Riding Without an Agenda

In my mind, there are two ways to tackle a ride. You can either be the rider that has a set agenda for the day, and sticks to that agenda no matter what, or you can get on the horse with nothing too particular planned, and just ride the horse you have that day. I think there is a time and place for both, and there are certainly people and horses that work best under each mindset.

I operate more as the latter. Now, this is mostly because my planning and organizational skills leave something to be desired, but that’s fine. I’m getting better, and my horses are getting better, so it must not be a crisis. I do have days where I have a plan and try to stick to it, but here’s what happens: I think, “Today I’m going to run through our dressage test.” That should include a little work on lengthenings, stretchy trot, free walk, some transitions… should be good. So I tack up. I try to get on. But today, Delilah has decided that the mounting block must be AT LEAST seven feet away at all times. Seriously?! I am not that limber. Used to be. Not anymore. So, 10 minutes later, I’m finally on the horse. And off she goes, on some very important mission unbeknownst to me. But she knows full well that we are to stand (calmly and politely) at the mounting block until I say otherwise. This is the point where someone with an agenda just ignores this and puts the horse to work because that is what must be done that day. There are only X amount of hours in one day, which means X amount of minutes per horse.

But… I don’t care if I ride one horse that day, or all of them. I don’t really care what we work on, either. So we circle, and we stand, and we circle, and we stand, and we hang out for at least another ten minutes, just to be sure she remembers the rules. I know she has a sixth sense, and she knows I had a slight agenda for the day, so she has to throw a wrench in the plans. But, she almost always manages to remember the rules, walks around quietly, and we finally get to the dressage. Of course, by now, we are 20-some minutes into the ride, and if I had more things on my plate, this ride would be doomed.  But I have time to run through the test and focus on the movements that need a bit more work that day, and we are done. Some days I want to practice our medium canter, but we can’t even trot and bend correctly, so we do that instead. It’s fine. Whatever. I know that she has to bend and trot in the test too, so we may as well work on that.

Now the flip side is the agenda rider. A friend of mine says that she has to have a firm plan before she ever sits in the saddle, or she feels like the day is a waste. She will plan out each day of the week: Jump, flat, flat, trail ride, jump. And that’s what she does. But it’s more than that. She finds a grid she wants to ride, she sets it up, and she progresses through the grid on Monday, per her carefully planned schedule. She picks up the grid again on Friday, then moves on to something else the next week. For flat work, she gets on the horse and has decided that they will work on trot lengthenings. She overlooks the inability to canter properly, as they have time to work on that another day. So they trot lengthen, they shorten, they lengthen, and they continue to work this for the duration of the ride. For many horses, this is fine. They don’t care. They know that they are supposed to do the things the humans say, no questions asked. Meanwhile, this horse and rider progress as well, and all is right in the world.

My question is this. What happens when you sit on a horse that can’t stand an agenda? What then? Are you just supposed to gloss over the first six problems that you find, so you can make time to work on the one you had scheduled? What about the horse that doesn’t give you any attitude or shenanigans for the first 30 minutes of a ride? What would you work on without a plan, and without anything glaringly obvious to work on as soon as you sit on them?

The answer of course is a little bit of each, and it depends on the horse. I know each of my horses, and I know how they cope best. A lot of this also depends on how green they are. So, Delilah may be feisty at first, but she can usually suck it up and run through any particular jump exercise or dressage movements of my choice. Sometimes we have attitude, sometimes we don’t get to all the things, but we can at least stick to some sort of a plan… usually.

Coco… cannot. Well, she can, if you would like to ignore the 387 ping pong balls she throws at you in an effort to distract you from the true work at hand.  If you are a rider that can ignore the refusing to stand, refusing to walk quietly, the excessive jigging, the whinnying, the rear-cantering, the uncalled for tempis, and the spastic piaffing, then yes. You can probably run through some leg yield exercises as planned. But I can’t. So we continue to work the standing quietly while mounting, the walking on a loose rein, and the trotting in a relaxed fashion. Yes, I would GLADLY proceed to more dressage-like work, and maybe be able to string together a whole jump course, but for now, we don’t. Usually.

Lottie’s first Beg. Novice. Barely enough scope to get us by.                                   Photo by Jeffrey David Hunt Photography

Lottie also cannot. I mean… she mentally doesn’t care if I have an agenda, but that’s because she has mentally checked out. (Haha!) She isn’t listening during the ride anyways. So we are still in the “stop bucking, go forward” phase, and the “pick up the correct lead and stop flailing your head around” phase.  I can decide that we should jump that day, and we jump. I can decide to get the correct leads, and we accomplish that. But that’ssss about the extent of it. So, I guess in a way, that is an agenda. It’s just very broad, and fully accepting the fact that she’s a giant goober.

It’s an interesting combination of ponies I have at my house. There’s a lot of talent in all three, but it’s all packaged in different ways. Each make me aware of different strengths and weaknesses in my riding. Each teach me to plan, then change my plan, and then start over completely on any given day.

Eventers are known for having this great ability to just “make it happen” and even when the horse is being a complete lunatic, we can usually get the job done. There is something extremely impressive about that, but there is also something to be said for giving the horse the ride they need that day. After all, they are living, breathing animals without an agenda. They don’t have 4* dreams. They don’t care about their next dressage score. They don’t care if they have the perfect shape over fences. All they really want is to eat green grass and run in the field with their friends. It’s been really interesting learning to ride these hooligans and deal with their split personalities. I’ve also been keeping a list of things I’ve learned this week to write about later. (It’s a lot. Brace yourselves.)

If anyone wants to share, tell me what method you use, and why. It’s always interesting to hear different perspectives!

4 Replies to “Riding Without an Agenda”

  1. I’ve ridden Rocket both ways. He seems to do equally well both ways, which makes sense because he’s just that way.

    Usually I have something like three different plans, which are really more like goals. I have the bare minimum plan, which is for if he’s having one of his ADD days where everything is exciting for ponies as long as it has nothing to do with what I actually asked him to do. Literally one day recently that was “canter once around the arena each direction with no crow-hopping” and we barely reached that goal because of reasons. I don’t know the reasons, but he did. I have the constructive practice plan, which leaves time for initial silliness if that’s a thing that’s happening, but it’s mostly something I decided I wanted to work on either for him (stop leaning on my right leg, Rocket) or for me (stop riding like a sissy coward and let your horse do his job, Cait).

    And then I have the “horse and rider are one and can do anything they set their hearts and minds to” plan. It’s usually outrageous, like if I have my shit together we’ll bump the jumps up three more inches and do a whole course at a respectable pace, or put a jump up to three feet and jump out without me pretending I’m going to die. The shoot for the moon plans are almost 100% of the time sabotaged by me and my lack of confidence and lack of expertise.

    So I guess I over-plan but under-regiment. I may have three different scenarios, but I kind of make up getting there as I go along. It seems to work? But Rocket is also so amazingly tolerant, so I’m sure that helps.

    1. Makes perfect sense. And like I said, what you can get away with during each ride completely depends on the horse… and the day. Sounds like you have that figured out. Good boy, Rocket 🙂

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