Episode 176: But is this really what my horse likes doing?

A listener expresses a desire to build relationship and connection with her horse and asks, “what does my horse really like to do?”
In this podcast, I discuss my views on the learning process in general, what role physical talent plays in the enjoyment of learning (hint: it’s not what you likely think), and the idea that the concept of what is ‘hard’ and what is easy might be something to take a closer look at.
Why do I pursue so many disciplines with my horses? I answer that in this episode too.


Episode 176-But is this really what my horse likes doing?.mp3
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] That challenge is the opportunity to improve my relationship with my horse.

Announcer: [00:00:10] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill. This is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:30] Hi. I’m Stacey Westfall and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is all Q&A. Today’s question is about relationship and connection. Let’s listen to the question.

Caller: [00:00:49] Hi Stacey, it’s Jen from BC, Canada. I really enjoyed your Zoom teachings on goal setting and I’ve been really this year totally into the horse’s mind, too and getting it away from my mind of saying just do it. So I’ve been really aware of building more relationship/connection with my horse. And so the goal setting led me to, well, what does my horse really like to do? Do I set that as a goal? And I’m trying to figure this out because I do want more relationship/connection with my horse. And I have a barrel horse, but does she even really like running barrels? So we’re going to be starting to do that. And I bet you’re going to say, well, just try and do some different things, but I need a little bit of guidance in this, so hope you can help me. Thanks.

Stacy Westfall: [00:01:44] Thanks for your question, Jen. I’m going to start with a human example to illustrate some of my points and then I’m going to move it over to a horse example. I like that you said, “And so the goal-setting led me to, well, what does my horse really like to do? Do I set that as a goal?” You mentioned that you were on the goal webinar and that’s something that people can still watch over on the website. When I was teaching that webinar, I used the example of time management and that being something that I spent an entire year working on. Now in this podcast, I’m going to use exercise as an example. Both of those are areas that I did not want to tackle, but I saw the benefit of learning more about them. So when you think about yourself and the idea of setting goals, why do you set goals? Is it because you want to do more of what you like doing, or is it because you’re trying to learn something, change something, achieve something? So what I did was I had a personal goal around exercise. I knew why I wanted to exercise more. I’m getting older. I could feel that intentionally building strength was going to help me because some of the natural strength of being a 20-year-old just wasn’t there anymore. And I knew that ultimately intentionally building strength outside of riding would help me ride better.

Stacy Westfall: [00:03:24] So back a few years ago, I chose to start running and then I eventually set the goal to run a 5K and then last year I set the goal to run a 10K. I think it’s really interesting to look at a process like that that you’ve gone through on your own because there are a lot of things that I can learn and then appreciate that I’m doing with my horse. So for example, the number of days that I liked what I had chosen, which was running, was actually not super high. If I looked at it on a really daily basis, if I measured my desire to do that workout before the workout it was a very low desire to do that workout. Like even negative. I really kind of didn’t want to do it. Then if I measured my desire after a workout, I was like, Top of the world. I’m so glad I’m doing this. And then it would taper down in between. So from the time that say, I ran on a Tuesday till the next time I ran on a Thursday, I would go from top of the world all the way down to bottoming it out before the workout and be like, Oh, I can’t believe I’m going to have to work out. Now that I’ve done this a lot, my relationship with exercise has leveled out a lot more. It doesn’t have nearly those peaks of low before the workout, and it doesn’t have nearly those peaks of like high after the workout. I can still appreciate and feel some resistance to the idea of going to work out, and I still feel that joy of the completion. But what I really, really appreciate is the bigger picture of what it’s given me outside of those dedicated workouts. I am stronger when I ride. I am riding better and the exercise is worth it. Now some of you are going to identify with this idea. And for just a moment, I want you to pretend that you totally agree with everything I just said. Now, imagine trying to sell that idea to a ten-year-old child. Most of the time, if you try to convince a ten-year-old child that workouts would be an amazing thing to do, especially if you put it into like a really static situation–Like let’s say that you’re going to try to convince a ten-year-old to do a workout routine in the living room watching a YouTube video. Most of the time, they’re really not going to see the point. So if you’re going to approach that with a child, it’s probably going to work best if they’re inspired in a different way. So sometimes with kids, that’s a role model that they look up to. Sometimes it’s a group of friends doing something together. Maybe that’s a sport. Maybe that’s some kind of group activity that’s like going on a hike somewhere. But you start to look for ways to make this idea of working out more appealing to the ten-year-old child. Maybe there is a reward at the end of the workout. Maybe there’s a reward at the end of the season. And so there’s this dance when you are doing things with a young child of how you can take something that could be really static and flat like exercise, and you make it more engaging and more interesting. That’s what working with horses reminds me of, because I don’t expect the horse to see the bigger picture and it is my job to make the workout or the training session or whatever we want to be looking at right now. How do I make that as enjoyable as possible and yet still see that essentially what I’m doing is getting the child to work out? The general concept I would like to have you think about right now is, how the coach interacts with the child matters even more than the sport. So could be a dance coach, track coach, basketball coach, parent taking a group of children somewhere to do a hike or a swim or whatever, how that is approached is more important than the sport. Now that we’ve got that seed planted. Let’s go to another spot.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:59] You said you wanted to get away from your mind saying, just do it. And for a moment, I think it’s worth exploring what “just do it” energy might be. When I look at “just do it” energy, there are a number of ways to look at it. The ones that came to mind when I listened to your message were more along these lines. Just do it, as in a little bit forced, or just do it, as in a little bit frustrated. Now “just do it” could also be something more like, just take one tiny step which can lead a little bit more towards determined. And I definitely bordered on that a lot more of the time when I was teaching myself to run. I had this moment where there was a little bit of a, just one run, it’s just 45 minutes, it’s just one workout. So I had a little bit of a different kind of a, “just one” or “just do it” energy that I did find useful because it–it got me through that moment of being determined to continue on with the plan that I had made and it was enough to take me from leaving the house to actually going to work out. So that is a thought that you can use to transition because I think it’s interesting to think about this. When we’re learning new things, whether we go to me learning time management, me learning running, horse learning something, there are always at least these two different things going on. There’s the challenge, the mental challenge of that change, and then there’s the physical challenge of that change. So in the time management example that I used in the webinar, there was a definitely like a mental change, but there’s still a physical shift in sitting down and doing calendaring work when doing the physical work of running. There was the mental work of, how do I get myself to go do the step, mentally showing up to do it? Meaning getting myself to leave the house and go run. And then there was the physical step of running and experiencing the physical symptoms, if we want to call them that, that go with working out. And so there was the mental and the physical dance going back and forth like that. And a lot of times when I’m coaching people with their horses, whether that’s in the riding bundle, where I’m reviewing videos with people and talking about the mental side of the coaching or whether that’s one on one or whether people are here at my house doing it when I’m doing that. A lot of times what happens is people will be sold on doing some of the base level stuff because of safety for themselves or the horses. But especially when getting people to go to a higher level, the people start having a lot more resistance because of this idea.

Stacy Westfall: [00:11:10] Let me illustrate it with an actual example. So when you’re teaching a horse to do something basic, like moving a hip, like a very basic moving of the hip, so that could be on the groundwork, teaching the horse to keep the front end still and move the hip around or that can be riding, teaching the horse the same concept when ridden. So the horse’s front end is kind of standing still and the hips are moving around. That is always going to be an easier physical and mental thing than teaching the advanced hip movement, which could be something like haunches in or travers in dressage, which is essentially being able to keep the horse walking with their shoulders on one line and being able to move the haunches or move the hips to a different line. And so now the horse is walking in this line with the shoulders on one track and the haunches on another. That is advanced hip movement, whether you do it in groundwork or ridden. And when you’re doing that, what happens is the more basic level, a lot of times people will be willing to do it, even though it might be a challenge for the horse in the beginning, but they’re willing to do it because they can see the safety aspect of it, the necessity aspect of it. Then when the person starts to move to the more advanced movements and they sense that things are harder, which is kind of interesting because they were still hard going from zero to the basic hip movement. But then when they go from the basic hip movement to the more advanced hip movement, a lot of times the person hits another level of resistance in their mind of whether it’s fair or not and whether the horse likes it or not. And so it’s very interesting because, again, we have this same dance of the challenge, the mental challenge, and the physical challenge. And now you, if you’re training your horse to do this, are in the role of a coach. So you really have to know where you stand as your student–remember this ten year old that you’re trying to sell exercise to, for example–that coach has to really know their views on it because you’re essentially needing to be able to say, We can do it, you can do it, this is possible as you’re coaching that child or that horse. Okay? Now we’ve got these ideas planted. Let’s keep going on.

Stacy Westfall: [00:13:28] When we look at another layer of what I think you were saying in here, I think another thing that comes up is the idea of like, is this horse physically talented at this? So there’s a level of the horse doing something and liking it, as in it’s maybe easy for them physically or challenging for them physically, let’s put it that way. I’m going to go ahead and use Presto for this example. And if you don’t know my horse Presto, he is the foal that I got from Last Chance Corral as a little baby.And now he’s six years old and he’s over 16 hands tall and he’s a Thoroughbred/Percheron/Appaloosa cross. And I’m going to use this example of me training Presto to do reining. If I chose to train Presto as a reining horse, it would be easy to say it would not be a natural fit. So we take Presto and the idea of what he’s physically gifted at, or maybe not as physically gifted at. What would be a more natural fit for him? I can see when I look at him and most people that look at him see pictures of him or see me riding him, you can see that he would be more naturally gifted at maybe dressage or eventing or jumping or something like that, not necessarily reining. But let’s just say that I really, really, really wanted to learn about reining, teach him reining, and this was the only horse I had to do it with because pretend I just owned one horse. Now take the idea that we’ve got his physical giftedness level and then we’ve got the idea of that, “just do it” forced energy that you kind of mentioned. I think I was reading into it, the force part, but that “just do it” forced energy. Can you see how the physical giftedness and the “just do it” forced energy could really cause a problem? Because it would almost deny me accepting his limitations and taking the extra time. And seriously, if I was actually going to teach him raining maneuvers and things, I would need to laugh a lot and I would need to take a lot of extra time and he would need all that time and at the very end, I can confidently say, even though I haven’t done it, he would still be a low-scoring, reining horse. But what I really want you to see, and some of you are already ahead of me in this. I can hear you out there. You’re answering it already. Reining wouldn’t be the issue. The reining is something I could use to build us up or tear us down. The relationship wouldn’t be dependent on the event or on his physical giftedness. It would be more dependent on my actual approach, how I would treat him during that, which perfectly aligns with the idea that he is more talented when viewed as a dressage horse or maybe an eventing horse or something down that line. Just because he’s talented down that line does not guarantee that he would accept it well if I took that same “just do it” forced energy and use that on him, even in something he was more gifted at. You can also see how if he was more gifted at it, I might get away with it for longer. But it doesn’t mean that it’s going to end up with a horse that likes to do it. It is not dependent on the discipline. It is how I approach it and how I view his limitations. Because learning new things is always going to be a challenge. Whether he’s learning dressage or learning reining there will be a level of mental and physical challenge in both, and how I approach it is going to be huge.

Stacy Westfall: [00:17:42] It was really interesting when I was coming up with that example with Presto because I wavered back and forth on this idea. When I look at a horse at this point, I have a lot of expertise, so when I look at a horse, a lot of times I can see what they’re going to be talented at before I start going down that road because I’ve done that a lot. Okay, deep breath, because here’s a concept I’ve never taught before, but I really want to share it here, and I’m not quite sure how it’s going to come out. So let’s look at this. When I am doing a lot of different things with my horses it is tempting for you to look at me doing training, dressage, trail riding, let’s just stop with those three. When I do a lot of different things with my horses it is probably tempting for you to look at me and think that I’m trying on these different things to figure out what the horse is more talented at. What I actually want to tell you is that I’m trying on those different things to show the horse what they’re more talented at. Now, another way that you could use this is you could try on those different things so that you can learn about you and your interaction with the horse. Now, let me go back to just me and the horse for a minute. When I am stretching my horses, when I’m teaching them groundwork, when I’m teaching them liberty from the ground, when I am teaching them reining, when I’m teaching them trail riding, when I’m teaching them dressage movements, everything that I add, including teaching them tricks, what I’m doing is I’m showing them what they’re capable of in all these different areas. I’m not pigeonholing them into one area and yet, at the same time, the contrast of all that training does make it easier for the horse to realize that there are hard things and easy things. Okay, let me try this from another angle. When I cross-train the horse, the horse sees the contrast of things that are different, and all disciplines are going to have challenging moments or challenging movements, and all disciplines are going to have easier moments or easier movements. That’s a different way to say that the mental work at the end of the day is equal in my mind. What’s changing, actually, to me is the physical expression of some of this. So the mental work, the idea that there’s going to be hard things and easy things is almost a mental idea before it’s a physical idea. So if I took Presto and I really wanted to teach him something like a sliding stop first of all, my husband, who shoes our horses, has already informed me they do not make sliders in his size because people don’t do this. So they would have to be custom-made shoes and Presto would never be great at this. He could learn to do it okay. He could learn to do it at a–at a subpar level where you could tell what I was doing with him, but he would never be amazing. But what’s interesting is that the process of teaching him to do something that he would never be great at he would actually stand a better chance that when I was taking him to do something like dressage and teaching him half paths and lead changes, that he would be thinking, Wow, this is so much easier than that other random thing Stacy was teaching me because he would have the contrast of having done something that was hard on all fronts. I’m saying it would be hard. He’s saying it would be hard. We’re just accepting upfront that it was going to be hard. That would actually give him the ability to have some of the contrast of what was easy.

Stacy Westfall: [00:22:05] Here’s another layer of the way that you could look at it. For some horses “hard”–I’m doing air quotes here. You can’t see me. But for some horses “hard” is the physical side of exercise. So look at it like this. Hot horses volunteer for hard, physical work all the time. Lazier ones, not so much. But other horses find the hard work is the more focused side, the more detailed side. So hot horses often want to rush and they don’t do that focus quite as much. Lazy horses tend to be really good at solving puzzles. Because puzzles, if they can solve them, mean that they could outthink it and they could reduce the physical effort. Anybody who has had a lazy horse who outthink them like this is laughing right now because Gabby is so good at seeing the pattern and then seeing how she might be able to skip some of the steps to get to the end result. And in that way her laziness, I’m just going to use that word because it illustrates the side she’s leaning towards. But that laziness is actually a superpower because it makes her think harder thoughts because she’s actually trying to do that to avoid as physically hard work. Can you see where all of this ties together? At the end of the day, there will be something that the horse will find hard and there will be something that the horse will find easy. And we’re actually just playing around with those concepts while we’re training the horse. This is so much like playing around with these concepts when you’re working with that ten-year-old child. So when you asked the question, but does she even really like running barrels? What if there are parts that she likes and that she finds easy? And what if there are parts that are hard? How could you show up to be what she needs during the hard parts? I aim to be an encouraging coach for my horse, who also believes that they can do hard things. I often believe that my horses are more capable than they know. They don’t know they can do some of the things I’m teaching them to do until we’re done and they’ve learned it. And then they’re like, Wow, look, this is easy. But they did not believe that when we started. I know that through training they’re going to get stronger. I know through training they’re going to get more skilled. I know through training they’re going to get more understanding. I know at the end of that life will be easier on them because of their knowledge level. But that doesn’t mean the whole process was always easy. Who do I have to be to show up as that amazing coach that you see in sports movies? For my horse, I need to be that coach, that coach that balances teaching these life skills and sports skills all at the same time while in the movie trying to achieve some very measurable outcome with a sport.

Stacy Westfall: [00:25:19] Maybe my favorite quote from your voicemail is this. “And I bet you’re going to say, well, just try to do some different things.” Of course, I’m going to say that. Are you a longtime podcast listener or have you followed my career at all? It’s a very solid bet. I’m going to encourage you to do different things. I love trying new things, but I hope that now you can see why. I’m not doing different things to avoid the hard parts and to make things easier for my horses. I try new things to learn new things and I assume they’re all going to have easy parts and they’re all going to have hard parts. I also know that whatever I choose will provide a challenge, and that challenge is the opportunity to improve my relationship with my horse. The challenge presents the opportunity to improve the relationship, or it can be something that can erode the relationship. That is actually up to me and how I approach the challenge. It is not the task. It is not the discipline. It is not the barrel racing or the trail riding. It is how you approach the challenges that any and all of these will present. Jen, thank you so much for the question. Thanks to all of you for listening, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:27:01] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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  1. Jan McDougald on April 4, 2022 at 9:26 am

    Wow! Your podcast was really enlightening. You help me open my eyes/mind to the possibilities of improving my relationship with my horses while still being able to improve the abilities of my horse. I love that you use a ten year old child as an example. I wish I had learned this 56 years ago when I bought my first horse as a long yearling. The good new is I’m learning it now and both my horses and I will benefit. I listen to many training videos on the internet and learn from all, however you are my favorite because of your unique ability for unwrapping the many layers of horsemanship, both the human and the horse. This helps keep my mind sound for my horses sake. Thank for your commitment to the education process.

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