How Much Time is ‘The Time it Takes’? by Gincy Self Bucklin

That phrase, ‘the time it takes’ has become a very popular catchword especially in the Natural Horsemanship training world. But what does it mean? Probably something a little different to each person, but to me one of the things it means is being willing to take the time to go back and start over when what you’re doing ‘doesn’t even begin to work’ (there’s another catch phrase for you!)

Let’s say that you’ve decided to work on picking up the canter/lope from the walk. Your horse is sticky and somewhat reluctant, so you decide that he needs to become more responsive. Not an outrageous expectation, certainly. So you spend time warming him up and then you’re ready to go to work. You set him up and give him the canter aids that you’ve been using and no canter. You try several more times and still aren’t getting it, or getting it only after prolonged trotting. So you decide to up the ante, and you either use the leg aid more strongly or you add a whip aid. Oh, good, there’s the canter. You praise him, canter around a time or two, then walk and try again. Leg aid, nothing, stick aid, canter, but this time there’s a little head shake and a hump in the back. Canter around, walk, try again. Leg aid, nothing, stick aid, buck! then canter. Oops. What was that about? Try again. Leg aid, nothing, stick aid, buck! scoot! buck!

Hmmmm. There is a classic example of ‘doesn’t even begin to work’! The horse started out saying “I don’t really want to canter,” when you used the leg aid. So you used a stronger aid, and the first time you used it the horse said, “Well, maybe under the circumstances, even though I don’t really want to, I’ll try the canter. How bad could it be?” So he tried the canter and found out that maybe it wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t by any means great. Pretty scary, in fact.

The next time you set him up he thought, ‘Uh-oh, I’m going to either have to canter or get hit, and I don’t want to get hit (or banged with a heavy leg aid, or whatever) but the idea of cantering makes me pretty tense.’ And indeed he is so tense that when he first feels the stronger aid hes has to shake his head to release the tension, and there’s still some there in the humped back. The second time he’s tense enough that he can’t go forward, so he bucks instead to break loose, then canters. The last time, he is really tense so the first buck doesn’t break him loose, and he has to scoot and buck again.

Now, you could keep going in this direction. You could pull him up hard for bucking and scooting, and maybe you could even get him producing some sort of canter from the walk without a buck. But! The horse has told you very clearly and distinctly that something is wrong with this whole canter routine. Do you know what it is? Did you make any effort to figure out why the horse doesn’t want to canter? Or do you go on the premise that he is ‘just being a jerk’ or ‘just trying to pull my chain?’

This is where you need to take some time. Don’t say to yourself, “I have to make him do it right today, because I started it and if I don’t make him do it right, he will have won!” Hey, you’re not fighting a war, you’re trying to teach your horse to pick up the canter from the walk. Good teachers are analytical and helpful, not tyrannical. (I’ve always felt that being tyrannical is a cop out on the part of the teacher. She doesn’t really know how to teach, or doesn’t understand the subject, but she doesn’t want to take ‘the time it takes’ to learn herself. Instead, she bullies the student into carrying the load. “What do you mean, you can’t canter. Figure it out!!!!”)

So, first of all, time for thought. Maybe some research, or some advice, depending on your level of expertise. Start by asking yourself some questions. Was he really picking up the canter well from the trot, or did I just think he was? Was he really comfortable cantering, or was it a lot of work to keep him going? (Don’t forget, ‘if it isn’t easy, it isn’t right!) If he seemed to be all right, maybe he’s just having a bad day today, but it’s also possible I haven’t given him enough time. It takes time to develop the strength and balance to pick up the canter easily from the walk. Maybe there’s a different exercise that will help him to work it out better, like trot-to-walk-to-canter so that he has the impulsion already. So I’ll add another step. That will take a little more time, but we’re not getting it right the way we’re going, are we?

Or perhaps I realize, on consideration or on having some one more knowledgeable watch him, that his canter wasn’t really as good as I thought. Next question, am I working the right way, or does what I’m doing need changing? Maybe I pushed cantering too soon, and need to go back and spend some time to improve his balance by doing more flat work. Or maybe the arena is too narrow, and it’s making him tense and compressed. If I can’t find a different place to work him, that means spending extra time to improve his balance to the point where he can deal comfortably and easily with it at the trot before I can expect canter.

Or, maybe I need to improve! Do I really sit quietly in the middle of the horse when he canters? Or stand balanced in my stirrups? Or am I bouncing on his back or falling to the outside on the turns? Are my hands quiet or are the reins bouncing every stride? Cantering in a small space asks for a high degree of balance on the part of the horse if you are not to cause eventual lameness. If you are awkward the problem is magnified many times.

So, whatever the cause, you can make a choice. You can choose the quick fix, or you can choose to take the time it takes to truly solve the problem. Suppose you have a leaky pipe in your house and you call the plumber. He says, “Hey, let’s just wrap some tape around it. No point spending a lot of time and money replacing that piece of pipe.” So he wraps some tape around it and three months later it lets go and floods the bathroom and leaks through the ceiling onto the brand new carpet in the living room.

Of course, no sensible home owner would ever do such a thing. You would want the plumber to ‘take the time it takes’ to do the job right, and avoid trouble later on. Should you do any less for your horse?

The person who is trying to become a good rider strictly as a technical exercise is frequently going to be frustrated by the fact that her lack of skill results in the horse going badly. If she thinks of the horse only as a vehicle, or as a slave who should obey her every command no matter how unreasonable, both she and the horse are risking physical and psychological damage. But if she understands that the horse has problems as well, which they can work out together, she will meet with success sooner and more completely. If she has a companionate feeling toward the horse, she is able to say to him “Sorry, I guess I blew that one. Can we try again?”

It is also true for most of us that it is more fun to do almost anything, no matter how difficult or tedious, with pleasant companions than in an atmosphere of anger and frustration, whether ours or someone else’s.

Competition essentially means that winning is the most important thing, within the limits of integrity. A person who truly wants to win is willing to give up almost everything to reach her goal, including, frequently, her health. She does this voluntarily to realize her dreams, and that is her privilege. To force her partner, whether human or equine, to do likewise is not her right.

But, if she can gain the love and respect of her partner so that he willingly gives of his all as well, then they can win together, and victory is indeed sweet.

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