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The Road to Mastery: No Shortcuts, No Life Hacks. Get Over It.

Duelly, the big sorrel I was riding the in the inside arena in North Golden, Colorado, stuck his long neck and nose out as we trotted.

“GET HIS HEAD DOWN!” My trainer shouted, irritated.

Equally irritated, I breathed in deeply and dinked lightly on the reins. He resisted. He always does.

She shouted at me again. “GET HIS HEAD DOWN!”


I dinked on the reins harder.


Her voice grated across my consciousness with all the delicious effect of fingernails on a chalkboard.

I breathed in deeply again. Corrected.

“That’s better.”

Duelly’s head dropped- briefly- then came right back up again. A big, rangy animal, he loved poking his nose out in front.

When a horse does that, the rider has far less control if he decides to bolt, gets scared, or simply chooses not to listen.


My trainer was having a bad day. This happens. It makes for some occasional tense moments as I do my best not only to work my horse, mind my skills but also not get annoyed at her impatience.

This is perfect.

That’s why I work with her.

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I’m an advanced rider. Not an expert. Not by any means. Experts have vast and comprehensive knowledge about horses, their various body parts, behaviors, tack. It varies depending on the discipline, whether it’s dressage or barrel racing. It’s downright endless.

I am not now, nor will I ever be an expert.

What I’m learning is mastery.

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My trainer, whom I will call Juanita, is indeed an expert. She’s also moody, our political views are at opposite ends of the bell curve, she can be downright mean (as can we all). She also puts me on her most challenging horses.

Sometimes working with her is an exercise not only in learning how to handle a recalcitrant horse, but also in dealing with a genuinely difficult person. I love her for that.

Because it’s exactly what I need.

When I travel, I ride horses in nearly every country I visit. I have no idea what kind of mount I’ll get. How well-trained. How unpredictable. I have no clue what kind of guide I’ll get. How competent. How inept.

Boy have I had some inept, incompetent guides.

Boy have I had some unpredictable, poorly-trained horses.

Working with Juanita has prepared me very well for both.

For example, I did an eight-day mountain ride in Split, Croatia. As it was, my guide was an arrogant Swiss woman with a mean streak. I rode an enormous black gelding, a gorgeous, headstrong and immensely powerful animal. The gelding was the guide’s horse. On the ground he was an angel. Mounted, well.

Just before I left for the day after our last training, Juanita said, almost off-handedly,

“By the way, if a horse takes off on you, reach forward, grab the reins by his mouth, and pull him into a tight circle.”

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On the second day of my Croatia ride, we were approaching an open meadow. My horse knew we would gallop here. I didn’t.

The second my guide gave the go-ahead, my gelding took his bit into his mouth and shot past the entire group in three strides. Completely out of control. His nose was stretched out in front, just like Duelly’s.

Caught off guard, my feet were way behind me- not where you want them for leverage against a a 17-hand horse (that’s huge). I immediately leaned forward, grabbed the bit and forced his head to the left.

Not without a fight, he curved around, his pounding hooves slowing, then stopped. The moment I turned him towards the group, he took off again. I did the same thing. When we returned to the group I had him tightly under control. My guide laughed at my blistered hands. She had known my horse was going to bolt. She wanted to see me scared to death, and wanted her horse back.

She didn’t get him.

He didn’t get away with it again. Fought me for control every step of the way. What a superb experience. The last three days we had reached a truce, and he was a joy to ride.

I’ve ridden plenty of horses like that since.

by Lily Banse on Unsplash

As Duelly and I circled the half arena at the canter last night, his big, rangy body stretching out, I watched his head and body carefully. Along the southern end of the arena, his butt would crank off to the north, and we’d be cantering at an odd angle. I moved my right heel back along his body and pressed in gently

His body corrected.

I mentioned this to Juanita as we cantered by.

“That’s great,” she said. “You’re learning to be a trainer. Most people don’t even notice that kind of thing. All of us have to be trainers- we are constantly asking our horses to improve, to correct their behavior.”

Because I’ve worked with Juanita now for four years plus, I didn’t allow that rare compliment to go to my head. However I tossed back over my shoulder as Duelly and I took off at a lope in the other direction,

“You just inspired an article!”

Juanita laughed, delighted.

Her comment made me think about how often competent people are asked for shortcuts and hacks.

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As a fellow Medium writer penned the other day, far too many of us want the applause without the work, we want the accolades without the effort. Are more interested in learning the tricks of the trade rather than the trade itself. That’s not gaining mastery. That’s just lazy.

A demanding horse forces us to use what we’ve learned. Places a requirement upon us to think, correct, cajole, invite, guide. Train. Horses are in constant training mode. They know good riders from rookies and will constantly push your boundaries. Get away with whatever they can from stopping to graze on the trail to taking off at the lope without permission. I see it all the time.

As I’ve written elsewhere:

Any damned fool can climb on a calm, well-mannered, perfectly-trained horse and look like an expert.

Try riding Zoe.

Zoe was a little red bitch of a horse who liked to buck, bite, back up and try to scrape off your leg against the fence at the gallop. She would fight you at every request, whether you wanted a trot, a lope, a simple turn on the hindquarters.

Juanita had me ride this little banshee for several months until she got sold. It was brutal.

The next trip overseas, I was on a horse just like Zoe.

That’s the whole point. I knew exactly what to do, how to stay patient, controlled, determined. That horse calmed down and behaved.

Zoe’s life. She’s the perfect analogy for the shit sandwiches we all get. The failures, the stumbles, the frustrations.

by Alex Wigan on Unsplash

The tougher, the meaner the horse, the better rider I’ll be.

The more demanding, the more frustrating and short-tempered my trainer, the better rider I’ll be.

The more I’m willing to fail, be flailed about my shortcomings, the better I will be at handling what life will inevitably hand me.

Mastery is elusive and ambiguous. The moment I think I have it, the ego is satisfied, I am lying on the ground with a sore ass.

Juanita spits at me about my hands or shoulder position.

Deeply humbled, I start all over again. It never, ever ends. There is no “getting there,” because there is no there, there. It’s a constantly shifting, moving target.

Not the answer most want to hear.

Mastery comes to those willing to do the work.

The Juanitas and Zoes of the world, the frustrating black geldings, the headstrong three-year-olds force me to face my failings. I eat a fair amount of dirt for dinner. That diet is unlikely to change as long as I insist on riding.

That takes courage. Mine fails regularly. Then I get right back on the horse that threw me.

That’s the road to mastery.

by richard savickas on Unsplash

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play!

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