, it’s more of a problem with me than him!)


      1. I think that’s true of a lot of amateurs. Horses have a way of stepping up to whatever level of professionalism that we demand of them. 😉


  2. my erstwhile coach dan (with whom i hope to continue riding eventually!) was always a big proponent of the philosophy that ‘if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.’ and while it was sometimes hard to see that from the middle of a fail-tacular (and occasionally bone jarring) lesson, i knew he was right. mistakes are part of the process and the horse must have that opportunity to experience them and sort it out if we ever hope for the horse to continue learning too (obvi saying nothing about the rider lol).

    re: the other part of your question, while i’m definitely living out my 12yo fantasies now that i finally have my very own first ever pony – and am honestly going 200% down the sappy saccharine disney relationship path…. i still try to stay real about the fact that this is a ridiculous hobby that i shouldn’t take too seriously one way or the other. yes i want to have fun. that’s #1 most critical to me. but yes i also want to learn and do the thing. and that “thing” is fairly well defined (it includes jumping lol), and i need my horse to also do this thing too or else risk not being my horse any more (just ask izzy).

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    1. I do think that balancing the right amount of mistakes vs. success in a training session is key, and it’s hard to pinpoint because every rider (and horse) has a different level that they learn best and are comfortable with. Just because I don’t mind hammering away at step poles to get just the right ride doesn’t mean that Murray is learning from it OR that my lesson-mates want to do similar things. Yet ANOtHER complication to training horses.


  3. My trainer talks about this as well — part of Miles’s job is to help me out of bad situations. If I make a mistake, it’s his job to help us get to the other side regardless. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does have to happen.

    My trainer also talks about how different levels (to me, she talks about jump height), require different levels of acceptable mistakes. You can make a bigger mistake a 2′ than you can at 2’6″, and expect your horse to take care of you. Similarly, from 2’6″ to 3′, etc. etc.


  4. YES! For years my trainer would always tell me that our horses have a great lifestyle! And that there job is to do what we ask (when we ask if correctly). They don’t have a concept of time, or really care if they jumped that jump the prettiest of any horse jumper ever. It’s a great reminder when I stressed about not going as far as I needed to with a horse/not riding as well as I needed.

    I also agree with Amanda when she said that in the saddle you have to be partners first…friends second.


  5. Echoing Amanda almost exactly. Sure, I’m going to do my very best to give him a great ride and set him up perfectly….but we all know that’s just not going to happen 100% of the time. His job is to be a tolerant ammy horse for 1 hour a day, so when I biff up and he covers my ass, we throw him a big party, pats for pony, and then go try again. And then after I hop off we have our snuggle time. But under saddle? It is very much a partnership where we help each other out the best we can, warts and all.


  6. I do worry a bit about making mistakes – about over-facing Tesla’s slowly built up confidence, about squashing her willingness and try (she puts 110% into everything, so even if we fail, we fail spectacularly). I have found that she needs just an extra 3 seconds to process things – and I try and give her that space to think. Trainer J has given us on-point guidance so far: going back to square 1 and longing has been exactly what Tess needed 🙂 I suspect that she is actually a giant puppy on the inside, and if she had her way, I would be cuddling/brushing/snack dispensing all day long, LOL.


  7. I’m also on board with Amanda’s comment – Dino is my Very Best Pony Friend Fo’ Life, but when we are working he is my partner first, buddy second. For me, as a one-horse amateur rider, both sides of the horse-human relationship are equally important. While, yes, I do own a horse for the purpose of riding it, learning to ride better, and competing, and thus the horse needs to pretty reliably just Do His Job, part of what makes those things fun and worthwhile for me is having a solid friendship with the animal. It’s important to me that I really, really like my horse as in individual, and that the horse seems to like me. I think that’s important for building trust and communication, and since my riding skills are not world-class, that horse-human friendship goes a long way in being able to trust my pony when the rubber hits the road, because we know and understand each other. On the flipside, I ask him to work for literally one hour a day if that, and I need to be better about demanding that he go to work, even when I make mistakes!


  8. Ehhhhh I dunno. This stuff is so hard to quantify because there’s so much subjectivity. I agree that as an ammy owner, I have/am/will fail consistently and my horse obviously has/does/will deal with that.

    But to me (and here’s where the subjectivity comes in), getting so focused on goals/competitions/specific exercises and saying “suck it up, horsiekins” as an excuse to do the exercise wrong is super backwards and a good way to wreck both your goals and your fuzzy feelings.

    But that’s not necessarily what you’re saying, just how I’m reading it because I tend to be overly professional/goal oriented to the detriment of the warm fuzzy side of things.


  9. I love her attitude about mistakes. My trainer always says two things: 1. 23 hours of they day they get to be a horse so they can be good and tolerant for the one hour you ask them to work and 2. your horse isnt thinking about your bad ride or mistake, hes thinking about eating. that’t it. That being said, my boys gets lots of pats and treats for putting up with my ammie butt!


  10. I used to ride with a clinician who would talk about part of his training being purposely riding his horses to bad distances so they could learn how to calmly deal with it. It’s going to happen at some point, so you might as well introduce it to your horse and teach them it’s no bid deal so that if you do ever really get stuck your horse can save the day and you both move on.


  11. Such an interesting topic!
    Personally I’ve always known I’m an amateur who needs amateur proof horses, so my expections of my little herd have always been clear (it basically amounts to be safe & be fun).
    Zephyr is my non-human bff, & I’m his non-horse bff, & that relationship seems to be stronger than whatever mistakes either of us make.
    The mares I also treat as my friends, & I don’t know if our relationship would be different if I was more performance oriented?


  12. When a horse is really new and green you kinda do need to give them really perfect rides, but if that horse is going to be a future amateur or children’s horse then eventually the training wheels have to come off. The mix is a delicate balance. Ramone wanted to be bff’s forever, but I had a working relationship with him. Carlos was my perfect buddy horse and I trained him with holes, and then filled in the holes.


  13. My horses work for a living. That work might be just carting me around the trails or it might be shows. They can earn retirement with me, but otherwise I will sell them if I’m not enjoying it. They are definitely not pets like my dogs are. I’m much more detached with my horses. I do like my horses, but it’s not the same.


  14. I’ve definitely heard the same advice regarding one hour of work out of 23 hours of horseyness. We have a working relationship and the only times we baby them are when they’re physically injured. I’ve felt bad when making mistakes and having my horse have to put up with them but as long as those are few and far between, no real harm done


  15. I definitely think it depends on the horse what kind of relationship I have. A lot of horses I want to have cuddly relationships with don’t thrive on that. So I only force that on Riesling. Because he is a spoiled brat and I want cuddles.


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