Finding the Ground But In a Good Way

Our T’ai Chi master told us to drop our weight? I was barely legal and my fledgling art career was doing so well that I didn’t own a car. The class met in a church gym, he stood in front with his back to us and the small class mimicked his slow-motion movements. He told us to root deep to the earth, shifting our weight a pound at a time to one foot to release the other for a conscious step. I was hooked, totally consumed with T’ai Chi’s beauty and quiet power. Pretty soon I was practicing shifting my weight at bus stops and while cooking my dinner. T’ai Chi was perfect for a fidgety introvert. T’ai Chi defined my life, two nights a week and Sundays in the park. I’m that sort who teeters toward the fanatic and I progressed quickly, eventually teaching. Besides, I didn’t have a horse. 

Looking back, I think it was the first time I ever met the inside of my body. I knew kids who grew up in sports or dance and had a natural athleticism or a physical awareness that was foreign to me. All I did was run around like a headless chicken, writing emotional poetry while being distraught about life. In other words, I was attracted to Eastern Philosophy and activity for the same reason most people were back then. I was missing something I couldn’t name, but there was a thing that happened when I felt my feet on the ground, when I focused on what we called our tan t’ien, our energy center, and followed my breath. Finding the ground let me quiet my mind. 

Eventually, I was able to buy a horse and stopped T’ai Chi classes, but it isn’t any easier to give up T’ai Chi than it is horses. Chinese say that in the beginning you must call yourself to practice the art but soon the practice calls you. Even now, my sword is in my writing studio in case I need to stop thinking. I consciously shift my weight to focus while giving riding lessons. I teach Push Hands as a rhythmic way of understanding rein contact. After all, isn’t dressage a kind of mounted T’ai Chi? 

In the horse world, the closest we come to talking about being grounded is telling stories about unplanned dismounts. And boy howdy, do we tell stories. We fill the silence with words and noise and emotions. Worse, our hands get busier with each word, more nervous when it’s quiet. We lift our hands as high as our shoulders as if horses were blind. We sing, we chatter, we cajole. We talk to our horses to make ourselves breathe, to make ourselves less nervous, to encourage ourselves onward. We think the horse likes us to talk but it calms us more than them. 

If the horse has something to say, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. There is a disconnect. Our chatter exists in our over-active, well-oiled frontal lobes. Horses don’t have that same anatomy. While we’re running laps in memory or dreams or composing grocery lists, the horse is feeling the earth, the wind, sensing movements in the environment. The horse is listening to the world beyond words. We see a metallic wrapper blown against the fence. It startles us more than him, because of that pesky grocery list. As long as we calm ourselves, the horse doesn’t care how.

Maybe you think it’s your voice that cues your horse. They are certainly intelligent enough to learn words, but it was your feet that rule the moment. We can forget that because our feet are so far from our brains. Exhale and send your brain on down. 

Is your horse more interested in the busyness of the world than you? Quiet your mind by letting it rest in your feet. Feel your toes. Let your heel settle into the earth. Do you lunge your horse? Don’t chase him. Stand still so he can find his balance. Is he a little fussy at the mounting block? Park your feet and become reliably still. Want to connect with your horse? Make your breath an anchor by inhaling into your toes and then trust the earth to send the message. The air is unstable. The earth is our connection with horses, it is trust in solid form.

It’s true in the saddle, too. Have you forgotten? Ask a friend for a pony ride. Schedule a lunge lesson with a trainer. Climb on in a safe place like an arena and let your hands rest on your thighs or use a neckring. Look, mom, it’s no-hands January.

Inhale as you swing your leg over your horse’s back and then settle into the saddle. Check your thighs. If they’re tight, you’ll be a bit suspended over the saddle. Truly check because you’ll feel unstable to your horse. Can you tell for sure? Connect your feet to the stirrups with a light tap. Feel your toes, putting your weight to the outside little toe. Does that release your knee a bit? Did your horse relax some? Is your toe sticking out far enough to catch on a fence post? Point it forward, please. You might have to remind yourself again soon, until the tight muscles release. Are you back in your brain thinking, wondering if you’re doing it right, worrying that you are out of control? Put your mind back in your feet, your thighs, your seat. A light tap to the stirrup, please.

Let the saddle hold you but carry some of your weight in your feet. Enough pressure in both stirrups to help your horse carry you. Feel your horse’s movement ripple through your body. Surrender because, in order to lead, we first follow their movement. We don’t oppose force. Wait, that’s T’ai Chi (but it’s also how to start an affirmative ride.) Your brain is begging you to come back and talk but trust your horse. Let him have his movement, let your seat follow. Your hands are screaming to grab, your brain feels deserted. Good, trust the part of you that connects, not your hand to the bit, but your seat to his back. Let your horse rock you in his stride. You’ll never feel safe in a gallop if you don’t trust this walk. How are your thighs? Are you deeper in the saddle, has your waist become fluid? A light tap of the stirrup, feel your little toe. Connect with the ground through your horse. 

A slight turn of your body, lead with your tan t’ien, your solar plexus. Think of it as a headlight that your horse moves in. Feel your knees as a flexible tunnel for your horse moving forward, your shoulders following. Ignore your twitchy fingers. Ride the inside of your horse. Halt by softening your seat to stillness and exhaling. Acknowledge your breath as an anchor to the ground for both of you. 

Crave the body-to-body conversation, in the saddle or on the ground, your tan t’ien to your horse’s. It’s the connection you can’t name because it comes from the earth and not your brain. Feel unity, each of you autonomous, but partners in movement.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits.

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42 thoughts on “Finding the Ground But In a Good Way”

  1. Boy howdy, I do love seeing that turn of phrase again. I speak that vernacular and had nearly forgotten. I really like this one. Thank you

  2. YES.
    So beautifully and clearly said. And wayyyyy better than an unplanned dismount.
    Our barn has its own human Tasmanian devil. Poor thing. She can’t seem to help broadcasting “we’re all going to die” energy from the moment she parks. We’ve all learned to send calming signals to the human, each other and the horses. It doesn’t appear to help the human, but it does help all our horses focus on us and each other. Interestingly, they begin to send calming signals if we start first, which was not the case in the beginning. We can’t thank you enough for the number of panic attacks, accidents, and spooks your teaching has prevented!

    • Yikes, sorry to laugh. I’m laughing as a calming signal, but you know that. That ‘die’ energy is the loudest, so glad you and the horses are on the job. Thanks, Jane.

    • I am not a member of your barn, however know very well the woman you are describing. The others and the horses are so helped by knowing and using calming signals. Thank you for this description of your functional and dysfunctional barn mates.

    • Yikes, Jane. I would convince this person to move to another barn. You don’t need someone like that around.
      I would shine your ‘core light and strength’ on her and on her horse, and hope that it keeps both of them safe.

      Cheers, and be well.

  3. So good to read this and the comments this morning. Grounding is so important, just now, good to be reminded. I too love the graceful dance that is T’ai Chi.

  4. First I must say you look very striking standing with a DARK horse for a change !! That’s an attractive good look for you !! ( hint hint, cant wait for you to.come to TX & stand alongside my dark boys).

    Well- written essay with wisdom ,& humor. You do that combination so well. Such an excellent reminder of importance of reconnecting with ground.

    • Thank you, Sarah. It’s always beyond me to get photos at clinics, but some make their way to me. I’ll look forward to Bear and Cash helping me out.

  5. Anna,
    A trainer I worked with constantly told me to stick my toes out.
    The prior trainer told me to keep my feet straight ahead.
    Another one said, “Keep you feet to the inside of the stirrup”.

    One thing I wanted to say (and I believe you are correct), is that
    such ‘tension’ that arises from trainers (who often do not agree)
    causes tension in riders and their horses.

    As you know, I have had Jack for almost 12 years. We always got
    along fine — my desire to go at a gentle pace, and his understanding
    of that. It all went out the window with a new trainer, who forced
    a different position on us, and faster work. Jack got confused.
    I became nervous. He began to speed up.

    I had to stop the training. It wasn’t for either of us. Sometimes
    you have to make tough decisions like this.

    Now, I am back to riding him gently and slowly, and yes, we putter
    about, but he’s relaxed, I am relaxed, David is on the ground, walking
    with Simon (Jack’s mate) and all is well. We do walk-trot-cavalletti
    together, we stop after a couple of rounds, we take rest breaks,
    then he’s reenergized. He lets me know if he gets bored. He lets
    me know when he has had enough (traditionally, as his training taught,
    within 30 minutes. Occasionally, he will go longer, but I am OK with
    30 minutes. If you are not relaxed as a rider (though keeping your
    attention on the horse), what’s the point?

    “Stop looking at him!” I watch his ears, while also looking through
    them. I don’t see a problem with that, as I can tell when he is
    happy, relaxed or not doing well, by his ear position.

    I think, sometimes, you need to step back with a T’ai Chi attitude and
    keep your calm disposition. Horses like calm, quiet leaders.

    Firm but gentle, and listening to the horse. For me, that works well.
    I have no desire to change it.

    Love this piece, Anna.

    Thank you.

  6. Those last two paragraphs. I’m aching to swing my leg over and practice no,hands January from that place … thanks, Anna. Beautiful and compelling essay!

  7. A fun and personal read. Thanks.

    Plus some of your phrases are masterful. “Unplanned dismount.” “…my fledgling art career was going so well that I didn’t own a car.”

  8. I read this before riding my young mare today, and the foot and leg tips REALLY made a difference for us! I have been struggling to feel my legs work the same way in both directions, especially at the canter, but today it wasn’t a struggle at all at any gait, and I felt much more quiet and connected at the canter. I think I’ll need to read this before heading to the barn for the foreseeable future until muscle memory kicks in.

  9. Now I want to start tai chi 🙂 This reminded me of a drawing in a riding book from years ago, Sally Swift I think? that showed the riders legs so loooong, all the way to the ground…

  10. “The earth is our connection with horses. It is trust in solid form.” Wow. That about says it all. I often go out with her in the paddock and we move together, in perfect synch, while she grazes. I started walking and moving with her, and now she walks and moves with me, the ground indeed being our one connection, our common denominator. I will remember that feeling, and your words, when I ride today. I know trying to feel the ground with her will make a huge difference. Thanks, Anna. I needed this today.

  11. My “hands-on” horse experiences are second hand now. Of course HERE, and with my granddaughter who manages a couple barns, (I am responsible for her original corruption/horse wise). Actually worked quite well! She has 2 horses – 5 & 8 – that she has been rehabbing. The 8 year old had been evented – shes putting him back to “work”. From what she has said he sounded kind of sour (lazy?) but now, since shes been so busy, she found a friend who needed more riding time & really likes Clark(!). And he likes her – they have just been doing walk/trot, then kind of hanging out wandering around the dressage arena, dumpster, etc etc. Beck learns by watching her friend ride & seeing what it looks like from the ground – her friend gets riding time and, from what it sounds like, kind of playing time with a different horse from her own. Soon Beck will have more free time to spend with her own horses – the 5 year old will be getting more ground work & attention, and she can start riding Clark. She formerly worked for a rider/trainer that sounds like some described here – the horses were for making a profit. She is finally in a really good place & so are her horses.

  12. Now, this is kissing the ground together! Today’s essay brought back some fond memories of “finding the ground but in a good way” with my guys. It made me giddy with delight. Much appreciated, Anna.

  13. Sigh, your description of settling into the saddle engulfed me in a wave of nostalgia and longing…It’s been so long….and your writing so eloquent.

  14. Anna, It’s week number 6 following an unplanned dismount, and I’m reluctantly following doctor’s orders of “activity as tolerated”. I’m desperate to get back to my horses, but I know that I’m not capable of connecting physically through riding as long as pain inhibits my ability to relax. Your writing was a well timed reminder of how our equine partners can appreciate alternate ways to connect physically. Throughout my adulthood, I have enjoyed the benefits of mind/ body connection through Yoga and T’ai Chi, but I haven’t really applied these practices (aside from practiced breathing) around my horses. Thank you for the wake up call. I anticipate these new ideas will make the wait of healing more tolerable. And….I guess the snow, ice, and cold will also help dampen my desire to ride.

    • Glad you’re okay! and apparently not in the fire area. You know chronic lameness in horses is usually from putting them back to work too soon. Just sayin’
      Take care, Laurie. See you soon. But not too soon.

  15. Oh, I love this. As a yoga student and guide (and occasionally a Tai Chi student, too), I can’t say enough about how one practice (horses) informs the other. I can’t imagine being a rider without connection to my breath and the internal awareness I’ve developed…I know the horses appreciate it tremendously and it’s always nice to read what you write about such things. 🙂 Re. mental chatter – I had a trainer who told me to ride with my brainstem, and every time she did, I would somehow just figure out how to be more succinct. That, reminding me to breathe and soften my jaw, and encouraging me to pretend I’m Reiner Klimke seem to be the most effective one-liners from trainers ?


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