The Dixie Chicks Trained My Horse

How music improves riding

I started listening to the Dixie Chicks in 7th grade. Their album Wide Open Spaces had debuted, and all the girls at the barn were blasting the music in the indoor while belting “WIIIIIDE OPEN SPAAAAACES!”. We’d canter our horses around and around until the song was over. On the way to horse shows, someone would bring the CD and we’d sing along the entire drive there.

That was 1999.

I rediscovered the Chicks about 6 months ago while decorating the Christmas tree. I think they fatefully showed up in my Facebook newsfeed earlier that day, and when my husband asked, “Could you turn on the Christmas Pandora station?” I instead blasted Goodbye Earl and danced around the tree. Those blacked eyed peas/ They tasted alright to meeeeee Earrrrrrrl!

Since then until today, I’ve been playing their music continuously. It’s a little obsessive. Around February I had re-listened to all of the albums and was beginning to know each song by heart again. I arrived at the barn early one morning when no one else was around, and as I groomed Derby I sang, “You don’t like the sound of the truuuuuuuuth comin’ from my mooooooouth”. His ear flicked back at me, and he turned an eyeball my way. “Do you remember when I sang these songs to you? Do you remember 1999?” I asked him. When did I stop singing at the barn? I always did it in junior high. Now in my third decade, that seems like a lifetime ago.

The singing didn’t stop with grooming. It carried over to riding as well. Let me set the stage: I usually ride in the wee hours of the morning when no one but me, Derby, the cat, and the farm ghosts are around; there is not a (speaking) judgmental soul within earshot. I can pick my nose and scratch my butt without a care, it’s like being alone in my house with the blinds closed except I’m outside with the horses, the deer, the bald eagles, and the foxes. I wish that luxury to everyone. To have a truly carefree environment to just BE is cathartic. But I digress.

Back to riding. When asked to truly work over his back and push from the hind end, Derby can get tense. Chomp, clack, chomp, clack. Tension in the jaw, tension in the poll, tension in the neck, tension in the back. This happens particularly when asked to do something new or difficult, or when he anticipates something new or difficult is going to be asked of him. Derby’s tendency to anticipate what is going to happen next in a ride is both a blessing and a curse. He’s always thinking.

During one February day I sang all the way from the barn to the indoor. I swung my leg over his back and sang all the way through the walk warm up. Derby was relaxed the entire time. We went to canter and I stopped singing. Tension, tension, tension. I started singing, and after two laps around the 20 meter circle he relaxed.

Well, damn. Music improves riding.

Now I’m fit, but I’m not Britney Spears (to continue the ‘90s theme). I can’t continue singing while also being coordinated and athletic, so I couldn’t keep singing the whole ride. But singing him through the canter tension carried over to the rest of what we did that day.

Since then I’ve used this strategy every time I want to get relaxation. I’m no Natalie Maines, and I doubt it’s the sound of my voice that calms him so much as me regulating my own breathing. Who knows. Maybe it’s the sense Derby gets that I’m happy and relaxed, and he follows my lead. Whatever it is, I have enough ingrained shame that I’m not going to do it in front of other people. I’m not a teenager, after all.

Do you sing or listen to music as you ride?

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