This month I get to wish another Happy Birthday to my dear friend and companion, Prima. Prima turns 30 this month and this smart, beautiful Arabian mare continues to bring light into my life. Prima is the first horse I ever raised from a foal and we have been together since the day she was born. Prima knows me better than I know myself most times and she has been my most important mentor during my journey as a professional horse trainer. So this month I thought I would share some of the important lessons that Prima taught me over the years and how she helped shaped me into a better horse professional.
“This may be an everlasting love”
– Natalie Cole
Prima came into my life around the time I was making the shift from horses as a hobby into horses as a professional. I had never raised a foal before and I knew just enough to know that I would probably mess her up if I didn’t take my time and learn all I could. So I did not start Prima under saddle until she was 6 years old. In hindsight, even though I still made plenty of mistakes, I think waiting that long and allowing her body to mature, is part of why she came along so quickly in her early training and held up so well physically for the years it took me to figure out authentic horse and rider balance. Prima’s constant opinions of my riding and training skills were a guiding force that kept me humble, searching for more information and forcing changes when things were not working – whether I wanted to change or not.
Our personal horses know us from the inside out. The language of horses is nonverbal, so they are always reading our energy, our body language and understanding us through our actions. We can’t talk our way out of a situation nor can we lie to them, even when we are lying to ourselves or blissfully unaware of our personal weaknesses. Horses know when we are for them, even while mistakes are made, or when we are really for ourselves and forgetting what it takes to develop a real partnership. Harmony with another living creature means we have to adapt, understand and see the world through their eyes.
The biggest lessons I learned from Prima over the years are:
- Horses are waaaaaay smarter than people think.
- Strong boundaries can be clearly communicated with kindness.
- True leadership starts by example and feels parental, balancing love with structure
Horses are waaaay smarter than people think
As horse owners we quickly start to realize just how smart our equine friends are when they seem to know exactly what time it is for feeding or the end of a training session. And we are often amazed watching our horses figure out things like opening stall doors, performing tricks for treats or quietly munching on things they know they should not be eating, including the landscaping. Prima does all of those things too, but I was really blown away by her cleverness when I finally – after years – realized that Prima could bounce me onto her preferred diagonal! Whenever I rode Prima at the trot I kept finding myself on the left diagonal (rising with the right hind and left front legs) even when I was trying purposely to ride on the right diagonal (rising with the left hind and right front legs). I constantly had to change my diagonal, thinking to myself, “What is up with me?” …for years….
I finally put it together one day when I noticed that only when I tracked left did Prima alway put in a skipping step once in awhile. The step was like one stride of canter but not quite. It was a small bump upward in the trot that only happened once in awhile and only when we were tracking left. On that direction, on a right diagonal, I was sitting when the right hind and left front legs were lifting. Prima’s weakest leg was her right hind and she apparently did not enjoy me sitting against it during any trot – thank you very much.
So Prima had figured out how to quietly bounce me as a rider onto HER preferred diagonal where her right hind leg did not have to be challenged. Seriously?!
Now that is pretty darn smart!!
Strong boundaries can be clearly communicated with kindness
Prima, even as an Arabian mare, has been one of the most bombproof horses I have ever owned. She is naturally pretty fearless, very adaptable and was pretty much OK with all the different things I asked her to do over the years. Prima was not only a fantastic demo horse but also my go-to lesson horse for all levels of riders.
Prima’s personal boundaries were not just obvious to me, but to every rider that she helped along the way. She would start to drag riders towards the gate or mounting block at exactly 5 minutes before the end of an hour. If we ignored that hint, then she just stopped suddenly precisely at the 1 hour mark. I would look at my watch and sure enough she would nail the time down to the very minute.
During a lesson, if a novice rider was feeling unstable to her, Prima would stop frequently or crawl along at a cautious walk. Riders could not get her to move forward freely until they figured out how to balance and stabilize their seat. While figuring out how to balance as a rider, Prima would not only stop or slow down, she would turn her head back towards the rider as if asking, “Can you please get it together up there?”
One lesson in particular really stands out in my memory. The student wanted to overcome her fear of trotting on a safe horse and improve her riding skills. Each time she asked Prima to trot, Prima would make a tight turn and trot over to me at the fence and stop. This happened several times before the rider said to me, “It’s like Prima is telling me that she can’t deal with these conditions and you need to fix my balance or she is not going to trot for me!” Nail on the head. I had been thinking that in my own head, but did not want to say it out loud. So Prima made herself very clear!
True leadership starts by example and balances love with structure
Just like any student that rode Prima, she also made it very clear to me when the problem was on my end and had nothing to do with her. Until I could maintain balance emotionally, she was simply going to outwit every directive I gave and frustrate my efforts at “making” her do anything that she did not want to do. If I lost mental focus for even a moment, Prima would instantly use that lapse to suddenly change direction or speed, again choosing what she wanted rather than what I was asking her to do. If my balance and stability as a rider was not precise, she would let me know how much I was getting in her way of doing anything at all. Prima has been my best mentor – exacting, patient and clear – teaching me what horses really think and what horses really need from us while being ridden. I had to constantly and authentically improve my own balance from the inside out before Prima found me worthy of genuine cooperation.
During liberty demos, if I thought I could make Prima jump the barrels, which she disliked, then she would simply find a way to outmaneuver me and run into the open trailer. Prima would jump into the trailer while I was across the arena standing by the barrels because she liked the trailer trick but not the barrel trick. I often had to just pretend I had asked for trailer loading because it was pretty amazing, even if it was her idea. Prima pointed out regularly during liberty demos that she was happy to work with me – but not for me.
As I learned more and more about optimal biomechanics, Prima suddenly became my most challenging horse. With every mentor and every improvement I made, Prima still would not stand for any rein resistance as part of the plan. To make her point clear, she became a master at pulling me right out of the saddle with the reins when I tried to use rein resistance as part of helping her lift her back. As a small horse, she learned perfect timing and how to leverage her body in a way that I struggled to keep my seat in the saddle. Once I learned how to keep my seat, she would then drop her back instead of lifting it if I used any rein resistance at all. Point taken – again after many years. She must think I am very slow!
My love for Prima is what caused me to seek new solutions, new strategies and find very creative ways to help horses improve mechanical balance without the classical use of rein resistance. As a human, I have the mental capacity to know that improving mechanical coordination towards Optimal Balance would benefit Prima greatly. As a good parent or at least managing partner, I had the beneficial structure clear in my mind. But as a horse, Prima is the only one who knows exactly how we need to go about doing that! My love and respect for Prima meant that the structure I provided also had to be loose, flexible and adaptable to her needs every step of the way.
As Prima turns 30 this month I am happy to say that she is happy with me. I get a soft nicker after a good ride or workout on the ground, letting me know she enjoyed that session. She still communicates very clearly with more “thumbs up” these days than ever before. These quiet moments between us, gaining approval from Prima in ways that might not have meaning to anyone else, are my blue ribbons and silver trophies. Prima has been my most stringent task master and kindest teacher ever. The value she has added to my professional career as a horse trainer cannot be measured because she has helped shaped who I am on so many levels.
So Happy Birthday to my AB FAB RAB and may we get to enjoy many more together!