I had just finished a lesson when another woman I knew at the barn came up to me with a sour face. Through pious lips, she said, “Can’t you do something about her hands?” As if finding fault in another somehow confirmed her own brilliance in the saddle.
She was referring to the novice rider in the previous lesson but it probably wasn’t a good time to tell her what I thought about her stiffness, her micro-managing, or most obviously, her judgmental nature toward other riders, and worse, her own horse.
I answered simply, “Yes, but we’re working on feet today.”
This isn’t meant to imply I’m a Zen master, training others because I was born in a saddle with a sparkly pink glow around me. I remember very clearly a time when it was critically important for my young horse to become perfect immediately so I could look like a better rider. Yes, that was me, thinking I wouldn’t have a problem with my hands if my horse would behave. Of course, my horse felt like he wouldn’t have to toss his head if his mouth didn’t hurt.
Learning to ride takes time. It isn’t that our right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. It’s that they should both be planted in our armpits while we figure out where our seat is. We should be working on finding our calf to cue while our boot is quiet and still. We should be melting into the rhythm of the horse, whatever that means.
It might go like this. Can you feel your toes in your boots? Can you step into your stirrup and keep your knee soft. Can your inner thigh muscle soften? Can you feel your sit bones evenly on the saddle?
It is an evolved skill to feel your body on your horse instead of letting your brain chatter about how to ride. One involves your whole body and the other, just your frontal lobe. It matters because of the secret that no one tells you. You can ride, or you can overthink your ride, but not both.
Now, can you feel the outside edge of your foot on the stirrup, and what does that do for your knee?
Asking yourself these questions fulfills two purposes. First, it’s good to have a vague idea why your horse isn’t responding in the way you want and it might be you’re using him like a Thigh Master or banging away on his flanks without noticing. It bears repeating; step one is learning to control your own body. And a civilized conversation with a horse is out of the question if we can’t modulate the noise in ourselves.
The second purpose is more important. When we pay attention to our bodies, our mind becomes quieter. The cogs slow down, emotions soften, and our breathing naturally slows. Not to mention that feeling your sit bones lift and fall is a great distraction for timid riders.
Focus doesn’t mean having your eye on everything at once. That’s what is so exhausting about being a horse, that moment-to-moment vigilance for their safety. So we focus on one thing at a time, build some muscle memory, and patience with ourselves. We don’t need to be perfect, just self-aware. We have to feel the thing before we can fix it. For today, don’t fix anything.
When will we finally learn that criticism and blind repetitive correction don’t work? Asking too much every day doesn’t make humans or horses any stronger; it wears them out. Treat yourself like a talented young horse. Go slow and take the time to get it right.
Our minds will wander. Don’t punish yourself, take a breath and find your feet again. Just a kind rebalance.
Better to make our minds a cool oasis that a horse might like to relax in. Better to slow down our thoughts and feel our bodies. Consider riding in slow motion. Not stuck-in-the-mud slow, but the moving through water kind of slow. Let your horse carry soft cargo.
Put the neck ring on. Get in a safe place and give your horse’s mouth a rest. Then, instead of having a mental debate with yourself in your own head about what opinions you will post on social media later, simply ride. Notice your feelings but answer the questions with your legs and seat. Simply let your horse decide. Listen to your horse blow when his anxiety lessens, when his muscles relax. Tell him he’s welcome.
For all the times your horse has felt the dread he might be corrected or you have second-guessed yourself, just let it be simple. Don’t steer but instead feel every shift of weight. Notice small movements in your waist, the sway of your legs following your horse’s flank. Wait for his answer without interrupting him by asking again but louder this time. Enough intimidation. Enough self-incrimination. Let the horse’s answer be a good enough response, simply let him be right.
Let your mind be easy to read. Ask for just one thing at a time. No corrections, no layering on of confusing contradictions or judgment or anxiety. Just one cue. “Walk on, not that I care,” with an inhale. Wait for his answer. Let it be simple to say yes.
When we overthink, our horses notice our bodies go quiet but do they know where we have gone? Do we know, assuming we notice? Start again. Be here now. Can you simply feel your feet?
Our minds become simple for a horse to read by holding a light focus on just one thing. Let every cue wait for an answer, understanding that no answer is still an answer. Trade small calming signals back and forth, the kind of intimate conversation shared by friends.
Then one day, your horse takes a cue before you finish your thought. Or you soothe his concern before it becomes a conflict. One simple short ride at a time, and before you know it, neither of you remember where one of you stops and the other begins. It feels like acceptance, like both of you are right with the world. And you simply let that be good enough, too.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.
Want more? Become a “Barnie.” Subscribe to our online training group with training videos, interactive sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and join the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.
Anna teaches ongoing courses like Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and more at The Barn School, as well as virtual clinics and our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.
Visit annablake.com to find archived blogs, purchase signed books, schedule a live consultation, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses.
Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.
29 thoughts on “How to Focus Simply.”
I tell myself, “I rode better today”, not “my horse was better today”
And we can always ride better, which is even better! Thanks, Evangeline
Fabulous article (again)! I forwarded this to my students who are learning to focus (nothing to do with horses – everything to do with themselves). This was beautifully written (as always) and a great message to every human. Thank you, Anna! Much Love always!
Heehee. It’s remarkable how little riding has to do with horses, too. Thanks, Carolyn. Hope you are well.
I used to do a thing when riding where I would focus on just one of my own body parts at the time for a circuit or two around the arena. Heads, shoulders, hands, thighs, calves, feet in stirrups, eyes (!), even my tongue in my mouth. And there was an exercise where I rode while visualizing the colors of the rainbow one by one – this one somehow yielded amazing results in getting to softness, and I often closed my eyes while doing both of these things for even more awareness of my own body, how the horse was moving, etc. Riding the canter in a connected and balanced way *with* that horse’s rhythm only comes to me if I do it with eyes closed and no reins, and then bring that precise feel with me when my eyes are open again. I have often thought I have some kind of “body dyslexia” for lack of a better phrase, that is fixed by doing the thing by feel and w/o the benefit of sight. You are a saint to reply to the judgmental rider the way you did! On another note, I am finally (let me stop and congratulate myself instead of berating myself for how long it’s taken me to get to this) bringing our 18-year old QH Cody slowly back into work, partly because I am finally accepting that Keil Bay at 33 is not going to suddenly come out of retirement, and partly because Cody is healthiest when he is in relaxed and regular work. He hasn’t been ridden in two years and right now he is chunky and I am certainly not in riding condition myself! What of your offerings would be helpful to us as we get back into riding together? Right now I’m hand walking him in the arena twice a day. We’re up to 14 minutes each session and he is starting to offer some trot when I animate my own gait a bit. I don’t want to put him on the lunge line until we get up to 30 minutes of walking each session – he has PSSM and is more sensitive to everything than any of my other equines so I’d like to build him up slowly. We’re getting to the place where I can feel when he reaches the “warmed up” part of the sessions, which has taken a few weeks to get to. Thankfully we have two very large oaks at H and F, a large pine at B, and a border of tall trees behind A, so we get enough shade to make it not too awful in the summer heat. 🙂
Thanks, Billie. I’d love to give my thoughts on bringing your QH back to work, but without seeing him, I just can’t. PSSM is so danged quirky. Go slow, 30 minutes is a lot, even eventually. I tend toward short sessions.
Oh, no, I didn’t mean I wanted you to give thoughts from that perspective – I am well-versed in PSSM after learning about it with Cody for the past 15 or so years – but wondered what of your offerings might help ME as I come back into work with him. :)))
And I should have added, just so it’s clear, that his PSSM is well controlled via diet and ALCAR. He’s not actually exhibiting any PSSM symptoms at this point, but because he’s generally sensitive, I go extra slow with him. He is chunky but he is also super active at liberty, galloping about the pastures and into the arena when it’s open, doing airs above the ground on a regular basis. 🙂
Two things came to mind after reading this piece:
1. Is it harder for the aging body to be aware and relaxed than the young body? My body is ingrained with a history of some unplanned dismounts that manifests in fear based tense muscles and clingy gripping.
2. My hardest hill to climb? “…….understanding that no answer is still an answer”. How long should we breathe and wait before asking another question, and should it be a different question?
1. We are stronger now, to do less. More memories but more commitment, deeper passion.
2. We’re better negotiators. We are more creative and mentally aware.
Never better than now. I think we need to talk about stopping and starting. Maybe a blog soon… Thanks, Laurie
I love everything about this, my friend. The gentler we are with others, the more we can (hopefully) spread this idea of giving others (horses included), and ourselves, a little bit of a break. Well said, beautifully written, and how grateful I am that you are out in the world spreading so many good messages.
Thanks, Crissi. These are traits I celebrate in you. Keep up your good work, and Mister says hi.
….understanding that no answer is still an answer. This.
It’s an answer that comes with more questions. Thanks Valery.
Another wonderful and wise essay. Thank you!
Cool oasis that my horse might like to relax in? Be soft cargo for my horse to carry? Think I’ll just let these words – and the rest – resonate for a while.
Had a dreamy few days and it rubbed off. Thanks, Lynell
This is amazing, you are amazing for being able to put it into words and understanding. Thank you and I look forward to riding with you in Flagstaff.
Goody, see you there. Thanks, Cordy
I love llistening to you talk as I read. I have gotten bareback on an old horse to learn how to ride again with my body being relaxed and connected to his movements not the reins.
Thank you for such great horse sense for us!
Old horses are the best. Thanks Laurie
As always, a provoking essay. I especially like the sentence, ” you can ride or you can overthink your ride, not both.” Perfect ! We are all a work in progress are we not ?
I remember telling my riding instructor 10 years ago that I wanted to learn to at least ride well enough that people wouldn’t feel sorry for my horse having me as his rider ! She was aghast, saying people might feel that way but wouldn’t say it out loud. But I still think it’s what many of us want — to be good enough that it’s obvious that our horse has a good deal with us. Even though I’m no longer an aspiring rider, I’m still striving to be be a worthy friend to my horses. And with your guidance, Anna, that has become more likely !!
Perfect comment, Sarah. Wish I had said it!
So right, Sarah. I think the work in progress is eternal, I think we could be kinder with ourselves knowing that. Right now, I’m heading out to starting a clinic day, I’ve thought out the start for a few hours and I want the horses to appreciate the day. I’ll do my best and let the rest go.
This one really resonated with me. I tried it today with Willy, along with super long reins & riding with my body as much as possible. I was amazed that on the 2nd try, he stopped when I just thought it. He repeated that several times plus walked on & gaited with just a thought. Yippee!
Well done, Bany. Good for Willy.
As always, food for general thought and for riding challenges.