Riding Lessons From My Dog

Moments of enlightenment can occur at any time and any place — even when you’re walking your dog.

Candace, Luccia and Amber. Photo courtesy of Candace Wade.

I grab riding wisdom from a salmagundi of opportunities as a late-in-life-ever-student adult rider. Luccia, my pooch, surprised me with several useful concepts that translate from canine to equine. Luccia does not ride, but to quote Woody Allen, “Those who can’t do, teach.”

  • Who’s the Boss?: A Perky Paws Puppy School instructor asked me: “Who pays the food and vet bills?” Puzzled, I answered, “I do.” “Then, why do you allow her to boss you around?” Our mommy-daughter relationship changed right then. Same with horses. Why would we ever let a 1000 lb. animal call the shots? I set the rules, boundaries and limitations for my 42 lb. dog. Same goes with the horse I ride.
  • Dog leading/horse leading: Watch dogs take their people for a “drag.” To have Luccia walk by my side (to heel) is vital for my safety and hers. Our horses need to walk at our pace, beside us. For safety, yes, but as leaders of our mini-herd we require, “Watch me – stay with me.”
  • Move with purpose, ‘cuz somebody’s gotta lead: Distracted dawdling around when walking Luce makes her have to take control ‘cuz if you don’t lead, they will. I’ve found a similar reaction in riding. If my head is at Kroger and I’m not thinking and “feeling” forward, my rising trot, my canter and my jumping disassembles into a sloppy mess. She thinks, “Hey, you want to dawdle around, let’s dawdle.”
  • Tone of voice: A reflexive, shrill yell was my response to: a stray dog, Luce barking at “whatever,” if she tried to eat a bunny, etc. My tone exacerbated an already excited dog and made me sound like an untrustworthy shrew. A deep, calm, one word directive earns respect. My Darth Vaderish “Quit” has become my favorite word – with Luccia, with my schooling horse — even with my husband.
  • Relax: Luccia can feel my tension at the end of her leash. She won’t poop and will snap at other dogs if I’m tense. A horse feels tension through the reins. This is my time with Luce – as with my horse — enjoy the time and relax.
  • Cues: My light yet “there” hand on the leash allows me to telegraph little cues to Luccia – “slow down,” “pay attention,” “right turn,” whatever. My hand is always ready to “close” if something happens. Come on, we’ve all had the “baby bird” directive about holding the reins. Same with dogs – same with horses.
  • Expect a response; wait for response, reward response: “Here, Lucy, here, come here, here, blah, blah, blah. . . .” Rapid-fire commands teaches Luce that she can ignore the first few. “Mom will just say it again.” I learned to give a command, wait a sec for compliance, quietly make her do what I want her to do and then reward her compliance. With horses, one “leg/kick” — not kick, kick, kick (as seen in cowboy movies). Same with hand cues. Reward when I get two side-steps when learning the move and not demand a string of dressage half-pass leg yields from a horse that is clueless.
  • No Sundays or holidays: The rules are the same everyday — aka — consistency. My husband complains:  “Lucy can sit at the counter as I make a snack; it’s a holiday.” Or, “She can walk ahead on a loose leash; it’s Sunday.” Luccia translates as: “I have choices!  I can get under foot in the kitchen until Mom throws a hissy and chases me out.” Or, “I can choose when to heel. Why not when I see a cat?” No, rules is rules – everyday. A horse is liable to make flight/fight choices at the most frightening moments. Not his fault. It happens. We can reduce his opportunity for scary decision making by being consistent with the easy stuff – bridling, not grab for treats, picking up feet, etc. In other words: “This is how we do this – every single time. Even on Groundhog Day.”

My dog walks do translate to my equitation schooling. Amazing. Try it. To paraphrase the beloved Editor Emeritus of Horse Nation, who encouraged us to “go riding” – go walk your dog.

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