To understand this story I need to help you understand what it was like working with Charles. His horses were some of the most well mannered horses I had ever seen. They weren’t pushy, they stood quietly when asked, they weren’t spooky, etc. He was not a very big guy, and he was pretty soft spoken, but he was very good at making an impact, and it was always clear where he stood. I would have described him as opinionated on a good day, unreasonably picky on a bad day (my bad day, not his).
He had a rule for everything. There was a way to hold a rope, a way to walk a horse into a stall, a way to take off a halter, a way to put on a halter, a way to lead a horse… you get the idea. It took a while to learn these rules and make them a habit, and until those habits were formed he was there to remind me. He never explained his reasons (I don’t ever remember asking either…), but I assumed he had one, it just didn’t mean it was a good enough reason for me ( I might have been a bit cocky I suppose).
That said, he was teaching me a lot about riding and horsemanship, and I knew he knew his stuff. We did a lot of lunge line lessons to work on my seat, and a lot of ground work to teach me how to be more consistent, disciplined, basically to be a better trainer.
One of his biggest rules was that if you are going to quit riding the horse, you need to get off. I was never allowed to get out of the proper riding position while I was sitting on the horse, no matter what we were doing. If I asked the horse to stand still for an hour, I sat still for an hour. If I wanted to move, take my feet out of the stirrups, turn around to talk to someone, I got off.
One day we were in the round pen, it was summertime, so it was warm and breezy, a very nice day to ride. I was in his dressage saddle with the stirrups removed practicing my sitting trot. He was explaining how each stride when the horse pushes you up and out of the saddle, they are not really moving just up and down. They are moving diagonally up and forward. By focusing on that forward motion rather than the upward motion you can begin to find the movement necessary to ride the trot without catching air. As he was standing in the middle explaining this, he suddenly broke his train of thought and said, “Do you need me to take care of that for you?” I said, “What?” He said, “Should I cut that off for you? If it is going to be that much of a distraction you should cut it off.” I said, “Huh?” I had NO IDEA what he was talking about. We were talking about sitting trot, and all of a sudden he wants to cut something… I start looking for a loose piece of something, on my tack, on my clothing… I don’t see anything, so I say again, “What are you talking about???” He says, “Your hair. You keep tucking it behind your ears…” I thought maybe he was joking, so I watched for his expression to change, but it never did. He was very serious. REALLY?? My hair! He wants to cut off my hair just because I am tucking it behind my ears??!! It is windy, I have it in a pony tail… Anyway, since I didn’t notice it, I figured it wasn’t really a distraction like he thought, so I explained that to him. That didn’t go over well, and again I was shocked. Why did it matter so much to him what happened with my hair. It is none of his business what my hair does!!
We had a lot of these moments, so I expected to file it away in the back of my mind as one of those things that was frustrating about working with Charles, but that I knew probably had some important meaning if I could ever figure it out.
This, however, was one of the few things that he explained. Never ask something of your horse that you are not willing to give. We ask the horse to tolerate a lot of things that are out of their nature to tolerate. We expect them to focus 100% on what we ask, to be ready to move at a moments notice, meanwhile ignoring things that are causing them anxiety, fear, discomfort, sometimes even pain. I am asking these things of my horse every time I work with them, and they do it willingly, but I can’t even tolerate my hair blowing in my face. I can’t even be aware of my surroundings enough to realize I am removing my hands from the task of guiding the horse to pull my hair from my face. I am not spending as much effort in protecting and guiding the horse as the horse is giving in carrying me around…
That was the beginning of a whole new thought process for me in the way that I work with a horse. I made a commitment that day to ask more of myself than I do of my horse. I am glad that I did, the results are well worth it. By changing myself I become a better partner for my horse, and horses respond to that in amazing ways!