Does anyone think they can hide their feelings from their horse? Even for a minute?
A horse’s physical awareness is so acute that they seem intuitive. Most of us think our horses are psychic because it’s easier to believe than how limited our own senses are.
Compared to prey animals, we’re slow-witted. Don’t feel bad about it. We’ve got lots of skills. We have an intellect that can remember the past and dream of the future; we have the ability to reason and think creatively. We can daydream. Of course none of these mental skills are much help on top of a horse, who remains constantly awake in the moment. Meaning that knowing technique and communicating with the horse are two very different things. It’s what makes marginal riders into opinionated rail birds.
But we want to improve, so we read a book or twenty. Maybe we spend hours watching videos on YouTube, or investing in riding lessons. Meanwhile your horse is still in the present, sensing the environment. It’s all he ever does. Prey animals stay alive that way, while we are comparing foreign accents and pondering which celebrity-designed training aid to try next.
The challenging part of riding is navigating the gap between intellectual knowledge and the ability to use it effectively. In other words, matching the thing felt in the saddle with the right learned response.
When I was first competing in dressage, I was riding a young Arabian and he ran off with me in every test. He didn’t leave the arena but it was ugly. Back at the trailer, my trainer would ask, “Couldn’t you tell he was running off?”
Of course I could tell. It was a no-brainer–I couldn’t post fast enough. In the moment that he started to speed up, I would pull up a mental list of possible corrections for that particular problem. Then I would go down my list once or twice and then narrow it down to a couple of options, but by then it didn’t really matter which one I picked. It was too late. Time was way past for a small correction; now I had to just stay on till the next transition and hope it was a walk so I could pull myself together.
Think less, feel more: when I eventually found myself present in that first stride of the runaway, a light half-halt gave him the balance and confidence to stay with me. Simple.
One of the most dependable traits we have as riders is that when we engage our brain, we stop physically riding. In the beginning, it’s as if we can either think, or ride, but not do both simultaneously. Usually when the brain engages, the seat stops following. That’s a halt cue.
Technical information about body position, proper use of the legs and contact with the reins is crucial in order to progress, but while your brain is busy assimilating this information, you can’t abandon the horse you’re riding.
All the technique in the world doesn’t help you if it’s applied poorly. Even if you have a good set of mental index cards, there’s no time to find the one you’re looking for quick enough in the saddle. And if all of that isn’t enough, there’s this one last wrench in the works: every horse is a bit different and the same cue doesn’t work the same way. It’s a horse; everything changes all the time.
But when you watch advanced riders, there is no time lag. It’s as if thinking and feeling can happen simultaneously; as if they don’t even need index cards. In order to bridge the gap between novice riding and advanced riding and improve our skills, we have to change how we approach them. On other words, the skills don’t really change so much as our perception of them. There is no place for bigger and louder cues; this when the idea that less is more becomes most important. Advanced riders are more responsive, so their horses follow suit.
I believe one of the biggest things a horse senses about us is our intent. It’s the color that tints all the cues we give. If we are dominating or watching the clock, your intention takes on the color of a storm cloud and simple tasks like catching or trailering the horse become difficult. If you’re positive and listening to your horse, it’ll be a sunny, warm color. Too silly? Give it a try, it’s harder than it sounds.
I would define a positive intention as similar to focus, but maybe a bit more open and accepting and less reactive or restrictive. This intention is the place your open mind stays poised, inside of every stride, not forcing a result but encouraging a tendency. It’s the place that a horse comes to volunteer partnership. You’d hate to miss it while micro-managing a leg-yield and reciting a classical dressage quote.
Bridging the gap between intellectualizing and feeling means less trying and more listening. The strength involved is mental, so a little humility a good idea. Schooling consistent intention will get you farther, faster than any book or video, because it’s honest real-time information for your horse.
Talking down to a horse, whose perceptions are ahead of ours in the first place, is always a bad idea. The only way to keep up with them is to send a positive intention on ahead. It’s the most crazy, counter-intuitive thing, except if you’re a horse.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.