As I was brushing our horses yesterday, I noticed that despite the rivulet of sweat running down my back, their short summer coats were falling out. In the shade of a day edging toward 90 degrees, while I was in a t-shirt and cropped jeans, our herd is preparing for snowmageddon.
The ability of horses to be ahead of us in so many ways is astonishing. Their timing goes beyond instinctual to almost psychic. Their innate talent at moving quickly before we know anything is happening is a quality I envy. And their desire to get along, no matter the circumstances is a constant reminder that despite what life throws me, I can try and get along too.
My husband always says horsemanship would be easy if it wasn’t for gravity and timing. The older I get and the longer the years that I live with horses, the more that statement gives me a bittersweet laugh.
Gravity, well, because. If you’re reading this and you’ve ridden for any amount of time (by “time” I mean minutes as well as years) you know that coming off a horse is a when proposition, not an if. I stopped counting the number of times I’ve come off horses after I hit the double digits.
Timing. The word “feel” is often paired with timing because in our horse-centric world it seems one cannot exist without the other.
I doubt that horses stand under a shade tree and contemplate how to improve on their timing and feel. Horses are the embodied definition of those two horsemanship holy grails; they already are what we strive to improve in ourselves.
When we think about improving our timing, about improving our relationship, about improving anything we think is lacking about ourselves—and isn’t that list woefully long— there’s a lot of thinking that goes on. And on. I’ll admit to years (ok, fine: decades) of thinking about horses and how much I wanted to be better at being with them. I’ll admit to reading mountains of books about horses because I thought that the more that I knew about them, the better my timing and feel would be.
That was like preparing for three-day eventing at the Olympics by watching YouTube.
Thinking, as you probably guessed it, is the number one reason our timing is often behind. As riders, we are taught that in order to ride well we must think a lot. But horses are sensorimotor creatures, which means they feel and they move. That’s their job description, that is how they came into this world; one look at their brains will tell you that they are wired for movement and using their senses to discern if/when/how fast they need to go.
One look at a human brain and you’ll see that we are, indeed, wired for thinking. Here’s something exciting though-we all have the capacity to develop the timing and the feel that informs it.
When a dressage instructor of many years ago told me in subtle ways that I couldn’t ride, in a fit of pique I chose to quit the lessons. I had been having my doubts already, so it wasn’t a far leap. Turns out, my timing on this issue was great; two weeks later my horse came up three-legged lame and I spent the next three years figuring out how to help him be sound and comfortable.
Timing is getting out of the way a millisecond before a kick could’ve landed in your face. Not that this has happened to me.
Timing is also knowing when to give a horse a break from a concentrated lesson.
It is knowing when to give yourself a break if you feel you’re just not getting it.
We are told that timing and feel cannot be taught.
Except wait – we all use feel and timing hundreds of times during our day. It’s how we can eat breakfast without spilling it down the front of our shirt. It’s how we drive and don’t get into accidents on a daily basis. It’s how we throw a ball for our dog or cook a meal for ourselves or hold a baby without dropping them.
By the time most of us reach adulthood, there are thousands of tiny skills we have mastered that once seemed like big skills. Walking, speaking, running, eating. We forget how at one time we were all toddling, drooling, gibberish speaking wide-eyed love nuggets who spent every day marveling at the wonder of everything.
As horse people, we grew up and discovered we were, in fact, part horse. That wonder at life then got transferred to these creatures of the wind and plains. At first, we toddled about them, unsure of where we fit in relation to them, thrown off balance by the swing of their barrel beneath us and the lift of each elegant leg.
Our hearts got thrown off course by their breath and their eyes that seemed to see right through us.
So when someone says “Ya gotta have feel! Ya gotta have timing!” I smile to myself because we already do.
All we gotta have is the awareness of how to best apply it to working with horses. This means the more time we put ourselves in the context of our horse, the better attuned we will be to using our inborn talent of timing and feel.
Granted, they aren’t cars or a smooth sidewalk to run down. They are unlike anything else in our lives that we handle or are in a relationship with. You may be able to force things on horses, but most of us know and seek out the kind of relationship that cultivates space for mutual consent. It’s where the beauty is.
If we can have a little bit of confidence in our own innate abilities, and a little bit of a quieter mind, chances are we are going to get along with our horse just fine. Chances are those skills are inside of us the whole time, waiting to be grasped.