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Slow Work is not Slow Going

Many wise horsemen and women in all disciplines talk about horse training in words that go something along these lines: “The slower you go, the faster you get there.” My long-lost ancestor, Aesop (yes, he of the Fables), even told a story about this. You might know it as the Tortoise and the Hare? Being Greek myself, and a not-so-fabled-storyteller, I always took Aesop’s story to mean “don’t assume you can’t win or you will win; it’s dedication and persistence that gets you across the finish line.”

Now, after years of educating myself in the language, behavior, and training of horses, “going slower” means something much more to me than it might have when I first heard it. Dedication is there. Persistence, too, but there’s even more to it than that.

I’ve found that the people most successful at training horses to be healthy, happy, balanced, under their own self-control physically and emotionally, and competent at their disciplines, are very, and I mean VERY, methodical about their approach to horse training. Nothing is unimportant, no detail, movement, or behavior too small to be analyzed, processed, and used in their approach to helping a horse learn. Such meticulous observation and analysis cannot lead to a fast training process, then.

So, when good trainers speak of getting there faster by working more slowly, I believe they mean:

1) Slow your movements, gestures, and energy down when working with a horse if you want it to understand you better, understand you well in a shorter amount of time, and if you want it to actually listen to you in a relaxed state of mind; and

2) don’t be in a hurry to reach high-end goals (going bitless, doing flying lead changes, winning ribbons, moving up the dressage testing levels, or executing perfect reining stops); the slower you work and the more you work on the basics, the faster you will get to executing those end-goals with a horse that is sound in mind and body when he does them.

Now, I’ve always been a “fast” kind of gal: fast learner, fast runner (in my younger days, anyway), fast cook (no time-consuming Boeuf Bourguignon recipes for me, thank you very much), fast eater, fast sports player (Golf? Pfah! I needed the explosive kind of team sports), fast to get ready, etc…

Somehow, when it came to horses, though, I liked things not so fast.

I played polo, for example, but never liked the really “fast” aspect of it: galloping to be first to the ball, chasing down the lone forward who was heading to the goal I was defending. These things were too fast, noisy, even scary for me! I liked the strategic side of it: getting my horse to be first on the line, only to wait for my opponent to catch up so I could ride him or her off and let my teammate behind me have the glory of backing that ball or hitting it hard down the field; moving off the line at a perfect angle to receive a tail shot from my teammate; taking a penalty, with my sweet time, and putting the ball in. Even better? The time before and after the chukkers, spent grooming, tacking up, wrapping legs, braiding tails. My husband never understood the enchantment of it.

“I don’t get it,” he would say, “you go to play polo, but only really play for about 20 minutes. Most of the time is spent with the horses, on the ground, getting ready to play or cooling off from playing.”

“I know,” I’d reply, smiling, “isn’t it awesome?”

Even as a kid, I didn’t dream of galloping up hills into the sunset, a hawk screeching overhead, my sword flashing in the last ray of sun, my horse’s mane wildly waving as he snorted…(Okay, I was romantic in my images, even the ones I didn’t fantasize about!) My fantasy images were more like me hugging my horse’s neck as he munched on a carrot. Me walking in the forest on the ground with my horse, and falling off a ledge; my horse would run, whinnying for help because he loved me. You get the picture.

I haven’t changed much. Even as the reality of life in all its bittersweet moments has crushed some of those fantasies because I now know better (my horse might run, whinnying, but not to help me! He’d be running to get back to his herd, right?), I continue to hold fast to doing things slow. And, what do you know? It seems to be the right thing to do!

And I never worked as slowly as I do now, because for about 30 years, the horses I was given to ride by bosses and friends were always very seasoned horses. They didn’t need much from me other than exercise. I also never presumed to tinker with someone else’s horse. I did what I was asked to do, and tried to do it as unobtrusively as I could. I really wanted to be asked back to ride again. And I always wanted the horse to like having me ride him or her. I still do.

What is different, is that, when I finally got to start my own colt and green-broke mare (almost three years ago now, when I turned 50), I found myself slowing down more than ever before. I walked slower, brushed them more slowly, approached them with a lesser pace, asked for things with more patience and gave them time to respond. I had no set agenda for goals I expected to achieve with them within a specific time period; I let them set the pace of our work. Part of this came from my inexperience with training young ones; I didn’t want to rush headlong into major mistakes and cause them trauma or train them incorrectly. For 30 years prior, the horses I had dealt with were always ones that had tough pasts, or rough lives, and I remember the look of fear in their eyes when others rode or handled them; I didn’t want my own horses to ever need to feel the emotions that caused such an expression. Also, I had been a mother for more than 2 decades at this point and was into my sixth decade of life, so my maturity and maternal instinct and experience were screaming at me to be quiet, to be soft, to be slow. So, I listened. I took it slowly.

How slow is slowly? Well, I spent probably more time reading and studying about training horses than I did actually training them! I found the patience to watch hourlong educational videos (Thank God for Warwick Schiller, who I discovered on YouTube before becoming a subscriber), whereas before I couldn’t even watch five minutes-worth.

From a trail rider that rode two hours a day, five days a week, I became an avid groundworker and horse walker, taking my horses for walks around the neighborhood and on the trails like puppies on a leash. My riding sessions got shorter and shorter, some as short as 10 minutes if I really wanted to express how thrilled I was that my horse had figured something out that we had been working on. I went to horse expos, observed, took notes, asked questions.

I ordered books, I studied the past greats and the present ones. I took notes, rewrote them, studied them. I audited clinics, participated in one or two, but mostly watched, took notes, gathered data. It was a slow process. But, eventually, all that time spent sowing the seeds bore fruit. I began to understand horses (and mine, in particular) ever more deeply. I began to see things I never saw before (the twitching of the trigeminal nerve; the now not-so-innocent bumping into me with their shoulders; the softness – or lack of it—in the eyes). I recorded myself on video (oh, how that slowed my workouts down…) and spent hours studying my work, finding the holes, celebrating the tiny victories.

There were times I thought maybe I just wasn’t that good. Maybe I had lost my way. My horses didn’t seem to be advancing; there were times they seemed stuck in a circle of non-progress. Other horsepeople across the globe were competing, jumping bridleless, showing videos of their horses in perfect, “good banana” frame, or having calm gallops in only a halter. I was celebrating that my horse didn’t pull back when I picked up a lead rope. Or, that he understood my hand signal for “stop!” Or that I could brush him without tying him up.

My friends or people I’d get into a conversation would ask me “So, what do you DO with your horses?”

I never had an answer that satisfied or registered with the questioners. I finally began to answer in the best way possible: “I work on connection with them.” The questioners would try hard to stop their eyebrow from moving upward, but I could see their blank expression, or mental shoulder shrug. They would then amble off to another conversation that was, perhaps, more satisfying.

I started a blog, hoping to engage in more horsey conversations with an audience that might actually get what I was trying to do. I built my blog and social media pages--you guessed it--slowly. My thought behind them was “Let me tell you and show you what I do, but not all at once, slowly. Here are some stories, some video clips, some images…maybe, then, you will understand.” I pieced the various elements together like a mosaic, hoping the deeper story of who I am, what my horses mean to me, and what we are all learning together would shine through.

Getting an audience was slow-going at first. I must have seemed strange to those who have more experience, success, professional recognition, and sponsors. I must have seemed like a pesky fly to them! To those less enlightened than I, I was an anomaly and spoke a language they couldn’t understand as they only wanted to discuss what kind of bit would make their horse stop rearing. And then, one day, things began to click. Viewing number skyrocketed. I began to understand what might “speak” to a broader, enlightened audience. My honesty began to be appreciated. I began to participate in discussions and make good friends from them. Some professionals started to take notice. One even called to tell me that he had been following me for a year and felt I had really turned a corner in my understanding and execution. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. So, working slow really did work!

All that time spent getting the horses to line up at liberty and face me, relaxed, happy, quiet, made them connect with me more and more.

All that time simply doing the Left-Right Exercise paid off (This is one of Warwick’s exercises, where you start your ride at the walk, and allow the horse to choose where to go. If your horse leans left, you slowly slide your hand down the right rein and veer him right, and vice versa. If you then release the rein only when that side’s ear is pointed at you and he is moving with bend, over time you will get a very straight, supple horse, happy to move anywhere he is pointed at.)

All that time standing or sitting in the arena, in the field, by the trailer, in the trailer, on the trail, or in the stall waiting for my horse’s tensed face and mouth/jaw to release into a nice lick and chew, maybe a yawn, and definitely an exhale had not been for naught.

Working on asking my horse to move only his inside hind, or to straddle a pole, or to simply stand still…these were all critical building blocks that were constructing a strong foundation of communication, understanding, relaxation, and, yes, connection between me and my horses. Looked at in isolation, they might have look weird, useless, or even downright wrong to others, but the proof, my friends, is in the equine pudding.

My horses look to me today with engaged curiosity, not fear, reluctance, or avoidance; “What will she teach us today?” they seem to ask, or, “How will I get to show her my talents today?” “Will she noticed that I figured out how to stand still without being tied up?” “I want to try that weird cavaletti challenge thingy she set up last week.” They look forward to my interactions with them, and know that rarely are two interactions ever the same. I show up, see what they need in that moment, and go from there.

What is always the same? I work slowly. I move slowly. I let them learn slowly. They allow for my slow progress as a rider re-learning proper positioning, balance, and feel. They probably smile to themselves every evening, knowing I will come back slower and better tomorrow on the things I did badly today (they may not realize it’s because I watch the video back and catch all my mistakes!). My horses also know that, when we work together, there is never a time pressure at play. We have all the time in the world to get that one little thing right, better, or great. As master horseman Van Hargis says, we work until I can say “That was perfect…for now.”

As a more-than-middle-age woman, whose children are all surpassing her in height, intelligence, and capacity, I can verify that life is passing by very fast. But, in taking it slow, I am enjoying every milestone my horses and I reach together (for that matter, I’d say we are reaching millimeter-stones that feel like milestones!). And, as an impatient, over-achieving, fast-talking Greek, learning to appreciate the slow process of connecting with my horses has been a huge, humbling, nourishing life lesson. I am so grateful, and will always be, to my horses and horse mentors for offering up this lesson to me. Onwards and upwards, folks! Slowly!

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