This is the recurring nightmare. You’re on a twisted version of Dancing with the Stars. There are glaring lights and loud music that’s all piccolo and cymbals. You hear your name called but you cannot blink your eye, much less move, and your skin is taking on a bluish tint. Even your fingernails ache. A squinty-eyed crowd of five thousand scrutinizes your every hair, judging with the sensitivity and kindness reserved for kitten murderers. Your partner doesn’t know you exist. And he has four legs and a tense poll.
Now, think about the perfect image of a horse and rider. The horse is balanced, with clear eyes and listening ears. His poll is soft and his jaw relaxed. No matter the gait, he is fluid, his stride ground-covering with a swing to his barrel. His spine, from the tip of his tail all the way to his skull, moves like a snake. No angles or edges, just rhythm and power, relaxed and forward. In other words, he is all confidence.
The rider is invisible: In the nightmare, invisible to her horse and in the perfect image, invisible to the outside world.
Think of riding as a long continuum. We all start at the beginning, that disconnected peace of a kid riding in a field or the howling-wild runaway back to the barn with screaming and pulling and jabbing. And then, know that some parts of each ride were made-up in our own minds.
Does a rider need to improve? No. Most horses are more tolerant than they should be. They accept us if we try, fill in for us when they can, or just stop if we lose balance. But isn’t that the exact reason to improve? Because they show us patience? Because balance in the saddle the best thank-you possible for rehabbed rescue or a brilliant green youngster or a working horse who tries his heart out for you.
No matter where you are on the continuum, start here. Take a breath and walk on; feel your sit bones. No judgment. Say yes to just sitting in this sacred place.
This ride, just listen to your own body. It’s about focusing on you, and for now, less on your horse. Do you feel tightness anywhere?
And did that split-second of self-assessment alter your breathing? Of course. When our awareness goes from our physical senses to our over-thinking brain, in that instant we effectively leave our bodies. It’s as if we can’t have a lucid thought and without losing rhythm in our bodies. Does your horse reflect that? Say yes.
Anecdote: I remember my first slow dance. It was with a boy I didn’t know, to the song Hey, Jude. It was the most excruciating seven minutes of tension, sweat, and stilted overthinking teen angst of my short life. Remember how long that song is? It’s a miracle we didn’t both pass out. Dance? Not for a second.
Back to your breath, deep and rhythmic. Test it by measuring the length of the inhale and asking the exhale to meet that time. You’re bored with breathing. I know that, but it matters to your horse, so get interested. Do it for him, there is no more important cue.
Start over. Feel your sit bones. Are they equal weight in the saddle or is one of them heavier? Now turn to the side as far as you can. Feel your sit bones again. Has one of them “unplugged”? Now lean forward, just an inch. Feel your sit bones leave the saddle? Your horse feels it, too, and he doesn’t like it. Did he slow down? Sure, he felt you lose balance. Say yes to beginning to feel more.
Of course, all this focus on feeling your body means you’ve most likely stopped breathing again. It’s fine, but back to breathing, please. Teach yourself how good it feels to have air in your lungs.
Can you feel your shoulders? Rounded or tense? Is one shoulder different than the other? Do you counter-bend more one direction? Ah, something in common with your horse. Say yes.
We’re just walking, just warming up. Have you used your reins to correct your horse? Say yes, because of course, you have. We’re primates, we over-use our hands instinctually. Notice that. Feel your hands move when you don’t think they do. Feel your fingers close on the reins and pull, when you think you don’t pull. Notice that our hands have a life of their own.
Discover the gap between what you do without awareness and what you think you do. This is the distance between your perception and reality.
If we don’t have body awareness, we can’t change it. So correct nothing, just familiarize yourself with what you have not been consciously feeling.
Now, feel yourself let go, say yes to less control, let your horse’s movement carry you. Surrender to the swing, feel your thighs soft, folding over his back. Feel your knees light and your calves soft. Breathe into your ankles, let the stirrups hold your feet. Release more with each breath. Your leg light as a bird’s wing.
Allow your body to move in unison with your horse. Oppose no force, find a flow. Allow your body to get along with his body without bickering. No corrections.
The innate desire to micromanage a horse is really a lack of trust in them. Corrections sow disconnection and insecurity. That’s heading the wrong way.
Pro-tip: Visualize your skeleton, leaning or slumped or just left on its own. Now inhale and feel your skeleton come into balance and alignment. Breath refreshes body position, an inhale will cause our vertebra re-stack and self-correct our position and with that, help relax our horse, physically and mentally. Please, say yes.
If we can’t feel it, we can’t fix it.
Body awareness is the starting point. Without it, we literally don’t know what we’re “saying,” with our disconnected appendages, nagging feet and wandering hands. Instead of correcting our horses, we need to assume he’s answering correctly. Then, to improve our horses, we must first find that place of awareness within us. Once we tidy that up, our horses will be able to improve.
Narrowing the gap between perception and reality: Riding a horse can feel like a slow dance from hell or a swinging glide of rhythm and grace, of unity within freedom.