My lessons last weekend really got me thinking, and it took me a bit to organize my thoughts into words. My weekend students are wonderful, caring riders, but they were struggling with my basic approach to riding and training today. I felt as if I had failed them because they were getting frustrated at my requests while i clearly hadn’t explained things well. Here is my attempt to put into words something so big and yet so small all at the same time.
When we are riding we always have a goal of some sort even when we have worked hard to nor have any goals. It is in our nature to create and work towards these goals, however simple they may be. I have long told my students that goals are ok, but plans are not. I think this may be the breakdown of communication.
Goals are great because they give you a sense of direction and purpose. They allow you to keep moving forward at a slow and steady pace dictated by your horse.
Plans get in the way of progress by tying you down to working on specific tasks. Instead of riding the horse, situation, or problem you have that day you are stuck on the plan and what you are supposed to work on.
Goals provide general long term direction while plans provide in the moment action. In simple terms goals are great and plans are bad. But what does that really look like while riding?
I think in the past when I have said “don’t make plans” or “don’t get attached to plans” my students have taken that to mean they dont need to come to the ring with a course to perfect, a movement to drill, or a skill to master. What I actually mean is something much bigger and much more basic.
The simplest explanation of this is by example. One of my students has a horse that loses his straightness and falls in to catch his balance. Her plan may be to canter down the rail of the arena, turn up center line, and go over a jump. If she is focused on that plan she will do the logical thing when her horse falls in by picking his shoulder up and pushing him back out. This sort of works, although not very well because she hasn’t addressed the lack of balance her horse has. However, if she is focused on the plan of cantering from point A to point B this seems like the best approach. Here she is being a good rider by moving past the issue as quickly as possible to get through the plan. This is how I would tell someone to ride at a show.
At home is not the place to be a good rider and stick through the plan. At home is the time to work towards the general goal with whatever plan suits you in the moment. This requires flexibility and adaptability to create and abandon plans at a whim as they become useful or useless.
So what might this picture look like?
Given the same situation where the original plan is to canter down the rail and turn up center line to go over a fence the rider will begin cantering on the rail. As the horse begins to lose balance and fall in the rider must address her overall goal: to get the horse balanced, supple, and moving correctly to then eventually train to be a jumper. Ignoring the issue of balance doesn’t fix it, so the rider must abandon the plan at least temporarily in order to address the lack of balance. To do this the rider may instead circle to horse and ask him to bend his body around the circle – thus gaining balance. The rider can then continue down the rail and go along with the original plan of going to the fence unless something else comes up along the way.
This flexibility and adaptability allows the rider to be more focused on the big picture than the immediate plan. To truly create the partnership you want you have to be able to let all your immediate desires and plans go in order to put the foundation first. If you horse isn’t relaxed, balanced, supple, through, and soft to your aids is there really any point in doing much else? In the good moments you can absolutely mix it up to keep the work fresh, but this is the ultimate goal that every minute of your time should be addressing. Slow is fast and the foundation must always be addressed and strengthened otherwise all your other training will fall apart like a house built without cement in a strong wind.