“Shut Up and Dance”
It was written on one of those little tin lapel pins and my friend wore it when we went to bars back in the day. It was like a rebel yell of a Zen mantra; we’d dance with men or women or dogs. It was a rambunctious celebration of being young and alive. We frolicked like colts cantering about a field, snorting and kicking up our hooves. Free.
Then life happened. We got distracted by family and careers. We bought calendars and scribbled appointments and noticed the sound of our parent’s voices coming out of our mouths. We learned the attraction of a slow dance because we were hurried all the time.
Before that, if we’d had the wild luck to have a horse, we’d climb on and if we wanted to go to the woods, but the horse wanted to go to that patch of tall grass behind the barn, there was no problem. We went to that patch of tall grass behind the barn.
Horses taught us to be spontaneous, but our new-found maturity, we decided we needed to steer our horses, control their heads, make them do a task. As soon as that happened, we started missing the way it used to be with horses when we were kids.
As the magic escaped us, we searched for what we lost. We asked for help from a neighbor or a local trainer. In my case, I got a book from the library because it was before the time of the Computasaurus.
Some of us found videos put out by trainers who were smart enough to see a need in the market. Technique got seasoned with the sweetness of financial gain… for the trainer. We were desperate to do better for our horses, who had about lost patience with us by now. Which means we had about lost patience with techniques.
We tried our best to find someone who knew the path back to how it was but there isn’t a trainer in the world who holds his hand up and declares, “I train with cruelty and abuse.” Still, some do. Each trainer had a different definition of leadership, along with various techniques for picking up feet, doing canter departs, and everything else. Some work and some don’t.
Disclaimer: Horse people are very opinionated, and everyone is certain their way is absolutely right. This includes me.
We got good advice and we got bad advice, but then we layered that with conflicting advice, and finally on top of that, what worked for your horse one day, probably didn’t work on another day. So we ended up with lots of techniques vying for dominance in our minds, and we got more involved with our thoughts than our horses.
Horses keep telling us that they are individuals and we keep trying to squeeze them into a succession of one-size-fits-all training plans that never quite fit.
Some of the horses didn’t show us much tolerance as we flounder with a new technique. They gave us calming signals because we were abrupt or gave cues louder than we intended. Or we didn’t really understand the new technique, so our confidence was a bit frail and the horses responded to that with confusion. Eventually, tired frustration made it feel like nothing worked but aggression, and that only worked if you kept escalating. Like a rat on a wheel, driven by compulsion and not inspiration.
A plague of doubt. And it doesn’t matter if it started with your horse or you. It was contagious.
The secret no one seems to mention is the technique, regardless of whose technique it is, will never be enough. A technique is a noun, a thing like a skeleton or a box. It’s dry science until we clothe it with creativity, make it our own, and then allow our horses to discover it for themselves. A technique is hollow until each rider breathes their unique life into it and then introduces it to their unique horse.
It’s a catch-22: The technique won’t work unless we are inspired by it but it’s hard to be inspired by a flat technique.
The answer is that we have to embrace the art of training. We must believe in the what if. We might need to show our horses more confidence than we have in the beginning.
Shakespeare, the bard of theater, said, “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” It’s a much more poetic way of saying fake it, till you make it, but your horse is reading you right back as you read him. Can you be interesting and mysterious?
Put your doubt on a shelf and let the play begin. Let your serious goals for training take back seat to spontaneity. Lighten up with the science, horses like recess more than books. You were once that way, too, remember? Laugh at yourself. Let him see you try and if you stumble, laugh more. Show him it’s more fun to try than to stand back and doubt.
Success depends on not how well you mimic the particular technique you are using, but instead, how well you listen to your horse and engage him in the moment.
Technique is necessary and good. Then, shut up and dance.