Failing Forward

Originally Published April 19, 2021

Hope and Iva are doing fantastic. They took their first solo ride on the property last week. The plans for Hope were somewhat loose at first, and I am pleased that instead of me doing the work to bring Hope around to a new way of life, I’ve been able to help Iva learn how to do it herself together with Hope. Iva has been around my horses and observing my particular way of working for years on and off as well as working for and riding at other barns. She has seen a variety of methods and approaches and ridding, and cared for a fair amount of horses in her young life. Now she has the opportunity to dig in and do it herself with a horse that gives her freedom to learn, in an environment that encourages (for lack of a better expression) the Hope Horsemanship way of a relationship firstprocess.

It has also given me the gift of being able to work closely with someone to help them in making the process their own. My goal for Hope Horsemanship is not to train horses but to encourage people who are seeking answers to find them and own the process so they don’t get a trained horse, they get a partnership.

Unfortunately trained horses become “untrained” as soon as the patterns the trainer set into place are undone by a human if they do not understand the foundational work. Many horses are so generous in spirit they are still safe reliable mounts no matter what the human does. They “fill in” gracefully and usually unnoticed. Other horses do not fill in and these become the “problem horses” and are passed along home to home until they find a rider strong willed enough to force them into at least basic compliance, or if they are fortunate someone with the understanding and skill to partner with them. These “problem horses” are often amazing horses waiting for the right connection to bloom. Their brilliance is often waiting to be tapped by understanding of how to take what was seen as a “malfunction” and turn it to something positive. Brilliance can be used for good or evil as we know!

Hope is no problem child. She is looking for a solid leader. However once this is satisfied she is willing to comply and wants to work together. She has a lovely disposition and a kind and humble heart. She is a perfect horse for Iva to learn and grow with.

Wyoming on the other hand is what many might consider a problem child. She is intelligent and communicative, bold and quite friendly. Yet she is not an easy horse to move forward through the normal “school” system. I’ve had her a few years now and she has regularly demonstrated a one step forward two steps sideways pattern that often has me excited at a victory then confused when the slide off the cliff seems to come close on its heels.

I’ve ridden this mare on the trails, around the arena, I’ve gone slower to fill in holes and gaps, I’ve moved faster to not get “stuck in kindergarten”, I’ve introduced lots of new things and I’ve tried sticking with a pattern to bring familiarity. Forward, sideways, backward, forward, the journey has often more questions than answers for me.

Today I’ve been considering in horses and life the contrast of success and failure. I think all would agree that success is more fun hands down. Yet I’ve never learned as much from a success than I have from each failure. Every time I’ve not gotten where I had set out to go, or accomplished the goal I set I’ve learned something about myself, about my horse, about the world, and I have heard more than once that the magic is in failing in the right direction, or as I think of it: Failing Forward.

The other day I took Wyoming out of the field to do some work together.  Instead of trying to ride her I decided to mix up something we have foundationally solidified in the past: standing to mount; with something that is still challenging for her: leaving the field to explore new places on the new farm.

I took the mounting block challenge idea from February (Mounting Block Challenge Video) and adjusted it to walking through woods, around the main house and fields. What I found to some dismay was the horse who had learned to stand while I got on and off had begun a pattern of walking off as I was dismounting. That was not a good pattern to continue, but depending on where we went even standing still and in place for me to get on began to break down.

This fundamental previously simple thing for us was showing serious cracks. Instead of being upset by this, I was fascinated. How could our foundation at this point be so full of holes. I observed and experimented and began with making the wrong thing much harder. If she did not line up with me and if she moved while I went to put my foot in the stirrup I put her into motion and at one point had her cantering circles in an open area both directions.

This did bring about my intended result eventually because she did not want to have to run so hard, but I knew something was still weak under the surface.

I could make her choose the right answer, but I was acutely aware that she was not buying into the plan. I could sense that under the surface she was… not ok with it. Even as she would stand still and get control of herself, she was not at peace. I had her body doing the right thing, her mind was working, but what I saw was the emotional system was being overridden but not strengthened.

Khaleesi is the horse you will probably hear the least about in these blogs. She is the true beginning of Hope Horsemanship because she is the first horse I started from untouched. Six years later we are working together well and the things I learn from her are more subtle. The road with her was so different from the switchbacks and curves with Wyoming. K does not tend to be a highly emotional horse. It doesn’t take much for me to bring K back to her mental system and if she goes “up” it’s not hard for me to dial her back “down” pretty quickly. She doesn’t lose her head often or for long.

Wyoming has more emotional reactions and once she does it is not easy to dial her back into a mental-thinking state. I have ways to bring her back by asking her things she knows that she can do, I allow her to keep moving through the reaction but ask her to control her feet and where she moves. Yet even so, the disturbance is there still– right under the surface. Panic and anxiety just below the skin. 

With Khaleesi I can get a big burst of blow up, move through it quickly and come back and move forward- kind of like a geyser. With Wyoming, the simmering pot, once we’ve hit boiling over it’s going to take a lot of time to bring her back down.

I do not think I saw this clearly in the past because she would do her best to comply with the request… until she couldn’t. So physically on the surface especially if I wanted to see success it looked pretty good. The other day however as I noted the basic steps we had cemented in months past crumbled beneath me in new places I saw that if her emotions took over she just could not comply.

This clarity seems to fit hindsight for me as well. One thing that was curious for me is how she would lay down on the trail and roll- yes with me on her and with the saddle. It didn’t feel mean spirited – and when she finished laying down (not being able to roll especially as I insisted she get up and act like a “real horse” for goodness sake) she would let me get back on and we’d continue together usually better than before.

I’ve been watching her rolling habits and though some of them are after a ride to scratch and rub the saddle itchies, I’ve also seen her do it in ways that now I would say were a moment of emotional release. Even though she had complied with carrying me out onto the trail with a buddy, under the surface she wasn’t all ok and the build up had to come out somewhere. I think the roll was a physical outlet for her. Like a childish need to suck a thumb to pacify herself. When she finished things would be more relaxed for a time.

Eventually trying to get her to leave the property for a trail ride brought various levels of bucking and even rearing which told me once again that there were holes in the foundation, and simply doing it more often was not filing in the holes, it was widening them. She was saying: I can’t.

I have heard Stacy Westfall talk about horses needing to learn emotional control early in their training. Overcoming negative emotions (fear and anxiety especially) take practice. I believe most horses get this without people thinking a whole lot about it, but in some cases when horses are more controlled by an “overactive” emotional system this may need more intentional work. 

I have found over recent years, being more aware of this in my own life, the more often I have a fear that I face with my mental system (the truth I know) the more adept I get at keeping my head and not drowning in the feelings that come. Each time I face something that feels frightening and get through without my fears being realized I can take that and build on it. Is it possible that horses’ emotional systems run in a similar though simpler fashion?

I have a strong mental side and do not tend toward overactive emotionalism however I do have triggers and emotional “nerves” that will make an exaggerated reaction. I have friends who can go into an all-out panic attack over things that don’t make sense to me, but the feelings are so real they affect the physical system and the mental system is held hostage to the entire thing. Anxiety and panic attacks are not generally of real dangers, but that doesn’t make them any less real when the system is under attack. You cannot rationalize someone out of a panic attack.

I don’t have satisfactory answers yet about this in humans or in horses. I would consider on the surface my mounting block challenge work the other day a “failure” because the horse in the very video I created to show the activity could not perform the simple activity in the new environment.

However- this “failure” has given me insight and new questions to work with than the success ever would. I have come to see that success is not always about doing my goal as I set out to do, but for this horse- who I value and see so much brilliance and beauty in – I want to help her move toward confidence and strength and trust. In that process I am going to learn and grow myself.

I am not convinced she will ever be confident and comfortable taking on new places and challenges as my more domestic horses, but I have to do what I can because not trying leaves her in a place of being anxious about every new stimuli in her world. That is a vulnerable place to be. I cannot control her environment completely for the next 20 years.

Maybe I can help her strengthen her emotional-mental system so that even if scary things enter her world- if they aren’t truly dangerous (there is a difference between things that are unknown and things that are dangerous and learning the difference is important)- if she isn’t in danger then having the confidence to stand and be able to process a reaction will keep her from exploding which is generally uncomfortable and takes a lot of energy not to mention can cause ulcers and a weakened immune system.

** Follow up**

Yesterday I went back to try again and watch for signs of her anxiety under the skin. The foundational issues in mounting were gone completely and she lined up beautifully- all until the last, farthest point. I could see her emotional system being stretched, but not far enough to create a boiling over. In time she overcame the anxiety even there and stood for me to mount and dismount with minimal concern.

I hope consistency will begin to bring confidence and of course the new things will always become less new as exposure increases. 

What I look forward to learning is if increasing the new experiences to include some offsite trailer trips this year will help build confidence or break down her ability to cope.

For some horses like Khaleesi, stirring the pot to create a reaction in a safe environment to make sure she learns how to control and face new things and emotional spikes have been important to making her a safe horse to be around and ride. I am not sure if this approach is good for Wyoming, yet. I may need to be more aware to gradually bring her toward simmering and then have a release valve to bring her down to comfort. This may be a maturity issue in her handling development, or it might be part of who she is individually.

Stay tuned!

Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

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