Sarah: Dr. Edgette, do you have any suggestions on how to deal with frustration toward yourself and your horse when every other day he takes two steps back in his training. At the end of some days, I wind up just sitting in my horse's stall crying while he dumps hay in my hair. I'm not asking to go from Training Level to Second in a year, but doing Training Level one month and less than Intro the next is weighing down my spirits. I'm a positive person, but I've dealt with this for more than two years, and it's getting old.
Dr. Edgette: I have several thoughts after reading your letter, Sarah. First, reconsider your program. You need a program that works a whole lot better for you than the one you've got. Chronic backward movement in your horse's progress is a pretty clear sign that something's not right. If you don't already have a program, that might be where to begin. Vague goals, loose timelines, erratic training schedules, too few guidelines for knowing when a horse is ready to master the next step, and insufficient professional input all point to a horse-and-rider combo that isn't going to get the job done.
Start by identifying-with help from an excellent trainer or knowledgeable friend-the specific problems that are causing you and your horse to regress.
Are they related to readiness for the work you're doing, soundness, conforma- tion, his attitude, your attitude, your education? Is he a bully? A worrier? A spook? Are you?
I've always thought, Sarah, that the best riders have as keen a knack for diagnostics as for their riding. I think you need to refine your analysis of the problem. If you don't, you'll end up with vague or (worse) inappropriate solutions that won't work. Or you might fall into the other miserable trap: desperately applying all sorts of gadgetry that doesn't teach you how to ride effectively through your aids.
So go back to the barn, sit on a stump, and take your time to study the problem as thoroughly as you're capable of doing.
Second . . . sorry, but I'm going to tell you to reconsider your attitude. The best students of any sport have always been those who've looked at themselves first when trying to locate the source of training or performance trouble. You'll do much better, Sarah, once you adopt a more proactive approach to solving this problem with your horse. That means assuming the initiative for change, rather than only reacting to what he is or isn't doing.
To your credit, you don't spend your time pointing fingers-as some very disappointed riders do. But you need to be more focused and honest with yourself about weak spots and holes in your riding, so that you can move the process along. I know your results have been very discouraging, but keep that positive perspective you spoke of and use it to help you jump-start the program your horse needs.
Third, use your frustration constructively. Feeling frustrated, even talking about it with others, becomes something constructive instead of draining when you use it to make something different happen in your riding life. If you're disgusted with your horse because he doesn't "get it," or because he was round on Tuesday but hollow on Thursday when your friends came to watch, keep your disgust to yourself and think about how you might have ridden differently on those two days.
Read more. Consult more. Watch more. Sulk less. The more you can manage to view these stumbling blocks as growth-promoting challenges, rather than as disillusionment or dashed hopes, the further you'll go. Learning to be an excellent student of this sport is the most important riding lesson you'll ever get.
Equestrian sport psychologist Janet Edgette thanks all the readers who write her (at Practical Horseman, PO Box 589, Unionville, PA 19375) and e-mail her (at email@example.com). She regrets that she can't answer all letters individually-but she reads them all, and they all help her know what's on readers' minds! Her website is www.HeadsUpSport.com
This article appeared in the February 2000 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.