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When Things Quit Working

There are two very different skill sets between being a competent rider of trained horses and a competent trainer of green horses. My mentor Frank Barnett tells a story about a concert pianist that could play the piano beautifully. One day his teacher handed him a pile of wood and asked him to build a piano. The musician didn’t know where to begin, because this was not where his skill resided. The builder of pianos takes a pile of wood and carefully constructs and tunes until it is able to be played beautifully. So it is with horses; it is an egregious error to assume that just because someone is a competent rider, that also makes them able to address green and developing horses. The laws of nature simply do not work that way.

Often the desire to learn the trainer’s skill set just isn’t there, until things start to go south. Then the rider has a choice: either employ a trainer that has developed the proper skill set to address the horse’s misguidances, or accept responsibility to learn the new skillset. When things quit working, it’s easy to blame the horse, or our circumstances. But shifting blame only allows us to miss the point and become stagnant. Behind every smoke screen lies the fact that humans are the ones that confuse the horse; under every horse problem lies a human problem. Frank would put it more bluntly, “Do you think that good riding made the horse this way?”

The choice to become more educated is usually entered into out of necessity. Through studying equine movement and biomechanics, we learn how a horse’s body works and how to better communicate with them. In communicating effectively we learn to understand horses. It’s a slow maturity and a lifelong process. Frank specializes in putting show horses back together so they can continue careers in jumping and dressage. He has a reading list of 62 books and stresses the importance of becoming educated. He reminds us that there isn’t a school that certifies us to become a rider or trainer; no organized system. So it’s up to us to educate ourselves so that we are not led astray.

In his book,12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson writes an excerpt about what happens when our cars quit working. I have replaced the words as they pertain to horses; the same honest thought process can be applied:

“To (ride) successfully, we don't have to understand, or even perceive, the complex mechanisms of our (horses). The hidden complexities only intrude on our consciousness when (the horse) fails, or when we (fail) unexpectedly… A (horse), as we perceive it, is not a thing, or an object. It is instead something that takes us somewhere we want to go, (in a certain way that we want it to go.) … It is only when a (horse) quits, suddenly- or (sustains an injury and must take time off) that we are forced to apprehend and analyze the myriad of parts that "(horse) as thing that goes" depends on. When our (horse) fails, our incompetence with regards to its complexity is instantly revealed…

We must generally turn to the experts who inhabit (post pens) and (overhead lunges) to restore both functionality to our (horse) and simplicity to our perceptions. That's (horseman)-as-psychologist. It is precisely then that we can understand, although we seldom deeply consider, the staggeringly low resolution quality of our vision and the inadequacy of our corresponding understanding. In a crisis, when our (horse) no longer goes, we turn to those whose expertise far transcends ours to restore the match between our expectant desire and what actually happens. This all means that the failure of our (horse) can also force us to confront the uncertainty of the broader social context, which is usually invisible to us, in which the animal (and trainer) are mere parts.

The limitations of our perceptions manifest themselves when something we can usually depend on in our simplified world breaks down. Then the more complex world that was always there, invisible and conveniently ignored, makes its presence known. When things break down, what has been ignored rushes in. When things are no longer specified, with precision, the walls crumble, and chaos makes its presence known. When we've been careless, and let things slide, what we have refused to attend to gathers itself up, adopts a serpentine form, and strikes - often at the worst possible moment. It is then that we see what focused intent, precision of aim and careful attention protect us from.”

In the article Music Masters, published in the December 2019 issue of Western Horseman, Frank Barnett encourages readers to look to themselves:

You can explain something to a horse, but when it goes wrong, you have to look to yourself to figure out what part of the explanation the horse doesn't understand. Always look to yourself, the rider."

When things quit working, we have a choice. If we look at the situation from a place of honesty, it seems that we owe our horses the common courtesy of taking responsibility and continuing education. We should seek out other responsible horsemen and women who also make understanding the horse a priority. In the words of Gandhi, we can be the change that we wish to see in the world.

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