A couple, who are dear friends of ours, are coming to the farm for brunch tomorrow. They’re both horse people. The wife is a fantastic cook (and a fantastic rider). They both eat eggs, so I asked how they feel about omelets on the menu. The wife said she had never learned to make a great omelet, so I’m going to teach her.
Which got me thinking about what it takes to make a great omelet…how it’s an art as much as a skill, and requires feel and timing and the right tools. It occurred to me that horse training is a lot like making an omelet.
The right ingredients. In order to make a good omelet and a good horse, you have to have the right ingredients. Let’s start with your eggs. Or in this case, your horse. Horses vary just like eggs (large, small, fresh, stale, etc). Evaluating your horse, like knowing your eggs, will help you move forward in your horse training (and omelet making).
There’s even more variation in horses, being sentient beings, than there are in eggs, so getting a sense of what it’s like working with different kinds of horses, with different temperaments, is well worth the time, even if you’d rather spend every waking moment with the horse that belongs to you.
Luckily, eggs don’t have personalities (shush now you vegans), but horses certainly do, and working with a horse with a suitable temperament is important if you’re looking for an equine partner, and you’re not a professional. You might be able to pull off a great tasting omelet with inferior ingredients if you’re a chef, and you can bring a difficult horse far if you’re a pro, but if you don’t make your living training horses, it will be hard to accomplish a great training session with a horse that’s wrong for you. So find a horse that’s a good match for your skill level as well as your goals.
It’s hard to make a great omelet — or a well-trained horse — without the right tools. For an omelet, I like a well seasoned French steel omelet pan, a fork, a large spatula and good butter. For a horse, until your instinct and experience kick in, it’s good to try different tools and see how they work for you and for different horses.
I recommend not buying the first lunge whip you see at the tack shop or the whip that your trainer recommends…or the gloves that your friend loves…or the saddle that’s on sale. Try them out first, if you can. Borrow them, read about them, ask people about them, and don’t hesitate to replace them. See how they feel in your hand or under your seat, and see how your horse responds to them. Here, as in everything with horses, one size does not fit all (this is where horse training and omelet making diverge).
Have a plan — but be ready to improvise. As I write this, the first spring asparagus are in the market, the thin ones that don’t have large fibrous stems, and they’re cheap. So that’s what I’m putting in my omelets these days. It’s great with hummus, coarse Celtic sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper. It makes sense to take advantage of what’s available.
Just like it makes sense to take advantage of what your horse and the day offers you. Maybe, like many of us who have our horses at home, your plan is to improve your horse’s fitness now that spring is here. But if your horse spent yesterday running around in the big spring winds with his pals, he needs an easy day. So keep the plan, but work with what you’ve got.
Know when to push, when to pull back, and when to stop. If you overbeat the eggs for your omelet, it will come out tough. Needless to say, there’s never a reason to beat your horse.
When the eggs are combined, it’s time to stop whisking. Similarly, with your horse, once you’ve done something well, and repeated it three times (I think that’s the charm), it’s time to stop asking for more or a little bit better, and time to move onto something else. You can always return to that part of the lesson tomorrow.
At the stove, you’ll want to know just how hot your pan should be before you put your eggs in, because if it’s too cold your omelet won’t rise and if it’s too hot, your butter will burn and your omelet will brown. Similarly, you want your horse to be responsive to your aids but you don’t want to burn him out. And even if you like a hot horse, as I do, you never want to let yourself get hot when you’re training. If you find yourself getting irritated or angry at your horse, it’s time to be a good partner, and find a common ground. Let it go and get off. If you’re in the middle of a fight with your horse, be content to win by a nose…then be creative enough to find something your horse can do that you can praise him for. Eventually, you’ll learn, when it’s time to be firm, how to do it without emotion, and you’ll reach a higher level as a trainer.
When you make your omelet, you’ll stir the eggs as they cook but if you keep stirring, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs. I see riders scrambling all the time — rushing to get things done before it’s time, leaving lots of holes in the training…pulling back with the reins while pushing forward with the legs…kicking every stride when there’s no response. Make your aids clear, time them well, and then let your horse do the job. As Steinkraus said, when you use an aid, be sure to put it back.
If your horse isn’t learning something, the problem is probably the way you’re teaching it. They say a good workman never blames his tools…and a good horseman never blames his horse. Look to yourself when things aren’t working. There are lots of ways to improve yourself as a rider and a trainer. Know your limitations as well as your horse’s and know when to stop. But never stop being kind.
There’s an art to it…and you don’t have to be a top trainer to have it. Because art depends not only on skill but on sensitivity and talent and intuition. Observation, patience and good timing have more to do with making a good omelet than a degree from the CIA or experience as a sous chef at Prune. A trainer who understands her horse can go further, faster, than a trainer who has more ribbons but fewer happy horses.
The art of training is the art of communication as much as it is an art of performance, because for your horse to perform, he must understand. A happy horse is more willing, more expressive and freer in movement. So even if you’re a beginner, it’s never too early to start thinking about your horse and how he thinks and responds. You’ll find yourself developing a larger physical vocabulary as you do, and so will your horse.
Of course, I think that it’s important to have good hands and a good seat. The better you are as a rider, the better you’ll be as a trainer. But there are lots of good riders out there who can’t get their horses to perform at their best because they are lacking in the “art” — lacking in compassion, lacking in timing and tact and that elusive thing we call feel, which I think is just a combination of those elements. Once you’re a capable rider, it’s feel more than anything, that makes a difference when you’re training your horse.
Don’t forget to enjoy what you’ve made. Every omelet won’t be perfect, and unfortunately, not a single horse will be perfect. So remember to enjoy what you’ve made, even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly. Think about how to make the next omelet, and the next training session, better. Remember to enjoy every bite, and every moment that you’re lucky enough to spend with a horse.