Archive Post: Sensory Overload!

My husband, Tye, and I were recently in Chicago, where I grew up.  He is a fifth generation Montanan, and whenever we travel to a city, we inevitably begin discussing how differently our early experiences cause us to experience the world.  From experiencing time and distance to processing and filtering information.
    Whenever we talk about this, the last point, filtering information, makes me think about horses and the process I witness so many go through while in training with me.  Tye has always noted that I have what he views to be an unreasonable ability to block out things that are not important to me at that moment.  A television that is on but I’m not watching, a change in my usual view while driving between the barn and the house, and so on.  Tye on the other hand, takes in so much sensory information, that I kid with him that he needs to learn that not everything is about him!  Or, at least not important to him.  We credit these differences to the environment in which we were raised.  I spent time in an urban environment, where if one takes in all of the sensory information available (lights, noises, smells, etc) one would never get to sleep and would be overwhelmed all the time.  Tye grew up in a quieter, more rural environment, where there wasn’t a lot of miscellaneous noise.  If a car drove by, it was likely it was coming to see him or his neighbors, not just through traffic.  And certainly a siren going by at night was reason to wake up.
    I’ve been living in a range of somewhat to extremely rural environments now for going on eight years.  In this time, I have learned that I should try not to filter so much information out, because that causes me to miss things.  However, I’m still very good at blocking out the insane amount of birds that live in the rafters of my indoor arena, and I still miss most of what Tye notices.  Tye, however, hasn’t spent much time in a city.  When we visit one, he feels overwhelmed by sensory information, and after a few days feels drained and exhausted.  It all feels important to him, even though much of it isn’t.
    What could this possibly have to do with horses? A lot, but in this article I am going to specifically discuss the shut down horse and the spooky horse, which I believe are on the same spectrum.  A shut down horse is not taking in any information.  They have figured out that the best way to survive is to tolerate and not to engage.  What people often think of as a spooky horse, is taking in too much information, as they are not confident and centered enough to know what matters and what does not.  However, I find they are the same, as a shut down horse will spook violently when something does penetrate their consciousness (they can’t block it out any more) because they weren’t processing everything leading up to it, so it was a surprise that they don’t know what to do with.  It’s just that what most people describe to me as a spooky horse is a horse that spooks in rapid succession, and so I just read this as it takes less to penetrate their consciousness, but they are still just as shut down, and not filtering information properly.
    To put it another way.  A shut down horse (in the classical, bombproof-until-he-wasn’t sense) is me growing up in an urban environment.  I learned that taking everything in was dangerous, and didn’t make me feel good, so I learned to only let certain things in.  But, if something really out of the ordinary happened, I could be very surprised!  For instance, if there were a tree down in the road, Tye might notice it a quarter mile away because the skyline wasn’t quite right, I might not notice it until I ran it over with my car.  That thump would certainly be startling!  This skill of shutting down and shutting out is a great form of self preservation.  Until it’s not.
    The horse that is spooking every step at even the leaf fluttering, is Tye in a city.  He doesn’t realize that the leaf is not important to his life at that moment, and responds as if it has the same importance, and offers the same threat, as if a lion stepped over the hill.  This isn’t necessarily because the leaf is scary (just like Tye is not actually overwhelmed every time he hears a car drive by), but because the state of mind is not calm and confident enough to be able to notice the leaf, and decide that it isn’t important or a threat at that moment.  This is why flooding a spooking horse won’t solve the problem.  It will simply push the horse a little bit further towards the shut down end of the spectrum, by giving it one more thing it learns to block out.  It is also why horses spook at seemingly unimportant things.  It has nothing to do with the thing they are spooking at, but at the mindset they having while processing it (or not processing it).  It’s worth noting, Tye’s pretty nervous in the city, so when all this information comes in, none of it seems comforting.  Not unlike a horse that isn’t wholly okay with being ridden or led by a person.
    Often I see horses go through this spectrum during training that make it seem like they are getting worse before getting better.  An extremely shut down horse might move towards the spooky end of the spectrum as they begin to wake up.  This is like if I, being shut down from a city, then decided to consciously notice more while outside of the city, and suddenly was paranoid of everything because my practiced filters were removed.  Quite literally, I regularly see horses that are considered bombproof by their owners become hyper-vigilant spooky messes after a few days of training.  This could be very discouraging to someone watching, but the first time that bombproof horse (who, obviously wasn’t always bombproof or wouldn’t be in training) spooks unnecessarily at a bird I am generally elated.  FINALLY! They noticed the bird. 
    Now comes the next step.  Taking this now awake horse, and teaching them to be confident enough in themselves (and in me, as the person asking them to go somewhere) to know what is important sensory information, and what is not, and not to panic when something comes up that is unexpected.  What we want is a horse somewhere in between me and Tye.  A horse that notices most everything, so they aren’t taken by surprise easily, but isn’t so overly sensitive to the world that they worry about things that don’t matter.  This takes a certainly amount of comfort, self awareness, and certainty about who they are (and who we are!) to achieve.  I know exactly what to block out and what to take in while I’m doing something I know well and am confident doing, and at those moments I’m not victim to becoming unnecessarily shut down like I might walking through Times Square.  The same goes for Tye, who when he’s doing something he is confident in and feels good about doing, is not worried about every little sound, as suddenly he can filter appropriately.
    Obviously, if it is this hard to achieve in two fairly functioning humans, this isn’t an easy thing to achieve with a horse.  But, the more confident they are in themselves, what is expected of them, how best to interact with their people and their world, and the more options they feel they have at their disposal, the less a horse will need to succumb to one of these other coping mechanisms that are not nearly as healthy.  And certainly not as fun to ride!

Archive Post: Being Soft Together

2014

A question came in regarding lightness and softness that I think is a good one.  I’ve done my best to answer it below.  I welcome further conversation and follow up questions to keep the topic going! 

Question: It seems to me that once you have lightness that seems to stay, but softness I am constantly having to work on.  Is that the way it goes? Or, if I become insistent enough will my horse get so with me that the softness will eventually always be there when the two of us are doing something whether it be on the ground or from the saddle?

First, I guess I should recap what I see as the difference between lightness and softness.  This is certainly not a concept original to me.  Harry Whitney, Ross Jacobs, and others talk and write about this all the time. But, this is my take on the whole discussion.  Lightness is a physical reaction, where as softness is a mental response and emotional feeling.  To me, lightness usually is a horse avoiding pressure somehow, maybe the pressure of the line, the whip, the leg, or the ask in general, by staying physically ahead of it, without really changing a thought or feeling.  As anyone who has been chased knows, you can stay ahead of pressure/contact without feeling good about it, or thinking about what you are doing!  In fact, if you are simply staying ahead of pressure, you are probably thinking only about the pressure in order to react!  Softness, however, is a response.  Softness means that the horse has let go of one thought and picked up the one presented, completely committed, and made whatever physical changes were necessary to make the mental and emotional shift.  You can have lightness without softness, but if you have softness you will necessarily have lightness.  This is because, a horse can feel bad, tight, worried, etc in order to stay ahead of the pressure and react (lightness without softness), but will never be heavy and and also completely committed, okay feeling and engaged with the activity (softness).

A lot of the time, a horse will learn lightness as a form of obedience.  They know that if they do X then Y will not happen (if they side pass, the leg will not push into their side.  If they go left on the line, the sound/whip/stick/flag will never engage).  But, when they practice this obedience, they do not necessarily feel okay about it (who would feel okay about simple avoidance, even if it was successful? Not me.) they simply learn that it works to avoid trouble.  Horses will do a lot to avoid trouble. 

A really easy place to spot if a horse has changed their thought softly, or simply learned a light trick, is when asking a horse to go out on a circle on the line.  If you ask them to go left, and they go left immediately without any pressure on the line, follow up with a flag, etc, but also without looking and thinking left, that is lightness.  If they actually look to the left, organize themselves to get ready to go left, and go left with their body and mind, with complete intent and okay-ness about going left (and as a byproduct, with a really nice physical maneuver) that is softness.

So, back to the question.  My first thought when I read the question is that the reason it seems that lightness stays and softness doesn’t, is because lightness is a lot easier to get than softness.  It’s as simple as that.  Horses are amazing at staying out of trouble, and many will stay really light even when really worried. So, my guess is, the horses that are being referred to in the question have figured out the physical expectations of the exercises and to avoid  conflict, which to these particular horses is pressure, they are performing the action with a level of obedience that does not necessarily reflect their mental commitment to the task.

I think that it is natural that a horse that is used to obedience and lightness, not soft engagement, will come in and out of softness as they learn.  Being soft and focused and engaged is tiring and takes practice.  If that has never been a part of the program, it is natural to default to the easier task of lightness and obedience.  However, don’t read “easier” as “better.” It is only easier because that is what the horse is used to; it does not mean they feel good about things.  Quality horsemanship will try to show the horse that place of softness and engagement repeatedly, until the horse realizes how much better that feels than simply shutting down and becoming obedient.  Once a horse truly realizes this, they will search for this feeling, and the try will shift from being directed at avoiding trouble towards being with the person.  

I also think it takes practice from the person’s end.  I know very few riders who have thought to look for softness rather than lightness, and even fewer that have been taught to.  So, for the majority of us it is a very new and obscure thing to not simply look for obedience and lightness.  As with any new world view, it takes time to not only learn how to ask for softness, but even what that looks like in the first place!  My guess is the person asking the question is still experimenting with softness themselves, and so are inadvertently not particularly consistent about the level of expectation, and maybe miss moments when the horse isn’t fully engaged and soft.  This is completely okay, it’s part of the learning curve, and we as people are likely to regress to old habits the same way the horse is.  This doesn’t mean to stop aspiring to perfection, it just means that sometimes there might be setbacks between us and our horses, stemming from both ends of the relationship!

A horse that feels good will be soft and ready to try.  A horse that feels bad will be worried and simply trying to survive.  It’s as simple as that.  Those moments that feel wonderful for both the horse and the human probably mean the softness is going both ways, and that’s an amazing thing.  But it takes a while to recognize the difference between an obedient trick and a willing try.

This co-softness, of both the horse and human, mentioned above is the last part of the equation.  It’s hard to talk about directly because it feels very intangible, but I think it comes up in a lot of my writing on this blog, however inadvertently.  We must remember that our expectations of softness must not only be for the horse.  I know that those of us trained to ride seeking lightness (read: obedience), also learn a certain amount of dictatorship.  Because, only a dictator would seek obedience.  A leader with benevolence, compassion and clarity would seek engagement— a two way relationship—and this sort of leader is lives through softness themselves.  

Finding softness within ourselves is as difficult as finding it within the horse, particularly when we are working toward something specific from animal.  It’s easy to get fixated on goals and technique and forget the horse.  That is exactly the moment we (at least I) turn into a dictator, and the moment the horse stops trying and starts worrying about what the next moment might bring.  Instead, we must both look softly into the next thought, with clarity, intrigue and engagement, excited for what each conversation might bring.


Good luck!

Archive Post: Who They Are

2014

A conversation that comes up a lot at the barn is what each person is looking for in a horse. To me, this is a very personal decision and it requires being very honest with yourself about what you want from your horsemanship, and your horse.
If horses are about riding for a particular purpose, whether in a show, on the job, or on the trail, you need to be realistic about what you can offer a horse and what your horse can offer you. There are plenty of horses that could do a specific job with a lot of work, support and the perfect rider combination, but otherwise will struggle to feel okay enough to perform. Other horses have physical limitations that determine what they can or cannot do. This doesn't make them bad horses, it just makes them who they are and in need of the right circumstance.
A lot of us might be able to offer these horses a great deal, if we are willing to live within what the horse needs and has to offer. This doesn't always match what we were hoping for, though. So then a decision has to be made by the person, as to whether it is the external goal that is important, or the journey with the horse. This is a personal decision, and has a lot to do with what the person is interested in.
I know fantastic riders who are primarily interested in going down the trail, doing a job, or showing. I don't have any problem with this. But I think it is important that they are matched with the right horse. A horse that can handle the pressure of the job, physically and emotionally, without a ton of support, and without worrying much. There are horses that can do this, with the right combination of personality and experience. There are other horses that may or may not still perform, but fall apart emotionally. And that's not fair to the horse. 
For me, my interest for my personal horses is more in the journey, and I don't mind spending a long time working on emotional issues, physical challenges, or anything else that comes up. That's where my interest lies in horses at this point in my life, from the saddle or from the ground. Each horse that I own has it's own special strengths and limitations. My lesson horses have physical issues that limit how much riding they can do and determine their need for extra care, but they have unending patience and offer safety for their students. Among my personal horses, I have horses with physical and emotional issues that may or may not be resolvable, but hopefully are manageable in the long term. But they offer me a world of learning and they have no where else to go. I'm a last stop for them. And I'm happy with that, with who they are, and I think that I have enough to offer them to keep their quality of life.
So the question that I encourage everyone to ask when deciding on a horse to take home, or whether to keep one, is if your goals, and the effort you are willing to dedicate to the horse, match what that horse needs and who that horse is.

Archive Post: Taking things for granted

2013

I went to pick up a boarder horse Punalu from the vet yesterday.  The vet said that Punalu had over 100lbs of sand in her stomach! Punalu is a big horse, but that is almost 10% of her bodyweight in sand! This is incredible, and had to take years to accumulate. What I find more incredible, though, is that she was at my place for a little under two months when this happened, with NO signs of trouble. Granted, she was just being boarded here, and not being ridden daily, but there were zero colic symptoms. She was seen by a vet within an hour of the first foot stomp that indicated she did not want to eat. Punalu was living with what I have to imagine was extreme discomfort for a very long time without any complaints...and at the very least, without missing a meal!

I think that this demonstrates something even bigger about horses that we talk about a lot, but sometimes is really hard, at least for me, to drive home in lessons. Horses are incredibly resilient and obedient. They will try to avoid trouble at all costs, even if this means working or interacting with humans at a huge emotional or physical cost. Punalu's is an obvious situation, in which she was willing to do her job despite 100+lbs of sand sitting in her stomach, possibly for years. Now, Punalu happens to be tough as nails when it comes to personality, but I think this applies to a much bigger range of issues, from soreness because of poor teeth, ill fitting equipment, bad riding, all the way to horses feeling huge amounts of anxiety just from being around a human, much less having a person on top of them, and still performing.

To many, this quality in horses that allows them to sacrifice their own well being to get the job done, in hopes of staying out of trouble, is the reason people choose horses to ride. They take for granted that with a minimal amount of training and understanding, horses can provide them the four legs they need to fulfill whatever the person wants to do. It is seen as permission to use horses however one wants, because, wouldn't the horse complain if it was really that bad?

But to me, this quality feels like the exact opposite. Knowing what I do about a horse's capacity to shut out discomfort, whether physically or emotionally, makes me feel even more responsible for their wellbeing, and drives me to want to be an even better horse person. I am the one who chooses to have horses in my life, not the other way around. I choose where they sleep, what they eat, and who they interact with. I am the rider, literally seeing the horse from above. So, to me it becomes a profound responsibility to do the best I can. At the very least, I want my horses to feel that there is someone listening if they need to complain. That comes with relationship, with trust, and with time. And most of all, it comes by showing a horse, over and over, that their feelings are important. This doesn't mean they do whatever they want. All of you know I have pretty high expectations for behavior! But it means that in showing them what is expected, their feelings are not squashed. It means always doing the best we can to understand what they are experiencing, and never becoming complacent because a horse is "broke." It doesn't mean that we stop doing what we like to do with horses, whether competing, trail riding or working, but it means doing it with as much compassion, clarity, understanding and education as we can, so that hopefully it, at the very least, doesn't make our horse's day worse. Even though we still want our horses to perform, it means prioritizing their best interests, even if that means changing the goals of our performance, whatever that may be.

It means not taking for granted that we are humans, and humans ride horses. I'm thankful every day that a horse would ever let me touch it, much less sit on it and direct its ideas and actions. I think the day we start forgetting that this is an amazing gift, one that we should aspire to deserve, is that day we should stop riding horses.

Archive Post: Go For It

2013

Usually I use this blog as a place to discuss things that I am experiencing or experimenting with, and then I apply them to things that I commonly see as struggles among my students. Often they are one and the same so it isn't too much of a stretch!  With this blog, though, I am going to discuss something I talk to a lot of people about, and I believe is more about humans than it is horses. I want to talk about taking risks, trying new things, and being accountable for how we are with our horses. 

Almost on a daily basis someone tells me that they feel stuck because they don't want to make their horse worse or mess up the horse's existing training. Usually this is followed by them telling me that it is still falling apart!  

Usually I keep the advice I give out to individual encounters, because it's hard to give specific suggestions that will apply in any situation. But I think I can break that rule when it comes to this issue. I think it is important to go for it. To try. To take risks and to think outside your comfort zone. Be careful with your physical safety, but not with your strategy. Just because you haven't seen me or your trainer do it, or you aren't sure you can execute the idea perfectly, doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a go. I do new things everything I go to work. That is how you grow, stay inspired, and become better and produce better horses. 

It is important though that two things happen when you are trying something new or uncomfortable. Firstly, you must ensure that what you are trying to do is true to your philosophical ideas about horsemanship. For me, this means that it is true to what the horse needs in that moment. That it is clear to the horse and in their interest. What I'm doing may need to be firm, just as it may be quiet, but either way it must be asking for the horse to try, think and be responsible. I should not be carrying a horses weight, physically or mentally, and should not be forcing a physical change without also asking for a mental one. 

 

Secondly, in being true to your conceptual goals, you must be accountable for your decisions.  Every time I work a horse, I try to do it as though someone I respect is watching. It is so easy to cut corners when no one is watching, which is one of the reasons it is so common for people to tell me that what I'm seeing in a lesson isn't common at home. Because at home, no one is holding them accountable for what they are doing. That is the difference that I see between people who make rapid, consistent changes at home, and those people who continue to struggle making a big jump. It doesn't have anything to do with technical skill or riding ability. It has everything to do with the person's ability to make decisions that reflect the sort of horse person they want to be rather than getting frustrated or in a rush and regressing back to what is comfortable for them (and probably not comfortable for the horse!).  

 

This certainly doesn't mean things will be anywhere near perfect! It just means that you are moving forward and pushing yourself rather than staying still. And with this, you must be sure to be confident and sure in your decisions, rather than worrying if it will work. It definitely won't work if you aren't going for it with all of your ability!  Sometimes in clinics or when people are watching me work at home I try to remember to mention if I'm doing something that I've never done before or that I'm not sure if it will work.  The truth is, that's all the time!  If it weren't all the time, I would be the same horse person I was five years ago, and I certainly am not that.

That being said, if I try something new, at that moment I am sure that it will work.  If it doesn't, I usually feel that pretty quickly and am not afraid to move on to something else. Most of the time, though, it does work, and I don't think that's in any small part to the fact that I'm following all of this advice. I'm confident it will work, and that the horse can come through, and before even starting I've evaluated if I'm being true to myself and my horse, and working as if someone I respect is watching. 

As a teacher, I would absolutely rather see someone come for a lesson trying new things and trying hard, even if I have to change their direction some, than someone who is paralyzed because they are afraid to fail. So, give yourself permission to mess up!  Why not? It takes a long time to get good at anything, and you have to put yourself out there for big rewards. If things get worse before they get better, so what?  Treat your horsemanship like a journey and an exercise in self growth, not a competition, and you will find things inside yourself you didn't know where there, and your horses will thank you. 

Archive Post: Quiet vs. Still, Thinking about Equitation & Communication

2012

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

Archive Post: Creativity & Commitment to Change

2012

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!