I’ve been noticing that as humans we distinguish between planning to do something, and actually doing it. I’ve also noticed that we spend large amounts of time on the former and sometimes zero on the latter.
Horses don’t make that distinction. They are either doing something or not. So when we are riding, if we are kinda sorta thinking about perhaps sometime maybe someday trotting, and our horse trots? Technically, the horse just got the correct answer. We can celebrate how smart, willing and tuned in they are.
Usually what happens is we get frustrated, pull on the reins and holler “My horse is anticipating me!”
As if this is a bad thing.
Really what is happening is two fold: we have either (knowingly or unknowingly) repeated a pattern and the horse is following it, or we spent so much time planning before asking that the horse just went ahead and did it. As I see it, this is great. Wonderful even. We have chosen to get to know a creature who, by some miracle, not only appears to be uber talented at reading us but is willing to go along with our plan.
Think about it: if you knew what your co-workers or friends wanted to do; if it was clear as day and was being telegraphed every second and you heard and felt it, would you want to go along with their every plan?
Horses do this. All the time. They are hardwired to get along, to be as peaceful as they can be about it, and to look for ways to work within the flow of what is happening at any given moment.
I think most of us would agree that horses are really good at connecting. They are also Masters of Patterns. If you show them something the same way often enough, they will start to rely on and trust the pattern. It’s part of their evolutionary makeup: knowing the route to get to water or food, or a shady spot on a hot and blistering day was how they survived in their environment. It’s how they still survive, even though their roaming area is usually much smaller than their predecessors. And they have room service (i.e. humans).
Many years ago, a horse’s roaming area was vast. I wasn’t there when horses weren’t any bigger than Great Danes, but my guess is many of the same things that happened then, happen now. Mountains don’t get up and walk away. Rivers may dry up, but given enough rain, they will flow in roughly the same area. Grassy plains stretch for hundreds of miles and though subject to wildfire or drought, it was rare that it happened to the whole area. If there were big changes, the horses did what horses do best. They moved until they found somewhere more hospitable.
Once we brought horses into our lives, they lost the ability to seek out a different environment. We are their environment; we are the food providers, we decide the how and what and why and when every day for them.
We may be experts at thinking and it may have brought us this far, but horses are masters of feeling and responding, and making sure they stay alive.
All of this is to say, that we have a mountain of untapped potential residing right outside in the paddock.
The next time you’re with your horse do a little experiment. Think less. Do more. Trust your good intentions. Trust that your horse will do his best to do what you are asking. Trust that you won’t mess it up. Even if you do make a muck of things, it’s ok. Because besides horses being great at connecting and Masters of Patterns, they are also wildly good at overlooking our shortcomings.
We can work with their vast skill and knowledge or try to change or fight it. Either way, the horse will go on being a horse and they will find comfort in their life, or they won’t. Interacting with horses isn’t always easy, and we don’t always get it right. I do believe though that if we make acting more and thinking less a priority, we can get farther and become closer with our horses than even we can anticipate.
Photos: Crissi McDonald
There is a phrase that is used in the horse world I hope soon dies a quiet and peaceful death. I’ve been inviting it over for tea and taking it for walks to discuss other points of view. Helping get its affairs in order. But this phrase, I discovered, was born without ears.
It needs a funeral. A quiet affair with no gathering of friends and family afterward. Let’s bid farewell to:
“My horse needs to respect me.”
While I have been a grateful witness to an evolution in horsemanship (for example, I much more often hear about horses being “started,” rather than “broken.”), our need for our horses to respect us has its feet glued to the floor of our collective unconscious.
Even without hearing it from well-meaning horse people, the internet is littered with videos and articles, chat rooms and equipment to “make your horse respect you.” To me, that phrase tastes like a rotten meal that came back up.
“Your horse’s respect for you isn’t automatic; you have to earn it. The best way to do this is by moving his feet forward, backward, left and right. The more you can move his feet, the more control you have.”
“A horse who understands that you, as the herd leader, own the space in which he lives, will respect your asserted authority.”
“Without respect, you have nothing; no relationship, no trust, and ultimately, no communication.”
The way I see it, respect is a concept that is only understandable by humans. To enforce it on a different species without regard for their own needs, social structure or intelligence is ill-informed at best and abusive at worst.
Our brain structure, more specifically, the newest comer to the evolutionary party, the neocortex, is the part that lets us form and use abstract concepts like “the day after tomorrow,” “robbing a bank is wrong,” and “my horse needs to respect me.” Respect is part of the human-to-human complex social interaction, and one of the ways we get along with each other.
It may be a fairly large deductive leap, but I’m going to make it: since the neocortex in the horse isn’t well developed, it’s difficult for me to believe they have the ability to form abstract concepts. I also don’t feel it’s any coincidence that what is called a horse being “respectful,” also looks a lot like a horse who is afraid. Though that might not be the intentions of the handler, what we teach, and what horses learn, can be vastly different things.
If we absolutely have fallen in love with the word respect, let’s respect that:
Horses are thinking, feeling, living beings who feel both mental and physical pain.
Horses will hide pain and discomfort as long as they can.
Horses form powerful friendships and rely on the safety of the herd as primary to their being alive.
Horses are hardwired to survive and get along. They will cooperate, even at the risk of their own well-being.
Horses have rich inner lives, and ways of perceiving the world that are wildly different from ours.
Horses don’t owe us anything. As horse owners and riders, we are not entitled to their power or skill or courage, just because we house and feed them.
I’ve seen horses who understand boundaries once they know where they are. Horses who rely on consistency. Horses who have a job and are happy to perform it with us. Horses who need direction. Horses who are disoriented. Horses who rely on the relationship they have with a person. Confused horses. But I’ve never seen a respectful horse, or a disrespectful one, for that matter.
It makes as much sense to say that whales can climb mountains.
“My horse needs to respect me,” can open the door for us to commit grave errors. It sets up a mentality of competition, of winners and losers, and at it’s worst, legitimizes fighting.
Because between a human and a horse, it is far less about the horse giving us what we need, than it is about us figuring out how to encourage that great big heart to come out of hiding.
If there’s any respecting to be done, my vote is that we respect ourselves and our horses and become as educated and skilled as we can. We can then work with them in ways that allow them to trust themselves in our hands, and on their backs.
Photos: Lory Hopkins
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.
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.
If horsemanship is a spiral of learning, the outermost ring would be figuring out how to safely handle horses, learning the physical aids of riding, and how to efficiently balance ourselves on a horse’s back.
Another turn of the spiral, and we learn how to make cues more subtle. We apply them with better balance, timing and feel.
After several revolutions of this spiral, though, is where many riders often get stuck, or plateau. One day, our horse becomes less responsive, and we give bigger cues. We feel stagnant. Or, we have a horse who defies every technique we know.
What ever the reason, the result is the same: at some point in our time with horses, we realize that what we know and what we are doing aren’t evolving the way we spend time with our horse.
However, there is a doorway within every horse. If we are quiet and still, that doorway become a portal through which we can reach the next turn of the spiral.
What is this doorway?
It is the opportunity to connect at a level that underpins the essence of who horses are, and who we are too. It is a tether to communicating at a level that is far older than language. Horses are masters at this language – as is most of nature. We are too, and it only takes a little practice to discover it.
This language, for me, more closely resembles how we feel when we listen to our favorite music, as opposed to when we need to figure out a problem at work.
One way to begin to practice strengthening this sense, is by the use of the thought (and/or intention) of “we.”
When a rider gives a physical cue, and the horse responds, that is a fairly surface way of communicating. It is what is sometimes referred to as “conditioned response.” We give a physical cue, and through systematic training, the horse executes the desired action.
The good stuff, the grit and substance of working with horses, however, spirals much further down.
We are talking about exploring the movement beginning on the inside of us. We are walking, we are trotting; coupled with feeling the rhythm of the gait. Our intention is the bridge to the inside of the horse.
Now the sequence would be: visualizing and feeling “we are trotting,” before we offer the physical cue of a leg.
This change of intention is essentially like using a turn signal to let other drivers know where you are going. Since riding (like driving) can be a non-verbal activity, we have developed signals to let the horse (other drivers) around us know what we intend to do.
Our change of intention does two things.
One, it lets the horse know, before we apply a physical aid, what we would like to do.
Two (and, I feel, more importantly), it creates a sense of togetherness. It’s no longer us doing something to the horse (squeeze of leg, lift of rein, etc), but rather we are now doing the same thing, at the same time.
If we ride using only physical cues (and by the way, this is not a bad thing), horses will operate that way. If we ride seeking to use more subtle aids (such as the change of intention/thought, the use of breath), they will go that way too. The art of horsemanship lies not only in subtlety, but also within the heart and minds of both participants.
The art of horsemanship is a combination of the person’s and the horse’s spiral of learning. There is the potential for the horse’s spiral, and ours, to combine. Oddly enough (or perhaps not), this appears elsewhere in nature, as a DNA helix. I thought it a useful image for what happens when we combine our talents with those of our horse.
Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to learn the power of combined talents, along with the power of potential, from our horse Rusty.
Soon after he was dropped off at our place, we could tell that there was more going on than standard fatigue. Over the next several months, he was aloof, couldn’t be caught, and when he was, submitted to our care or being ridden with an air of defensive resignation that was painful to witness.
After we had traveled with him for a year (during which we had helped him feel better physically by balancing his feet, body and teeth), we turned him out on a 35 acre pasture for the winter. We were hopeful that a human-free, six month rest would recharge him.
It turned out that he had eight months off, before Mark and I loaded him up and hauled him to a series of clinics in California. He was less worried, and catching him was easier, but he still didn’t interact with us much.
Because he was having trouble keeping weight on, I started hanging a hay net in front of him while he was standing tied throughout the day. I found a feed he really liked, and started mixing herbs and supplements that would help his stomach. I noticed he was pretty thin skinned and sensitive to grooming, so I only used rubber currys and soft brushes on him. At first, his work day was about half an hour of riding, with a whole lot of eating. As the weeks went by, our saddle time and his eating time balanced out.
At our last clinic in California, his eyes were bright, and his ears forward. His muzzle, once jammed up and wrinkled, had softened and relaxed.
We were getting to know one another. A horse who I, at first, sought to help because it seemed like he needed it, was quickly becoming a good friend.
Up to this point, we had been working on him being able to carry himself with his head down, and doing a relaxed walk and trot. I had also been asking him to respond to the internal cues I was offering, instead of having to use a lot of leg or rein cues. He was opening up, and our time together was not only easy, but peaceful. I had a sense that Rusty was almost ready to show me who he was. Almost.
On the last day of the clinic, Rusty was feeling settled at the halt, walk and trot. Once we were in the trot, I thought about cantering with him, and offered a change of rhythm in myself first (going from the two beat of a trot, to the three beat of the canter). He tensed a little bit at this, and rushed through his trot. I breathed more deeply and switched from a sitting trot to a relaxed posting trot. We did this for another lap, and I asked for the three beat again, this time using a bigger exhale, and a tiny bit of leg against his side. He rolled into an easy canter, with the kind of energy that makes a lap around an arena a short trip. He never got faster, but the canter got more powerful. It was as though he had rediscovered how to use his body. It even felt like he was enjoying it.
We cantered for another couple of laps before we changed to the four beat of a walk. When we stopped, although he was breathing hard, he was quiet and there wasn’t much pressure on the reins.
I dismounted, patted him on the neck, then sat down so we could both digest what just happened. When I was seated, Rusty walked slowly over to me, and stood napping with his head over my lap.
As I sat with the sun warming my back, it hadn’t escaped me that I needed the help too. And like good friends do, Rusty had offered his help. He had shown me what it is like to break through an internal barrier – and what life felt like when once unburdened by the drag of past hardships.
We walk, we trot we canter. We can focus on the doing-ness (walk, trot canter, etc), or we can focus on the we-ness.
Either way, our horses will do just about anything we ask – their nature allows for this. But a horse doing something with just their bodies is a far cry from a horse doing something from their heart.
The same could be said of us.
I see Mark’s face, telling me to wake up. The ground is warm and so is the air, and I wonder how it was that I went to sleep last night and woke up fully dressed in the middle of the afternoon. On the ground.
I ask what happened, and am told that my horse, Bree, flipped over backward and landed on me, crushing my right leg underneath her, and then stepping on my right thigh in her panic to get up.
After that, the memories are snapshots: I’m in our truck, being driven to the hospital. I’m sitting up in the back seat because lying down makes me nauseated. I’m looking at email on my phone, making sure I know the names of the people I see, making sure I can still read.
At the hospital and after the drugs, I’m in and out of consciousness. I know Mark is with me. I know when I am being scanned, because the tables are cold and hard. At one point I start crying and shaking. I’m offered a blanket, but I know this is the shock finally coming home to roost. The shaking and trembling ebb and flow, then disappear.
Snapshot: a young male doctor telling me I have a small bleed in my brain and I’m staying over night in the hospital. Then a sedative through my IV line knocks me out again.
Once out of the hospital, it’s three months before I can walk without a cane. It’s another year before the pain in my right thigh has receded to a manageable level. Two-and-a-half years later, I’m physically stabilized and used to the quirks of my right leg which – thanks to localized nerve damage – occasionally goes rogue.
Although I was able to move almost immediately after getting out of the hospital (often getting up in the middle of the night to pace back and forth), sustained movement – the kind that made me breathe deeply – wasn’t possible for months.
During those months, I knew what I needed to do. But knowing what you need to do, and being able (and even more difficult, willing) to do it are two different beasts. If I wanted to ride again, my commitment to healing had to be at least as great as my commitment to horses.
Since my accident, I’ve discovered that the way I get back to feeling less fearful of horses, is to do most of the work away from horses. In the months after the accident, it became clear to me that the paradox of loving horses since I was in diapers, while simultaneously feeling a fear around them that bordered on overwhelming, was one I couldn’t navigate by myself. My days of rabid independence were over.
Living with paradox is not something we are good at. Horses absolutely don’t tolerate it, and are far more honest in their expression of this intolerance than we are. One of the many lessons I am grateful to have learned from horses is just this: either do one thing or do the other.
If I wanted to feel afraid and avoid the work that would alleviate that, then I needed to choose that.
However, if I wanted to reduce the feelings of fear and find out how far down the road to confidence I could get, I could do that too.
But not both.
So I chose to see if I could get close to confidence again. No healing modality was ruled out. Acupuncture, Craniosacral, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, massage therapy, Reiki, castor oil packs, lasers, hydrotherapy, homeopathy, essential oils, physical therapy, loving and generous support from family and friends, swimming, regular check-in’s with my doctor, diet and supplementation were all on my play list. This exploration was integral to regaining function of my right leg, as well as in helping my brain heal.
Six months later in physical therapy, jogging slowly on a treadmill for the first time, I realized I had more work to do when intense fear washed over me, and I started shaking. I grabbed the handrails at the side, the sweat of my palms slicking the metal, and kept jogging. I breathed as best I could. After several minutes, I felt calmer than I had in months.
After that, I walked briskly or ran every day. It was never very far, but I could wring out enough speed to make it effective. The movement reset my breathing. It shifted from shallow and fast to deep and regular. For hours afterward, I felt calm and internally balanced.
Before this accident, I had come off of horses. A lot. The first thing I always did was get right back on and ride through it. Except, it turns out, I was never “through it.” Years later, this accident broke the dam I’d built against fear. The resulting flood changed my interior landscape, and I had to figure out how to channel the water, rather than fight to dam it up. My old strategies weren’t going to work, which meant that I had to.
Movement, and deep breathing, turned out to be a life raft that buoyed me during the flood. All the other therapies I pursued were arrayed around moving and breathing.
Let me say at this point that I don’t believe everyone has to follow the same map, since there are many many ways to heal. What I am suggesting, and what I’ve learned is that if you observe a few basic principles, you will, at the very least, feel better.
It’s a simple recipe, but certainly not an easy one. Moving after we heal from being hurt, and digging around in the dark corners of our own mind is not the definition of fun, but it has a payoff that will surprise you with its richness.
I like to think of it this way. Elizabeth Gilbert says, “Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something like having a border collie for a pet: it needs work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble.”
We could replace “a creative mind” with “a fearful mind” and still have an accurate metaphor. I’ve learned the hard way that if we don’t look at fear, and have a plan to address it, it will cause an outrageous amount of trouble. The trouble fear creates is sneaky, a chameleon. It shows up as impatience (with other people, for example, and certainly with ourselves), it shows up as despondence, it shows up as giving up easily. It changes color as it makes its way from inside of you into the world, and is as varied as each of us are.
While we may think we are suffering from too much fear, what we are in fact suffering from, is an inability to channel it. We are afraid of fear itself, preferring to shove it under the cognitive rug, and hope that it goes away. This isn’t a character flaw – it’s an evolutionary design that has kept humans alive for millennia.
If we don’t give our fear a job, if we can’t find ways to engage its message to remain safe and alive, it will run wild in our inner house like a bored border collie. Fear will exercise itself, and anyone who’s experienced this knows that’s not good news.
The inherent vitality of movement and using your body in different ways (hence the transformative power of yoga, qi gong, dancing, etc), is a cornerstone to reducing anxiety and fear. If you doubt this, I invite you to do an experiment. The next time you feel afraid, or anxious, as soon as you can, walk. Go up and down stairs. Jump rope (personally, I haven’t done this since I was a kid, but I’m thinking it’s time to change that). Lift weights. Wave your arms. Do a dance. Something! Move in some way, for as long as you need to, and then see how you feel.
Movement is vital to feeling alive and experiencing ourselves in new ways. Ways that anchor and reconnect us not only to ourselves, but to all of life.
With some movement and deep breathing, along with help from skilled and compassionate people, it’s possible to start feeling better. One of those compassionate people, by the way, is yourself. Because, after all, we aren’t broken vessels to be repaired, but rather treasure maps to be explored.