Common Ground: The Seven Deadly Sins of Horsemanship
The path to good horsemanship is not always smooth, despite our good intentions.
As a recovering Catholic, I have stopped believing in much of what I learned in church as a child - with some exceptions. Working with horses has taught me that a few of the concepts I first heard about during catechism still make sense, for example the seven deadly sins. They won’t send you into eternal hellfire, but they’ll keep you from reaching a harmony-filled horse-human connection, which is, at least for me, a worse fate. Here’s why:
1. Greed Greed means wanting more than what you have already. When you’re working with horses, greed can sneak into your practice of any new movement or skill your horse is learning. Let’s say you’re teaching your horse to leg yield. After some trial and error, your horse finally takes a couple of steps forward and sideways. You feel elated. You’re excited to show off the new maneuver to anyone who is watching. You also want to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke, so you keep asking for more steps. Pretty soon, one of two things happens: either your horse loses interest in going sideways and starts to resist, which means you have wasted an opportunity and have to start over, or your horse enjoys going sideways so much that he now uses it to avoid other things he has learned but finds more difficult, which means you have to re-teach him those movements, e.g. going straight.
Greed likes to disguise itself as diligence and dedication. Practicing something over and over works fine in golf or tennis - sports that involve non-sentient balls that don’t mind being hit all day instead of a living, breathing animal. In working with horses, greed is the enemy of progress. I’ve been guilty of greed many times before I knew better, and even after I knew better. It’s easy to get greedy in training, especially with willing, talented horses. Stay strong. Resist the temptation. Be happy with little, reward often, take breaks before your horse forces you to. If your horse improves a tiny little bit every day, he will improve 100 percent in 100 days.
When your horse learns a new skill, be content with little at first.
2. Envy The green-eyed monster will suck all joy out of your horse time if you let it. Comparing yourself to other riders, and your horse to other horses, can be a positive thing because great riders make great role models. Participating in shows and clinics exposes us to the type of horsemanship we want to practice. Watching a rider with truly soft, following hands and perfect body alignment float through an FEI test or watching a spectacular ranch horse pattern in a championship class can help fuel the fire of our ambition. On the other hand, watching riders we perceive as perfect perform spectacular movements on horses that seem too flawless to be real can be a recipe for feeling less than satisfied with our own riding, and our own horse. I’ve slunk away from shows and clinics feeling like the world’s worst equestrian, an impostor who will eventually be found out and expelled from the club.
How do you recognize you’re crossing the line from constructive comparison into the destructive wasteland of envy? It’s simple: when you quit enjoying the here and now of your riding, or quit appreciating your relationship with the horse you’re riding. It’s ok to have ambitions and goals. It’s not ok to let them consume you.
3. Lust I don’t mean the lust you feel when looking at the latest Dover catalogue, or a sales video of a horse with a price tag ten times your upper limit. If I remember my catechism correctly, St.
Augustine originally defined lust as “disordered love.” In horsemanship, disordered love takes the form of a smothering, misguided affection, which leads to a lack of clear boundaries between you and your horse. Loving your horse means loving him enough to want to make him the best horse he can be. Rewarding a horse is great, but rewarding a horse for random things at random times will only confuse him. Horses thrive on consistency. Many riders who claim to love their horses give them mixed messages instead: rewards for no reason, or rewards the horse does not perceive as a reward. Don’t go there - be clear, be consistent. Your horse will thank you in the long run.
4 . Gluttony Overfeeding your horse is not kind and can lead to all sorts of equine health problems. Overfeeding yourself can have the same effect. Horses should not carry more than 20 percent of their weight. An average full-size horse weighs in around 1000 pounds, the average Western saddle about 30 or more. Do the math and be considerate. Riding is more than sitting on top of a horse - it’s a sport that requires physical fitness and body awareness. Do your horse a favor and get yourself into the best shape you can be.
5. Sloth Laziness is not working with your horse on a regular basis. There’s a difference between skipping a session fora legitimate reason and looking for all sorts of flimsy excuses to avoid getting on the horse. A blizzard is legitimate, a breeze is not. Of course you shouldn’t ride a sick or lame horse, but often, some exercise, like hand walking, is better than none even then. Looking for shortcuts is another common form of laziness.
No, using a thinner bit will not make a horse’s mouth softer. No, using draw reins will not teach the horse to accept contact. Sorry, but there is no substitute for spending the time it takes to develop a responsive horse.
6. Wrath Good riders are calm riders, which isn’t always easy. Horses can be so stubborn, so opinionated. They’re good at testing human patience - so good that most of us have reached the limit of that patience at some point or other. It’s not worth it. Two minutes of anger can undo two years’ worth of careful training. Take a deep breath, or five, or ten.
Use creative visualizations. I like to picture a misbehaving horse roasted to a crisp, on a serving platter, next to a big mound of mashed potatoes. When all else fails, get off the horse. Kick a rock, or even better, use the angry energy to clean a couple of stalls. It helps to think of your horse as a great Zen master - someone who helps you find you inner yogi.
7. Pride Like Envy, pride can be a positive thing in small doses. Taking pride in what you do will make you want to do it better. But too much pride can keep you and your horse from making progress, or worse, get you hurt. It’s ok to admit you don’t know something, or to ask for help when things get difficult. Really. I wish I had sought the advice of my wise mentors sooner, and more often, when I was younger, instead of muddling through training issues by myself because I thought I had to as a trainer. It’s possible to problem-solve through trial and error alone, but sound advice from a professional you trust works much more quickly.
What did I forget? Are there more than seven deadly sins? Please add your two (or more) cents, and happy riding,
Copyright for all images: Norman Thelwell, the greatest pony cartoonist ever.