There's this idea that somehow we are lesser than or not as good of a trainer if our horse isn't listening to us or responding how we want them to in the moment. We take this very personally and judge ourselves and our worth as a trainer/equestrian by our horse's actions; often resulting in us becoming frustrated or depressed.. sometimes even taking that out on our horses. But why? The horse is their own being and there are a whole slew of reasons the horse may not be responding in the way we want in that moment. We can't expect our horses to always behave perfectly so that we can be validated by them or so that we can prove to the world our worth through their actions. A mindset like this quickly leads to punishing the horse for letting us down or making us look bad and feel bad about ourselves. This isn't to say that we should never work to increase the likelihood of a more consistent or ideal response from our horses. We should always be ready to take a step back, problem solve, and set our horses (and ourselves) up for success. And we should always be working towards improving our training and understanding of how best to apply that training, but judging ourselves and our worth based on that interaction with the horse is too much pressure and often results in a damaged relationship. The horse people I admire the most are the ones that do not take their horse's actions personally and respect the horse's independent mind and needs... They look at mistakes and "unexpected outcomes" as learning opportunities; as a chance to show the horse that they can be trusted to be patient and to try something different.
I'm sure these people also question themselves and their value from time to time, in fact I know they do, but I think the difference is that they don't look to the animal to confirm their value. They don't MAKE the horse do anything to prove who they are, and they don't blame the horse for their own mistakes. We should be horse people because we love horses.... not because of what horses can do for us, perform for us, and prove to the world about us. If we are using horses to showcase our worth are we in it for the right reasons? Is that ethical horsemanship?
I don't think there's anything wrong with shows, ribbons, and competitions... As long as the horse isn't being forced to do it to make us feel good about ourselves or to prove something to other people about us. We can't punish horses for making us look bad or failing to win ribbons... and then say we do it because we love horses. When our identity and the foundation of our relationship with our horses is wrapped up in how well the horse performs, we aren't really in it for the horses anymore. We are in it for ourselves. When I was at the In The Spirit Of Horse summit last month I was presented with an opportunity to question my abilities and my worth multiple times as I went through a demonstration with some horses I didn't know. One after another, each of the horses decided to act in the polar opposite way I had expected or "needed" them to in order to be able to showcase certain training processes or ways of doing things. I was so tempted to do two things...
Blame the horse and get frustrated with them
Doubt my worth and value at a personal and professional level
The horse that I worked with to demonstrate introducing food rewards safely... was barely interested in food rewards.
The one that was supposed to show how to teach standing on a pedestal and being brave... was, I believe, struggling with physical issues that made it very challenging for her to step willingly up onto a raised platform, and unable to stay focused on any task.
One of the horses was supposed to help me share how to use mild/non escalating R- with a shaping plan. And while she did a great job and was very tolerant... She soon no longer wished to respond to mild R- if there was no threat of a larger consequence (which is a primary reason I don't work with R- as much any more, as often you're required to escalate to get a response).
Another horse was supposed to show approach and retreat in combination with R+, but ended up needing a TON more work around food before I could be in the same space with him.
Overall, to me, it was a mess! I was discouraged, stressed, and wondering what on earth I was even doing there in front of all these people trying to teach them something.... But you know what? This is life working with horses.
I had ideas and expectations, but I didn't know these horses *at all* and was just wanting them to respond how I thought they *should* respond; Becoming disappointed and second guessing myself when they didn't. Suddenly I started questioning my life's purpose, what I was even doing as a "horse trainer". Thankfully, I was in the right place. On the last day of the summit the organizer and lovely horsewoman Mosie Trewitt, spoke about this very topic and really started me thinking. It's funny and sad how horses not acting how we want them to, or how we think they *should*, so impacts our opinion of ourselves and our self-worth. I realized (after some thinking and processing this experience, along with many others) how strongly my identity is wrapped up in the response of another being, the horse.
Why is this? Why does a horse (or any other being's actions) define who I am and what I'm worth? It doesn't, and it shouldn't. Again, this doesn't mean we shouldn't make changes or plan better or learn more.. but these moments are not "who" I am and I shouldn't let them change me for the worse; resorting to anger and frustration and depression. The horse is another being that lives outside of me and has their own set of emotions, thoughts, feelings, history, instinctive responses, etc. They do not exist to prove my worth.
What's more is that in each of these experiences/demos at the summit, there was tremendous value to be found! There was so much more realness and truth in these moments than might have happened in a perfectly executed demonstration. Each of these "failed" demonstrations had a lesson, had value, had real life built into them.
The horse that I worked with to demonstrate introducing food rewards safely... was barely interested in food rewards. = What to do when a horse isn't all that interested in food rewards and what the possible causes might be.
The one that was supposed to show how to teach standing on a pedestal and being brave... was, I believe, struggling with physical issues that made it very challenging for her to step willingly up onto a raised platform, and unable to stay focused on any task. = How physical challenges impact training and the reality that training can't fix/erase physical problems
One of the horses was supposed to help me share how to use mild/non escalating R- with a shaping plan. And while she did a great job and was very tolerant... She soon no longer wished to respond to mild R- if there was no threat of a larger consequence. = Showcased the exact reason I don't work with R- as much any more, as often you're required to escalate to get a response, sometimes to a questionably unethical level.
Another horse was supposed to show approach and retreat in combination with R+, but ended up needing a TON more work around food before I could be in the same space with him. = Working with a food anxious horse and the importance of protected contact.
So yes, they were messy, they didn't go as planned, but they were real life and they had value! And... their lack of "going as planned" didn't dictate my value as a person or as a trainer. Actually, you might argue that the ability to work with the horse in the moment, to not take it personally, to be patient, refrain from punishment, and having the mindset of modify goals to help the horse be successful... is a better scale to judge your "trainer value" on. Which, as it turns out.. if you'll read that list again... has absolutely nothing to do with the horse's performance and everything to do with how you respond and your own mental state.
Naturally, this is a work in progress. I am not perfect at it.. I'm not a perfect trainer, far from it. But I've gotten better over the years at not looking to my horses to prove to me and prove to the world who I am and what I'm worth. That's not their burden to bear.