Photos: Lory Hopkins
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison
I didn’t plan on writing a blog today. I’ve known I wanted to write, but to be honest, the inspiration gods haven’t come knocking recently. Now it’s March, but when I went to bed last night, I swore it was December.
If I’m honest, I’m waiting for that perfect idea. I don’t know what it is, but if I wait long enough and pay attention, surely lightning will strike on a sunny blue day and there it will be. The Blog.
How often do we feel this with our horses? We want to wait until we have the perfect solution for addressing an issue. We want to get it right (mostly, too, because of benevolent reasons), we want it to look perfect and by the way? Please let it not be messy.
Unlike writing, where I can stare at a blank page while I sip tea, horses prefer guidance, usually now. They need a response – any response- and the sooner the better.
Where we get hung up is we want to give them the RIGHT response. The perfect, mistake- free answer. So when our horse (for example) trots faster than we want, our thought process might go something like this:
“Why is he trotting faster?”
“Is he scared?”
“Does my saddle fit?”
“Am I out of balance?”
“What if I’m not feeding him right?”
“Did I give him too much leg? Maybe I need a different trainer.”
“I like my trainer.”
“But maybe a second opinion would help?”
“I need a second opinion on my arthritis.”
“I wonder if there are supplements that help arthritis?”
“I probably shouldn’t have had that fourth cup of coffee.”
And so on.
You can see how off track we get, simply because we think we don’t have the perfect answer for the horse.
Now, part of this is because we are spectacularly talented at rapid fire thinking and consistent distraction. This isn’t bad news. The counterbalance to this, though is that I also believe horses can help us slow down. Take a breath. Reconnect with our internal landscape that resonates with the wildness of nature.
In the space it takes for the thought of that fourth cup of coffe to flash across your mind, there is a gap in communication. It’s very similar to having a conversation on a cell phone and the call fails.
“Hello? Can you hear me now?”
Four, five, ten, twenty-six strides later, maybe we let the horse know about that trot that’s too fast. But by then the horse has been doing something else. Maybe he’s thinking about stopping, or cantering, maybe he’s feeling the saddle pad rucked up by his withers. It’s difficult to say, but what I can say is that when we choose thinking over doing, the horse is connected to himself, not necessarily doing something with you.
This isn’t personal. Horses are masters at connection but we’ve got to give them something to connect to.
When we live in our brains; sorting, judging, worrying, etc, it’s a powerful disconnection. The horse is saying “Hello? Anyone out there?” Because we are wrapped up snug with our hamster wheel mind, there isn’t any reply.
I don’t think horses are fans of one-way conversations. Everything in their environment (especially other horses) gives and receives communication of some sort. And whether we know it or not, we do too. The question is, what am I saying (and even if we aren’t saying anything, that means something) to my horse during any given moment?
Before this starts feeling like too much, or too big a responsibility, consider that we are also talking about creatures who can send and receive messages in less than the time it takes to blink. Those messages range all the way from we cannot fathom how subtle (I’ve seen one of our horses move another without as much as an ear twitch), to overt physical actions (biting, kicking, etc). The miracle of horses is that as much chatter as we must unknowingly send them, they are able to sort out what they need to listen to, and what they can let go of.
So, what can we do?
Take a breath. A big, knock-the-dust-off -your ribs-inhale (and exhale). Put your hand on your belly and feel your feet in the stirrups. Take another breath. When your horse does something unexpected, have an answer. Maybe it’s to turn him in a smaller circle. Maybe you stop doing what you tried and go do something different. Maybe ride a figure eight, or a serpentine. You will definitely take another rib-cracking breath.
Smiling would also help – I mean, one of the fastest creatures on the planet lets us ride them – what isn’t fun about that?! The point is, your horse will tell you if your answer was effective, or not. If it was: great! Build on that. If it wasn’t, we can try something else. Or ask someone to help us figure it out. The right (or perfect) answer is a mirage. While I admire our intention to do what is right by the horse, I also recognize that there’s a whole lot of freedom in letting go of needing to give a perfect answer, at the perfect time, with the perfect feel.
As an example, take a look at the photos at the top of the blog. Here, Rocky and I are practicing simple lead changes. On a circle to the right, he would pick up a left lead, and vice versa. By the third photo, we were on the right lead, going to the right.
Now, to be fair, I was mostly out to have fun, and Rocky was willing. But I would also like us to be balanced. So, we practiced until the correct lead came through and I learned that I would like to become more accurate about my timing and feel going into a canter/lope.
The mistakes I made during that process allowed for a couple of things: for Rocky and me to learn something about each other, and for me to learn that not only do I feel confident about cantering once more but now it’s time for me to explore the accuracy of that gait. I wouldn’t, however, have known any of this had I not decided to explore simple lead changes and had Rocky not been willing. In my search to set us up for the correct lead on a circle, I tried four different ways, all of which didn’t help. But the fifth adjustment? Bingo.
“If you do nothing, you’ll never know when you’re done.” Benjamin Franklin
Just like writing, when you’re with horses, the answers arrive once you begin. However, if we are always thinking of the “best” way to begin, we end up going nowhere. A response – right or wrong-demonstrates listening. And it is feeling heard that starts us on the path to change.