Several of the horse lovers here at Vista Verde have gotten hooked on podcasts from horse trainer Julie Goodnight. Julie is a Colorado-based trainer who also partners as a clinician with our friends and fellow dude-ranchers at C Lazy U Ranch. We love the way she approaches teaching and training with her pragmatic philosophy that is inclusive to all types of riders. Maybe part of why we all like her style is that it is very similar to the teaching philosophy of our head wrangler Mary and all of us here at Vista Verde. These podcasts triggered us to share some of the concepts and then mix in some thoughts on horses and horsemanship with all of you. We are putting together a series of blog posts, and we hope you enjoy the first installment.
HORSES AND MIDDLE SCHOOLERS–ONE AND THE SAME?
It is a serene moment at the ranch that changes dramatically for what seems to be no reason. The horses are quietly munching on their dinner, and all seems good with in the world. Suddenly, there is a dinosaur-like roar as one horse squeals and kicks out and then quickly departs the hay pile to go stand by himself or find a new spot in the pasture. It all seems so random and arbitrary, but there is a method to the madness. If you watch a little longer, you will start to see patterns. Horses have one main goal in life–survival. To achieve that, they jockey for rank in the herd, access to the best resources, the most dominant friends, and, ultimately, safety. To achieve all this, they use their own system of communication that doesn’t make sense to the outside world until you stop and observe for a while. This may remind you of a different kind of herd you may have been a part of, or more recently observed–middle schoolers.
Horses are largely driven by their instinctual desire to stay together in herds, much like our beloved middle schoolers. It goes against their nature for horses and middle schoolers to want to do anything alone. For the middle schooler, it is called FOMO (fear of missing out), and for the horse it is how they have survived for hundreds of years. If your horse does not want to leave his friends, or she keeps steering you back to the herd, it’s not an evil ploy to make your life miserable, it’s just that they feel safest with their friends. This also plays out in their monkey-see, monkey-do behavior. Often when one horse spooks, many of their friends follow suit without even knowing what they are spooking at. Or you may have a hard time getting your horse to go across that downed tree on the trail, but as soon as one of their peers crosses, they are quick to follow. Can we all say, “peer pressure”? Just like middle schoolers, it works in positive and negative ways!
In a typical middle school classroom, you find a variety of student types–the teacher’s pet, the renegade, the quiet rule breaker, the one with the wiggles, the brilliant but unmotivated student, and the compliant yet unremarkable student. The same is true with horses. There are horses who are naturally brave at crossing creeks, seem to read your mind and do exactly what you ask, and just make you look great as a rider. On the other hand, there are horses who need extra direction, those we need to help see that the scary rock is not the boogie man, and those who will test you to see if you are going to be a leader or a pushover.
Likewise, some students excel at math and science, while others are excellent at the arts or athletics. Just as it is rare for any kid (or adult) to be good at everything they do, each horse has different areas of expertise. Some really like moving out by themselves and will go wherever you point them in the arena. Some are “cowy,” which means they excel at cattle work. Others are a real drag in the arena but bushwhack the backcountry terrain like a boss. In a world that involves no effort, each of us would get a horse who does everything perfectly, and you would look like the most amazing rider while your horse enables you to believe that story. In reality we get to find out where our horse excels and where they need improvement, which may resonate with many parents who have walked that path with their wonderfully imperfect children.
Now you enter as the teacher, or even more accurately, as a guest on your ranch vacation, the substitute teacher. And every substitute has someone who came before them, who may have let the students slack off and learn bad habits. Similarly, there is a saying that any horse you ride (unless you’re starting a young colt) has always had a rider before you. As the rider/substitute teacher, you are either training or un-training with every ride you take. That is why on the Monday morning Orientation Ride you may have your work cut out for you, breaking the habits of the last substitute teacher, and establishing yourself as the new leader. Once you shift your thinking to recognize that horses assimilate (take their cues from) to their riders, we can begin to strive for progress. Just as we may learn more from our kids than we teach, horses give us that same gift.
We look forward to helping you understand the traits and quirks of your horse when you come to the ranch. We have the most wonderful herd of patient and kind-hearted horses, even if they act like a bunch of middle schoolers sometimes!