When I was in my late twenties, I became fascinated by the art of Dressage. Honestly? I am still fascinated. Back then, however, the trouble was that I wasn’t a very talented technical rider. And I was on an unconventional horse for dressage; a 16’2 Appendix Quarter horse who excelled more at trails and jumping. His hindquarters were higher than his very prominent withers, and he had tiny feet and one clubbed foot that made it spectacularly difficult to collect and round as my instructor wanted me to shape him.
This shaping took the form of adding more and more pressure to the bit, pulling against the pressure he was exerting on it, and then the addition of a crop and spurs because he lacked impulsion.
At first, I truly enjoyed what dressage offered. But it wasn’t too long before things got serious. Things got complex. And the simple joys of riding a horse were lost to the technicalities that I was being taught.
If I had to count how many times I’ve thought about this particular method, and how many times the “I wish I knew then what I know now” syndrome has appeared, I couldn’t come up with a number. Thousands?
All horses are the recipients of our knowledge at any given point. And besides these dressage lessons, my horse lived a good horse life – out in a large paddock with other horses, nutritional support, regular massages and lots of hay. This is probably what gave him the tolerance to get through those weekly 45 minute lessons.
I finally ended up emotionally storming away from Dressage when the number of requests my instructor gave me outnumbered my ability to execute them.
Looking back, I can see how this endeavor triggered all kinds of old baggage from my childhood; I was always picked last to be on a team in sports, and I regularly sprained and even broke bones. I was never an agile or physically talented kid, and so when the time came that those kind of activities were optional, I chose instead to go to the library or read a book.
To this day, I still happily make the same choices.
Also to this day, however, I am grateful to have learned simpler ways to ask horses. Less punitive ways that instead of assuming the horse is stupid and needs endless repetition, assumes that horses are incredibly intelligent and intuitive and we can focus on those aspects when we are with them.
By now, my husband and I have spent countless hours held by numerous years traveling the world helping people with horses. And in that span of time, one lesson stands out above all the others.
The answers lie in simplicity.
Why use a leg, a crop, outside rein, inside sit bone, flare your left nostril and sing “Do Re Mi,” (that last part is the vestiges of my frustration from all those years ago) when you can inhale and think about changing the rhythm of your gait from a four beat (walk) to a two beat (trot)? Now we get a response from the horse that is more relaxed.
“To quote a dictum of Simon, what a horse does under compulsion he does blindly, and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet-dancer taught by whip and goad.”
Complexity makes us feel good about ourselves. And to be fair, our brains are really good at complexity. The downside, however, is that there is a very narrow line between complexity that is productive and complexity that ties us in knots.
In our work with horses, we have seen time and again how they prefer simplicity. While our brain excels at complexity, the horse brain and body is made for movement. The fantastic thing about horses is that they can also sense internal movement. Call it intention, call it micro-movement, call it hocus pocus, but whenever we lead a request with our intention and focus, horses will hear it and do their best to answer.
We can ask ourselves to first breathe, then let go of tension and have a clear picture in our mind of what we would like to do. Oddly enough (but not really), horses respond not only more quickly, but also with more ease.
The fact that we are amazed by simplicity perhaps tells us just how long and how often we make things more complex than they need to be. While there are indeed parts of life that feel like endless hoops to jump through and are filled with emotional complexity, a lot of life is also quite simple.
Breathe deeply. Notice what is going on now. And breathe more deeply again.