For a while now I’ve been thinking and talking about the difference between being quiet and being still. It’s a distinction I think is really important when working with horses, in so many ways. I think the difference between using stillness or quietness is a fundamental representation of the sort of horsemanship we practice.
For me, it all starts with thinking about the difference between the two words and their meanings. Stillness evokes the idea of nothingness for me. I think of something that is motionless. To be still is more about lacking something than doing something. When you are still, you are actively not doing something. Quietness, on the other hand, still has something happening. It might be very little of something, or almost nothing at all, but it is still there to be heard, felt or seen. Just…quietly. There’s no excitement or commotion, but it’s still there.
In horsemanship, I often hear these concepts used interchangeably. I’ll use an example most horse people will be familiar with: “quiet hands” or “still hands.” Anyone who has taken a riding lesson of almost any type or discipline has probably heard one or both of these phrases. I started thinking about what this really meant, to quiet our hands or to still our hands. In recent years I’ve started playing with how I can better communicate with a horse through my body to the lines/reins, to them. For example, I thought about activating a rein (under saddle) or the line (from the ground) and asking for a change in something, whether in speed, gait, direction or carriage. What did that look like and feel like to the horse? I realized that while I would change position, and sometimes even motion, I often didn’t truly change the life in me, or if I did, I would find dead spots. For instance, if I opened the line to ask the horse to trot off in a circle around me, maybe my hand went out and changed position, maybe my walk changed, or the size of my own circle, or any number of the changes you can make to communicate an increase of speed to the horse. But I noticed my hand..literally my hand…stayed the same. It was like a block in the energy flow. And what a poor place to block the energy flow, being the closest thing to the horse and, when working with a rein or a line, the point of contact between me and the rope.
So I have been playing with allowing that life to flow through me and to the horse in a more fluid way. To think about going with the horse, whether in hand, at liberty or under saddle, rather than just letting the horse take me. I’ve thought of how this changes my breathing, my core, my thoughts and even how centered I need to be to not allow spots to show up that will block my ask. I started watching how my students did this and where they struggled, and what I had to change in how I asked them, as well.
That’s when I started really thinking about stillness and quietness. I realized that so many of us are focused on position, and rightfully so, that position becomes static in our horsemanship. It becomes this place we are supposed to be while we do everything else. We must find our position and stay there, while we do everything else. When it comes to hands, there is a place to put them when asking certain things, and that’s that, no matter what happens. Keep your hands still and in place, and that will make them quiet.
But that doesn’t make your hands quiet. Leaving them in place and static is in itself a block, or a built in brace. Why? Because the horse is in motion. We are asking the horse to be alive, to be fluid, to be responsive and above all to move. So if our hands stay still, while we are asking them to move, that block of energy flow in the ask is always going to be there.
Yet, that doesn’t mean we should be flopping all over the place! In the case of hands, there certainly is no benefit to waving your hands around, or letting your hands creep up to your chest or down to your knees. There is of course an area where your hands should be when doing different things, and it’s for good reason, as that’s where it is both comfortable and practical to communicate with your horse. But what it does mean is that there should be life in your hands. For instance, if your horse is trotting, with each step your horse moves not only forward (though that’s important!), but also up and down and around. In the trot’s case, in an even, diagonal up and down two beat motion. So your hands need to have that forward, even, diagonal up and down two beat motions in them. Your hands must trot just the same as the horse, so you are not blocking the life. You might not be able to see this motion with your eyes (you probably shouldn’t, or your hands will be far to busy), but you have to feel that life in your hands. Your hands should be quiet, but not still.
Just the same in your body. So much of common equitation practice is about a still position that is so static on the horse. There is no consideration for the fact that the horse is moving, and with each movement is changing location and covering both ground and space. Good position should be a part of that change. Equitation should allow you to quietly go both with your horse, and direct your horse, in a position that is both least disrupting to what the horse is doing and the most convenient to communicate a request for a change in that doing. If you are totally still while your horse is going forward, you are being left behind. The only reason you end up further ahead in ground and space is because the horse is forced to lug you along. This is not partnership, this is a burden. Positive equitation should have life in it that is quiet and effective, but not still.
I don’t think this distinction between the terms quiet and still is limited to our aids and position. It goes even deeper into the foundation of our horsemanship. It seems to me that when we are taught to be still in our hands, in our position, in our riding and in our training, we are building an inherent brace into our horses by always being this burden. We are always being still and expecting the horse to create movement within this box of stillness. The horse should move but within the confines of our position, which is blocking their body in one way or another to produce the desired look, rather than facilitating a desired performance.
By riding with this static nature, and building a brace into the horse’s body with our own body, it is inevitable that we are building a brace into their mind. How troubling it must be to be being asked for movement, mostly forward movement, from a rider who is so still and lifeless. How can a horse maintain a free and forward mind when all they feel on or with them is the opposite? It is only natural that the result will either be poor behavior out of confusion resulting from this seriously mixed message, or a shut down of their mind. Both are coping mechanisms, and often when the poor behavior begins, people become even more devoted to strict position and these mechanics of blocking, and as the mixed messages become stronger, the horse slips into the latter coping mechanism, and shuts down their mind.
So now you have a horse with a still mind, which is a very different mind than a quiet mind. A quiet mind is not motionless. There is life to it, it is directable and accessible. There isn’t excess noise to a quiet mind; it is simply available and ready to receive requests. A quiet mind can pick up a thought or let go of one without being troubled, because there is nothing standing in its way. A still mind is motionless. It is a mind that fixates on one thing or another, that cannot multitask because it becomes locked on to only one thought at a time, and then has difficult moving on because it is so still.
Therein lies the philosophical difference between quiet and still hands, bodies, positions, horses and horsemanship. Being still puts the person in position and requires the horse to adapt to the confines of this position, no matter what. A still rider doesn’t go with the horse, and doesn’t ask for the horse to go with them. A still rider is just there, and the horse is just there, too. The result might be a very consistent frame, accompanied by a very hard mind. I think this is what we are used to seeing from horses and from riders. A rider holding still, so that they can hold the horse still, and the result is stillness in both of their minds, instead of quiet willingness. It seems to me this sets everyone up for failure, and eliminates any hope of true partnership, real fluidity, or successful self-carriage (from the horse, or the rider!).
We must be thoughtful in our asking, for while of course there is an inherent discrepancy in power between the horse in the human, as we control every aspect of their lives, this discrepancy does not have to eliminate the conversation between us. So I’m always thinking about my ask and my presence. I’m thinking about the places where I’m blocking my horse and myself from success with a brace that isn’t an active doing, but instead a lack of doing. I’m looking carefully at places where the feel between the horse and me can be fluid enough that we can go together, because both of us are quiet enough to hear what the other says