Building the Bubble #1. Just Notice

Here’s last week’s Pretending to be a Horse scenario, from the equine point of view, abbreviated for sense-limited humans.

His thought balloon: (hard pavement. head pull, loose gravel. fast car. smell dog-coyotes. she’s distracted. breeze picking up. horses in the pasture on right. head pull. pavement. no dog-coyotes close. she’s distracted. she kicks. pulls and kicks. need a breath. pulls head, she can’t tell she pulls. ignore it. loose gravel. horses coming to share breath. car too close)

Human: Did that man in that car slow down and stare at me? Eeouww.

His thought balloon: (her tense seat. hard pull. feel confused. she’s distracted. need to balance. good, horses trotting now. kicks. welcome, herd. she’s not breathing. yay, herd. she flinched. jerked. ouch. metal on bone. no escape. ouch. can’t move. must move. no air, can’t please her. jerked harder. dog-coyotes. held hard, pain. wind. can’t breathe. must breathe.)

I’m not proud of my 14-year-old self in this ride, but I’m still responsible for causing him to bolt. I punished him for my fear.

People frequently say that their horse just came apart for no good reason. It isn’t true. Their horse came apart for a long list of good reasons that the rider either didn’t sense or decided to ignore. When we think they’re distracted, the truth is that we’re finally noticing something they have been following. Humans, having senses that are so much less acute than horses, are perpetually behind. It’s like we are forever coming into the movie halfway through yet pretending we know how it ends. Because we’re leaders.

We must remind ourselves a horse’s senses are better than ours every minute. While we’re busy daydreaming, or planning our day, or thinking we’re training them something they probably know already, horses are busy being aware of their environment. They are flight animals every moment. Survival depends on it, even in an arena.

It isn’t convenient for our agenda. We want them to think what we think. We want cotton in their ears, blinders for their eyes, and the loyalty of a Labrador. We want blind trust from horses who know we are blind, comparatively.

Some of us have been taught that if we cue him loud enough, it will drown out everything else. It’s like teaching a horse to trust that we’ll make a bad situation worse. Adversity always makes everything worse.

But you can create a bubble, a safe place for you and your horse where breathing happens with a life-affirming regularity. It’s a place where leadership means safety and peace, where we both abide in the present moment.

Start now. Learn to love your horse’s awareness. Accept this fundamental truth and instead of fighting it, find a way to partner with it. Recognize their intellect; people always tell me that their horse is really smart as if it’s a special gift. All horses are that smart, we need to catch up.

Recipe for a Bubble. Step one: Just notice.

Instead of looking at him, look out from him. Stand out of his space, quiet your mind. Breathe. No corrections, no opinions, notice his breath. Match it. Notice what he looks at. Breathe with him. Hold your tongue. Notice the world through his eyes. Let that be enough.

Do you think you should be training something? Good. Start with yourself.

A huge part of the problem we have around horses is a lack of awareness of our own physical reality. 

Notice what’s going on around you. Look at the small things in the big view. Use your peripheral vision. What do you smell; is there a breeze? Close your eyes. Is the ground level? Notice. Do you feel anxiety? Breathe. Open your eyes, you’re fine.

Let your horse take you for a walk. Let the lead rope be slack, stand behind his drive line or girth area, and let him lead. It’s easy to say we put our horses first but let him literally be there. Follow him into the present. This is where the bubble can exist.

Rest in awareness, in the calm recognition that the world is just fine. That your horse will help you stay present. Clear your mind, be true to your intention. Use your senses. Don’t think you know what he always does, notice who he is today. Be fresh. Do you listen to him or an inside dialog of your own? Can you perceive without judgment? Now notice the difference between what he actually thinks and what you’d like him to think.

Does he stop to graze?  Is it possible that the grazing is a calming signal, not a disobedience? Does your presence distract him? Just notice.

Learning to connect with horses in the present takes mental focus. Notice that. Your brain might be out of shape. It’s a kind of meditation and for over-thinking humans, it takes a herculean effort to do less; patience is required. Start with two minutes, walk and breathe. Work up to five minutes. Be kind to yourself if you feel like a fidgeting kid in math class. Show yourself tolerance and give your horse a nod. He’s doing his best when you see yourself through his eyes.

Say thank you, it’s been a good start on the bubble. Head back to the barn. Strolling along, maybe someone calls you from the house. Or maybe you board your horse and you run into a friend on the way to his pen. So you stop and talk. And talk some more. You gesture with the hand holding the lead rope. You talk. Blah, blah, blah.

His thought balloon: (she’s gone. she abandoned me. go to the herd. need to eat.)

So, your horse starts fidgeting. Right about now, you notice what you aren’t noticing. That’s good. This is learning how easy it is to lose focus at the first bright-shiny-thing. How can you be a partner in the saddle when it’s this easy to lose focus? And fear isn’t even a factor!

Does talking to others teach horses to not listen to us, as we abandon them in favor of human conversation? How about putting your horse first? Value your shared work by making him the priority. Put him up, releasing him with gratitude. You have the rest of the day to overthink and chatter on.

We’ll build the bubble by pretending to be horses. If you want your horse’s attention, you might have some work to earn it.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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  1. Brilliant Anna. Just what I needed as the Spring starts to arrive in South East UK. Have worked all Winter on connection and thought we had it but he is becoming distracted and fractious. After all my ‘successful’ Winter work it made me cross. You have regrounded me. Season is changing, winds are changing. People are moving around differently, nature is awakening, mares are in season. He noticed. I didn’t. Now off to reconnect and seek forgiveness but he won’t do that he will just accept what I am and react accordingly. It is now up to me.

  2. Trail riding with friends……that presents a big challenge to stay in the place you’re talking about.

  3. Oh, Anna, you definitely nailed the description of my fifteen year old self riding the horse back then and it makes me so sad for him, even though it was more than fifty years ago. With your help, I am definitely trying to do better for my OTTB, Sugarfoot, and I know he is grateful. I will keep striving, and I will keep reading. Thank you so very much!

  4. Just love your article !!!! It is so true and not only with horses. It is very much the same with small children with autism who also have much higher sensitivities and lives in the moment. I am learning so much from my horses and my son with autism. The best is when my son who is 8 explain why the horse react or what rhe horse needs. He is not having all filters we have to tune in on the horses.

  5. How Rudd would have loved you, Anna. I can hear him in your words. The horses gift us with so much, tolerate our various insanities and in their own way love us. We have to shut up that blabbering idiot in our heads and genuinely listen, look and pay attention to the horse in front of us. “Go sit quietly in the corral or pasture and just watch one of the horses. Don’t DO anything, just sit there. Try to understand what that horse is seeing, feeling, doing. If you do that enough you’ll eventually learn you don’t need to bully the horse, he’s got enough to keep track of without your distrations.” And, yes, Rudd always taught you to breathe, become calm and listen.

  6. This is a wonderful post. Oddly enough I have just written a post scheduled for Monday that it my horse talking about some of the things he sees around the barn and explaining how they appear to him and why they need to be looked at more carefully. He often “speaks” on my blog and in this one he admonishes the Humans for calling horses ‘stupid’ about their reactions to what they see.

  7. Oh Anna, so wonderful is this awareness! I’m retired now after 4 decades with three beautiful horses, all so different. One 1960 Tobruk Arabian, whose world was his oyster! Then two successive OTTB geldings, one so different from the other. Always boarding it was necessary to ride narrow berm of roads just to access our Park’s bridle paths. And the cars would either whiz right beside us or would refuse to ‘go around’ because of the “dreaded center line” so would come up very close behind us and wait for us to “get out of the way!…except that there wasn’t any place for us to do so.

    Finally it occurred to me to use an old dressage whip to attach a bright red flag at its far end. Then as well, instead of holding the flagged whip upright as we walked along, I extended it motionless on our side facing the road. This worked to give the driver an “invitation” that it was “indeed possible” to go around even if his tires did happen to touch the center line…something that seemed not ever to have occurred to him!

    • Barbara, I have to chuckle. You have a cue for cars! Well done, I’d love to think cars, and their drivers, are as easy to work with as horses. 🙂

  8. I am very much enjoying your “bubble” posts ! Hope there will be more ! While treating my horse for ulcers, I have not been haltering or doing any other work with him , more than 6 weeks now. I had noticed he seemed like he WANTED maybe to do something with me . For two consecutive interactions in the horse pen, he came up to me when I had a halter in my hand ( not typical in the past) AND lowered his head and put his nose in the halter !!! I was swooning for days over that. All that just to say that if we listen better, maybe the horse will gift us with more interest in being with us.

    • When I treated my horse for ulcers I noticed a big change in his behavior and it was definitely for the better. They tell us they’re in pain the only way they can which is through their actions. The challenge is to prevent the ulcers from returning. Two years into this I think I’ve finally found a formula that works for him. The right mix of supportive supplements, changing the way I feed and following Anna’s guidance on how to “be” with him have all helped, a lot. Good luck!!!

  9. I read this several times. It is so good. I am really trying to catch up. And when I’m not listening… Mr Wynn and Momma Cass walk away from me…loud and clear. =-0

  10. What a lovely way to be with your horse in a whole different way! Love the comment about how being distracted ourselves influences our horse in such a negative way. Thank you for reminding us how clever our beloved horses are. Toby

  11. Wonderful post, Anna. I truly appreciate your sharing these amazing insights with us. It makes so much sense and I have practiced this in leading my horse in groundwork, but I have very nearly given up on riding altogether due to fear issues of which I am alone in. Thank you again for sharing your wonderful knowledge with us. I feel honored and grateful to have found your blog and your Facebook and Twitter pages. Thank you.

  12. Taking advantage of a minor ailment which stopped me riding for a few days, I did a small ‘bubble” experiment. Horse and I did relaxed ambles to some of the scary spots where trouble starts. Spooking, spinning, and once, bolting. Passed the hyper calves that kick up their heels and run around madly as you approach. Up to where we met the bull camel that roared and charged at us. To the building site where I fell off after a truck I had barely noticed dropped a load of rocks just as we passed. You can guess what happened when we were both walking on our own legs: we were fearless. My horse accompanied me cheerfully into the no-go places, We looked at everything. He snorted at the calves while I laughed at them. Etc. Now to create the same bubble when mounted . . . Your bubble blogs were brilliant, Anna.

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