Back when I was trying to get into management at my day job (power and money, of course) I realized that I had a significant hurdle to overcome in my total lack of people skills. I mean, I like horses and writing, so doesn’t it go without saying that my social skills are not exactly off the chart? They’re not even on the chart.
Anyway, I was forced by well-meaning people in higher positions than mine to read a number of “leadership” books, some of which were given nauseating titles like “The Power of Nice.” Alarmingly, I learned quite a lot from these books, attained some modicum of people skills, learned to get completely unmotivated people to follow me, and became a fairly successful manager.
In riding Final Call a few days ago, I realized that these self-help books posing as business books had actually influenced my decisions as a rider.
I come from the no-nonsense school of horsemanship. I come from the Laugh at People With Books And Expensive Sticks school of horsemanship. And while I still laugh at the expensive sticks, I am a little less no-nonsense, and a little more negotiable. Much like I am at the day job.
I have two bad words in my equine lexicon: domination and submission. I cuss a lot – oh hell, I cuss all the time – but I avoid these two words and their implications like the plague. I understand that “submission” is a commonly-used term for a horse that gives to the bit. But when you use words like “submission,” you lose the right to use much more desirable words, like “partnership.” In a partnership, you can’t ask for submission. That’s domination.
And now to the ride. I lengthened my stirrups yet another hole. They’re about even with the soles of my boots now, which is dressage length to a show-jumper (see: Anne Kursinski’s “Riding and Jumping Clinic”) and just about as long as I may want to get with my jumping saddle. I love my saddle – I’ve had it since I was 15 – but it quite defiantly holds me in a chair seat, which is nice on young horses when I’m looking for safety, and not so pretty in a dressage test.
Final Call has shown offense every time I’ve lowered my stirrups and thus altered my seat and leg, and this latest move was no exception. The nice thing about having a horse pitch a mini-fit with you is that you can gain some understanding of their true athleticism. I mean, any horse can produce a beautiful extended trot or a haute ecole piaffe free in the pasture – these are their natural movements, and I am deeply amused by people who try to sell their unbroken horses as Grand Prix potential simply because they can achieve some natural collection and extension at liberty. So can any mule. But under saddle, under weight, that is another story.
Final Call, as it happens, can achieve a great deal of collection under saddle – as Peter Atkins once described OTTB Number 1, he has “springs all over the place.” And my spring-loaded little friend showed me just what he thought of my new long-legged look, first bounding into the trot when I asked politely, then taking all that impulsion and shoving it straight upwards. Oh the lightness of the Thoroughbreds!
It would have been a simple thing, had I been feeling no-nonsense and un-nice, to shove him around a little, give him a quick lesson with the heel of my boot and the knot on the end of the reins. He would have gotten all worked up, we would have had a fight, it probably would have ended badly, I’d feel terrible – I was used to this. I have done this. I’m not sure why.
But I thought, I’d never treat a person this way (and I don’t even like people!) so why would I treat my horse this way? Make it easy to do the right thing, make it hard to do the wrong. That doesn’t mean punish the wrong. It means find the right. And if you’re not going to demand submission, if you’re not going to dominate, if you’re going to forge a partnership, that leads you right to the next word in the lexicon of nice: negotiate.
“Alright, my boy, you don’t like this and you clearly can’t do it nicely. If you know how to do it, at the moment you’ve forgotten. Let’s see what you do know.” I sat down deep, pressed my thighs close to stop his forward motion, and whoa’d. We stood. We walked. We circled. We halted. Off we went again. Played with leg yields. Played chase the dog. And within about ten minutes, he and I were ready for a nice forward trot, stretching into the bit, finding the right thing quite easy to do, after all.