As promised..the beginning of a series of blog posts about some things I’m thinking about after a month in Arizona with Harry...
Auditing and participating in Harry Whitney’s March clinics got me thinking about a lot of things, but one thing that stands out in my mind is what a huge commitment this sort of horsemanship is for a person. It’s not just that it is technically difficult to learn the subtleties of timing your communication with a horse, reading their thoughts, and then just being a good rider or managing not to slap yourself in the face with your lead rope or flag, though all of this is certainly difficult. It is also that it requires a long and thoughtful look at yourself, and what sort of human baggage is getting in the way of your horsemanship. It requires you to let go of so many things people hold on to so tightly, and while it is mostly important to let go of these things when working with the horse (at least if bettering your horsemanship is the goal), it seems that most of us have to work on these things when away from the horses, so that by the time you involve another being, some things are a big more second nature and become a default response when under pressure, not something you have to think about doing and then actually do it. All while a horse is towering over you or trembling underneath you!
I saw a woman who came to Harry’s clinic, not knowing anything about him and what to expect, and over the course of the week she had to reevaluate her entire self. Not just her horsemanship, which sure got turned around, but also her entire person, and everything about how she operates in the world! This is the sort of woman who when she decides to do something, she does it. When she learned Parelli’s 7 steps, she and her horse did those to perfection. When she decided to teach her horse to canter at liberty in a circle around them, they drilled on it until they could do it with their eyes closed. If you give this woman a job, whether a hobby like her horses, or her upper level management position she had climbed to in her career, she would get the job done. But, despite this, or maybe because of this, her horse was cranky and insecure, had ill feelings about almost everything she asked, even when he performed, and would occasionally run away with her. She had done all this drilling to try and create the best relationship she knew how with her horse, and that didn’t seem to work.
Over the course of her week with Harry, this woman started noticing things about her horse, sure. I could talk about how her horse felt boxed in to the tricks and drills they performed, how he was down right nasty about going forward, and how yes, he did run away with his rider from time to time. I could also talk about how while everything certainly wasn’t worked out by the end of the week, the two of them had some really nice moments in the arena, and her goal of feeling like she could ride without spurs and on a loose rein were definitely accomplished. But what I found most amazing was what she did in the evenings in the bunkhouse.
After discovering the tension in her horse, this woman went home at night and started thinking. Could this tension have something to do with the high-powered career she had just retired from, and had been the background noise for all of the work she had done with this horse? Could her determination to succeed and perform have come off as pushy, intense and even unfair to her horse? Why was it that she seemed to talk louder and more high pitched the more nervous she got, and it was so hard for her to breathe and relax her body when she was riding?
And then she realized it. This whole time, maybe her whole life, she hadn’t been taking deep breaths! Of course she was breathing, she’d made it this far in life without dying, but she wasn’t really inhaling. One morning she got up and told me that she while lying in bed that night trying to fill her whole body with air, and she had gotten so dizzy she had almost fallen out of bed! So maybe she was only using her chest to breathe? Sounded right to me.
So all week, she just tried to re-teach herself to breathe. Now doing this might sound easy, but shallow breathing isn’t just a physical habit. It comes from an emotional place of tension and letting go of an emotional state that you have functioned in for an entire lifetime isn’t so simple! Definitely not a one-week endeavor, but how wonderful to be able to watch it begin for this woman. So many times I’ve heard Harry say that a horse can’t hardly help doing physically what his mind is thinking. Even when a piece of equipment or a person won’t allow it to come to fruition, you still see their muscles arched towards their thought, their eyeballs focused where they are thinking, and so on. As Harry says, if their mind and their body are in different places, there’s trouble in the household! But, it really isn’t that much different for us people, now is it? This woman truly thought she was a happy, content human being. And on so many levels, she is! But obviously there are things that produce tension within her, or a full breath of air wouldn’t be so foreign it was dizzying!
Now this all on it’s own is pretty thought provoking to me. Yet, what really blew me away was her willingness to work on it all. I’m positive she didn’t really get everything that was said during the clinic, how could anyone? And she certainly won’t just go home and be a relaxed, deep breathing go with the flow gal that has perfect clarity with her horses. But, she was really truly willing to work on herself and try and make a change. She recognized that the horsemanship could be a vehicle for self-improvement, not simply horse-improvement. She was willing to admit a lot of mistakes with her horses, and a lot of trouble in herself that wasn’t rooted at all in her horses, but her horses were dealing with nonetheless. And most of all, she was willing to work towards changing this stuff! That is a tough order.
I know for me, one of the reasons I love working with horses and love my job, is that it forces me to really look at myself and work towards becoming a better person. I can usually tell really quickly when my Type A personality is raring it’s ugly head, because a horse doesn’t respond well to an agenda. I know when I’ve let external pressures like an owner’s deadline or someone else’s competitive words get to me because I feel progress slip away with the horse. If I really get in my own way, I hit the ground. Thankfully it doesn’t happen often, but if it does I know my hard headed self probably needed the reminder and I thank the horse for their honesty.
It’s hard to change, though, and it seems like the willingness to change is the hardest part for a lot of people. Change is scary, and taking responsibility for certain things is even scarier. I find it really incredible that people like the woman I discussed above would come to a clinic prepared for the typical agenda filled horsemanship week and leave working on herself on such a deep and profound level. What bravery!
I’m not sure how to wrap up this subject, other than to say that I thought it was a thought worth sharing. Usually when I’m really having trouble with a horse and I don’t have Harry around to steer me in the right direction (which is most of the time), if I can take a step back and evaluate what is happening inside me, I can find something to change, whether physically or philosophically, enough to make a change in the horse. After all, I’m asking the horse to make some pretty profound changes, so it’s only fair! And it certainly leads to some of my most creative moments, with the most personal growth as a horse person. I visit with a lot of my clients about what’s driving the real problems with their horses, and usually we find patterns in their life as a whole. How they get along with their spouses, families, dogs, cats and houseplants! So I guess this is just something to think about as we all press on to be better horse people!