Getting Happy About What You Don’t Know.

WMClaraKariMost of us started as back yard riders. No shame, we were kids, we climbed up and rode. When we fell off, we climbed up and rode some more. I must have known there was tack, I watched westerns on TV after all, but we didn’t own any. We thought you kicked a horse to make him trot and if you wanted to canter, you kicked even harder, and maybe flung yourself forward while pulling up on his face. No, not pretty but we all had to start somewhere and our horses taught us to ride better. Some of us took the cue with more grace than others -and when we knew better, we did better. Some of us were more defensive and adversarial; we enjoyed the drama and adrenaline of a fight. Do you know someone like that? The other word for it is Bully.

Learning is a vulnerable position. It involves listening with an open mind and a willingness to consider the big picture. Learning is a desire to look past the surface of how things work to the inner-relationship of the parts, to reason and creatively participate. Learning while sitting on top of a thousand pound horse, who has thoughts and emotions of his own, complicates things.

It’s easy to have sensory overwhelm in the saddle, and tell our brains to shut down the information intake. In riding, an over-controlling or closed mind is the enemy of sensitivity. It takes us out of the conversation with the horse in the moment and into a conversation with our own brains about the horse. It’s a huge difference; it’s going from talking to them to talking about them. We want to balance on the tight wire between sensing physically and thinking emotionally. It’s the difference between responding and reacting; one is inclusive and one is defensive. Did I mention that this is only a tight wire wide?

Here is where I remind you riding is an art. It’s supposed to be challenging.

At the same time, some of us think that leadership is about domination. I understand the attraction to this sort of training. It’s black and white. The rider has control by using dominance to correct what is already in the past.

Example: The horse is tossing his head, so she pulls on his face. He pulls more, so she bumps with the bit. He flinches, his poll gets tense, and he pushes for some relief. Metal on bone, she corrects his face with aggressive hands. Each toss gets more tense, each correction more punishing. She’s stopped listening to her horse, now he’s getting a lesson in fight and resistance. And us humans have an innate urge to dominate, maybe even more so when we’re intimidated. It feels like a natural response. How is this working?

In training there is a movement to change the word submission to coöperation. Great idea!

“You don’t make him learn, you set it up to allow him to learn. You have to give him that with dignity. Once you start giving, you won’t believe how much you get back.” Ray Hunt, dressage master in different tack.

In the same example, if the rider comes from a standpoint of learning, being open with her senses, the conversation can take place in the present. Rather than correcting the last mistake, the horse/rider can negotiate. If the horse tugs, you might be reminded that your hand has become set, you can take the cue to follow his movement better, encouraging the horse to move forward more. It stops being black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. Instead the lines become more flexible, senses more aware and both minds are open communicating. This is the exact spot that brilliance is possible. Art can happen. In this place, vulnerability is our greatest strength; a positive willingness to let the horse to do what we ask.

Again, most of us started in our backyards. We didn’t know how much we didn’t know. We just wanted to ride. If we kept at it, we looked for markers of our skill. Here’s my rule of thumb: A rider who thinks they are right is a rank beginner. A master in the saddle is one who is vulnerable to learning:

It was noted that Nuno Oliveira, the Portuguese Master, rode very hunched over during the last years of his life and yet he became a better rider, his horses were also more relaxed and brilliant. He remarked that it was a pity that his back was giving up “because it is now that I am beginning to learn how to ride a horse.”

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

18 thoughts on “Getting Happy About What You Don’t Know.

  1. Eloquent. You are who I think of when I hear about horse whisperers. Your analogies to bullies and leadership and art make it clear you love learning from your horses. Good post anytime, but nicely timed for the Preakness, will you be watching?

    1. Thank you, you flatter my teachers out in the barn. As for the Preakness, Saturdays are big work days for me, and I struggle some with the racing industry… I will be happy training instead.

      1. Racing always makes me cry, with joy and admiration, and horror and dismay. Emotions run amok! Jann, too bad we can’t have lunch… we have more in common than you know.

  2. Few days ago I wrote a post on my German horse blog that touches the same topic. I wanted to ride the rectangle pattern of Buck Brannaman (10 steps forwards, 5 sideways, 10 backwards, 5 sideways in the other direction so you end up where you started). I screwed it badly. And I was about to reinforce my aids when I became aware of the ears of the horse. Backwards to me, listening, revealing a willing and obedient mind (and unmasking a sour “I will make you” attitude on my part). Quite humbling. So I thought about it and tried to analyze what exactly I did that prevented my horse from successfully walking through that pattern. Still trying to figure it out. This is where the black and white vs an approach that knows more shades of colors comes in that you are writing about.
    Can you elaborate for me what you mean by “tight wire between sensing physically and thinking emotionally”. I can’t wrap my mind around thinking emotionally. Thanks in advance!

    1. Okay, I can’t see the two of you, so I will make up a picture in my head and it might be wrong… words are deceptive. Here is what my intuition says: I think your ‘I will make you” attitude is a kind of Emotional thinking. As you are riding this exercise, rest the brain chatter and just feel the response, put your brain in you seat, in a manner of speaking… and feel your horse’s balance, stay in a clean position on your horse and stay in the present moment: more feeling and less thinking. I think you may be going too fast. Take this exercise and ask for one step at a time, and say thank you. Cut it into bite size pieces and know that it will be some time before these movement are seamless. So slowly string the steps together like pearls on a string…

      Did I visualize it right? Let me know how it goes.

      1. You got it! What safed me and the horse in the end was really talking it slow, step by step (and riding bareback which delivers more feel). And scaling the expectations down as you suggested – I am not Buck Brannaman and it will take us a while to get it smoothly (where I wanted to get it now, now, now!). I also added some preparation from the ground with two poles to check out if he was fine with going sideways along a pole and to give him some guidance. It also showed me where he had trouble so I could already fix it on the ground. Additionally he was confused about the rein aids. But we are figuring it out and getting there. Thanks for your helpful advice!

  3. Sandra Murray

    Oh, yes, Anna! When I arrive in Heaven, I want to look up every horse that I’ve owned and apologize for my ignorance and insensitivity. Horses are forgiving, so they certainly already have forgiven me, but I still need to apologize.

    The Ray Hunt quote is perfect! Points out that no matter the tack or the apparel, good horsemanship is good horsemanship, period.

    Great blog, Anna. Thanks for reminding us what a gift vulnerability is.

  4. I was recently thinking about the difference between dominance and leadership myself! If only dressage score sheets and criteria asked for co-operation rather than submission. Language is a delicate thing and we must use it carefully. Thanks for posting 🙂

  5. ktcorey@reagan.com

    I feel so not worthy as a rider/equestrian and budding dressage rider sometimes. May I continue to learn under your wonderful training. By the way, I still feel inadequate when I ride, but I am willing to be humble and learn to be a better “subtler” rider for Jackie, my plump little angel.

    This is a great blog, my friend!

    1. You are wrong, you are totally her match and very worthy. Your mule, the smartest equine I know, knows how much you want to get it right. She hears you every time you tell her she’s perfect.

  6. Pingback: Is it OK to ride? | The Spoken Horse

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