Riding into Relaxation

Photo: Chris Wolf

We sometimes forget that horses can perform any movement we need them to do already. They are masters of movement.  All horses are talented creatures; they can fly without wings (not for long), they can figure out how to talk their owners into being fed early (who can resist those liquid eyes and low rumbly nickers?), will run fast, jump high and move in ways that have us lost in their artistry. 

What we do as riders is attach a cue to a certain movement. There’s nothing fancy about training horses; as long as you understand when to release and when to cue working with a horse isn’t rocket science.

Creating a space where the horse willingly does those moves for you, and is so confident that the movement is relaxed? That is the art of horsemanship. You can’t buy it, cheat it, manipulate or fake it. I will gladly spend the rest of my life pursuing this art.

If you have a horse long enough, he’ll either associate you with relaxation or tension. With feeling safe, or not. 

This is why when I hear riders saying that their horses are stubborn or lazy or <insert any other negative descriptor> I feel drawn to asking them how their own body feels. What if we, as the rider, aren’t breathing? Or we have our shoulders up so high they look like clunky earrings? What if we have a horse who is reading every. dang. signal. our bodies and emotions are sending them and haven’t any clue which one to respond to? All these goings on are within our power to change.

I get being at the end of your metaphorical rope when the same behavior keeps showing up and you don’t know what to do. When all you want to do is hang the picture in your head on your horse and make him match it.

Your horse can already perform any movement you wish. If there is a gap between what you’d like and what your horse is doing, the first place we need to look is at ourselves: What are we doing or not doing that the horse interprets in such a way that she is tense? The second place we look is to our horse’s physical needs. Does our horse need bodywork? Nutritional support? Their teeth and feet balanced? Tack that doesn’t interfere with how they need to move? These are questions I ask with such regularity that the more I ask, the more committed I am to asking yet again. In our clinics across the country, we see horses who more often than not have physical issues, much more so than training issues. I would say true training issues are ten percent of the horses we see. That means ninety percent have something physical bothering them. 

After those questions are resolved and we are working with a horse who we feel confident about their ability to perform how we need them to (whether it is cutting a cow from the herd or performing piaffe or walking quietly down the trail), how do we ride our horse into the relaxation of the movement, instead of train in tension, and therefore limits, on how well our horse can perform?

I was out walking the dogs this afternoon, looking at the different shapes of their paw prints on the ground, and it occurred to me that we spend a great deal of time hunched over. We hunch over computers, hunch in a chair or our bed to watch tv, definitely curl up around our smartphones or tablets and spend any time we have in our car hunched and tense behind the wheel as we try to get from point A to point B without sending ourselves into outer space with road rage, or get hit by a distracted driver. We hunch over the sink to do dishes. We sit down to eat and hunch over our meal. Perhaps some of us even walk with a slouch.

Here’s where we can start to not only ride our horses into the relaxation of movement, but begin that relaxation in our own minds and bodies. The great thing about horses is that because we need to be balanced in order to stay on, hunching while in the saddle is not a good idea. Keeping our eyes on the ground and staying in a slouch while we are grooming, or doing ground work is also not a good idea. Horses require us to look up, to straighten up and to use our bodies in non-habitual ways. They are so much healthier for us than screens.

Besides a practice of riding in relaxed physical balance, we can also develop the skill of riding in emotional balance. 

To me this has the quality of a meditation practice. Instead of signing up for a three day silent retreat when I can’t sit for ten minutes in silence in my own house, I sit for five minutes each day, not only watching my breath go in and out but also marveling at how much like breeding bunnies my thoughts are. This, I know, is a contradiction to having the much-coveted empty mind. These racing bouncy thoughts are everywhere and reproduce at an alarming rate, hopping from here to there and outwitting my breath at every turn. 

Riding horses is the same. If we drive to the barn shaking our fist and cursing at other drivers, and then want a quiet and centered ride, good luck. If we walk out to our horse’s pen fuming about an argument we had and expect our horses to greet us eagerly, that particular wish may not happen. Riding our horses into relaxation is all about us relaxing first. 

But it’s a gradual process. Like meditation, we need to build our being-in-the-moment-with-our-horse muscles. If we dive in too soon, we will frustrate ourselves.  If we don’t practice at all and let those bunnies in the saddle too, frustration is a sure bet. 

Instead we shoot for a present and happy walk. We take a breath, we feel the warmth of our horse’s soft neck, see the particular shape and tilt of their ears. And then we take another breath and practice staying present and open in the trot. 

We need to convince our chatterbox brain that it really is ok to take a break and listen. 

Sometimes we help our horses, sometimes they help us. I don’t mean to say that everything in your world needs to be rainbows and Muzak. Life happens all the time, but it’s more about finding ways that are meaningful to us to help set aside our concerns and worries while we are with our horses, so we can give them the full attention they need, and deserve. 

It strikes me that we need and deserve our own full attention too. We can ride ourselves into relaxation, just by the choices we make each day. 

38 Comments on “Riding into Relaxation

  1. Wonderful words Crissi!! You’re voice is in my head daily, my shoulders are beginning to “get it” …at least more often! Lol… Thank you for helping us so very much!! 💕 I am so thrilled to be riding with so much more confidence again!!

    • Hi Deb! If it’s any consolation, my shoulders and I have been talking with each other for decades. 😉 It’s wonderful to see you riding with such joy. xo

  2. From now on I’m going to refer to my meditation as ‘breeding bunnies’ (while wearing those clunky earrings). Maybe that way, the smile will release the breath, and the earrings will transform into pearl drops.

    Thanks Crissi for a great metaphor that makes these things fun instead of another Should Do Better.

    • That’s a lovely way to think of it, Elaine! I’m also a fan of loving where we are instead of beating up on ourselves for not being “better.” The whole self-improvement schtick can be driven from a place of self love instead of self loathing. xo

  3. So insightful. Puts the proverbial ball in the rider’s or handler’s court,asking her/him to keep working on their own behaviours (be it at the level of body, thoughts, or feelings); first of all awareness thereof, and ultimately, discipline in these respects — no less than they expect from their horse. That’ what I took from this. Beautiful prose too, as always. Thanks.

    • Thank you, Iris. Being responsible for ourselves is a big job and I get why we all struggle sometimes. But for me, the gifts it yields with horses are priceless.

  4. I so agree. I hope lockdown is a gift to so many people who need it to S L O W down physically , mentally and emotionally with their horses. And I feel most of us need to work on this letting go as a major part of our life journey with horses; these gentle, kind, peace loving creatures who teach us so much about ourselves, if only we make the space to let them in.

  5. So true! Thanks for the reminder. Like other great horsewoman says, “your horse is your mirror”.

  6. Thank you Crissi. You’re so very right here. I’ve had the opportunity and blessed good fortune to experience the grace of a “still mind” with my horses. I try and will continue to try to keep that for my lifetime. the exchange with them is astounding, I keep reminding myself when they go “on a thought” it’s not coincidence. They get it, without language or pressure. I always feel so grateful they’re willing to listen to me and I will never stop listening to them. Such a gift….as you know!

    • Hi Sarah – You said it perfectly: I also feel grateful when they listen to me, and teach me how to listen to them. It is a great gift.

  7. Hi Crissi!

    I enjoyed this more than you can imagine.

    I found myself wondering “do riders really need to be reminded of the fact that their horses are mirrors into their behaviors”?

    Of course they do! I have gotten away from this because I don’t ride my own horses any more, for the very reason you state early on in your piece-they have physical limitations that make carrying a rider impossible, so it would be abusive to say the least.

    Currently they function as emotional barometers for me, they check in, and I return the favor with some Masterson work. It doesn’t get better than that, IMHO.

    Thank you so much for writing such a thoughtful piece, important at a time when we all have some time to approach our relationship with our horses with more reciprocal intent.

    Miss you and Mark! Coming to Colorado by the end of June!

    Saw the Estes weather today! What?! ??

    Hugs!

    Rose

    Rose M. O’Neill Tierra Solida Studios laquesabe@live.com 443-244-0321

    Cell 443-244-0321

    ________________________________

    • Rose! You’re right; having a reciprocal relationship with our horses – it doesn’t get much better. 🙂 No snow on the ground here but it got cold enough that I brought all the flowers I’d potted inside. Let me know when you’re here in Colorado! It will hopefully be warmer by then. xo

  8. I just love this. You summarized what has taken me years to realize. With a mare that just simply isn’t having it if I am tense, or cranky. I have rabbit thoughts too and it’s so hard to not get lost with them. I loved your description. When we’re getting tense I stop and drop the reins and we just breathe. Funnily enough I call that moment ‘letting the rabbits go’. 😁 I am always excited to see a post from you because I know that I’m going to learn something new or a new way to think about something. Thank you

    • You’re most welcome. You are the second person to use the word “peace.” Here’s to that feeling spreading out to all of us.

  9. Thank you for this reminder to be in peace both with our horses and with ourselves. Just wonderful. Namaste. 💜🐴 💜

  10. “Instead of signing up for a three day silent retreat when I can’t sit for ten minutes in silence in my own house, I sit for five minutes each day, not only watching my breath go in and out but also marveling at how much like breeding bunnies my thoughts are.”
    I laughed out loud when I read that!
    As usual, wisdom and perfect timing.
    Thanks, Crissi!

  11. “They are so much healthier for us than screens.” (Reading this on a screen…ha!) Agree with everything you said, but had to acknowledge the irony here. 🙂

  12. thank you again for reminding and inspiring
    I am wondering about the headstall on the gray….the padding at the poll looks comfortable…is it a headstall you use?

    • Hi Katie – that’s a photo of one of our student instructors and her stallion. I think you can get a poll piece like you see on him at Back on Track?

  13. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful words. I always look forward to your posts!

  14. Have taken your words on board. The next time I ride I shall just try totally relaxing and staying in the moment.
    Thank you for your thoughts

  15. Crissi, your writing always speaks to me. Thank you for these delicious tidbits: riding into relaxation, training in tension, and breeding bunnies. These will stay with me.

  16. Another beautifully written and insightful piece, all so true. One of my horses can read my every emotion, especially the negative ones! He is slowly teaching me to calm my mind when I am around him. So much more challenging for humans than horses, I find! Thanks again Crissi for sharing your thoughts:)

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