Say you’re learning to read calming signals, so naturally, you’re scrutinizing your horse. Staring like a coyote. Very quietly staring hard, when suddenly, he blinks funny. Your eyebrows wrinkle. What does that mean? Then he freezes. “Is he even breathing?” you wonder, holding your breath. “Does his lack of breathing have to do with being a rescue horse? Could it be a health issue, is he choking? Did he have a rider who…”
Humans aren’t multi-taskers. We just think we are, and that’s the problem: we think. It’s possible to be externally aware (feeling our surroundings with our senses) and think at the same time, but more often, when we intellectually engage it seems to cancel out our sensual awareness. It’s like our brain is a warm little bed and we’re old deaf cats. We like languishing in our own minds making up stories about mice, rather than trying to catch one. Now let’s say we were in the saddle.
This is how we get reactive, we chatter away in our minds, telling ourselves stories, and then wake up in the middle of something real our horse has been trying to let us know about for a while. We’ve missed the first handful of calming signals and now he’s starting to feel abandoned. Fair. We react abruptly because we’re startled. Of course, that startles the horse because we both have autonomic nervous systems and it doesn’t matter who goes “sympathetic” (flight, fight, or freeze) first. It’s contagious.
Once that fear dynamic starts, we get defensive and our instinct says grab hold. Legs get tight and hands pull reins and we assume everything the horse does is wrong because we’ve had a mental runaway. *Some horses handle this better than others.*
We get defensive. We stop being partners and become restrictive in our bodies as well as our minds. It’s enough to make carrying us around a chore for horses. We kill Funktionslust, that German word meaning “the pleasure taken in what one does best.” We kill our horse’s desire to go forward.
Think of it this way: Forward, having a ground-covering fluid gait, is the foundation of balance and comfort for a horse, mentally and physically. In order to partner with a horse, we need to become mentally forward in the saddle. Instead of reacting to what just happened, we want to be thinking ahead. In other words…
Less correction, more direction.
The best remedy for thinking too much is being more sensually engaged with the environment. Rather than thoughts, emotions, and rat-on-a-wheel overthinking, take a breath and stroll through your senses: Touch, taste, smell, sight, sound.
Slower, how does his back feel? Are his ribs mirroring his slow breathing in a way your calves could follow? Encourage that. Is there a stale taste in your mouth? Or is it clean, fresh saliva tells you you’re relaxed, in the parasympathetic phase. You probably did a lick and chew to figure that out, good girl. Now, smell the air, always a bit better a few feet off the ground. Deep breath, feel the air cool on your throat, be here now.
What do you see? If something concerns you, excuse it with an exhale. Breathing is a recurring theme, but breathing is life and cueing your horse to breathe is a primal connection. Finally, what do you hear? The rhythm of his footfall is the metronome for his life, movement flowing with energy. Unite with him, here in the present real moment.
Listening to calming signals is the action of affirmative riding.
Consider a bit of reverse engineering. What do mounted calming signals look like? Is he counter-bending or looking to the outside of the curve? It’s like looking away on the ground, what loudness is he resisting? Are the reins any different than the lead line? Is your inside hand pulling or threatening or working like a parking brake? (If your horse says yes, you are.) Let go of the rein, even if you’re just lurking on it, he feels it on the bit. How is his forward? He’s lost rhythm, hasn’t he? Use just your sit bones and ask for a longer stride. The answer is to let him move, always.
Mentor the turn in your body, by turning your waist, not pulling your hand. He isn’t trying to be a pill, bits are literally painful in his mouth. He’s right about your hands, he always will be. Use your body instead and help him find balance with a mounted massage. That’s a better outcome than frustration and anxiety, the mental argument.
Is he dead to leg cues? No matter how hard you kick, he doesn’t go? Feel his ribs under your calves. Is he tense? Look at his ears, is his poll braced? Right now, don’t change your legs, just feel what they are doing. Are they totally still or muscle-tired? Then you’re clamping them. Are they just banging away? Then you have over-cued him for so long he’s ignoring them. Do you escalate cues, ask-tell-make, and he’s bracing his ribs for the pain to come? Does your horse think you’re still pulling on the rein, meaning giving a conflicting cue; go forward and stop simultaneously. Instead of judging what he isn’t doing, feel what you are doing. Know that horses shut down to avoid our over-cueing noise. Apologize, start again and do less.
Ask for a tiny thing lightly. Allow him to move on without correction. Reward him whether it’s good or not. You owe him that. On an arc, ask his withers to the outside by pulsing in rhythm with his barrel, a whispering inside leg to the outside shoulder, as you turn your waist into the curve. Using just your sit bones, ask for a longer stride. Reward his immediate response and promise to be lighter. Listen for his breath, for his jaw to release a lick and chew.
And by now, a million thoughts have tried to distract you from the sensual awareness of the real world. Politely excuse them; you can meet them later over a glass of wine. Love old deaf cats, but show up for your horse.
Engage your senses and listen. That place of sensual awareness is where horses exist, the place to build a partnership. Engage your senses and listen. Calming signals are language exchanged, and understanding its own reward.