"I'm Okay, You're Okay"
by Gincy Bucklin
I read somewhere that if you can remove all aspects of fear, the learning process is accelerated astronomically. At first glance, in terms of teaching riding, that sounds simple. Just use quiet horses and don't push the student beyond her ability, right? Wrong.
I have to admit that when I first began teaching Riding Without Fear, I thought that that was all that was involved. And certainly my pupils seem to learn correct techniques more quickly than by other methods. But I still had a lot of failures, students who became discouraged and quit, or went elsewhere. What was I doing wrong? I worked on being positive, offering encouragement, all the approved techniques. Better, but still not good enough.
The trouble, I think, derives from our emphasis on competition and on quick success. The pupil has an image of herself riding an advanced dressage test, or jumping a course, or maybe just cantering around the ring or riding on the trail. She wants to do those things, and she doesn't have the background to understand how long it takes to build the foundation necessary to do these things correctly. She only has time to ride once or twice a week. But, no matter how carefully you explain to her how long it takes to do these things, and show her the logic of how little time she is able to spend, and point out how well she is doing in spite of that, and how far she has come since last year, she feels that she is a failure. Once that idea has firmly established itself, each mistake she makes becomes a major failure on her part, rather than just a part of the learning process.
The part of riding where this thinking presents the most problems is in the area of "control" ( a word I don't like to use, because of the implications of the relationship.) Many pupils are quite contented as long as it is only themselves they have to deal with, but as soon as their relationship with the horse ceases to be a passive one, their espectations, and the related tensions, are conveyed to the horse,and then back to the rider again. This interaction creates an escalating situation of win-lose between horse and rider.
In the teaching process, the first aid I teach riders is the stick aid. I find that gentle use of the stick creates virtually no tension in the rider's or the horse's body. The only thing that the rider asks the horse to do is to move. If the rider's position is reasonably correct, virtually any horse can learn to move quietly forward at the walk to a gentle touch of the stick. As long as direction is not a factor the horse responds promptly and easily and the rider is not threatened with failure.
Where the problem begins is when the beginner starts to ask the horse for responses that require the horse--and thus the rider--to be balanced, in order to be comfortable, that is, turns and stops. I have had this experience over and over. The next aid I teach is a centering aid--moving the center laterally slightly away from the desired direction. The first time the student tries this she has no expectations, and thus no tensions, at all, and sure enough the horse responds correctly fairly promptly. The next time, or soon thereafter, for whatever reason the horse doesn't respond right away. He may be a little off balance, or distracted by another horse. Whatever the reason, the rider immediately becomes tense and frustrated. It didn't 'work.' She worries, and asks what she's doing wrong, and tries too hard, all of which make the horse equally tense and more and more unresponsive,
Now consider the advanced rider (I'm talking now a truly advanced, mature rider, who is comfortable with her weaknesses as well as her strengths--she knows, and knows she knows). She asks the horse for a turn and doesn't get the response she asked for. So she looks for a cause, whether in the horse or herself, and adjusts her aids accordingly. If she is unable to get the result she wants, she does not consider it as failure, but merely indication that there is some weakness in the horse's foundation that she needs to explore more completely. And at no time does the horse feel threatened about his failure.
Which brings us back to our less experienced rider. Whether she means to or not, she includes the horse in her 'failure.' The horse then begins to worry about whether or not he can do this. If she allows anger to enter, even though she thinks the anger is only frustration, the horse feels the anger and thinks it is directed against him. He becomes more tense, and perhaps angry, and then you have very much the same situation that you find in families who tend to fight whenever some member is tense about something. The tension is contagious, and so is the irritablility. In a group riding lesson, what you often find is horses fighting with each other, and sometimes students and teacher fighting with each other as well.
What does this have to do with fear? Anger is often an expression of fear. It says 'I have a problem that I can't solve and this makes me feel insecure.'
This fear, or feeling of insecurity, tends to take over. In the background of your thinking it's saying 'you're not doing it.' When you were a very small child you were allowed to make mistakes. When you sat down while you were trying to learn to walk, everybody said 'how cute.' If you pronounced a word wrong that was cute too. But as you grew older, mistakes became less and less acceptable. "Boy, are you STUPID." Don't you know ANYTHING?" Rejection by your family or peers for mistakes--no wonder making a mistake is upsetting. If you don't do everything right no one will like you and you won't have any friends. Isn't that how it goes?
To make things worse, it's your horse, whom you love and bring carrots to, who won't cooperate. I once asked a group of children aged about 9 to 12 if they liked their horses. They all agreed that they did. Then I asked them if they thought the horses liked them. Most of them said no. I might add that all these riders were having serious problems with their horses. The horses had all tried to buck them off or some equally serious offense. Naturally the children thought their horses didn't like them.When we kept the lesson at a level where the riders did not feel threatened, either by me, or the circumstances, the horses went very quietly and successfully.
Successful riding experience that is happy for both you and the horse requires an acceptance of the inevitability of mistakes on every one's part, and the realization that eventually you'll probably work it out, and even if you don't, that's okay too. If you can learn to look at mistakes--both yours and the horse's--as a useful and necessary guide in the learning process rather than a threat to your success, the learning process will again become enjoyable. And since nearly all of riding is a learning process, riding will again become the happy activity it is meant to be.