When I was younger, I used to think the more I practiced the things I wanted my horses to learn, the better they would go. I believed more repetitions of the same exercise would automatically lead to improvement because, as we’ve all heard, practice makes perfect. I wanted to be a good trainer, so I practiced - a lot. But over the years, my mindset has shifted from “practicing” skills and movements to playing with them. It’s a subtle distinction that has made a big difference in my work with horses.
I still believe in practice, to a point. Without practice, without doing the daily work, our horses will not become balanced athletes or willing partners. We need to spend enough time stretching the horse’s back, gymnasticizing both of his sides equally, developing his top line, building his confidence. None of this happens overnight. There is a big kernel of truth to the saying that a good horse comes from lots of wet saddle blankets.
But when we hear the word “practice”, many of us understand this as practicing a movement or pattern over and over, until we’re satisfied. “Practice” goes hand in hand with the saying “No pain, no gain!” or a phrase I heard a lot in Germany as a child: “Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen!” which means “First, you work. When you’re done, you can have fun.” The underlying belief is that joy gets in the way of progress. That, if you’re having a good time, it does not count as practice. The truth is, if we try to grind out fifty trot lengthenings because we’re not satisfied and, dammit, we’re not going to quit until we’re happy with the result, we’re not only being unfair to the horse. We’re depriving ourselves of joy. We’re depriving ourselves of partnership. We are also standing in the way of true learning.
I think we all need to play more - play with advanced movements, with new skills, with trail obstacles. But what is play? And can we make progress if we don’t engage in serious practice?
Social scientist Dr. Peter Gray defines five elements of play. Here’s how they apply to connecting with horses:
“Play is self-chosen and self-directed.”
Play is anything that no one makes us do. For most of us, this is true for riding horses, but sometimes, when we put pressure on ourselves, riding can feel like an obligation, like a chore. I’ve been there. When I was working seven days a week, riding ten or more horses a day, and feeling pressured from owners to show quick results, riding no longer felt like something I wanted to do. But when I tried to quit, it didn’t take me long to realize I still woud rather ride horses all day than do anything else. Now, I once again love my work, though I only work six days a week, and eight or nine horses a day. I also remind myself every day that riding is something I choose to do, not something I have to do.
2. “Play is intrinsically motivated.”
When we play, the process is more important than the outcome. Riding itself matters more than the goals we set for ourselves and our horses.
Of course, play can have goals, e.g. winning a class at a show, but the goal is not what keeps us in the game. I used to get discouraged at shows and clinics because I defined my worth as a trainer through how I placed. Now, I remind myself every time I show I would still ride horses all day, every day, even if I placed last. I want to ride the best I can, of course, but I do this for its own sake, and the horse’s sake. Once the goal (the blue ribbon, the high score, the obedient horse . . . ) means more to us than the journey to get there, training horses is no longer truly play. It becomes a contest.
3. “Play is guided by rules, but the rules leave room for creativity.”
Play may look random, but if you think about it, all play is based on rules, from video games to team sports to children building mud pies. The crucial point is that these rules are flexible enough to allow creative reinterpretation. This is true for good horsemanship: we want to follow what time and experience have proven to work, but we also need to adjust these rules because each horse is an individual and circumstances change. It’s important to remember that the training scale is not set in stone. Our favorite clinician is not infallible. Rules provides guidance, but they don’t dictate everything we do every minute we spend with our horses. Good horsemanship means we know the rules, but we also know we can bend them to some degree if we need to.
4. “Play is imaginative.”
Imagination plays a key role in keeping our horse time enjoyable. When I was a child, my friends and I spent lots of time goofing around on our ponies, pretending we were medieval knights or outlaws on the run. This may not have made us expert riders, but it kept us laughing and wanting to spend tons of time on horseback. Now, I try to help my students learn by conjuring up mental images: a horse’s free walk should feel like a big cat strutting through a forest, soft contact should feel like a pleasant handshake with a celebrity you’ve been dying to meet, etc. I find this works much better than barking “Heels down!” I also try to use my imagination in competitive situations, like dressage shows. The random letters and white breeches are part of a pretend world we choose to play in for a weekend, but then we go back to the real world, i.e. the barn. If we take ourselves too seriously, joy evaporates.
5. “Play is conducted in an active, alert, but relatively stress-free frame of mind.”
This is the most important feature of play. Playing puts us in a flow state. What we’re doing absorbs us to a degree where we forget about how much time has passed. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to spend hours every day in this flow state, which feels focused and relaxed at once. It’s not a conscious effort to get things right. It’s a frame of mind where mistakes are no big deal, where backtracking is perfectly fine. We laugh off the bad transition or bungled flying change and try again, or maybe don’t try again until it feels right later. I don’t feel tense and stressed. Neither do my horses. And yet, we improve.
Yes, let’s all play more. It may seem counterintuitive, but I find my horses and I learn better that way.