Advice? Take a Deep Seat and a Faraway Look…

My young horse was lame, so my mentor asked if I’d like a lesson on her horse. It wasn’t a rhetorical question; we all knew the barn rule. Even if I was green -lime green- I knew if you were offered a horse, you said yes. My mentor watched as I climbed on her impeccable Arabian Stallion. It’s hard to tell if you should feel sorry for me or cheer, isn’t it?

The lesson started marginally okay. I knew enough to stay light, but I’d never ridden a horse like him before. His neck rose proudly in front of the saddle, he felt like he balanced on tiptoes in mid-air, and he gave me the feeling he was out of my league. And he was right, of course, even my toes felt awkward. After a bit of walking, my mentor asked for a canter and I gave a light cue. The stallion took off in a road gait that nearly gave me whiplash, just the beginning of the longest thirty minutes of my young life. My mentor laughed, the stallion shook his head, and I tried to regain my wits. The cue didn’t work, I was getting the bad result each try, but I plowed on. I’m certain that the more she laughed, the more the stallion played with me. The frustration was mine alone. 

“Take a deep seat and a faraway look,” she said. It infuriated me. She said that in lessons I had on my horse. She said it often enough that it was on her memorial card at her funeral. She was an amazing horsewoman, even with her habit of laughing at jokes that horses told. I didn’t know how to get my seat deeper in the saddle. My head was frozen robotically high. Each time I asked for a canter, the stallion gave a different but equally clever response and my mentor laughed until she was out of breath. Eventually, I got a couple of strides of canter, he halted instantly, and hysterically funny, I ate mane. I’m betting my shoulders came forward.

Decades later, I have my mentor’s job. I give lessons to riders who try too hard. I listen to the horse and try to translate. Sometimes I laugh when riders are frustrated because it helps horses understand our conflicted emotions. In certain nebulously philosophical situations, I might tell a seriously earnest rider something that they take too literally. Then I might laugh again because I love my job. And because laughter is a calming signal.

Without further ado, the unwritten and not-at-all-funny barn rules, usually learned in hindsight:

  • Ride all the horses you can.
  • You will necessarily make mistakes. 
  • It isn’t personal, but you will make the same mistake again. 
  • Get a sense of humor.
  • You will still make mistakes but with humor now.
  • The relationship with your horse doesn’t start when you get it right.
  • Going back to the basics frequently isn’t punishment; the answers are there.
  • The truest strength will be found in your vulnerability.
  • Pick yourself up and try again.
  • It takes courage to do less. 
  • Take a deep seat and a faraway look.

Are you having a “dark night of the soul” with your horse? If you have not gotten to the point of thinking you have the wrong horse, you’re just skimming the surface. Sure, sometimes we truly get the wrong horse, but usually, the horse is pointing out our shortcomings. He isn’t being divisive about it and it isn’t the least bit mystical. It’s just the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation with a twelve-hundred-pound flight animal. Building a relationship with a horse is not easy or quick. The challenges rise up like sheer cliffs. One minute you’re at the top looking down and a minute later you might be at the bottom looking up and you have no idea what happened. Most of it feels nebulous, you make vague guesses and get contradictory information. You would love to just have one hard, fast, work-every-time rule. There isn’t one.

Well, not exactly. Breathing works every single time, but we don’t believe it.

We want it to be easy, so we grab onto an idea and choke it like a chicken. If it doesn’t work immediately, so we frantically look for our next technique-victim. Does it feel to you like have tried too many training tips? Is your “toolbox” too big to find anything in? Good, you’re in the game. Dare I say you’re ambitious. I hope so, it takes drive and desire to work with horses. 

At the exact same time, humans are slow learners. We need repetition and time to assimilate. We need to prove it to ourselves more than once. It isn’t a fault, especially since much of the work we do with horses is counter-intuitive, and even worse, it goes against instinct. Example: If your horse is running away, take your legs off. 

If that isn’t enough, we are self-critical. We think others are judgmental, but if we weren’t so self-critical it wouldn’t matter. Nuno Oliviera once referred to riders as poète maudit, “cursed poets” of the art, which makes perfect sense during one of those dark nights of thinking too much. We can’t find an answer and we can’t quit. We seek perfection and fall short. If we stumble into perfection, it reveals itself to be a stiff dead thing, an idea that limits your options. It’s enough to make you cut your ear off. Have you underestimated the need for a sense of humor?

If you do it all right, time passes, and we forget the struggle. We have done nothing less than the incredible, but we take it for granted. The world does not stand still, change comes. It might be the same horse, or it might be the next horse, but it happens. In a flash, it’s obvious that you have the wrong horse. Any horse would be easier than this one.

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” ― Rabindranath Tagore

It’s a tradition in our species to consider unseen things, bigger than us, spiritual. Is working with a horse anything less than a personal crusade? It starts inside, the quiet action of believing in yourself, before your horse feels it, and long before others see it. Just a thimble of faith to start.

Then head for the horizon and expect a bumpy ride. It isn’t fair to you or your horse to take one moment out of context to beat yourself up. It serves no purpose to fight the inevitable. You can’t quit and you can’t be perfect, but you can accept your humanity with a smile for your horse. You are on the long ride, and in the perfect place. The rest will come in time, so

Take a deep seat and a faraway look.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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30 thoughts on “Advice? Take a Deep Seat and a Faraway Look…”

  1. This essay is just wonder-full , Anna. Thanks so much for writing it. Since I am going through a “dark night of the soul” in regards to my riding, this is timely and just perfectly stated. I ” can’t quit and can’t be perfect.” ha ! So true

    • I was thinking of Barnies like you; all good intention and stumbling blocks galore. I thought of your phrase “Living the Question” Thanks, Sarah

  2. “One minute, you’re at the top looking down and the next minute you may be at the bottom looking up and you have no idea what happened.” So true and I can’t begin to know how many times I’ve experienced this! I’ve been fortunate to have lived for many years, and have owned and ridden many horses. The best advice is to have a sense of humor.

  3. The last paragraph, so touched my heart. So true and yet it is good to be reminded. Then a mouth full of mane. Yup, me too.

  4. This is brilliant and came just at the right moment for me…trying too hard. My NH instructor just commented “Just be natural
    and give him some love” (I´ve got a full toolbox!). Many thanks for your words of wisdom.

  5. eloquently expressed as usual. It rings so true, and enriches my memory of that heart-lesson horse, all those horses, those rides, supports me as I get to know this horse now, always looking farther

  6. Hi Anna,
    I no longer have my mentally compromised horse, but this lovely post helps me look back with less of the “poete maudit” mindset. I wish I’d known your work then–I might have felt more satisfied with my efforts. I always did a lot of laughing thanks to some of looks and reactions I’ve gotten from my horses. In every ride and training session I said “smile with all four cheeks,” (in the words of another trainer who shall not be named here.) That got a few good laughs from other riders, too!

  7. I. Love. This. As a young rider, I too had a trainer substitute his magnificent Arab stallion so I could have a lesson. It was about as comfortable and controlled as riding a blender. He could not stop laughing. At the moment, I’m terribly out of shape. Winded by posting just a few rounds of the arena. My friend cracked a rib during an accidental dismount, and I get to ride her fabulous, sensitive, one person (her) cow horse. The first time I got on, his ears swiveled back in alarm: “excuse me please, but do you have clearance for this?” I laughed. It was a completely legitimate question. I told him he got to decide. We worked it out. Because he has a good heart. And I sang. Something no human wants to be forced to listen to, but horses seem to appreciate. Probably because it makes me breathe. Horses are a lesson in humility and humor. They’re going to laugh at us, so we might as well laugh at ourselves and enjoy!

    • Hi Jane. Good to hear from you. Yes, you put it well. We do well go learn to laugh along. While they decide if we’re cleared for the ride. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Anna, this is a timely and much valued blog. I just finished journaling about my horses, more specifically about the 2 rescues that I brought home almost 3years ago. I remember the horse rescue staff saying “Oh Laurie, you have worked with many horses; you’ll have these boys ready to ride in 30days……NOT. I struggle daily wondering if I will be able to really win their trust. Breathing and laughing are indispensable tools. They tell me so much, but I’m slow to fit it all together. Anna, your words are like hearing the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. Thank you.

    • Laurie, that is the kindest sentiment ever, thank you.

      It’s a quote that’s been on my wall for decades. I’ve stared at it thinking about a horse more than once. Those boys of yours are changing, slow and steady and you are up to the task.

  9. Great advice Anna, thank you. I love the bit where you say “If the horse is running away , take your legs off! ” the number of times I hear dressage riders say “but he’s tanking off on me “” with their legs clamped on the horses ribs ? Stop blaming the horse, use humour and ask questions, I say. ?

  10. “The relationship with your horse doesn’t start when you get it right.” Truer words were never spoken! Laughing was my favorite way to animate Dodger in our arena games. That was so fun…thanks for that memory!

  11. This, Anna, I love! Thank you!
    “Ride all the horses you can.
    You will necessarily make mistakes.
    It isn’t personal, but you will make the same mistake again.
    Get a sense of humor.
    You will still make mistakes but with humor now.
    The relationship with your horse doesn’t start when you get it right.
    Going back to the basics frequently isn’t punishment; the answers are there.
    The truest strength will be found in your vulnerability.
    Pick yourself up and try again.
    It takes courage to do less.
    Take a deep seat and a faraway look.”

  12. A deep seat to feel the connection and thereby become one; a faraway look, to see there together.
    I am on my horse for the first time tomorrow and will take this with me. I can’t think of any better start to our first ride together. Just what I needed tonight. Thank you.

      • Thanks, Anna. It went really well. I got on her confident and happy (beaming, actually) and doesn’t that make all the difference? And (even better) she was happy with me on her. I know it probably sounds stupid but I could just feel that she was. Wow. After 40 years, I feel like I got my true life back today. And in so many ways you helped with that. I will always remember and always be grateful, my mentor whom I have never met! But she and I started life together as trusting friends, thanks to your teaching, and she said to me today, “No worries. I got this. I got you.” Tears.

        • Oh Kathy. Wow, it sounds wonderful. High five, happy dance, and a big ole’ howl. So happy for you. (and thanks for the kind words!) Just wow.


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