I went to a day long retreat recently. An opportunity to chat with one of the speakers came up, so I approached him and introduced myself, letting him know how much I appreciated his work. We got to talking about the words people use to describe his work, and him. His easy laughter and chagrin at some of the terms was plain. We both shared thoughts about how such labels, while on one level helpful, could also be limiting. Toward the end of our conversation I remarked, “We have to use labels, because it certainly isn’t enough to just be a human being!”
I’ve rolled that around in my head for a couple of months now, this idea that we enforce on ourselves (and perhaps by proxy, all others who come into contact with us) the idea is that being human is not enough. We have to be this person with that talent doing this incredible thing while striving to stay ahead of what ever curve it is we measure ourselves by. This can extend to our horses too: they are not just horses, they are breeds, disciplines, trophy, money and award winners, therapists, best friends, teachers. The way I see it, labels are neither bad nor good. I think sometimes that they are also like driving on ice: one quick turn of the wheel and we are in the ditch.
Of course it is fun to do things with horses! Of course we like challenges and improving our skills with horses. Of course they can be our friends, teachers and confidants. All of that and more! At the end of the day though, they are horses, just as we are humans. In my personal experience, the letting go of labels (in as much as we can) brings a certain quality to our interactions with others and our horses. Striving to see things as they are by its very nature depressurizes most situations. It can mean the difference between fighting with a “stubborn” or “resistant” or “lazy” horse, and clearly communicating what we’d like to a horse who is otherwise unclear about our request. Once we see things as they are, we can interact with them in a way that is not about seeing things as we wish them to be.
I’ve seen Thoroughbred racehorses who didn’t like to run. Warmbloods who were happier out on the trail than in an arena. Quarter horses who loved to jump, Arabians who excelled at working cattle. I’ve seen gaited horses who were talented pacers, and child-sized ponies who could jump higher than many taller horses. My point is that despite our labeling a horse as anything, they are so much more than that. Sometimes we recognize this, and sometimes it takes a horse (or several, in my case) to jar us out of our tight-fisted, white-knuckled grip on a label.
Horses are many things to many people. By no means have I seen it all when it comes to horse/human interactions, but I’ve seen enough to say with confidence that when we can treat our horses as they are, things usually go pretty well.
Many years ago now, I was helping out at one of Mark’s clinics and I said to him with no small amount of frustration how the horse I had brought with me was 15 years old and he should know how to be bridled by now. Mark paused and remarked, “Maybe if you treat him like he doesn’t know, instead of treating him like he’s fifteen it might go better.” That was the beginning of my grip starting to loosen, because sure enough, once I calmed down and helped my horse understand, we stopped fighting and things got easy. Lesson: confusion doesn’t know how old you are.
I guess in a way it’s like traveling back to when I was twelve. Grooming a horse or riding a horse – any horse – felt the same to me. Joyful. As I got older, I did my share of competing (whether I was in a show or not), my share of pressuring a horse to be something different from what they were. My share of agonizing over and struggling with how to get my horse to do something I felt was very important. Perhaps it is a by-product of getting older and working so closely with them, but these days I feel as though I’m still that pig-tailed girl, who is giddy just hanging around a horse.
(Below: a torn out page from my journal when I was twelve. It says, “I cantered.” )
After 28 years away from playing music, I decided to start practicing the violin again. This morning I was working on some drills for moving the bow across the strings at different speeds. I’ve always practiced these techniques slowly, and increased the speed as it felt more comfortable. Every day for the last two months, I’ve practiced. I’ve felt my shoulders lock, my wrists get stiff, my breathing stop and that sneaky mean low down nasty little voice we all have say – “This is too difficult!” and “You sound atrocious!”
This morning, I started on the bowing drills. Again. Something clicked and all of a sudden I was bowing like top notch fiddle player, the violin echoing in a machine gun barrage of unstoppable notes.
I laughed. And then I put my violin away.
The thing that got me thinking was, we could apply this same commitment to doing things mindfully with our horses.
Horses are masters of movement pretty much from the time they are born. Sidepassing? No problem. Roll backs? Childs play! Capriole (a movement where the horse leaps into the air and kicks out with their hind legs)? Piece of cake. Flying lead changes? Easy peasy.
It is only when we get involved with horses that things can get a little more difficult. Sidepasses, roll backs, flying lead changes – even just backing up – can all feel heavy and difficult and like a ton of effort.
I have seen that when we are able to make a couple of small adjustments, things get easier. The first adjustment is breaking things down into smaller chunks (this is for both the human and the horse’s benefit). The second adjustment is creating a drill of sorts; something we can do with (and without) our horse over and over until both of our bodies sync up and the movement almost happens of it’s own accord. Then the drill disappears.
This is the value of finding an instructor / horse trainer who can guide you through these drills and give you the feel of them.
The rest is up to you.
You get to choose how much to practice, how often to practice, and if that practice is of importance to you. This is why you will often hear Mark and I say that in order to get your horse going more softly, you need to find ways to go more softly yourself. Can you drive softly (i.e. breathing, letting go of the competitive mindset, letting go of your white knuckles on the steering wheel, etc), can you go through the activities of your day with your breath and awareness of each moment more intact? Can you groom and touch your horse with focus and the intent to be soft?
More importantly, can you put that sneaky low down mean little voice in the backseat as you make mistakes, have difficult days, feel like this fumbling will never end?
I believe you can.
Trust can be a sticky and complicated thing. Or, once examined, it seem deceptively simple.
When I was younger, trust was a make-or-break thing. Others had to prove themselves to me in order for me to extend it to them. If my trust was shaken, I ran for the hills, stepping away from friendships and relationships because of what I perceived to be violations of trust. Now that I’m older, I recognize that there were times when I was untrustworthy myself. If we’re lucky, time plus experience gives us clearer vision.
Where does our friend the horse fit into this “trust” thing? Many training techniques do a good job of working with the ways horses learn, and most involve gaining a horse’s trust. But I think we can mistake a lot of what horses do as reflections of their trust (or lack of trust) in us.
Not that they are incapable of feeling trust or of being trustworthy—not at all! But on a day-to-day basis, I believe, horses are just looking to get along. They will do what they’re asked the best they know how in order to get through another day in, what must be to them, quite a wacky place. In other words, compliance is not the same as trust.
As a trainer and instructor who also gives clinics with my husband, I have the good fortune to be in a position to witness, experience, and feel some amazing breakthroughs between horses and their humans. I hear stories from many folks who have experienced things with their own horses that are powerful and beautiful and wild and unexplainable. I have similar stories as well.
Let’s rewind a bit.
For the past decade or so, I have been working on learning how to trust myself. Trust is what I realized I was gaining in the years I trained in the martial art of Aikido. As my confidence in my ability to protect myself grew, so did the trust in myself. Aikido also taught me how to most effectively use my body in falls and rolls, which was a plus each time I came off a horse (rider error each time!).
Trust also informs my work as an instructor. I trust that I will be able to help a horse and his or her person so that at the very least, they feel better. I trust myself to handle a myriad of situations. I also trust myself to communicate effectively so that what I’m trying to share gets across. I don’t get it right all the time, but a foundation of trusting myself to handle most things has brought an internal peace of mind.
The crux of all of this is that unless you trust yourself—who you are, what you do, the choices you make, and how you shape your life—you cannot truly trust anyone else (human or horse included).
Humans and horses are, after all, going to be and do and say and act in ways unpredictable. However, when we trust ourselves, what others do or say doesn’t have the traction it used to. As I work on increasing my self-trust, my requirement that others show up as absolutely trustworthy (which I now know means predictable) has softened.
I don’t believe that we can ever fully, truly, empirically know what is going on inside of another being—human, horse, sparrow, or jellyfish. We can make educated guesses based on patterns of behavior (or in our own species’ case, dialogue), and we can feel things energetically, a kind of “knowing but not knowing how you know.” But absolutely, positively know? Probably not.
Asking and having a horse trust us is one of the holy grails of horsemanship for good reason: they’re very large animals with one of the fastest reaction times on the planet. They’re also powerful and can move in several directions—sometimes simultaneously, it seems. So a trusting horse is usually a calmer horse and by definition, a safer horse to ride and be around.
Sometimes though, in our pursuit of that holy grail, I think we get into a bit of a rut. We measure ourselves (and certainly our horses) by how trusting they are, or are not. It becomes this nagging worry: does my horse trust me? How can I get my horse to trust me more? What do I need to do, who do I need to see, how do I need to ride, how can I better take care of them? You get the idea. Pretty soon, it can spin off into wild places – places that bog us down and then where do we go, once we are at a standstill?
As humans, we are incredibly focused on exteriors. It’s only when we take time to examine what lives inside us that we perhaps find gaps in our own trust of ourselves. It’s understandable that gaining a horse’s trust can be an affirmation, a way to bridge a gap we may have in trusting ourselves. Who hasn’t felt better because a horse first gave something to us, and then felt better again when we gave something back?
When we are around a horse who trusts us (and whom we trust), there is a palpable sense of heart expansion. Of feeling that all is well. Even if the rest of our lives are crumbling around our boots, being in the presence of a beloved horse (well, for us folks of the horsey persuasion, just about any horse) can reassure us and give us a place to feel the ground under our feet and a renewed sense of strength. But even this good stuff can create a place where pressure can build. We put pressure on ourselves to achieve that goal, and we inadvertently put pressure on the horse to start trusting. It may be a subtle or quiet pressure, but it’s still pressure.
If we strive to establish trust, if it’s our main focus, we sometimes not only miss a bunch of good stuff the horse may offer, but also, may mistake compliance, dissociation, or lack of movement for trust. Then, when things go haywire—or as my UK friends like to say, “pear-shaped”—we’re at a loss as to what happened.
Here’s the bare bones of it, from my perspective. I’ve found that if I focus on how I can more fully trust myself, whether my horse trusts me or not becomes less of an urgent issue. This, in turn, drops the pressure across the board. I would like my horse to feel good about what we’re doing. I’d like her to understand it fully. I’d like her to be physically and mentally comfortable.
But whether she trusts me or not is, after all, not up to me. That’s a state each horse (or human) must come to themselves. Whether it’s self-achieved or granted to us by our horse, trust is a way of going through our lives. It can’t be forced. And the guardianship of the trust with which the horse gifts us (just as the guardianship of trust in ourselves) is a daily practice.
One of my fundamental operating principles is that if the horse feels good about our interactions, then so do I. I will spend the rest of my days finding out how to present and teach so that I least interfere with a horse’s capacity to feel good—quieter, more at peace, and less worried about life in general.
Life has a way of answering questions in ways that are completely surprising. I’ve been trying to write my thoughts down about resistance and horses for months. Never really liked any of it, couldn’t find a flow, a theme, a clear way to put into words what I was feeling. Then earlier this month, something happened that unleashed the words, though I wouldn’t want to go through it again nor would I wish it on anyone else, horse or human.
It only took my horse falling on me to now understand that “resistance” is a completely human concept.
I’ll return to that story in a moment.
What is clear to me now (post accident) is that horses will do things because they don’t understand, because they are avoiding pain (or experiencing pain), because they are afraid or worried or tired. If we feel what we know as resistance, it is because we are bringing it to the horse, and re-interpreting it in the only way we, as humans, can understand. For horses, there is no such thing as what we would call “resistance.” None.
The delicious thing about this horsemanship journey we choose is the chance to move beyond human perceptions, human imaginings and human ways of doing things into a completely different world. The horse, a creature whose nature is water embodied, will almost always flow in the path of least resistance. They are the stream, and (without meaning to) we are the rocks around which they flow. I believe, have felt and seen and witnessed so many beautiful moments when horse and human are both rivers, blending their movements together to create a living picture of harmony. And isn’t that one of the many reasons we love horses: to experience moments that allow us to get out of ourselves, and see the world from their perspective?
So if horses choose the path of least resistance, and yet they do things that (to us) are unexpected or contrary to our own wishes, what is going on?
Here’s an example (saying that the horse, to our knowledge, is not having any physical issues, the saddle and tack fits, teeth are balanced and his feet are taken care of appropriately): a rider asks his/her horse to go from walk to trot. There’s a tail swish, a pin of the ears, and an abrupt transition after the rider has to apply a lot of force with their legs. Once in the trot, it is rough, without rhythm, and the horse keeps trying to get back to the walk, while the rider uses their legs to keep him trotting.
Again, if we feel what we would call “resistance,” it is because we are bringing it to the horse. What is meant by that statement is this: either our bodies (the outside of us) or our emotions/thoughts/intent (the inside of us) close and create a sort of roadblock the horse now has to get around. This would be a case of being the rock in the stream. Usually the rider, either through learned habit or unintentionally, will tighten the outside of the body in preparation for the transition. The usual spots we go to are the lower back and shoulders. The extremities can join the party too, until our whole body is locked, and we are saying “go faster!” to our horse. These are two separate and distinct messages to our horse, who now has to stiffen his body (in response to our stiffness) but move freely at the same time.
The part of us that wants to go from walk to trot (the inside of us) will sometimes follow our body. In other words, our focus goes from “my horse is walking,” to “I want my horse to trot.” I’ve seen, probably thousands of times, riders freeze on the inside. This is most apparent because the rider momentarily stops breathing. I often joke that somewhere buried in the dark little ancient part of our brain, is a voice that is saying “riding something this big and this fast is reeeeaally risky!” It’s only kind of a joke though. After talking to many riders, and witnessing the many ways they use their bodies in a transition, it occurs to me that somewhere in us we go from “Let’s trot,” to “uh-oh!” to “Whew! That went well.” to “Why isn’t my horse trotting more smoothly?” etc.
This happens, of course, without our being aware of it. And, we can also see the disconnect in the languaging. It is all about what the rider wants the horse to do. There’s nothing wrong with this, and we aren’t bad people if we fall into this habit. But one of the things we are looking to do is take away the rocks in the stream, to open things up a little. One of the ways to do this is to think about how “we” (my horse and I) can move into a different rhythm, the trot.
So here’s a different scenario: the rider takes a deep breath in, and exhales while thinking, “WE are trotting now,” then applies a cue with their relaxed legs, if needed. The rider will keep this pattern going until he/she and the horse are doing the same thing (trotting – for the rider this will be focusing on trotting with their intent, for the horse this will be the inside and outside of them trotting), at the same time, with a sense of relaxation and openness.
For that is the opposite of resistance (in our world). Openness. If we can’tpresent openness to our horse, it’s going to make it very difficult for our horse to find it (not that they can’t, it just complicates things). It becomes about how do we open into each request, from the outside and the inside of us.
If there isn’t any resistance in the human, it is much easier for the horse to relax into what ever request the rider makes. This is the good news/bad news part – presenting tension equals tension from the horse. Presenting relaxation equals the horse relaxing.
Keep in mind, please, that if you and your horse have a long-standing history of doing things a certain way, changing it will take a bit of time, a bit of patience, and a bit of a spirit of exploration and discovery.
Back to the accident, if you want to call it that. Personally, it feels to me more like an awakening.
My mare Bree and I were getting ready for a trail ride with Mark and some friends of ours. Over the past three years, I had been rehabilitating Bree and taking it even more slowly than I normally do. Occasionally after being girthed (always slowly), her hind end would collapse, she would flip over backwards, and then scramble to get up. I wasn’t ever on her when this happened, and it hadn’t happened in over a year. I thought we had found a way to eliminate the issue through a combination of treating her for some physical issues with both veterinarians and different bodywork modalities, diet, lifestyle management, and my own focus on keeping the saddling process low stress and let her move-literally-through it. Once I was on her back and we were moving, she was fantastic; agreeable, soft, willing.
On this warm day, she fell again, but this time I was on her. And we were standing still.
I was instantly knocked unconscious, and landed to the left of my horse as she fell to the right. My right thigh was hit first by the cantle of the saddle, and then her hoof as she scrambled to get up.
The details of that day, and my recovery and healing since, don’t need to be addressed here, except to say that I know how fortunate I am, and I am still experiencing a vast sense of gratitude and joy at being alive.
As my brain has started to return to it’s normal functioning, I also realized that writing about resistance has felt, well, less resistant! The fall my horse and I took, after believing that we had found the right combination of things to help her, has only served to underscore for me, emphatically, that to take anything for granted (good stuff or difficult stuff) is blindness and blaming someone or something else is pointless. Neither my horse nor I are at fault – my wise Mom said, “Sometimes you do everything right, and it all still falls apart. That’s life.”
So what does this all have to do with resistance? This is what I’ve understood since my return from the hospital (with thankfully nothing more than a concussion and soft tissue damage to my right thigh). We spend a lot of our lives saying “No.” Now, saying “No,” is also completely ok – in fact healthy. Resistance is also healthy – think Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or the women’s Suffrage movement. What I am speaking of here is our habit of giving a negative answer, or a negative outlook, or a negative thought without examination – almost as a way of life.
If we’re not careful our horsemanship (and our life) can become a litany of No’s and Don’t Do That’s. “Don’t pull on the bit, don’t fall in on the circle, don’t anticipate me, don’t canter when I want a walk, don’t pin your ears, don’t don’t don’t.” This isn’t necessarily bad or good…but what it can do is add another rock to that stream. Add enough rocks, and the stream gets diverted. It goes somewhere else.
What if we were, instead, to focus on being more open ourselves, and helping our horse through troublesome spots? What if we could lay to rest this notion that it is us against them (whether horse, spouse, friend, dog, neighbor, etc)? Our horses may be giving us the perfect opportunity to examine such things, while at the same time helping them (and us!) to feel better about what ever it is we are doing. I’ll give an example.
When I was in the hospital, a lot of tests were run. Everyone was very kind, and caring. But I was scared, and in pain, and drug hazy. Vulnerable. An uncomfortable feeling for most of us, I think. For what ever reason – probably all listed above – I accepted what the doctors and Mark were telling me, and thanked everyone for their care. I couldn’t stop voicing my gratitude, even when crying with pain and fear. I couldn’t resist – simply because my body and mind could not.
I’ve discovered that my tenacious grip on my own independence was the first thing to go. I couldn’t resist help, because I wasn’t in a position to do so. As I got better at resisting help less, I noticed a funny thing. Peace of mind. People (especially Mark, who has been with me from the beginning of this adventure) are generous, and genuinely desire to help others feel better. As I was helped with such generosity, my grip on my belief of “I can do it myself!” loosened. As this part of me loosened, I began to relax. My pain was manageable. I felt happier, at ease and grateful for all the support reaching out to me.
That sense of less resistance has continued. Less busy mind, less judgement, less tendency to jump into my comfort zone and defend it. It’s not gone, but it’s less. And I have to say, living with less resistance inside of myself is a pretty ok thing.
Our pliability, our commitment to relaxing inside and out, in tandem with helping our horse to feel better, will equal a river that flows easily around what ever obstacles are in it’s path. This is harmony. This is flow. This, in my opinion, is the world of the horse.
Before sharing some ideas about the myth of horses being barn sour, let’s revisit the context in which we are using the word “myth.” We are scrutinizing commonly held perceptions and/or beliefs under the magnifying glass of inquiry. What do the things we say mean and how do they affect our relationship with our horses? It is through honest, unbiased reflection that we can start to untangle some of the myths surrounding horsemanship. We have the opportunity, with each interaction, to reach out to horses in understanding, instead of with habits or because someone else passed along their own beliefs to us.
Myth Number Two:
“My horse is barn sour.”
It had become a recurring pattern: I put my leg on to the horse’s side, and he would rear up. I would spin him in a circle, and kick again, and up he would go. Maybe spinning the other direction will work? Kicking harder? Up he’d go, walking backward and flailing his front legs.
I had bought the Missouri Foxtrotter gelding to retrain (knowing that he reared) and sell, and although I had tried everything I knew, we were no more than fifty feet from the barn. As we stood in the middle of the dirt road, the sun highlighting his gray dappled and sweaty neck, I thought back to the past months, and how many things I had tried (with sporadic success) to get this horse to go out on the trail. We could do it, eventually, but always with the same beginning. How was I going to sell him as a trail horse, if he was so barn sour?
If we’ve been involved with horses for even a short amount of time, we have either said or heard, “My horse is barn sour.” Boiled down, it means that where the horse lives they act in a calm and agreeable way. When they leave that place and we take them somewhere that is not familiar, they act in ways we don’t much like (or understand).
Horses look for a release from pressure, and the quiet state of mind that follows. Going away from familiar environs causes an increase in internal pressure, whereas going back to somewhere they know will decrease that pressure. In addition, returning from any kind of activity to an area where they are tied up, untacked, rested, then turned out into a familiar place with their herd mates is an incredibly large release. If we add a poorly fitting saddle, teeth that aren’t balanced (so a bit in the horse’s mouth may be uncomfortable), feet that aren’t sound, etc the release from being ridden becomes that much more amplified. It’s not any wonder they are in such a rush to get back to the barn (or the horse trailer).
It’s perhaps a difficult truth to look at, but when we say that our horse is barn sour, it lets us off the hook and pins the blame on the horse. That’s the first part of this myth.
I experienced the second part of this myth while doing an exercise in one of Mark Rashid’s Aikido For Horseman workshops. The second part of this myth is that “barn sour” has nothing to do with a horse acting out. Disorientation, however, does.
For example, when you go to an unfamiliar state or country, you may feel disoriented. As humans, we have the advantages of relying on maps, GPS, or local people to help guide us. Horses, who live by hearing, sight, smell and the feel of the surface underneath four feet (as opposed to two) receive their information differently. Every time we take them away from what is familiar, they will experience (to varying degrees) a rise in emotion. We are no different; when disoriented or lost we may feel mentally foggy, become worried, not know which way to turn, feel uneasy, or become anxious. The difference is that we can use our neocortex (the newest part of our brain to have evolved) to formulate a plan that will calm some of those emotions down.
Horses, on the other hand, will act the way they feel. There will be some sign, no matter how small, that they experiencing a sense of worry when we take them away from their known environment. Looking at the horse as “barn sour,” “spoiled,” or even “spooky” closes the door on an opportunity to see beyond the behavior to what the horse may be trying to communicate.
At that moment, I decided to go back to the beginning. I rode the gelding down the driveway, returning to the barn. Before he could stop, I asked him to turn and walk up the driveway, toward the road. At the end of the driveway, we turned again toward the barn, and after going most of the way there, we turned again and walked toward the road. This time, we went to the road, then turned and walked toward the barn. Over the course of the next hour, we alternated walking toward the barn, and then down the road, each time getting farther away, and further down the trail. By the end of our time together that day, I could ask him to walk faster away from the barn, without him rearing up. Once we were at the farthest point from the barn, I dismounted, patting his now dry neck, and lead him back.
Over time with Jack (the rearing gelding), I researched saddles and saddle fit, made sure his feet were balanced, had chiropractic and massage given to him, and balanced his diet. I rode in or attended horsemanship seminars and clinics to better improve my skill. After six months, Jack and I could ride down the trail together quietly and the rearing disappeared. He became my best trail horse, and for 18 more years we rode everywhere we could. At the time, the experiences he shared with me were doorways through which I learned how to better understand him, and other horses as well. Now, I see that all along he was trying to tell me, in the only way he could, that all he needed was time to figure out where he was.
Next month, check back in for a discussion of Myth number three: “My horse is resistant.”