In Praise of Simplicity

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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.” 
― Xenophon, The Art of Horsemanship

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. 

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About the Author

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A lifelong horse woman, learning how to listen to horses.

42 Comments

Thank you, Chrissi, for your profound thoughts on In Praise for Simplicity regarding our relationship approach to our horse…last year I purchased an young gelding who had been trained for the futurities by a well known reining breeder…I was surprised to find that his “default” was to bolt and spin leaving me in the dust..at 70 that is not a good place to be…everything else about this little guy is amazingly soft until you ask for forward motion…having owned and ridden for 65 year, 3-gaited saddlebreds, dressage warmbloods, AQHA and APHA hunt seat and trail (performance, performance, performance) I was flustered by my inability to ride this sweet little gelding…last September, on a horse back camping trip in the Tetons, I happened to bring Marc’s book, Finding the Missed Path, and while my friends went fishing I read it cover to cover feeling that he was talking just to me..especially the chapter on Lily, your little reining mare..my guy had terrible feet and two impacted baby teeth and would hardly “flat walk”. After many months of farriers, dentists, massage, chiropractic, diet improvement I was still frustrated by the fact that he only wanted to go at warp speed when a foot was placed in the stirrup…I had an epiphany reading that book so when I returned home I took a totally different direction with him…I let him free in the indoor and sat on the mounting block in the center visualizing getting on him and having just plod around …he did several reining patterns by himself, ran around like a mad man, slid off his feet at one point and finally walked to me putting his he’d down and started yawning…we have been doing ground work for weeks now and he is connected; he walks off, rolls and comes to me allowing me to climb on bareback..he lets out a big sigh and we just stand there…we are only using a hackamore at this point but I have the rest of my life to wait for him to walk off in total calm and relaxation…it is the most powerful lesson that any horse has taught me “Patience” and I thank you and Marc for that..I avidly read your articles and all your books….if you ever come to Northern New England I would be so honored to attend a clinic. Thank you.

Hi Mary Ann – your sharing about you and your sweet gelding has really touched me. It sounds like Mark’s book was exactly what you needed to read. Isn’t it wonderful that things find us at the right time? Changing the context for your guy is key: it sounds like he associated being ridden with a lot of anxiety and going fast. By changing that context, you’ve shown him that it can actually not be stressful. This is huge and good for you for doing this sooner rather than later. –Crissi

Thank you for this post. Starting my day with breath and simplicity. And gratitude for my horse community, MaryAnn. Mark and Chrissy are certainly blessings sent our way.

I too have been in and out of “paralysis by analysis” in my riding. For me I struggle with the physical ability to be good for the horse, have enough control of my body and my worry to stay out of their way. I have been able to have enough feel and minimal pressure to get the movement by intention and thoughts. I allow my horses a good amount of free will, they can respond with a ya-hoo in some environments.

Sorry, I was writing the above at work and couldn’t finish the thought.
So while I want to allow an amount of free will, I lack the complete ability to “ride it” well enough to work through to the other side. My riding though really needs some thorough work with easier horses and a good coach. I don’t like the thought of imposing myself on a horse on a lunge line just for my learning and then most of the riding instructors I see teaching are concentrating on the horse ie it starts with leg here, engage core, upper body back, take up the contact, then quickly evolves to ‘get the horse to do A, make the horse bend, don’t let him fall in etc etc. All of which is due to what I am not doing or doing too much of in my riding. With my reactive horses I do have some contact in the reins, too much in my body and the tension can spiral so I don’t help the horse as much as I think I should be able to do. It’s a struggle.

Hi Rosemarie – while I agree that it can sometimes be a struggle to get better, I don’t think that it needs (or should, for optimal learning) last forever. I didn’t know the deeper reasons I quit dressage when I did, but the years have clarified it for me. I am in better touch with how I learn (low pressure, low negativity, small steps – this parallels how I believe horse learn too) so now I can structure situations so I don’t feel so run over by new learning. It’s my hope that you find the same.

As usual- a brilliant piece, Heartlinehorse! You so clearly stand for the love of our horses who carry us so graciously, and for the love of our most inspired and best Selves when we go to the barn to be in their company : ) I LOVE receiving your beautiful writing to my Inbox. Thank you!

I remember riding with Mark here in the UK many years ago and being astounded by the simplicity of his approach and how readily and quietly my horse responded, by end of session moving off a thought/breath.I am also aware that I have lost much of that approach so thank you for the timely reminder. I have been reading many articles about simplicity lately -even down to the often complicated nature of how we keep horses now……nothing is straightforward anymore! I long for the days when i thought i knew what I was doing! lovely thought provoking writing crissi, as always.

thank you, Crissi 🙂
I am living in Nevada now with
Bee
Croz will be here after winter
are you are ever here???
Best!!!!

Crissi –

Love this! I sent it to several friends who think dressage is great. Just planting seeds……

love and hugs,

eliza : )

Eliza Walbridge Manderley Farm 240 Penllyn Blue Bell Pike Blue Bell, PA 19422 215 519 7689 ewalbridge@verizon.net

>

Ahhhh…. you chose my word for the year Crissi!❤️ Love this!!! I love how you share from your heart and it always speaks in perfect rhythm for me. THIS is why being with horses is my HAPPY place 🐴 I recently gave up regular lessons for others for this very reason, it seemed like if I wasn’t filling “their” heads with a battery of steps and commands, they some how did not “get their money’s worth” (strong exaggeration perhaps?) But the “being,” the “quiet interaction”, and the desire to let expression be a back and forth norm versus a phenomenon is a beautiful thing! I too have always dreamed of dressage, having only began with horses as an adult it sometimes seems so out of reach, and the complexity seems to steal all the happy 😊 for me. I think I’ll stick to “playing dressage” in my “child’s mind” through a simple interaction with my horses and let them keep the score! As always I respectfully appreciate you sharing all your wisdom and your heart ❤️ ~Jackie

Jackie, this is so well said! I too still mess around with dressage, in my own way. Mostly these days I am interested in the conversation between horse and person, and not, as you said, filling our heads with stuff. Well said my friend and thank you again! 💜

Humans do love to over complicate things. Horses truly are saints for putting up with us. What I discovered is that you can’t ride with your brain. you can think about things all you want and it is helpful but in the end it’s all about the feel. I sometimes ride with a woman from spain who is from the spanish tradition. She is always saying ‘you are making it too complicated. It is simple’. that drove me nutty until I finally had an epiphany.

I think many people are afraid of simplicity. Going full circle and delighting in the future is all part of this wonderful, infinite journey. Thank you Crissi – and love to you, Mark and your animals xx

Just got to say that this has really helped me remember some things I had forgotten. been playing with this with my groundwork…..taking a deep breath, thinking about what i want, imagining it, adding clear intention and the slightest internal movement ….yaya turn on the haunches with the lightest of touch ……..had forgotten how fabulous it can feel……

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