The Lexicon of Nice

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.



Filed under Dressage, Final Call, Stereotypes, Training Diary, Training Theory

11 responses to “The Lexicon of Nice

  1. Barb Fulbright

    There are just some horses who don’t do well in a “I win/you lose” scenario, and you’ve captured what does work for them. Thank you

  2. Agreed, well said. Arguing with a thousand pounds is rather counter-productive.

    Find the good.
    Good job!

  3. if something can be accomplished by fighting, it can be done 15 times better through non-confrontational communication and cooperation.

    Now if I could only get that to work with my husband…

  4. Saratoga

    I love words and I love horses and I love riding. I have a hard time reading anything instructional, give me a novel please. But I inevitably run into how to ride and train a horse tidbits. Submission is a big word that I’ve always had trouble with even tho’ I love to be bossy. Some of the precision and subtlty of dressage really motivates me. But when the talk is of dominance, is it no wonder rollkur follows? As a goal for a relationship with a horse isn’t it rather unfulfilling, one dimensional and unethical? That said, I also want my horse to do what I want when I want where I want and we’re talking OTTB mare. What I love best is when I feel her know she is appreciated, and feel I am helping her enjoy stretching herself, and, as I continue to anthropomorphosize wildly, feel her be pleased at giving me the gift I want. Now, the disclaimer. I haven’t been up on her since fall and it’ll be a while before we get the routine and trust back together to get those moments of unity and pleasure. But, they are so wonderful. This is inspiring me (along with some cooperative weather) to do the first ten minute lunge of the season (see where her elderly joints are at, get her back in the cooperation mode, and get my eye back in).

    Speaking of wonderful. I’ve got to read your blog more often, I really enjoy your writing and drool over what you’re doing with Final Call. I find what you have to say very instructional in a way that doesn’t make me want to pick up a novel. I really appreciated reading your entry about Sally Swift’s stubby legs. It’s actually going to make me go look up the concept in my old Centered Riding book, one instructional book I actually made it through four chapters of. My helpful images are river banks (kind of applied in opposite to stubby legs, not sure) and the melting ice cream (helps me be less uptight in the saddle).

    Hmm, also thanks for the insight on how chair position saddles might be helpful…

    Now to go feed my two girls their token grain — they seem to thrive on the irregular schedule here too — turn out and tons o’ hay the way to go.

    Best to you and Final Call

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Thanks so much Fiona, and I’m happy that I didn’t make you run screaming for a novel. I myself cannot stand instructional writing and I try to avoid it. Yes, I have something to say about training. But I think I can say it without the conversation dissolving into a lecture! (If you want a riding lesson you can go pay a professional, I’m just a blogger!)

      When you reach a point that you are demanding submission from a horse, and engaging in practices such as rollkur, you’ve moved well past the point of doing anything for the horse. It is all about you. And I don’t have a problem with ambition, and if you want to be known as a great rider, that’s certainly your business. But don’t present it as anything more than what it is. It is not a partnership, it is not done for joy, it is not done to allow the horse to express himself (Final Call expresses himself by rolling in mud, incidentally), it is done to show off. The most literal definition of a horse show: Look what I can make a horse do.

      The question shouldn’t be: “How close can I get my horse’s chin to his chest?”

      The question should be: “How does my horse like to move, and how can I make it more simple and joyful for him?”

      A simple and joyful horse is more likely to be a safe horse, in this world of recession and slaughterhouses. As trainers we need to give our horses a fighting chance, not worry so much about how awesome we look in the saddle.

  5. Forcing a horse to do your will is a non-winnable battle, in my opinion. Either he’s gonna clobber the snot out of you when you try to force him or become so tractable and dull he will be nothing more than a plod-along plug.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Well-put! I hate being clobbered. I also hate plugs. When I was little I said, “I’d rather have a horse that will run away with me than a horse that has to be kicked all the time.” And my mother proceeded to buy me a racehorse. Wise woman!

  6. I qlways feel like you’re stealing my post ideas before I write them!!! another good post! :p

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Thank you! Nice to see a dressage trainer who is nice.. they’re rare these days 😉

      • LOL! Thanks! I am a dressge trainer by default! I was a military brat that was lucky enough to be stationed in Germany as a kid. Believe me, I don’t fit in with the rest of the crowd!!

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