Those of us who are bit by ‘the horse bug’ are often bit hard. I’ve often heard the saying, “Ride to Live, Live to Ride,” and it’s an astoundingly accurate depiction of the life I, among tens of thousands of others, have chosen to live. My development in training over the last few years, however, has created a new side to the multi-faceted gem of working with horses. Whereas younger me fancied myself an avid follower of Monty Roberts, Clinton Anderson, and John Lyons, it is not until recently that the concepts, the reasons, and the very essence of why groundwork matters developed into this living, breathing part of who I am and how I train.
Where we all want to be!
A few years ago, I had the great fortune of meeting a Minnesotan horsewoman named Suzy Fitzsimmons. She was in town during the summer for intensive training with my dressage coach, Jennifer Truett, and went out to dinner with a group at BW3’s, where I had a long stint as a server and bartender. Our brief meeting was just that, brief, until she returned at Jen’s request to teach a groundwork clinic at the farm. During her multi-week stay that fall in 2013, I was given the opportunity to work with Suzy on a daily basis, though I admit sometimes with grumbling acquiescence. Several times every session, we would be sorting and scrambling our way through an exercise when Suzy would suddenly laugh. My frustration would build every time, as I could never figure out her reason for mirth. I asked her often, “why are you laughing NOW?”, and it was always something different – “He just breathed” or “It just clicked for him” or “I saw that coming”. She always saw or perceived something that just flew over my head, no matter how hard I looked. Her encouragement and belief in my ability to understand fueled my desire to really solve the echoing question in my head, “Why does Suzy laugh?”
Myself and Suzy (still laughing) March 2016
As Suzy came back periodically over the next several months and through my practice since, my appreciation for the horses’ thoughts and feelings have continued to grow. It started to become more apparent when a horse was breathing deeply, when their thoughts were misdirected, or when they paused out of thought, not laziness. This slow and steady growth has led me on a journey of re-thinking the hows, whats, and whys of equine behavior. I actually find myself dipping into some of the political theories I studied for my degree, where we were taught to not only look at the picture presented, but also the artist, his familial and life influence, the choice of medium, and the intended audience. I can now look at a horse who rushes jumps and see not a horse who needs a stronger bit, but a horse who has never accepted poles as okay, a horse whose goal is simply to hold its breath and get over the obstacle as quickly as possible.
My mane gal, Pebbles
Working with these incredible animals on the ground builds a relationship that cannot be forged just under saddle. It gives you insight into their thoughts, their worries, their moments of acceptance. It gives you the patience to just besometimes, to just wait on the horse to make it to the other side of the mental chasm. It gives you the ability to perceive the imperceptible, to see an eye soften, or hear a deep sigh. It is this phenomenon, this wonder, that makes me often choose not to ride, but to build and develop a stronger understanding on the ground that will translate into a solid connection under saddle. And as I watch from the sidelines and guide not just Allie and Kasa, but other students as well, I see the moments that I used to miss, and I often find myself laughing.