Personality or Neurosis?

Is it actually their personality, or is it adaptation or stress behavior?

I watch the behavior of horses in boarding barns and yards and wherever horses are kept with interest. What fascinates me is how behavior changes radically with the manner in which they’re kept.

Large fields of turned out horses often have a peaceful feel to them, with horses grazing or browsing, dozing or grooming.

Horses kept in smaller pens often have more aggressive, competitive behaviors, especially if hay is fed at “meals,” instead of being available all day. These environments often carry the feel of a prison yard- lots of aggressive gesturing, fights breaking out, some horses bully others needlessly and without cause.

Once we get into single kept horses or stalled horses, horses kept alone or spending a lot of time in small spaces confined, we can often see more neurosis develop- horses that bite or make aggressive gestures at anyone walking by, stall walking, cribbing, kicking, etc.

I often get a run down on a horse’s behavior, placement in the herd hierarchy, eating habits, vices etc, when getting a new horse into my training program. I get information about their personality, what they like and don’t like, and while I take note of it, I take it with a large grain of salt.

Quite often, the horse behaves entirely different in a different environment- grumpy or pushy horses become calm and peaceful, horses that are stressed and don’t eat well graze all day, groom friends, and doze.

It isn’t magic – it’s simply setting up the environment for the mental and physical needs of the horse first, human convenience second. Horses need space to move, functional herds (this is not the same as just number of horses- they need horses who know how to read and respond appropriately to other horses expression), forage available steadily, and an environment where being a horse is the top priority. The training helps; but environment plays 50% of it.

Change

The first time I rode with my teacher, I didn’t know what balance was. I was pulling a lot, and fighting with my horse. Of course I wasn’t aware that I was doing those things. I only was aware of what the horse I was riding wasn’t doing.

It took me years to register and really understand what she meant. To understand just how much I was pulling or kicking, even when I didn’t think I was, and how much that stiffened, discouraged and imbalanced my horses.

It’s always been important to me to keep a learning frame of mind- but in this instance I just didn’t know what I didn’t know- there wasn’t anything in my head like this for this information to “stick” to.

I didn’t realize how messy it looked, how little I really knew and how far I had to go.

I still have so much to learn, but I think about this whenever I see folks whispering or plainly criticizing someone they think is being “bad” to their horse – that firstly, we rarely are aware of our own faults (we don’t know what we don’t know), and secondly, anyone dedicated enough is capable of change.

Seeds can be planted, but they take their time to grow. And sometimes the process of growing is ugly- some very tumultuous changes might happen before the good.

And let’s not forget that sometimes our definition of good, soft, or right, is not the horses’ – that we are good at getting dogmatic and not always listening or feeling. So before we criticize others, their riding or handling, remember- anyone can change, and we are good at missing our own flaws.

The Dreaded “But”

How often do we notice those little 1% improvements? The horse settled just a little, the horse is breathing a little more, the horse is not rushing off as much.

I point these improvements out to my students as often as I see them, no matter how small, because I want them to develop an eye and feel for how improvement works- it doesn’t happen all at once, it happens in little pieces. So often after announcing an improvement, I am met with the ”but”-

“But he still isn’t bending”
“But he still isn’t listening”
“But he still is too fast”
And so on

Or even worse, sometimes people write off the improvements entirely and chalk them up to accident

“Oh I don’t think he’s relaxed, he’s just finally tired”
“He just did that because the horse in front of him did it first”
“He’s yawning because he’s bored!”

It’s amazing how much the human mind grabs onto every problem and holds it in its clutches like a treasure. It’s amazing how the human mind sees in black and white, the problem is either there or not there, but struggles to see the gradients.

To guide our horses toward our goals, we have to be flexible, and we have to be sure our goal is even possible being their goal- if we’re worried about bend and they’re worried about safety, we are not operating on the same wavelength.

One thing at a time, one small step at a time. Keep your eye on the long goal but don’t miss the little improvements, even if it’s just one good step, one breath, one little change. That’s what a path is made of- a bunch of little steps taken.

Lightness vs Softness

What is the difference between lightness and softness?

Lightness can be the feeling of weightlessness, quickness to respond, ability to move in a way that requires minimal pressure from the rider.

Softness can be a feeling of ease, relaxation, and fluidity through a horse’s body. It is a feeling of connection and engagement with the task at hand.

Which is your priority?

Lightness does not require softness, and softness might not feel “light” in the way some people expect- the feeling of zero weight can often mean disconnection, evasion, and worry. Sometimes lightness is achieved through teaching escape, and produces a horse that scoots away from the leg, hides behind the bridle, and folds up tension into corners of their body. I often tell students, if you can’t stop what you’re doing with ease and go on a calm straight line, you are in fact wiggling body parts around.

The pursuit of lightness often creates a disconnect in the horses body- a chin that tucks toward the chest without a back that swings. A body that steps away from a leg while the neck over bends. A horse that over responds without connection, and carries a braced poll.

The pursuit of softness engages a horse in a way that asks them to feel good, nose to tail. It asks them to maintain connection from the hind feet to the reins, not to hide away from the reins, but without bearing down on them either. It asks for nothing at the expense of fluidity and relaxation in movement, and it doesn’t seek to imbalance the horse to get a quick handle- but rather to improve upon their nature and to create a true partnership.

Lightness is often a persons pursuit to create a look, shape and a feeling that satisfies a person.

Softness is an internal desire from a person to connect with a horse in the way that best suits the horse.

Photo by Nicole Churilla

Therapies

I have access to a lot of therapies for my horses: multiple types of body work, a Bemer set, proprioception pads, poles and more. I love all of them. But at the risk of upsetting my body workers, these therapies don’t work without doing the work to support quality of life in the horse.

If the horse keeps moving in unhealthy ways that continually need repair, these therapies will provide only temporary relief. I believe many types of body work can certainly pave the way toward change, allow muscles to feel better, and help a horse find a path toward better movement – but if you don’t learn to ride the horse in good movement, you will be actively fighting the body work. If you don’t work on your own balance, your horse will have to tighten their neck, shoulders and back to balance you and stabilize their own body. If you don’t learn about teaching your horse to carry themselves in healthy and sustainable postures, your horse will continue dysfunctional movement that requires bodywork repair.

The goal is to let the movement be the therapy- using therapies to assist you in getting there. The therapies are not the end- they are not a get out of jail free card. They are just the beginning.

Fixed Positions

Just as much as I dislike squeezing horses into idealized postures, I also very much dislike putting riders in rigid (but thought to be good) postures. One of the biggest struggles I encounter with most riders is they are trying to achieve a fixed position they’ve been taught- shoulders back, leg on, hands still, and so on. This creates a lot of rigidity in their bodies and takes away their ability to feel and flow with the horse. It inevitably leads to overuse of hands and legs, because it blocks the horse, requiring the rider to nudge and bug and nag him to go or turn or get on the bit or what have you.

Just like with horses, my aim as a teacher is to help the rider feel their body parts and become aware of where they are in space. I often ask them to notice a piece here without trying to change it, and compare it to the other side. How does the how belly feel? Is it soft and relaxed? Or is it squeezed in tight? How does your neck feel? Can you turn it freely or is it tense? As we run up the body and begin to feel and be aware of where their bodies are in space, and how they follow (or don’t follow) the horse, an amazing thing almost always happens- the rider gets into a beautiful, free position, all on their own.

This happens through becoming aware of their body, moving with the horse’s body, and relaxing enough to have fluidity in their body, but focused enough to have structure. And the horses love it too- they always get so relaxed and straight and melted over their backs- they absolutely love a rider who is with their movement, instead of antagonistic to their movement.

Positioning

Before we can think about strengthening the horse, we need to achieve a calm state of mind. To me, an anxious athlete is a travesty- we have a responsibility to the horse to help them achieve a calm, but engaged place in their mind.

After that, we need to teach the horse to get positioned. I often relate this to a person in the gym headed to pick up the heavy weights- before you can safely squat them, you need to have a handle on your own alignment, and position yourself correctly. Only then can you begin to develop strength. And strength only happens correctly in relation to the body’s ability to stay in position- strengthening without good alignment will always put the body at risk.

This horse is learning to be calm, and get positioned. Nothing fancy, but work that will benefit her body far more than repetitive strengthening exercises at this stage.

The Naturally Gifted Horseman

Is this a myth? Some of the descriptions of the top names read something like this: a 400th generation horseman, came out of his mother’s womb with a rope in hand and cut his own umbilical chord. He grew up on a 472937382 acre ranch where he learned the ancient rituals of bareback and brideless horse whispering on Gandalf’s own Shadowfax. He has never fallen off, never had a bad hair day and doesn’t have to advertise and believes markets is only for folks who didn’t inherit a 492726273 acre ranch. If you touch the brim of his hat, you can absorb some magical powers- but if that’s out of reach, you can just purchase a similar one.

I think we like to idealize our heroes. We like to believe they have something we don’t – their feel is superior, their being is superior. It may be true that some folks are more naturally gifted than others, and it may be that some grew up immersed in riding and riding culture, had more opportunities and therefore flourished.

This is not meant to discount their hard work or talent, but I want us to take a step back and look past the idealization: this is a person who worked for their skill. You are a person capable of working for your skill too.

I have been riding since I was 6. I’ve worked extremely hard at riding. I might not be naturally gifted, because I have spent quite a bit of time learning basic principles. When I was riding in Spain, my teachers often, frustrated with my repeated mistakes, would say, “you have the perfect body for riding but you don’t use it!” I was born with long legs, which would seem to be an advantage for riding well, but I had trouble getting control of them.

The idea of talent isn’t that big of a deal to me anymore though, because over the years I’ve learned to become confident in my ability to persevere and keep working at it- I know it might be hard, but I’ll eventually get it. That means if I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it. You can do it if your body type is ideal or not. You can do it if you were born into a training family or just picked up riding at 60. We’re all destined to get to different places with our ability, but elbow grease and confidence in your ability to learn can take you a long way.

Isn’t that more magical than talent that comes easy?

Photo by Melinda Yelvington

Clarity in Questions

When my students ask me for help or advice, I often challenge them to simplify their question. Many times the question can be lost within a story and superfluous details.

It makes me think about how we ask our horse for things- if our mind doesn’t know the exact question we want to ask, and how it connects to the details that relate to it, how can our horse know what we want?

Many times our attention drifts in and out as well. For many of us, we struggle to stay connected to the moment, and when we do pop in, our mind doesn’t have a clear goal. For the horse, this can be extremely frustrating and confusing because there is nothing to follow that makes sense to them.

While a horse doesn’t speak English, clarifying our way of talking can help our ride. Before we speak, it’s a great practice to think:

What is we’re trying to say?
What details are necessary and relevant to support this point?
What details are distracting, confusing or not supportive to this topic that I can leave out?
How does this unite into the conversation as a whole?

Then as we go into our ride, we can think the same things but with the language of our bodies- our seat, legs and hands convey the message-

What are we trying to say to the horse?
What aids are necessary to make this point? And how much?
What details can we leave out that are distracting, confusing or not relevant to the overall conversation?

With this practice, we can guide better, and have more fluid, successful conversations with our horses.

The Path to Connection

An exercise, or combination of movements,
Is just a way for us to find balance and flow with our horses. The exercises laid out in the classical tradition, from a diagonal line to a twenty meter circle, all the way up to a half pass flying change, are a way to help you balance and connect with your horse.

Us humans tend to get caught up on the exercise for the purpose of the exercise. We get hooked on making it happen. We train movements as a separate act, as if the circle or shoulder in were removed from the step in front of or behind it.

It all should blend into one dance. We shouldn’t train these movements like little circus tricks- these are places where our relationship shows up. The circle shows how you communicate and prepare. The shoulder in shows the horse’s trust of your inside leg, their willingness to soften around in and blend into your outside rein. The flying change shows your horses ability to follow your seat, your ability to ride with your seat.

Each one of these things is the RESULT of riding with the intent to connect – they are not the goal itself, but a cobblestone on the path each toward balance.