Taking It Personally

A little while ago, I was reading through some comments on Karen's blog over at Bakersfield Dressage. Karen was describing the way her Arabian's disobedient behavior can frustrate her, while her thoroughbred's does not. In short, she takes Speedy's resistance personally, but sees Sydney's issues as separate from herself. This makes training Sydney less emotionally draining.

"Karen," I said, "I totally get it."

Taking things personally with your horse is something I could probably write a book about, but I don't think I'm alone. In fact, I'm pretty sure most adult amateur riders deal with this at some point.

In my case, my horse and I are pretty close. He's the butter to my horse-obsessed bread. I know he trusts me, and likes me, even. We're a team. 

So, when I ask for a right lead canter depart (FOR THE FOUR HUNDRED THIRTY-FIFTH TIME!), and he pops off with the left lead, a nose in the air and a shoulder through my rein, I get upset.

We are a team, right? Why can't my teammate pull his weight? He knows this stuff. I, like most people let down, would like to give in to temptation of frustration. And, I have. More times than I'd like to admit. Instead of handling my emotions, I break down. I'll repeatedly ask, the same way. I'll demand a response, and I won't give up until I get it. Sometimes, I'll even find myself crying.

"Why won't you just do it, you ass?!" I've been known to yell. 

Despite knowing that the problem usually lies in my riding, and that these reactions have been holding back my training, making my horse nervous and breaking down my problem solving, I find them difficult to avoid. Some days, I can easily zip right through a disobedience or a stubborn Pig moment without anything more than a quick thought, correction and new attempt. Some days, complete meltdown. With me, the issue often stems from my personal stress level. Things at work are rough? I'll probably cry at a leaping and inverted canter depart. A cheery Saturday morning, however, can having me hacking through issues without even pausing my singing to the radio.

So how do you keep on a training schedule when you have to school on workdays, not just lovely Saturdays? Or, god-forbid, days when you've just had a huge argument or gotten off the phone with someone you can't stand? 

That's a harder question than it seems. The adult amateur's life is full of stresses unrelated to riding, and often extremely tenacious stresses. In addition, time is tight. It's often impossible to ask that I wait for a less stressful day to ride, or simply "take a moment to refocus" before getting on. Yeah, that tactic may work if you're a zen master, but that's just never going to be me! My mind tends to focus on a stress and just magnify it to no end. It only takes a small issue to tip over the stress pile.

To combat this issue, I've been walking. A lot. On horseback. Every time I sense myself getting defensive, or taking something too personally, I take a small break (sometimes only halfway around the arena). I let Guinness have a long rein, and I think about the problem and the solutions. I let myself be a little angry, then figure out how to solve it. If I can't, we're done with that issue. I'll move on to something I know we can do, and we'll go off and do that for awhile. The confidence boost of finally doing something well reminds me of how awesome my horse is, and how well we work together. Often, that's enough to get me thinking enough to try to troubleshoot the issue we were fighting over with a clearer mind and clearer aids. I wouldn't call it "developing patience," but I suppose someone else might.

As I've been practicing this temper-management, I've noticed my horse having a lot more confidence in me and what I'm asking. His nervous tendencies have lessened, and he's much more willing to try than to just shut down and tune me out.

I guess you could say we're both becoming better listeners.

Despite everything, I've found that taking things personally with your horse isn't 100% a bad thing. People who invest a lot of time, money and energy into their horses tend to feel things pretty personally. I kind of see it as a side effect of being an awesome horse owner. So, you go Karen. You're a pretty spectacular horse owner. Getting personally offended in a pony relationship just comes with the territory, but let's all try not to let it overcome us.


  1. Wow. Well said! I laughed at how you characterized some of your "arguments" with Guinness:
    *"Why won't you just do it, you ass?!" I've been known to yell.*

    Have you been spying on me because I have said those exact words many, many times!

    I really like your strategy for developing patience (walk breaks to cool off and refocus combined with doing a known good). I am definitely going to be incorporating that into my rides with Speedy. The funny thing is, I already do that with Sydney. When I feel him tensing about an issue, I frequently back off, remind him that he's doing a good job and then give him confidence by doing something he does well. Why can't I do that with Speedy? Because with Speedy, I feel he SHOULD ALREADY GIVE IT TO ME! Like you said, we've worked on it a billion times already.

    Deep breath ... I definitely need some of your temper management strategies for Speedy G. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and practical post. I can't wait to starting implementing some TM strategies tomorrow. :0)

    1. I find Guinness to be the only horse I do this with. It's so strange how they can get under your skin. It really is as if we are an old married couple!
      Good luck with Speedy!

  2. Great post. Its so true. So many stressors in life and sometimes it just comes out when you're at the barn, especially after a long day at work and you're hungry and pissy and tired. And sometimes we take it personally because, well, it's personal to us!

    For the walking strategy though, depending on the root of the issue, could that not be accidentally rewarding the horse for bad behavior? One idea (pretty sure it's from Daniel Stewart's Ride Right psych clinic) is to do a mental checklist of the tools in your toolbox as your tacking up or warming up, so they are more at the ready if he should, say, take the wrong lead. That way instead of a "reboot" its a "safe mode start up." Just an idea.

  3. Sarah, those are great tips too! I'm certainly not one for rewarding a misbehavior, so I understand where you are coming from with the question about taking a break.
    Typically, if I'm walking away from an exercise it's not really due to a disobedience on my horse's part at that point. More me recognizing that we aren't communicating and it's stressing us both out.
    I'll have to start reviewing my tools, though. I love it!

  4. It's really hard for me not to take it personally sometimes. It's also hard for me to find a happy medium between letting my horse do whatever he wants and picking a fight.


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