It’s that time of winter when you half-think spring isn’t real. Are you frustrated with how you and your horse are progressing? As if it’s even warm enough to take his blanket off. Do you ride in the same place in the same way? Do you do the same groundwork in the same order? Do you find you and your horse wandering aimlessly in the pasture but are you not willing to haul somewhere else? Would it help to buy a new saddle pad, or will it take more? Roman riding for women over sixty maybe? Are you just a bit bored? Or worse, a bit boring?
Even if you keep your horse in a lovely facility, even if you have the prettiest horse property ever, there is one truth that will not be escaped. Working with a horse is a solitary endeavor. Even if there is a loud trainer in the middle of the arena, it’s always just you and your horse. We love to wax on about passion, but if we are honest, there is much about horses that can become routine. Not mundane, but habitual. So, you idly gaze at your mare considering horse yoga. It’s a testament to your distraction; a tourist looking at her could tell she has no intention of being anybody’s yoga mat. What about working equitation, that’s popular now and they wear flat-brimmed hats and chinks with fringe. Would you need a new saddle?
Meanwhile, as you meander through your upcoming wardrobe purchases, you ponder the fads you’ve dragged your horse through already. Your horse convinced you that jumping wasn’t for you. Mounted archery was a bad idea from the start. And really, shouldn’t Western Dressage be easier than that? Too bad there isn’t a ribbon for Jack of all trades, master of none.
Moments of silence will be involved. Is your brain too crowded for that? We’re back to that feeling of solitude and if you’re lonely with your horse, if the silence needs to be filled with another fad, perhaps the real question is what you need to release to progress with your horse. Rather than bringing more in, wouldn’t it be progress to let go of things in your way? Excuse your mental railbirds who judge you harshly. Dump the faddish arm-swinging or tight-handed behaviors. Let your shoulders soften and feel your jaw follow. Begin by letting go of distractions. Accept being here. Not mystically, not in some ethereal way. Lay a hand on your horse’s flank and bring all of yourself to this moment. The other word for that is listening.
Meanwhile, your horse is not who he was last summer because horses are creatures of change, always on a slippery slope, their behavior altered by the direction of the wind, the age of their joints. They couldn’t stay the same mentally or physically if you promised they could be donkeys in their next life. Horses are intuitive and wild and as fragile as cut flowers, not that we will ever regret a moment. But still, precious moments pass as we seek the eternal and elusive goal of finding a better partnership. That’s all we want as if the trainer’s promises were easy and the path ahead well-worn. Things aren’t bad exactly but you aren’t ready to sing a maudlin version of “Yesterday When I Was Young.” So, maybe you and your horse make a plan to go to India to learn to meditate?
It’s so like us, besotted yearning humans that we are, to think that the answer is somewhere else. It isn’t that the answer is right in front of us and we are leaning from side to side to see past it. The answer is even closer; it’s inside us. Buy all the new tack you want, but progress will be made internally and at the same time, at a distance. Partnership is based on two souls maintaining their autonomy but joining in movement. Force won’t work, it has to be an invitation taken with lightness in both hearts.
You’ll hate the first step. Give your horse some room. We always think having a connection with a horse is literal; we stand too close and maul them with our hands. I like the smell of a mane as much as anyone, but we smother horses. Connection happens when the horse volunteers and we have to bite our tongues and stand back to give a horse that choice. It’s the minute trust begins.
It’s time to find a shared meditation with your horse. If the word meditation makes you fidget, you aren’t alone. But meditation doesn’t mean sitting still till your butt hurts. If you ride, it will begin in your seat moving with your horse’s back. If you do groundwork, then it will be in your feet sharing the earth with your horse’s hooves, no less intimate or connected. If the silence feels too vast, put music on. Don’t think you should; literally do it.
Instead of looking for more complicated work, look for clarity in the simple things. Sound so intangible that you want to puke? Simplify. Start with the foundation of all movement, the walk. Recognize that horses walk faster than we do. Their balance improves when they cover ground. Do you ask your horse to walk too slowly? Do you constantly stop him or do your hands distract him? Just walk on. Let your mind settle and feel your horse’s movement ripple through your body, counting his strides to match your inhales and exhales. Notice his rhythm become steady. Notice his body respond to the balance of his rhythm, surrender your body to that swing, but stay conscious and energetic. It won’t be perfect, but when thoughts get in the way, let the music bring you back. As good as it feels, hold a soft but clear focus.
Let the walk be fascinating. The relaxation and energy of the walk must be fresh and light. The kind of walk that will give you a fluid and balanced trot. Your trot defines the quality of your canter. Does your horse become more anxious or tense the faster your go? The answer isn’t to get used to going faster, the answer is to get inside of the movement and we learn that at the walk. See the circle? Advanced work is a deeper understanding of foundational movement. We feel more but do less. Our hands become settled and our minds available to listen, our bodies supple and active as we allow our horses to carry us with more trust. Let there be peace at the center of a gallop.
There are no “finished” horses unless they are dead. Change is inevitable, so steer it. Progress is finding that solitary place and then inviting your horse inside. It takes the time it takes. There is no magic but the work isn’t hard. You have everything you need. If you are looking for progress, it’s right there napping in your quiet place. Probably a little bored, just like your horse.
Kindle inspiration with your horse in the infinite space inside each of your hearts and celebrate the simple pleasure of a walking rhythm. That’s progress already.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.