Middle Path: The Curse of a Self-Aware Mind

We think too much. We’re mostly introverts with an inclination toward perfection, and we think too much. Oh, and we like to ride horses.

Example: You’re riding a young horse who is a little quick. You’re with your trainer at your first dressage show. You enter the arena, salute the judge, and begin the test. It’s great, the new jacket fits well. You begin the trot work. You know people are watching you but you don’t smile. These are full-seat white britches, you’ve managed to keep them relatively clean, but they don’t give much in the saddle. Not that you’ve had them in the saddle before. Actually, they kind of suspend you above the sadd…. oops. “Are we going really fast? I think we’re going really fast.”

At this point, you look for your trainer on the sideline and she has a furrowed brow. “Okay, he’s quick. Let me see. I could half-halt. I don’t need a one rein stop, do I? No, not that. I don’t want to pull the reins in front of the judge. Oh. I think I might be pulling the reins already. Crap. I think he’s pulling back on them, too. Oh, my. Is that slapping sound my backside hitting the saddle? Half-halt, do you think?”

You survive, it’s ugly but you’re feeling good about staying on when you leave the arena. Your trainer asks you, through a very tense jaw, “Your horse was running away with you. Couldn’t you tell your horse was running away?” “Um. Of course,” you answer, “I just couldn’t decide what to do.” And you give your trainer the second deer-in-headlights look of the day.

Meanwhile, your young horse, who lives in the moment, is thinking about noises he hears over by the Porta-Potty.

First, a simple explanation of the difference between us and non-human animals, like horses. Scientists agree that horses have consciousness, defined as being aware of their own body and the surrounding environment. They think. Humans have self-awareness, generally defined as consciousness, as well as the awareness of our existence. We think, and then we think about our thoughts. 

This is why humans are considered more evolved but sometimes I wonder. Our senses are not as acute as horses; they hear and smell and see more. Meaning horses live in the moment. We use our brains to override our senses, so we can doubt that horses sense what they sense and then think about our feelings about that.

Humans have an added dimension; we can read the philosophy of classical horsemanship. Shop online for tack. Get sold methods of training, explained in deceptive terms, that may be popular but don’t actually work on horses. Spend hours on DreamHorse. Be groupies for previously mentioned training methods, proselytizing to others about the need to punish horses. Think about obscure breeds we’d like to own. Consider different bits to gain more control of our horses. Have a big heart for horse rescue. Plan a trip to Spain.

If humans were on an inter-species dating site, they would not link us up with horses. We’re a bad match, but we aren’t quitters. 

It’s important to understand these fundamental differences. If humans want relationships with horses, we must approach it in a non-human way. We need to study technique, but when we’re riding, lay down our over-analyzing minds.

Less thought, more feel. In the example at the beginning, the rider stopped breathing, her legs grabbed on, the cue to go faster. Her body got tense, and her horse got scared. Her response was to think more thoughts. She was so busy having a conversation with herself that she abandoned her horse. It isn’t a mistake, it’s our instinct.

To be partners, we have to quiet our natural instinct, just like horses have to quiet some of theirs. It’s why riding well is an art.

Where to begin? Horses live by physical awareness, so first, let your intellectual mind rest. Just feel. Take a deep breath. Did it catch in your throat? Did your shoulders poke up around your ears? Take another breath. Feel it expand your belly. Count to three on the inhale. Hold a count and exhale in three. Continue. Breathe into your knees and let them loosen. Tell your critical voice to breathe with you, but hold her tongue. Do this all day long. Feels good, doesn’t it?

When you are breathing deep and soft to your belly, go to the barn and look at your horse’s flank. That’s how he breathes when he’s relaxed, too. About now your brain kicks in with some bright shiny mental distraction. Smile, because it relaxes part of your head. Breathe and smile, stay with your horse. Create a bubble for the two of you to breathe in together.

Try this experiment: Communicate by using the body parts that both you and your horse share. So, no voice and no hands. Become aware of your feet. Become aware of… (I know you’re judging yourself. Just stop.) …your senses. Breathe deep and slow. Notice your hands and keep them to yourself again. Give him space to feel confident in; stand square and tall and away. Let him tell you something you don’t know. Without interrupting him to make him hurry. Without interrupting yourself with chatter. Takes self-discipline, doesn’t it?

In the saddle, warm up on a long rein. Feel your sit bones and note the length of his stride. Now listen to a song or count your breath. In about five minutes, feel the difference in your back and in his stride. Limit yourself to feeling. Don’t fix it, just feel it. Go through each of your body parts and introduce yourself. Is your neck tight? Give it a roll and breathe. Notice your horse’s poll release but don’t talk about it. Feel your elbows and wrists.

Experience your horse, body to body.  There is no cleaner or more immediate way to communicate with a horse. Practice acceptance in that exact moment; that’s where connection starts.

After you put your horse up, find a horse-friend. Talk to for hours about your ride. Tell her you fell in love all over again.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

 

 

48 comments

  1. Love this one…breathing with the horse is not well understood nor often used. Learned it as a child being one with my pony.

  2. Ah yes, it sounds so easy… (this is when I tell my inner voice to be quiet …. again).
    Always a work in progress.

  3. Superb analysis. At bottom we demand too much, too often, too coarsely of our equines– especially if we are competitors. How about more partnership and riding for mutual enjoyment?

    • I’m all for that, and just for the record, some of the finest partnerships I know were built in the show pen. It’s about relationship, not location. IMO. Thanks Karin.

  4. I have been practicing this breathing you speak of…. first time ,my in and out breath, way to deep, got a little light headed and way to loud…scared the hell out of my horse!!

  5. One of your best! An old teacher/trainer of mine always said, “Ride the horse you’re on right now, even if you rode him yesterday.” The way I see it is if you can’t be in your horse’s head and he in YOURS when you ride, you’re just a passenger.

  6. laughing out loud. “she was so busy having a conversation with herself she abandoned her horse” and yes i have planned a trip to spain ! never went though 😉 thanks great post to start the new year. .

  7. Anna, when you say we are introverts. Are you meaning all humans or humans that like to ride? Love your blogs so much. Look forward to my Friday inbox. Cheers, Janice

    Get Outlook for iOS ________________________________

    • Private research. At clinics I ask how many introverts and almost all hands go up each time. I think it’s humans that like to ride… Thanks Janice.

  8. Anna,

    I love and appreciate your writing. I own most of your books. I read and save most of your blogs. This blog held much meaning and, of course, humor and insight and guidance. Thank You Again.

    Alana Eagletree

    On Fri, Jan 5, 2018 at 7:29 AM, Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” We think too much. We’re mostly introverts with an > inclination toward perfection, and we think too much. Oh, and we like to > ride horses. Example: You’re riding a young horse who is a little quick. > You’re with your trainer at your first dressage sho” >

    • Thank you, Alana. I think it goes down a little better with a smile… and the Spain phrase left me snorting in the dark. Thanks for reading the books, too. I appreciate the kind words.

  9. Hi anna, on 1/27/18 at the montrose pavilion, we are having a presentation by dr. temple grandin and a book signing as part of the Montrose foodfarmforum.org . I assume you will know her if not you should read about her. I will attend her presentation. Good fun with all your travels, daisy

  10. Hello Anna,

    What an inspiring blog for the New Year!!,…. with my busy mind planning, goal setting for 2018,.., your blog compelled me to ‘pause’,….

    As always Anna, your blogs are thought provoking, inspiring,… this time,… bringing forward near forgotten thoughts, memories of past ‘blissful child like’ moments in the company of horses (and other creatures),… where I had forgotten myself (and my busy mind was quiet/silent), unfettered, uncomplicated, ‘full of life’ shared presence,…

    A goal for this year,…. more moments,…. more time,… in a quiet mind,… in a child like bliss in the company of my horse (and other loved ones),…. more play, more laughter, in uncomplicated (quiet mind), shared (sentient) presence,…

    Both my horse and I thank-you!!

    Warmest Regards and the Best to you and your loved ones (2 and 4 legs) in 2018.
    Corinne

  11. “Don’t fix it, just feel it.” – My coach, verbatim 🙂

    Not that I’ve ever had any dressage ambitions, but I found myself chuckling at your description of the poor rider with the young horse. It seemed so strangely familiar, though my circumstances were quite different.

    I actually posted something about my experience with PTSD related issues (“Little Vikings and Wounded Warriors”) just a few hours before you – specifically, about how a horse and coach were making the very same point you did. And being as right about it as you are!

    “To be partners, we have to quiet our natural instinct, just like horses have to quiet some of theirs.”
    I would add that for a human with her instincts out of balance (exaggerated fight/flight responses, detachment as coping mechanism etc) there’s almost NO better teacher than a horse to get a steady dose of reality checks. I don’t know how far conventional therapy would have gotten me by now, but I do now my equine shrinks keep me at the top of my game.

    Belated Happy New year to you and yours! ❤

  12. So very good, as usual! Have been there in a test where I start questioning the pattern & all the rest goes out the window. My poor horse does her best in spite of my lack of prep for the next maneuvers. You are helping me “feel” more & I’m definitely an extrovert=P

  13. Beautiful. Thank you. Fits perfectly with my intention for the new year: presence, ease, flow.

  14. Love this one, Anna! Your comment of “Mares are always right!” really rings true. I have found when I am not acting as the leader, my mare will gladly step up! You just can’t fool them! But when the partnership works, there’s nothing better! Thank you!

  15. Thank you for this. As always, yoga is riding, riding is yoga.

    “Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.”
    ― Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi, The Essential Rumi

  16. I love this one, Anna. We have been so rushed at the barn lately that I’m sure I am sending my poor horse so many mixed feelings with my scattered brain – oh the shiny bright things! I will try to take this one to heart and just breathe. Thank you for another fun reminder.

  17. Extrovert, maybe even an extreme extrovert! And yet my horses forgive me, mostly.
    I don’t compete for many reasons, the main one being exactly what your blog mentions: I pretty much forget I’m on a horse, and a riderless horse will do what it will (so often it seems they do have quite a sense of humor!). But, on my mare or my gelding, is one of the few times my chattering monkey mind is quiet and I can lose myself in just being. It’s not always like that, but the times it is are magical.
    Thanks for your time and the perspective, as always, heartfelt and inspiring.
    And may your New Year be filled with love and laughter

  18. Thanks, Jane. Great comment. BTW, no one starts in the show world anything but the way I wrote it… showing is a great place to learn focus. It worked for me.

  19. One of my faves. What are you referring to as the middle path? Between where the horse is in the moment and where our heads are?

    Whenever I get weirded out and disconnected onboard, I do the soft eyes and pretend I’m my horse’s hind legs. Gets me off the bit and grounded, its a looking inside connected kind of thing.

    • Great tip. The idea of focusing on riding the hind of the horse, with out seats is something I talk about in lessons, too. And when I refer to the middle path, I mean not to the extreme of violence, and not to the extreme to “killing them with kindness,” I think it’s the place horses want us to be. Thanks, Erin.

  20. Anna, it is absolutely uncanny how you blog about my most recent blunders on a regular basis. Two days ago, I THOUGHT, I better go do some ground work with my horse since I’ve been to busy to ride for a while. I went out (on a mission), proceeded towards my goal with little regard for my horses perspective, and he exploded! Big surprise. I just wanted to slap myself. Next day went out hoping to sit on my warm fuzzy horse bare back and walk around to relieve some back pain. Took time for both of us, asked him if he would like to step up next to the round pen rails, and slipped quietly on for a therapeutic sit. I apparently need a keeper; my horse, not so much!

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