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.

Complaints

I sent in my first complaint to a company yesterday. I’m not one to send in complaints, but I was frustrated enough with the runaround I got that when they sent me the “how did we do?” questionnaire link, I was ready to tell them.

But it got me thinking – I get those types of requests for feedbacks in my email all the time and I have never filled one out until now. It was only when I was good and PO’d that I took the time to fill one out. There’s plenty of services and products that have gone just fine- not amazing enough to stand out, but definitely not bad.

That got me thinking about our rides. How often do we notice when things don’t go the way we want? Probably every one of us could say we notice everything that goes wrong. How often do we notice when things are amazing? Probably most of us again would at least notice some of the time when things are going wonderfully.

But what about when things are good, not amazing, but definitely not bad? That will likely be the majority of the ride. We notice when the horse walks away from the block, but what about when the steady eddy stands quietly at the block daily? Do we notice the good behavior that we’ve come to rely on, or do we only notice when it doesn’t happen?

Do we appreciate the normal, functional, small things that make our rides pleasant? It’s true we should always strive for improvement. But without noticing what your horse is doing right, the little steps, little achievements, little “not failures,” we lose gratitude, lose the whole picture, become complacent, and get stuck in a correcting frame of mind.

For at least one ride, make a practice of noticing what DIDN’T go wrong. You might notice quite a lot that is going right!

And maybe reach out to a company that offers you a product or service and let them know what they did RIGHT. They’ll probably really appreciate it, since most of them only get complaints (must just be our nature).

The Lead Rope

A lead rope should be “alive”

It is not a piece of equipment that just hangs from your horse’s face, to be used to drag the horse from one point to another.

The lead rope is the connection between you and your horse. The feel in it says everything about your relationship, communication, your ability to stay in the moment with the horse, and how they feel about the things they come across with you.

The lead rope is your reins, your connection to the horse’s mind and body.

The lead rope deserves all the respect in the world, as if you were holding the entire horse in your palm. The lead rope is not something to hold and use mindlessly- it is alive, and has a language. It’s for you to take that life with respect and mold it to suit your horse.

Lazy?

Is your horse actually lazy, or are they stiff, heavy on the forehand, and have learned to shut out your aids?

Is your horse actually forward and hot, or are they nervous, off balance, over stimulated and frustrated?

True impulsion to me means directable energy. If you have energy you can’t control, you don’t have impulsion, you have worry.

Being “in front of the leg” to me means that the horse’s front legs are literally in front of yours. If their forehand is tight, their front legs will take stiff, quick choppy steps beneath them, as opposed to out in front of them.

If your horse isn’t forward, chasing them with driving aids will only create more tense, choppy steps, but will not fix the problem. There is a big difference between faster, and with more impulsion.

Often we look at the forward and slow types of horses as different, but they both are showing symptoms of the same problem: stiffness and lack of balance. One is running away from his lack of balance, the other’s lack of balance has created an inability to go forward. Both horses can be helped with suppling the shoulders, lengthening and straightening the neck, and developing a swing through the back.

Distractions

You want your horse’s attention-

Most people say something like this. I heard in a meditation podcast this morning that the average American is distracted 47% of the time- according to a Harvard research study a decade ago. (The podcast is Healthy Minds)

That’s half of our waking lives. Half the time at least, most of us are doing something and thinking about something else.

When I teach, I try to bring people’s awareness to the small details, and most people say something like they had no idea how much was going on before noticing it. They didn’t notice the way the lead rope felt when they picked it up. They didn’t notice the way the horse felt when they pet him, or how he felt when they quit. Most people admit to at least some of the time thinking about the task and forgetting about the horse entirely.

I’m not perfect at maintaining focus, but it’s something I’m fortunate to have had brought to my attention as a goal a long time ago. My mentors ask me to do everything, no matter how minute the detail is, with care and feel. And every lesson or clinic I take with them, I work on those things again.

Learning to stay in the moment and put care into the details has been something I’ve been working on for over a decade. I work with on average eight horses a day and probably think about it 290 times a day (made up number).

I may be denser then many, some folks might achieve this quicker. But it will not happen without it being your day in, day out goal. You can’t come to a clinic and suddenly be mindful- it’s the shift of focus in your entire life. It spans across every part of your day. You’ll slip up, notice and focus again maybe 800 times a day, and that is the practice.

Do you want your horse’s attention? Start by paying attention to where your own attention lies.

Going Too Slow

Can you go too slow? Absolutely.

Rushing, or pushing a horse beyond their limit can be detrimental to their emotional and physical well-being. But it is important to understand that going too slow can also damage confidence.

If the horse is not continually expanding their physical limit, as well as emotional comfort zone, at least by a small percentage, they can actually become weaker and more afraid.

You can go too slow and damage a relationship if the horse is becoming disinterested, bored, checking out, or not connecting one concept to the next.

You can go too slow if you aren’t making the work just interesting enough to the horse to engage, try and make efforts toward the next step.

Those steps can be tiny, and progress doesn’t always have to be straight forward and linear. But sometimes, in well meaning attempts to preserve the confidence of the horse, we go too slow and lose their ability to stay involved or connected to our work.

Going Too Slow

Can you go too slow? Absolutely.

Rushing, or pushing a horse beyond their limit can be detrimental to their emotional and physical well-being. But it is important to understand that going too slow can also damage confidence.

If the horse is not continually expanding their physical limit, as well as emotional comfort zone, at least by a small percentage, they can actually become weaker and more afraid.

You can go too slow and damage a relationship if the horse is becoming disinterested, bored, checking out, or not connecting one concept to the next.

You can go too slow if you aren’t making the work just interesting enough to the horse to engage, try and make efforts toward the next step.

Those steps can be tiny, and progress doesn’t always have to be straight forward and linear. But sometimes, in well meaning attempts to preserve the confidence of the horse, we go too slow and lose their ability to stay involved or connected to our work.