Change of Attitude
By Betsy Kelleher
I’m learning to see training possibilities all around me, using whatever is available. So when I arrived at the stable one morning to ride Lady, and the front yard trees were covered with toilet paper flowing from every branch, I of course wondered how Lady would react—and I was eager to take advantage of this rare opportunity!
I led her from her stall and walked her along the driveway at a distance. She looked but showed no fear, so I walked closer. She seemed interested but not bothered. Anything new usually causes a spook, so I was pleased at how well she accepted this unusual scene. Seeing no fear, I led her onto the lawn, walking between the trees. A breeze lifted one strand of white toward her and she stopped and backed up one step. I took the strand in my hand and assured her it was just paper. She immediately reached out with her nose and took a bite of leaves! Oops. OK, enough desensitizing. Back to the barn.
I rode Lady past the decorated lawn with no problems. Wish tractors were that easy. But I will keep working with whatever obstacles present themselves. Near the outdoor arena is a large black drain pipe—the perfect prop to teach a horse to pick up her feet. A pile of sawdust by the barn is covered with a large tarp, and I ride Rocky around it now and then, getting closer each ride. Rocky is still unsure of tarps, but recent efforts with a small piece of old tarp has been very rewarding. Every day, I have been rubbing him on both sides with that piece of tarp. I lay it over his back. I let him sniff it, and give him mints to encourage his bravery. He is snorting less and rarely backs off now.
Natural aids are everywhere! I once owned an Arab who wanted to go fast. So I rode where there were lots of trees, riding around them in figure 8’s and circles to slow him down. Another horse I owned was very stiff. I rode him into the corners of the arena, asking for bend. Riding into a wall also encourages a halt.
When I ride the half mile trail back to the wooded area, I do more than just ride the trail. One day, I taught Rocky to whoa on word command only. Lady still wants me to use leg and rein cues. She’s not a slow learner, but her personality prefers things her way.
Beside the trail, there is a deep ditch. One day I realized it was a perfect place to strengthen leg muscles, and I began taking Traveller down the side of the ditch and back up on our walks. Now I ride Rocky and Lady on the ditch as well, just one more exercise for muscle development and obedience.
With both Lady and Rocky, my first goal was simply to ride all the way to the edge of the woods alone. I hope to soon enjoy again the nice wooded trail that the spring rains left underwater for much too long. Now that my husband doesn’t ride, I am slowly finding courage to ride alone, even though I don’t go far.
This attitude toward training was reinforced recently by a comment from my riding instructor. She says she has noticed that many riders avoid scary things. She doesn’t. She mentioned that one boarder did not ride in the indoor arena one day because of workmen. But she rode there anyway, teaching her horse to accept the noise. I must admit I would have avoided the arena myself. But I have learned over the past six years that when I avoid things because of what I think my horse will do, I am showing fear of those things. And when I’m worried, my emotions are transmitted to my horse. For years, I was obsessed with my fear of riding Lady down the road by the barn—and it became a monster within. When I was finally able to stop worrying about it, the monster shrank to a realistic, manageable size. Now, I just ride where I feel safe.
On days when garbage cans are lined up by each mailbox, I have been known to use them for training. I was proud of Lady, as I rode her near an empty garbage container, lifted the lid and let it fall without her reacting. One day I realized I had only been doing it on her left side, so I made a point of doing it on her right side. You know how trainers tell you to train both sides of a horse? Well, they are right!
One day I rode Rocky on the road before the garbage truck had come. Two garbage cans full of grain sacks and plastic bags, as well as a huge roll of insulation on top of one can, suddenly caught his attention as we passed, and he quickly turned and backed away from the scary monster, almost into the ditch! I realized that he needed more work on this kind of obstacle. So after our ride, I led him back to the garbage cans, with a handful of carrot pieces ready. Gradually coaxing him closer and closer, I finally gave him a treat held directly over one can full of plastic bags. He hesitated, but decided the carrot was worth the risk. And he didn’t back away after eating the treat! Lots of praise and another treat over the second garbage can, and the next time we rode past full garbage cans, he was much braver.
I have discovered something wonderful! Looking for training opportunities instead of avoiding them helps diminish my fearfulness. However, I still am cautious, and I wear a helmet. Baby steps are more effective in the long run, as time works together with a positive attitude and growing skill to bring success. Listen to your fears without letting them control you.
Scripture is full of encouraging verses that tell us to be of good courage, to be not afraid, and to trust in the Lord. My favorite is Isaiah 41:10. Without faith in a Sovereign God, I could never overcome my fears by relying only on myself. Knowing His great power is a foundation to my ability to experience peace and courage. Knowing His unconditional love and mercy is a great comfort, because I believe He is able and willing to help me face whatever He allows in my life. Fear does not go away just because of my faith, but faith gives me the strength to keep working toward the goal.
(Originally published in the September 2011 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)