Putting a Positive Spin on a Bad Session

Not all training and riding days are going to go how we plan — welcome to life with horses. However, we can use those not-so-great days to end on a positive note and still build on what we are working on with our horses.

Photo by Nicole Cammuso

You pass away the boring hours at work all week by dreaming about future time with your favorite pony. You have been envisioning how amazing your next session will be, you know exactly what you will be working on, and it’s going to be flawless.

The day is finally here, and you cannot wait to get to the barn. As you pull up to the barn, the smell of hay and the sound of a peaceful breeze instantly unwinds you. All the stress of the week goes away.

This is going to be the best ride ever.

Fast forward a few hours and you are leaving the barn discouraged. Your session did not go as planned. It was one of the worst ones you have had in a while. Is the saying true — the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry?

What causes a session to backfire, even when you go into it with a plan and a positive attitude? I think there are many factors that can determine the path a session takes. For starters, we have bad days and so do our horses. Those days where you just wake up in foul mood and want to go back to bed to sleep the day away? Our horses have them too. If both human and horse have a bad day on the same day, it can be a recipe for disaster.

When we humans are in a funk we can’t shake, we come out ahead in our training by not even attempting a session with our horses. Sounds counter-productive, but a bad session can set us back — it takes us time to get back to where we were in our relationship with our horse. Emotions need to be left at the door in training, and sometimes when life has us feeling unfocused or not quite ourselves, we unknowingly take it out on our equine friends through impatience.

Sometimes though, no matter the moods of horse and human, the session still falls apart. We just aren’t in sync or we start off in sync and we get derailed mid-ride and can’t seem to fix what went wrong during the ride. I have had plenty of these rides in the past and I am sure I will have plenty in my future.

My theory is this: We aren’t going to stop bad sessions from happening completely, but we can grow from experience and change how we respond. Instead of getting frustrated we can take a step back, let the horse and ourselves have some time without the pressures of training, and really think about what is going on and what we can do to change our course. Am I sending mixed messages? Do I need to reward for smaller steps? Is my release timing off? (The answer is most likely yes, yes, and yes, all the time, by the way).

A recent session I had with my filly Bugatti got me thinking about bad sessions past and present. It was our first really bad day. She just wasn’t herself and everything I did seemed to annoy her. She was acting like she forgot how to do maneuvers we work on every day. After getting a little frustrated with her, I decided to just take a step back. I thought about things for a minute as I let her choose to say “no” and disengage with me.

Was it the way I was asking her? Was I confusing her or asking too much of her? Probably. But then I remembered how she was when I went out to get her from the field. She was not excited to come in to play. She stopped short of me and made me walk all the way to her to get the halter on her. I honestly think she was just having a bad day and wasn’t in the mood to play or work.

So instead of working her through it, forcing her to complete the maneuvers I had planned to work on, I decided to take a different approach. I let her have her bad day and I let her say no.

But I still wanted to end things on a positive note, so I thought about what I could ask her that would boost her self-confidence. Performing a leg yield seems to be her go-to when she anticipates. So after giving her some time to regroup, I decided to ask her for just one step of a leg yield, gave her a jackpot reward when she stepped over and called it a day.

The next time I got to work with her was a few days later, and to my surprise and delight she was in a great mood and super engaged. I like to think it was in part to my choice to change courses in our last session.

As I am working on my techniques and trying to be better, one of the most useful things I have been doing is videoing sessions. I encourage everyone to do the same. You will see things that you may not realize you are doing. And if you can’t figure things out yourself, you can always seek the guidance of an instructor or trainer.

I am my own biggest critic. I cringe sometimes watching myself on camera. What I am finding is that even when I don’t think I am sending mixed signals, there is always room for improvement and I could be doing a much better job communicating to my horse.

My biggest take away so far in this process of changing my training is to become more open to tossing out the game plan for the day and taking the session in a new direction so that the session ends up being a positive and productive one.