Last Friday evening, on my final exhausting walk from the barn to the house, the annoying sight of the crabgrass in the lawn I have tried (unsuccessfully) to get control of over the past few months was finally too much for me to take!
I stopped dead in my tracks, leaned over and started ripping it out by the root with my bare hands.
To my pleasant surprise, when I addressed this stubborn “broad leaf weed” at ground level, I realized that the big fluffy bunches of overgrown grass looked much worse on the surface. The roots were in fact, small in size and small in number, in comparison to the bushy tops.
Pulling a few plants out by the root cleared huge areas of the lawn, leaving a much more uniform, beautiful appearance. Because I enthusiastically attacked the problem at its source, I know it will require much less work to keep it that way.
It all reminded me of what it’s like to troubleshoot problems with barrel horses. If we just put everything on the back burner and with great intensity and enthusiasm go straight to the source, we might find that the problem wasn’t so bad after all.
But if we just keep “mowing over the top,” it’s likely to keep coming back to haunt us. If we ignore or neglect the problem and pretend it doesn’t exist – it’s almost guaranteed to get worse. If we just spray chemical on the weeds, it might damage other areas, or only make things look better temporarily.
It’s no different with horses.
One of the foundational messages I’m passionate about sharing, is that problem solving is never about “making your horse stop ___(fill in the blank)___.”
I receive a lot of questions from well-intentioned barrel racers asking how they can get SYMPTOMS to stop showing up in their horses.
The truth is, no matter what the problem is, it’s not about the symptoms. Instead, if we go to the root of a problem, and instead cure the cause (the “disease”) – the SYMPTOMS tend to disappear!
There are many ways horse people mask over symptoms, some of them even seem to be quite effective, but it doesn’t mean the source, the root of the problem, has been thoroughly addressed. A quiet, obedient horse can seem on the outside to be perfectly well-adjusted, but like a duck’s feet paddling fervently under the water, sometimes there is more going on under the surface than what meets the eye.
This goes for physical issues as well. If a horse’s hocks get sore, maybe one does need to get the inflammation under control ASAP, but it’s worthwhile to also dig deep under the layers and try to solve the problem at its source rather than mask it long term with anti-inflammatories.
For example, a horse’s chronically sore hocks could be connected to the way he is ridden, saddle fit, or the way he’s asked to move and use himself, etc. We can all take Ibuprophen for a fever and feel better, but it doesn’t create a long term solution if we keep getting sick because our immune system is not functioning optimally due to our diet.
If we keep trying to train and run barrels when our horse is not emotionally fit for example, until we learn how to develop and maintain that emotional foundation, we’ll always be spinning our wheels to some degree.
Browse through any tack store and you’ll see that it’s become normal to seek mechanical means especially, to artificially sooth our horse’s symptoms.
Consider how barrel racers are generally obsessed with #1. Tack and #2. Supplements. They have their place, no doubt. But a healthy, happy horse with a solid educational and emotional foundation is the very thing that has the power to cease all the desperate chasing for the extra edge that we’ve been looking for in the wrong places for all along.
We could all benefit from turning our obsession in another direction.
Instead of trying so hard to prevent a horse from tipping barrels, instead we need to think about WHY he’s doing it to begin with. Then ask ourselves “WHY” again. We might be able to pull hard enough to keep a horse off them for a while, but that’s not usually permanent, lasting solution.
By all means, certain equipment can really enhance what’s already going well, but it’s not meant to create something that isn’t already there to begin with. An educated, well balanced equine athlete doesn’t depend on mechanics (OR chemicals) to hold him together like duct tape. With a strong, all-around foundation, there is no need. Taking barrel horses to their peak, and giving them an edge, IS possible without excessive leverage, and without “artificial additives.”
Something within us needs to change first for this to happen. That foundation comes from the inside, it’s something that must come from within us that we give to our horses. It means we must take it upon ourselves to instill in them, not what is “just enough to get by,” but something so strong, that there’s no way we can lose.
We all know in reality, that’s no guarantee, but I do believe it’s how we can put the odds most in our favor. Sure, it requires an investment initially, but in the long run saves so much more.
Of course I DO use certain, carefully thought out and selected bits and equipment to enhance my finished horse’s performance. I DO support my horse’s well-being with supplements. And I will most likely end up treating the lawn with something to help keep it beautiful. I’ll be the first to admit through, that I DO need to learn more about how to keep my new Texas lawn looking great!
One thing I know for sure – there is nothing that compares to drilling down to the root and dealing with issues at their source, especially when a problem has gotten away from us, like the crabgrass got away from me. The same idea applies to developing a young horse from the very beginning, or putting little finishing touches on an advanced horse.
Learning how to lay down and maintain a solid mental, physical and emotional foundation takes a lot of study and work. It requires a big investment in both time and expense to build our knowledge and skills, but this dedication also tends to result in a HUGE leaps forward in the results we achieve.
Once you learn and experience something, no one can take that away from you. Sometimes major positive change just requires getting your hands dirty, and it might not require as much time as you expect, when you focus on solving a problem without diluting it with other things that keep putting you two steps back for every one forward.
Don’t expect to ever officially “arrive,” of course. This is an ongoing process. In fact, just this past weekend, in addition to sprucing up the lawn, my husband and I also built some fence in the pasture. My Australian Shepherd, Tess was in the back yard and barking at us pretty incessantly. Instead of just thinking “I wish she would shut up!” I actually caught myself getting curious about why she was barking?
Creating lasting solutions to challenges requires a complete shift in our perspective, which often happens little by little, with bigger “Ah ha!” moments sprinkled throughout. I’ll admit that I still sometimes catch myself wanting to ease symptoms as quickly as possible. I suppose it’s human nature.
But if we really want to be successful with horses though, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. It requires a way of thinking that puts us in “the horse’s shoes.” When we have reverence and respect for them, and do our best to understand and meet their needs, and devote ourselves to learning how to be very clear in our communication, it’s just unreal what they will give in return.
I encourage you to always seek the truth, even if it’s not easy to see, and even if there’s no guarantee you’ll always find it.
The more I dive into understanding horse psychology and biomechanics, the more things that used to challenge me, become so obvious. You wouldn’t believe the “Duh,” moments I have on a consistent basis over what used to drive me to tears in frustration, and ultimately lead me to damage the connection with my horses.
The more problems we completely and effectively we deal with, the better we get at preventing them. As the barrel racing season gets started, and you’re faced with challenges, as we all are from time to time, I encourage you to go about addressing them in a new way. Remember the difference between masking symptoms, and creating lasting, permanent solutions. Most importantly, don’t be tempted to believe that because everyone else seems to be masking symptoms, that it’s best for you and your horses.
So many people and horses are not reaching their potential because they don’t know any other way. There IS a better way – a way of developing high level performance horses that prevents a lot of common frustrations, and solves problems both quickly and in a way that is both lasting and authentic, and I believe, is in the horse’s best interest.
There WILL be times when you might never completely understand the exact reasons WHY your horse has a certain problem on the pattern, or a certain physical or emotional issue. There are some things that might always remain a bit of a mystery. But it’s no excuse not to try.
Ask yourself “How can I get my horse to stop WANTING to ___(avoid the gate, drop his shoulder, etc.)____,” instead of just getting the symptom to stop.
By all means, don’t allow your horse to keep repeating, practicing and getting better at what you don’t want, but most importantly – get curious about why he’s like that. Ask yourself “why?” then look under that layer, and ask again!
Usually there is something in their education that is missing, or an emotional imbalance – they may not be doing what they know to do, because of how they FEEL. When a horse is educated and when he FEELS GOOD physically and emotionally, he will DO GOOD.
I ask a lot of my horses, and nothing we do with them is truly “natural.” However, I feel as though it’s my responsibility to make their lives as performance horses as stress free, happy and comfortable as possible.
Get on the same team with your horse. Instead of blocking opposition with a firm hand, or meeting resistance with more resistance, figure out how you can inspire a willing partnership instead. Instead of causing a horse to choose the lesser of two forms of discomfort, present an option that actually provides some relief.
How can you cause your idea to also be their idea? Think about what it means, and what it would take, to motivate your horse to perform based on desire instead of avoidance.
Other than asking the right questions, the first action step to jump start this different way of thinking and being with horses; the place to invest your time and resources, is in your own education and skills. Make it a priority to invest in yourself.
I understand that we all just want to run barrels and WIN, but that’s the point. What I’m describing is a way to get there faster, AND achieve more consistent positive results over the long haul.
This route isn’t always easy, and it’s definitely the path less traveled. But I know with confidence that it’s the only path for me.
I challenge you to be more than a barrel racer. I invite you to join me in the journey to becoming a horseman.
This web site, and my book series are packed full of the lessons I’ve learned, and there’s so much more to come.
I encourage you to BE the kind of person that gives your horse every reason to want to work together with you.
I promise that you’ll be amazed by where it takes you, and I’m confident you’ll fulfill all your barrel racing dreams as a result.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!