Episode 283: Switching Gears: Mastering Multiple Roles with Your Horse

This podcast episode discusses the dual roles riders embody: the supportive advocate and the accountable coach. The challenge arises when riders need to switch between these roles depending on the situation with their horse.
Using personal anecdotes and analogies, Stacy illustrates how these roles manifest in real-life scenarios, such as encouraging a horse to canter in a confined space or making decisions while trail riding.
Drawing parallels between sports coaching and horse training, she elucidates the challenges riders face in pushing their horses beyond their comfort zones while maintaining a supportive rapport.
By sharing personal experiences and insights, Stacy encourages listeners to reflect on their own roles and challenges in horse training, offering practical tips for navigating these complexities.

Show Notes:

Can your horse figure out how to use its body in a more collected way? That means it actually is going to be more likely to be hard to get going, but also a lot easier to stop.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.

Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall and I’m here to help you understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. I’m out on the trail again with Willow, and we are racking up miles for the Tevis Cup virtual challenge and recording a podcast. On today’s podcast, I want to talk to you about a challenge that I often see riders face, and you basically fall into one of two categories. You’ve identified this challenge, and you’ve come up with a way to to navigate it, or you haven’t identified this challenge as clearly as I’m going to explain it in today’s podcast. And if you haven’t identified it, it will often cause you to feel conflicted when you’re working with your horse. And the challenge that I see is that when you’re working with your horse, you’re often needing to switch roles depending on what’s going on. And if you’re a listener of this podcast, there’s a good chance that one of your favorite roles to be in with your horse is the role of, we could call it several things the role of the cheerleader, the role of the supporter, the role of the advocate, people who follow me and listen to the way that I teach and identify with the things that I talk about often want to be the advocate for their horse. They want to support their horse. And so this role tends to be the one that we want to default to. And it’s a great thing to do.

The challenge becomes when you also need to be the horse’s accountability partner or educator or teacher or coach, because sometimes when you face the challenge of holding the horse accountable or deciding what the rules are and what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, sometimes that role will feel like it conflicts with the role of the cheerleader. So before I go any further, I’m thinking about a friend of mine who really doesn’t like the phrase the cheerleader, and I’m okay with it, but I recognize some of you may not be. So of course I googled it. And a cheerleader is defined as a person who encourages and openly supports the success of a person or a cause, in this case, your horse. So I’m okay with cheerleader, but if you’re not, try one of these other ones on supporter and adherent follower backer advocate. Or you could use advocate a person who pleads for or in behalf of another. Now I actually love it. If you pictured somebody who was a raving sports fan when I started dating my husband years ago, I didn’t know he was such a huge Ohio State Buckeyes fan, and I actually met him and was hanging out with him for the first time the weekend of Ohio State. Michigan. Yeah, so I got to learn a lot about what a raving fan looks like. Later, when we were married and had small children, I would say, do you think you could maybe not scare the children because he was so enthusiastic about his support? But when I think about it, it’s a really interesting thing when somebody is supporting a sports team or later on when our children were playing sports and you’re supporting an individual player, there are times that you’re really rooting for them.

Come on, you can do it, and you’re saying things like that. And I also want you to think about how it sounds. If they let’s say I’m picturing our son playing basketball, if they miss the basket, that’s okay. That’s okay. Come on. Next one. Something to that effect. And so it’s an interesting thing to think about how somebody who is a supporter, somebody who is a big fan of this person who’s playing sports, how that language comes across. And for just a moment, I want you to switch gears and think about how it feels to be the coach. When I think about the coach or the educator or the teacher, one thing that comes up in my mind is that the coach oftentimes has some sort of responsibility. 82 educating the player. And so when I look up the word accountability, it says the state of being accountable, liable or answerable. And one of the examples it gives is education, a policy of holding schools and teachers accountable for a student’s academic progress. And what is very interesting to me about the idea of accountability in this particular definition is that if we say that the teacher or the school is going to be accountable for the students academic progress, or we look at the coaching of a team and we think that it’s the coach’s responsibility to do their best to develop a player who can go out there and be successful to their level of capability, but that coach is responsible for coaching them up to their capability.

And what this makes me think of is when riders are riding their horse. I think it actually takes some practice to be able to hold both of those roles at the same time. And I actually think that in the beginning, it’s easier if instead of trying to do both of those roles at the same time, you actually allow yourself to be in one role and then switch into the other. Now when I say allow yourself, I actually mean schedule yourself. Teach yourself, train yourself. Hold yourself accountable for spending time in both of these roles. So as the encourager, the way that I feel that fitting in to my horse training is that there are times that when I’m training the horse and the horse isn’t just getting it, there are times that I will even hear myself saying, okay, come on, you can do this. And it brings up an energy in me of a, we can do this, you can do this. This is possible. It brings up a different energy. Say, I’m asking the horse to move forward to load in a horse trailer.

I still have the queue system. I still have whatever the language is that I’m using. That’s a that’s a physical queue system with the horse. But I bring up my energy in this very encouraging kind of a way, and it would be very similar to encouraging our sons when they were playing basketball and they were struggling. And you’re saying, come on, you can do it. That kind of energy. So that kind of energy can be there. And a totally different role is that I’m also the one that’s holding the horse accountable. And why I think this sometimes causes people to have a conflict is that although I love the word advocate, listen to the definition again, a person who pleads for or in behalf of another. Well, when I read that, it makes me think that you’re pleading for or in behalf of another against something. Now let’s look at the coach for a minute. So in my mind, the coach looks at the team and the individual players and determines how they are going to prepare both the team and the player. That could be from a fitness standpoint. So if you think about the whole group working out together, whether that’s running or dribbling or whatever is appropriate to that sport, there’s a certain fitness level that the coach is going to be working on getting individual team members and the entire team up to and in that coaching for fitness, a lot of times it’s going to be hard work because you’re going to have to stretch the edge of the comfort zone so that you can expand that player’s capability in that physical, let’s say, stamina or strength realm.

And in that moment, the coach is on purpose, setting the bar just a little bit out of reach at times and then maybe backing it back down, but then also moving it back up so that they can increase the fitness level of the player. And in a very similar way, they’re also likely stretching the player’s knowledge of the game or knowledge of their position in the team. And so in that there is a stretch to take that player out of their comfort zone, out of their knowledge zone. And I think that’s where the idea starts to come into a little bit of conflict between if I am the supporter, the encourager who wants the person to succeed, the backer, the advocate. If I’m the advocate who’s pleading for or in behalf of the horse, but I’m pleading for that against myself, who is in the role of the coach? The coach who is set out the task that’s going to stretch the horse physically or mentally? Can you see where if you’re not aware of this, it could cause a conflict in you because you’re the one causing the stretch. When I work with riders who haven’t acknowledged those two different standpoints, what I typically see is that they attempt to approach the idea of working the horse and stretching the horse’s comfort zone, whether that is emotionally, knowledge wise or physically.

When they attempt to stretch, that they will feel guilty or somehow conflicted about having the horse keep going. They’re much more likely to say things like, my horse doesn’t like that. And in a way I understand what they’re saying, but it’s a little bit like when I’m working out, I choose to work out, and I don’t love how it feels to work out. So there is a balance between challenging the horse’s comfort zone. I did a previous podcast called green, yellow and Red zones and it’s very easy as the supporter, as the cheerleader, as the advocate, to have a feeling that the Green Zone is the spot that we should always be in because it’s the easier zone. But the yellow zone is actually where the horse gets stretched, and the red zone represents too much of a stretch to where it’s overloading. Now, when I tie this back to something that you would actually experience, a couple things come to mind. I was just loping up the trail on Willow while I’m recording this podcast, and oftentimes I meet riders who have a fear of loping, a concern about loping, a hesitation about loping. And when we start breaking it down, there’s a lot of different components. Obviously it’s a faster speed, there’s a different movement to sit.

But consistently, one of the things that many of these riders will report is that they have trouble getting their horse to canter in a small, enclosed area. So because they have trouble getting that lope or that canter in, let’s say a round pan or a small arena because. It’s not easy to get the horse to do it because again, let me translate because it’s not Green Zone. Easy to get the horse to do it there. They choose to go to where it’s easy to get the horse to lope. So they go out on a trail like where I am right now, or they go out in a field or they go out. I was just on a dirt road cantering a minute ago. They go out somewhere where it’s easy to get the horse to go, well then it’s Green zone, easy to get the horse to go, but it’s not so easy to get the horse to slow down. And for me, the missing piece in here is that as the coach of the horse, if I’m looking at the physical way that the horse is going to move, let’s say on a lunge line sized circle versus on a dirt road where they can canter with no restrictions. A lot of times the thing that’s actually different between those two is that the size of a lunge circle requires a level of collection, but that level of collection requires the horse to do a little more work.

So the way that I describe it, because it’s the way that I feel it, is that when I’m riding on a horse that’s more collected, that literally means that their stride isn’t as long and that they are more gathered up and balanced. And so when I think about loping on a young green or a horse that doesn’t collect well, and being out on a back dirt road, that would have been my entire teenage years. And when I compare the feeling of riding that in my mind to the feeling of riding a horse that’s even just slightly more collected, which is what’s required to be on that lunge line. It feels very cart wheelie to me when they’re running free. And that cart wheelie feeling comes from how they’re moving their body. I want to act it out for you. Even though it’s a podcast. It’s like I want to swing my arms in this really wide motion and act like I’m running down a hill. And that’s how it feels to let a horse run on a back road in a quote unquote, easy place to get them to go. But the part that’s making it easy to get them to go is that they don’t have to collect. But that’s the very thing that’s making it hard to slow them down, because the way they’re actually moving is less collected and that less collected. That cart wheelie feeling, that’s the way that I experience it.

That cart wheelie feeling is physically not just it’s not just a mindset. It’s physically in their body. It’s actually harder for them to slow down from. So imagine you I did this as a kid running down a hill, and you start wheeling your arms like they’re giant windmills. You get rather out of balance, and the way that ends frequently is not with you on your own two feet. And so with the horse, when they’re feeling that loss of balance, and then the rider begins to use the reins to slow them down, the horse experiences even more of a loss of balance due to the rider interfering with the use of their head and neck. And all of this is happening because the rider wanted to keep the horse more comfortable by asking them to lope in a green zone. Place in this example out on a dirt road versus in a round pen or on a lunge line size circle, where in that scenario, the challenge would have been more emotional training wise. Can you request your horse to Canter in a spot that it doesn’t want to, because it needs to collect? Can your horse figure out how to use its body in a more collected way? That means it actually is going to be more likely to be hard to get going, but also a lot easier to stop, because that’s the other side of I’m having trouble getting my horse to canter on this small side.

Good news you’ll be able to stop the horse from cantering much easier, but there tends to be a guilt associated with asking the horse to do a yellow zone thing by cantering on that smaller circle. Are you starting to see more clearly how the role of the coach, who can physically see the difference between those two different scenarios and see physically what’s happening, and also see mentally why the horse would be quote unquote resistant to cantering on that smaller circle. Can you see where if you had the ability to not only look? Listen to this podcast and identify those. But if you could actually feel the difference in your body when you were feeling guilty because you want to be the advocate and the supporter, but right now your horse needs a little bit more accountability to get moving and actually lope on this small circle.

Yes, Willow, if you step on one end of a branch, it’s going to jump further away from you. The tree down. We had to ride around off the trail through the woods.

Okay. So my main point here is there will be different roles that you will be in when you’re with your horse. Intentionally practicing those different roles individually will help you understand each of those roles more clearly. I right now am running my unexpected orphanage, so I have Lefty and Stormy at home, and that means that I’m often in the health care provider role.

But I’m also running a preschool, and I’m also teaching them about what body language is acceptable with humans and what’s not acceptable with humans, and how that’s different than what’s acceptable with each other. So understanding those different roles is what takes away the guilt from the experience of correcting lefty. If he starts backing towards me and humping up with his little butt threatening to kick me, I don’t feel guilty about reaching out and scooting him forward and moving him, and then intentionally walking and moving him intentionally to say to him, I will move your little feet. You can move, and I love to hug and scratch you. Those are two different roles if I want to look at them like that. Now for me, because I’ve practiced switching the roles so frequently, I am in that amazing spot where as I’ve been recording this podcast and I’m going uphills and downhills and I’m trotting and I’m cantering and I’m riding up through the river. As I’m doing that, I’m fluent in switching roles. So when we had to go around a fallen tree back there and Willow stepped on a branch and she’s wearing her fly mask for the first time this year. And every time I put the fly mask on her for the first time, it’s got to be like wearing dark sunglasses. And she is a little bit more jumpy when things happen, because I think it distorts her vision just a little bit.

Now it seems to fade or go away the more she gets used to it. But she stepped on the end of a branch back there, and the branch was 6 or 7ft long, so the other end of it, seven feet away from us, jumped, and she shuddered. And so even though as I’m riding along here, it doesn’t look like I’m actively coaching her, I am ready at a moment’s notice to close these aides and support her, guide her, and then bring her back around. And so this brings me to example number two. Oftentimes when people are out trail riding, which I love to do, oftentimes they hesitate to be the one that decides little things on the trail. And I’m not saying you have to decide every step the entire time for miles and miles or however long you ride. I am saying it’s worth picking up and deciding if you want to ride to the left, to the right, or straight through the middle of that next mud puddle. Because there’s wisdom in asking your horse these smaller questions to see how they will respond before you actually end up in a quote unquote big or like a crisis type situation. And then you ask the horse to respond. So what I mean by that is, as I’m approaching this mud right here, I’m looking at it and I’m deciding I want to go to the left of it, and I’m steering her around to the left of it.

Now, this next mud that I just am coming up to now, I’m going to steer her straight through the middle of it, and we’re going to go across to even though she can see that to the left would be the quote unquote, easier way to go. And if I pick up and I experience a little bit of resistance, then that’s my little tiny gauge that something’s going on in our communication or in her mental state as we’re out here on the trail. And often times riders will go along and they’ll unintentionally just be talking with a friend or just enjoying the scenery like the deer I saw a little earlier, and some of the other beautiful things that are starting to grow. There’s flowers and all this stuff, and they’ll let the horse make all kinds of decisions. And then when something. Think bigger happens. Like earlier, there was a deer that didn’t move off the trail and we came around and it was frozen. And the first time it moved again, Willow has her fly mask on and I had just noticed the deer about 1.5 seconds before Willow did, and when it first moved, she did a big startle in place. But it’s still kind of a big motion of like, huh, what is that right there? A lot of times, riders who haven’t been picking up and guiding the horse and working on that entire communication, they wait until that bigger moment, and they may have a horse that wheels around and runs when that kind of stuff happens and you want to be handling the horse, that has that tendency way more frequently.

So you can be putting money in the bank and practicing before you actually end up face to face with the deer. And you need to pick up on your aids. Because again, if the minute you pick up on the aids, your horse also takes it as a restriction, as something that hinders their balance, as something that hinders their motion verses additional support. That’s when it starts to feel dangerous to be out here. And for me, this stuff is much easier to practice in the arena in a controlled environment. Because in the same way that I’m saying that I want you to practice being the coach for 15 minutes, and then you can switch to a different role when you do that. It’s easier to do that with an intentional thought process about when and where you’re going to do it. And that, for me, is a lot easier to set up and control at home. Because out here on the trail, there are a lot of moving pieces, and it’s harder for both of us to focus and be accurate. Which role is the hardest for you? Is it the hardest for you to be the fitness coach that asks your horse to stretch their current fitness level? Or is it harder for you to stretch that horse’s knowledge level and emotional level a little bit? So an example of that would be asking the horse to stand tied for an hour.

That’s not a real physical thing, but it’s an emotional thing. So when you think about the different roles that you play, it’s actually important for you to pitch your scenarios that you are challenged by when you hear or read of them and then think, oh, what role am I picturing myself in when I tie my horse up and ask him to stand there for an hour? Where is that hesitation in me coming from to ask and require that of him? Does it feel like you’re the high school principal running a detention class when you tie your horse up in the stall? Or you could flip it around and you could say, why is it easy for me to ask my horse to do a certain thing, like ride down the trail? But why is it challenging for me to think about doing work in the arena? And after you find an example of a place where you feel okay holding the horse accountable, and an example of a place where you don’t feel as good, play with that and find out what you’re thinking about each of those situations and what role you are putting yourself into.

That’s what I have for you this week. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.


  1. Roz on May 11, 2024 at 10:41 pm

    Another enlightening and brilliant podccast!!! Thanks Stacy

Leave a Comment

Join the newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest content and updates by email.