One of us flaps our legs while standing still, banging our boots in the stirrups, twisting around in the saddle, then leaning down to throw our arms around his neck. We mean to be funny and child-like and show a certain sort of lazy bravado. We mean to act like there’s no special skill involved in riding. Then to get a dramatic response, we jerk the reins hard sideways and pop the gelding with both feet. Oh, and spurs.
His thought balloon: (lost balance. shift. find balance. is that a cue? never mind. not on my neck. sore. rebalance. like a huge boneless chicken. can’t balance. ouch! bang! gouge! sour. not stupid. stiffen jaw. brace ribs. ick.)
One of us is holding mane tight, teetering a bit on the mounting block. Then carefully inserting one foot in the stirrup, holding a shallow breath, and slow and soft as a coyote, bringing the other leg over the saddle, careful to not land too hard. Trying to be invisible, thighs are so tight that we’re hovering more than sitting. Lurking lightly with our seat, hands, cues, voice. Whoa, not so fast. And constantly apologizing.
His thought balloon: (can feel you. stalk me. vapor for brains. afraid of my back. teeth in her knees. what? please breathe. worry. say again? anxiety. done something wrong. what moved? always wrong. hear that? spook.)
One of us wants to get it just right; reading books, watching videos hour after hour- dressage, reining, eventing. Nuno, Buck, Beezie, Tom- all on a first name basis. There’s a plan for each stride, a watch on the wrist, quickly mounting, shortening the reins, going to work. Trying to do our best, each effort judged with blinding perfection, over-cooked passion, and an obsessive desire to ride better each ride.
His thought balloon: (sharpened sit bones. try to breathe. what? don’t have to yell. confused. can’t go forward. squashed ribs. neck stuck. what? sorry. this? sorry. gripped. pushed. tight. can’t. wrong. wrong again.)
It isn’t that we’re one of these riders; at one time or another, we’ve been all three. There is such a fine line between bravado and fear, both a lack of confidence. A fine line between caring too little and caring too much, both focus on control. A fine line between being too harsh and being too kind, both are uncomfortable for horses.
Then, there’s this one other thing: No one is intentionally communicating with their horse.
Doesn’t that seem like a glaring omission? We sit in the saddle, pontificating about this or that in our own minds. It’s like we’re talking to ourselves about our horse, behind our horse’s back, while we’re in the saddle. We might as well be folding towels.
Consider building a bubble. It’s a safe place for you and your horse where breathing happens with a life-affirming regularity. It’s a place where leadership means safety and peace, where we abide in the present moment.
Recipe for a Bubble. Step two: Just converse.
Close the gate to the arena or pen. Please, use a mounting block; your horse’s withers don’t like lateral pressure. Stand for a moment, take a deep breath, and look at his eye. Is it tense? Dead? Worried? Listen to his calming signals. When he’s ready, swing your leg over in one even movement. Breathe, settle, and soften. Pause to feel your sit bones in the saddle, let your horse feel a softness in your legs, shoulders. Keep equal weight in each foot, level shoulders aligned with pelvic bones, ribs easy and inflated and your lower back relaxed. Let him hear you exhale. Feel his ribs move as he inhales. The conversation has begun.
Define conversation as communication a in mutual language. Horses have no words, so sing or chatter if you must, but breath is something you and your horse can share, it’ll create connection. Horses listen to your body and answer with theirs. Be aware of what you’re asking with your volume, intention, and position. Stay present, focused more on your body awareness than thinking with your brain. Hush.
Breathe and ask him to walk on. Leave his head alone, long rein. Let him pick the path. The gate’s closed, remember? Experience the movement of your horse as his energy moves through your body. Follow his rhythm. Feel your own movement, sit bones release one at a time, legs follow the sway of his ribs. Take the walk your horse offers and say, Good Boy. No corrections, no hands in his mouth. Find your balance in your seat, the weight of your feet in the stirrups. How does it feel? No words, just feel. That strange thing is your awareness. It could use some exercise. We’ll need it to build our bubble.
If you’re nervous or bored or over-thinking (and of course you are), count your breath. Match your horse’s rhythm and inhale 1-2-3, pause, and exhale, 1-2-3 pause. Repeat. Breath is the antidote to your mind running like a rat on a wheel. Better than that, it’s the language of horses. Have you stopped breathing? See how easily you’re distracted? Smile and start counting again. Count your breath for five minutes. Finally, a good use for that wristwatch. It’ll feel like forever. Impatient? You’re not breathing.
This is silence. Your horse loves it.
Allow him to walk in arcs. Turn your waist until your shoulders are at the angle you want your horse’s shoulders. Feel him bend between your legs in response. Acknowledge his try. Acknowledge him and say thank you.
Now, using just your sit bones, ask for a longer stride. Not faster, longer. Feel that? Now back to your working walk, big breath. Stride on. Then ask for smaller steps, using only your sit bones. Good boy, thank you.
That’s your horse connected with you in a bubble. It isn’t mystical. It’s communication.
Think situational awareness. No escalating, just feel and stay present. Do you fidget? Are your shoulders still up by your ears? Could you hold an egg under your knee? Do you fiddle with the reins? Still counting? Okay, start again.
Peace in the bubble: Just you and him, moving in unison, sharing breath, and covering ground. Just so you know, you’re also working on your canter depart, tempi changes, reining spins, negotiating an oxer.
This is you riding the inside of your horse. You’re riding him with the inside of your body. Allow yourself to be lifted and carried. Say thank you in every exhale. Feels great, doesn’t it?