The Power of Intentional Horsemanship

From Issue 116

Many if not all of us would see our horsemanship as well as our lives go to a new level if we would learn to be more intentional in the things we do.  Most of us do the same thing we’ve always done. We eat the same things, walk the same way, talk the same way and even ride the same. We do what we are most comfortable with over and over again. If asked “why” or “what for,” there are no answers.

Often that is because it is the easy way and it feels most comfortable to us. Jim Rohn said if you do what is easy, life will be hard, but if you do what is hard, life will be easy. Dreams are hard to accomplish without intention. A business coach once told me that hope is not a strategy and luck is not a plan. If you just ride—getting on and going around and around or even working on a few maneuvers—you will be lucky to see much improvement at all, but if you learn to ride with intention, thinking objectively before every ride, you will quickly see mass improvements in both you and your horse. Inconsistent horses have inconsistent riders, and if you are not in front of your horse as the leader, your horse will be in front of you. Most everything in life will follow the path of least resistance. For many of us, this is the way we ride.

When a training horse comes in for thirty, sixty, or ninety days, many of my clients are blown away at how quickly their horses show improvement. A colt may surpass any horse they’ve ridden in thirty to sixty days. For an older horse, thirty days of riding may surpass the training and abilities accomplished over years of riding time. My program is not special. I have  no magical training aide or an ancient secret I do behind the barn. I do nothing that you can’t learn, discipline, and train yourself to do. I just strive for intention in every ride.

Some of my intentions are ground work, building a good foundation, seeking constant improvement, warming up with fundamentals, using sequenced maneuvers, pushing myself and my horse outside of our comfort zones, and striving to be an intentional horseman. There are a number of other things I do, but this list is what I continually work on. I have put together seven strategies that will help you become a more intentional rider. If you will put them into practice and use them consistently, you and your horse will soon see big improvements.

Number One: Know Your Why.

This is one of the most important tools in developing good horsemanship. If you know your “why,” you can endure almost any “how.” We all ride for different reasons: as a hobby, an athletic pursuit, a relaxing pastime or even as therapy. But one thing for certain is if you know the “why” behind the reason, everything about your pursuit will be easier. A strong “why” gives you motivation, strength, and grit to carry on, even on the bad, busy, or rainy days, and the days that you just don’t feel like it. 

Why do you ride?


Number Two: Set Goals.

A person without a goal is like a ship without a rudder. Without a rudder, a ship is not able to be directed towards a destination. Your “why” is your destination. Goals are stepping stones or way points leading you where you want to go. It has been said that you cannot see a target you do not have and you can’t hit a target you do not see. This is very true. I have noticed that horses, like people, appreciate having purpose. They gain more out of their training and time with their rider when there’s meaning and a reason. Cow clinic participants often say how much lighter and more energetic their horses feel when we are working cows. Horses almost always feel that way. They like working, having a purpose, and having fun. They need you to be intentional and set goals that inspire you and them!

What is your next horsemanship goal?


Number Three: Ride with a Plan.

Did you know if you follow a recipe you can duplicate the blue-ribbon, award-winning, world’s-greatest chocolate cake? And with a good blueprint, a simple house or a high-rise building can be broken down to individual steps and pieces. When you ride with a plan, you and your horse will succeed. A good training plan looks toward a future date or event, backtracks to where you are, and then fills in everything in-between. When I am doing a mustang challenge, I have a plan. I plan my days, and then my weeks and months. Where do I need to be? What benchmarks do I need to hit? For a mustang challenge, you usually have somewhere around one-hundred days. So if you know what you’ll be doing at the show or competition, back-up and build a plan to go where you want to. Many of us will feel uneasy or apprehensive about building a predetermined plan for our horse’s progress. That’s okay. This plan is not set in stone. You can modify, adjust, or change if you need to. The point is to have an agenda and be intentional.

What is your plan?


Number Four: Practice Purposeful Practice.

We used to say practice makes perfect. That’s not true. Then it was said no practice does not make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect. Science has now proven even that is not the best way to practice. What we know now is that if you want the most out of your horse training time, whether on the ground or mounted, you need to employ the system of purposeful practice. Purposeful practice in itself is intentional and has four specific steps that will help you get the most out of every training session. First, you must ride with a daily goal. Second, you must have focus and plan your ride. Third, you need reliable feedback from a coach, trainer, or even a video. Four, you and your horse must get out of your comfort zone. Four percent is optimal for humans and seems to work well for the horse. A peak performance coach told me once, no pressure, no diamonds.

What does your practice look like?


Number Five: Work on Your Foundation and Improve Your Fundamentals.

John Wooden was one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. He led UCLA to ten NCAA National Championships. He is noted to have been a fanatic about working on foundations and practcing fundamentals. When he got a new batch of players, each year he started the season off by teaching them how to properly put on their socks. Then they practiced putting on their socks until they could not get it wrong. It has been said that you need to work on the fundamentals of anything worth doing, not until you get it right but until you can’t get it wrong. Foundation and fundamentals are very important to work on. Because they sometimes seem easy or beneath our ability and not very exciting, you as a team leader must be that much more intentional about practicing them. In my program, I work on them every horse, every ride. Whether I am riding a well-bred three-year-old colt or a tried-and-true twenty-five-year-old kid’s horse, I always work on the basics. 

I’ve heard that if you want to know how big a building will be, look at how deep they are digging the foundation. The bigger the foundation, the bigger the building. For the horse, it will look like forwards, backwards, left, right, up and down. You should be able to move their feet anywhere, any time, and any place. It will also look like body control or willingly giving the pressure and moving their head, neck, shoulders, belly, or barrel and hind-quarters. When you have a good foundation and your fundamentals are strong, you have a horse that is not only safer but also more able to perform the way you would like and to the best of their abilities. 

What foundation and fundamental exercises do you work on every ride?


Number Six: Use Productive Evaluation, also called the Good, Better, Best, or 3, 2, 1 tool.

This is a great evaluation tool for you, your horse, and your team. Done properly and consistently, it will set you up for success over the long term as well as bring benefits out of every ride. This tool will make planning your next ride much easier. Here is how it works. Ask and answer these three questions. First, what are three things I, my horse, and we as a team did well? Second, what are two things that I, my horse, and our team could do better? Third, what is one thing that if we changed, I, my horse, and we could be our best? Be honest with yourself here. Notice all of these questions are written in the positive. This is no time for negative self-talk or running yourself or your horse down, only for realistic and positive evaluations. This is also a great way to help others evaluate their ride or other activities. Oftentimes we evaluate ourselves in a negative mindset because we are always looking to improve. We only see the bad. Whether in the arena, sports field, or important relationships, the whole conversation is positive when using the good, better, best or the 3, 2, 1 tool. This tool will set you up for a more productive next session to build on your strength and work on your weaknesses.

What are three things you did well?


Number Seven: Do!

It is not in the knowing but in the doing. Many of us know way more than we probably need to. In the world we live in today, it is way too easy to build knowledge. We can read books, watch videos, study YouTube or even correspond with experts in almost any field, including the horse industry. For most of us, our do needs to catch up with our know. The new stuff we are working on is always hard. It has not become natural or effortless yet. That takes time. You got to practice over and over and over again. I like the saying that you have to do before you can be and sometimes it takes a while. Ten thousand hours can make you good at almost anything! Three hundred times of doing most things with your horse should make both of you better. We have to strive to be consistent. If you want to grow and become better, you and your horse would be way better off if you made it a habit to ride twenty minutes six days a week rather than three hours one day a week. When you do a little a lot rather than a lot a little, it all improves.

What do you know that you need to do?


The power of intentional horsemanship can change your relationship with your horse. The power of intentional living can change your life. Our horses are oftentimes the tool to propel us forward in other parts of our lives. If you practice these seven strategies, you will be amazed at the positive progress made in a short period of time. Know your “why,” set goals, ride with a plan, practice purposeful practice, build your foundation and work on your fundamentals, use productive evaluation, and do! You will see an over-the-top, better-than-you-thought, mega improvement.

If for no other reason, do it for your horse!

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