Of Lions and Lambs: Horse Training as a Discipline
Ah, spring! There’s nothing like waking in the middle of the night after a warm, sunny evening to hear rain on the skylights. The drops strike sharply, like impatient fingernails. That’s appropriate, I think, for to me the sound of rain is often the sound of frustration.
You see, training and conditioning horses is not something to approach haphazardly. A session here, a ride there, will not get you very far down the trail. Serious training is a discipline, like exercising or earning a 4.0 GPA, that thrives in an environment of commitment. A day missed isn’t just a day, just a training session, just a conditioning ride. It is an opportunity sacrificed, often at the price of two more days spent making up lost ground.
I’m not the first to appreciate the familiar advice, Plan your work, then work your plan. It is possible, however, that I take it more seriously than most. Take my Training Tracker, for example. A masterpiece in Excel, this is a spreadsheet developed over the course of the past two years, in which I record the following:
- Yearly training goals for each horse.
- Notes on progress toward said goals.
- A schedule, which currently extends through September 2008, detailing which horses I’ll work with each day (no more than two horses per weeknight, no more than four per weekend day, all Fridays off) and what kind of session it will be (training, riding, long riding, or other workout).
- Curriculum plans for each of my “focus” horses detailing what each training session this year will cover, how long each ride will be, and whether we’ll tackle hills or distance or speed.
Coordinating the training and conditioning schedules of eight horses is an organizational nightmare. For example, Consolation is typically booked for work on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Aaruba is booked for Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Alternating Current, aka Acey, is booked for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday. So what happens when we have to leave at noon Saturday to haul Aaruba to an endurance ride that will take most of Sunday? Ask my Training Tracker. It knows everything.
A good friend of mine took a look at the spreadsheets yesterday. “You are so anal,” she exclaimed. “I love that about you!”
I’m glad someone does.
Anyway. As you can see, rain is not on the agenda. Nor, unfortunately, is a covered round corral. The good news is that I am (ever so slightly) smarter than I look. My “official” training schedule for the Barbs begins in April, not March. The idea behind this is to reduce frustration during March’s inevitable lionish days, while enabling me to feel particularly virtuous when I squeeze in “bonus” training sessions while the lambs are in town.
This buffer period in my schedule has already proven useful. Horses, particularly those in the earlier stages of training, can be quite as fickle as spring weather. Take Acey, for example. Late in 2007, she was leading beautifully, tacking up, and standing quietly while I put a foot in the stirrup and tugged. On Monday, during her first training session of the new year, she was all attention and calm, despite a minor resurgence of her suspicions about having her poll touched.
But yesterday, she’d have none of it. It seems her halter grew fangs overnight. Goosey and google-eyed, Acey raced around the corral like a banshee the second it touched her muzzle. So much for my plan to review picking up hooves, trotting in hand, and leading on the off side.
Shrug. Back to the basics. Stand for haltering, and you get to rest and be petted. Move away, and you get to trot around some more. Hot under that winter coat, isn’t it? Ready to stop? Okay, let’s try again. Lather, rinse, repeat. We ended the session calmly, slipping the halter on and off, enjoying scratches on that itchy spot between her forelegs, and leading quietly back to her pen.
I believe it is well-known trainer John Lyons who notes in one of his books that learning in horses typically follows a two-steps-forward, one-step-back pattern. I hope my Training Tracker includes enough extra days to account for this, and for all manner of setbacks from colic to thunderstorms. The signature line of another poster on an equine discussion board I frequent admonishes, Light in the leg, soft in the hands, ride the horse and not the plan.
Amen, sister. That’s the only way.
Horses, like March, have lamb days, golden days when their eyes are soft, their heads low, their minds and bodies supple. And they have lion days, all fret and trial and storm. Handled properly, both kinds of days are useful to build relationships and teach us to listen to one another. They are, after all, the nature of the beast.
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