What Horse Training Has Taught me About Life

My current horse, Mabel

I am now primarily a philosophy professor, but for years I was a primarily a horse trainer who read philosophy on the side. Riding two to seven horses a day was intense, and the experience shaped me. I sometimes reflect on some of my lessons learned from horses, and how it has influenced how I live.  Here are some of those lessons.

1. Quit worrying. Bad things are going to happen that you can’t control. Good horses come up lame and you could come off and get hurt. However, if you are paralyzed by worrying about things that might go wrong, you miss out on the enjoyments of the present and still have to face inevitable problems later. Worry does not prevent disaster.

2. If you panic when problems arise, the situation will only get worse. There is no choice but to stop and think. Horses get stuck in fences, step on nails, and can manage to nearly kill themselves in a multitude of creative ways. Your panic does nothing productive, and another creature is relying on you to make good decisions. He will likely not.

3. Keep yourself under control. Your moods sometimes need to be restrained. If you are angry and overreact, your horse will overreact in response. If you are jumpy and distracted, you judgment will be impaired.

4. If you do not feel like doing chores, you must do them anyway. The beings you care for have consistent needs that cannot depend upon your inconsistent feelings. A job that needs to be done does not care how you feel.

5. Everyone can learn to fix things when something important must be done immediately. Helpless humans have no place among livestock. Duct tape and wire are your friends. Learn to improvise.

6. When faced with a set of problems, prioritize them. If you are riding alone and fall off, you must evaluate the situation quickly. Even if you have broken a limb, you need to ignore the pain, catch your horse before he runs off,  and get back home before you can melt down over your injury.  This is the art of triage.

7. Be creative and think on your feet. Unlike what is touted by some clinicians, there is no formula for helping horses reach their potential. This is because each being is an individual, and you have to be willing to pay attention to the talents, motivations, and fears of each one. The same goes for people. Learn all the skills you can, then adapt your skills to each situation.

8. Be patient. Learning is more important than artificial time limits. When teaching a lesson, sometimes you have to be willing to wait as long as it takes for the lesson to sink in. Sometimes this requires being stubborn in order to make a point.

9. Pay attention. Learn to recognize and appreciate the tiniest achievements, even if there is still a long way to go. This is how you help another being take steps toward a more difficult and complex goal.

10. Be mentally and physically tough. When working on something truly important, be willing to push through the blood, sweat, and tears until the job is done. Otherwise, next time will be just as hard, or even harder.

11. Your thoughts and actions have consequences. If you decide to wave a plastic bag around a skittish horse when the horse is tied up to a fence, that fence you chose better be strong. Horses can be dramatically reactive, and every move you make matters.

12. Be honest and humble. You can’t bluff your way through horse training. If you aren’t as competent as you claim, it will show.

13. Work hard. If you don’t, your skills and training will not improve. The path to progress is drenched in sweat.

14. Be disciplined enough to be consistent. If you are not, the horse will not understand what you want or who you are, and will not have any reason to listen to what you say– and certainly won’t trust you.

15. You never know it all. Get over yourself and embrace a lifestyle of learning.


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