Self-Awareness Without Apology

We aren’t kids anymore. That’s the complaint. Riding seems easier in memory. When we were younger, riding was rose-colored and sweet. We don’t remember training issues, just wandering around in the sun. If you were bareback, you remember the feel of their flanks; of their warm coat under your naked knees. We wore shorts. Maybe the horse took you anyplace he wanted to go but that was just fine. Riding was an escape; some of us were afraid of everything but horses.

Around this time, we get our first trainer-not-a-trainer. Maybe your dad told you that you had to show the horse who was boss. Maybe peer pressure; a friend complained about something your horse did and it got you thinking. Or maybe you got to that age where you became self-conscious about everything and it trickled down to horses, too. Somehow, it became possible for horses to be wrong.

Rant into the wind, if you like, but it’s a natural progression. You wouldn’t still be riding without a care even if the world had ignored you. A steady diet of not thinking and not asking for anything wears a horse down eventually. They get bored with us and fall into bad habits but that isn’t the worst. They reflect our mushy indecision and lose confidence, just like we do.  Is a passive lump of baggage in the saddle any better than an over-dominating rider to the horse?

If you believe horses are intelligent, that they have feelings and are capable of having a body language conversation, then wouldn’t a ride that went on like small talk about the weather bore him? Would constant nagging shut him down? Would micro-managing correction make him lose confidence that he even knows how natural horses should move? Shouldn’t being interesting matter?

Oh, great. Now it’s required that a rider be a brilliant conversationalist, too? Add that to the list of things you need to be for your horse; the list that already trails off into the distance and over the horizon. That’s why the kid memories came back in the first place.

Some of us blame our horses for everything that goes wrong. It isn’t fair but it’s always appealing to make excuses and shirk responsibility. Anything is easier than being aware without judgment.

It’s more likely that at some point you find out that you are the cause of your horse’s problems. The good news is that a rider can change, improve, learn to help their horse along. The bad news is that now we scrutinize our every thought and become immersed in self-doubt, and its evil twin, self-loathing.

Riding well requires a calm awareness of everything that your body is doing.

Is it possible that the stiffness in your horse is actually a hard spot in your mind? Is his resistance a response to an inflexibility in you? Is nagging and criticizing yourself really any different than blaming your horse?

Now you’re, trying to do the best you can for your horse, and frustrated with yourself. Trust me, I can see it and on a bad-trainer day, I wish you would just snap out of it, too. The problem is that it doesn’t do either of us any good to hate the bad stuff. It’s ineffective.

When we say our horse is great, but the rider is confused, too loud, too busy, too quiet, or just too wrong, we think it’s taking responsibility but what does the horse hear? Do pronouns matter to a horse, or is the blame, even directed at yourself, the loudest thing?

Self-criticism isn’t the same thing as self-awareness. One goes on in the over-thinking intellectual part of the mind and the other feels things in real-time like a horse does.

Judging people is no different than judging horses. It takes no special skill to see what’s wrong but if you focus on what’s wrong, the winner will end up being the least bad… not like winning at all. Instead, we should look for what we like in the horses and reward that. It’s positive, not blind to faults, only a way to say yes to something. And so much easier with horses than ourselves.

The problem with loving horses so much is that we have a hard time believing we deserve them; that we are good enough for them.

If a partnership is your goal, that might take a bit of a stretch to let go of the horse-crazy girl desperation long enough to trade up; to allow ourselves the naturalness of a horse, and then allow him to do the same, beyond the judgment of others, but more so, beyond our own self-judgment. No apology.

You can’t control your horse, much less the world, but you can control how you treat yourself. What if good horsemanship boiled down to kindly accepting yourself?

Here’s where words really matter. How do you define humility? Could what we think of as humility really be doubt of our own worth? And perhaps what feels like arrogance is just the confidence horses would like us to have. How do your words balance with your behavior? Is asking for what you want being assertive or aggressive? Is being as stoic as a horse, pretending to have a peaceful exterior when you feel the opposite, actual honesty?

Has defensiveness become your default state, or can you take a breath and not apologize for anything? Can we let go of our own anxiety, in the way a horse does while grazing?

It’s such a huge help in working with our crazy mixed-up minds to remember that what we are doing is unlocking a softness that is in us, and letting it spread. We’re letting it blur the sharp corners of self-criticism and complaint. -Pema Chodron

Some of us choose to train with positive reinforcement because we feel, in our own lives, we’ve learned all we will ever need to from negative reinforcement. Punishment, or being told we couldn’t do something, only made us try twice as hard to prove our worth. It became an icy habit.

Good for us for mucking through, but maybe it’s time to show ourselves the same acceptance we show rescue horses. Time to say good girl to our own self, just because it’s true.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

35 comments

  1. Thanks Anna – puts a whole new slant on ‘I’m useless, I’m not good enough for my horse, it’s all my fault.’

  2. These articles really help reinforce my belief that I’m on the right path. I can only cling to a saddle five to ten minutes at a time due to fibromyalgia pain, but my horse doesn’t mind. She’s extremely helpful and frankly — she’s not a conversationalist, she’s a chatterbox. She is talking to me constantly. Calming signals, reassuring signals. I got this. Breathe. Look, I know how to do this thing, you just sit tight up there and I’ll have your back. I am insanely grateful to her. She’s six now, and it’s been like this from day one I backed her. She’s got this.

    It’s an interesting experience. I’ve never owned a horse this confident before, this bossy. I tell her what the end goal is, she tells me how we’re getting there. But it’s okay. I mean, she’s got this.

  3. Sometimes when I read your stuff, I think you have the experience & insight of more than one lifetime. It always makes me think! I want to reread this post a few more times. 🙂

  4. What refreshing insight. So different from those messages we usually take in from ourselves or others about we’re not being enough, or even the “who is to blame” one we listen to. Thank you for this grace note. jw

  5. Anna, this has become a new way for me to think. I am now constantly AWARE of my horse – our relative positions(safety), our relative emotions/attitudes, and our relative behaviors. I read an article in Dressage today about keeping our horses ‘happy’. In the past I would have devoured it but this time I found myself finding it a bit simplistic and shallow. It was all about CARE and DOING something. I have found that learning the communication language is the biggest ‘happiness’ factor and it does not require any advanced skills. If I can stay relaxed in the saddle then what I already know will take care of the riding part at this point.

  6. I always had been ready to lay blame at my door for whatever went wrong until one day a riding buddy of mine asked me, “What makes you think you’re so all-fired important that you say you’re sorry for everything that goes wrong?” With a toothy grin, I said I was sorry! But seriously, it made me stop and think about the arrogance of trying to take responsibility for all the ills in the world.
    Thanks for the refresher, Anna.

  7. This is totally thought provoking! How do you get that peaceful exterior if you don’t fake it for a while to get it? This is going to be printed out and hung on the mirror for daily reminders!!! Thanks (Of course, if against publishing rules to print….pretend you don’t know please – I NEED this).

  8. Reading the first paragraph of this blog I found myself shouting inwardly, “No. It wasn’t like that when I was a child.”
    It was hell.
    I grew up in England and totally adored horses from before I remember. I grew up on a dairy farm with a father who would not let me have my own pony. But I rode the pony up the lane. His name was Bobo and he was a cheeky Welsh pony who loved to bolt home – every time we went out for a hack! I vowed at age 7 that I would learn how to control a runaway horse!
    Then cam the lessons. Hell on earth. A retired cavalry officer who told us 9 year old little girls that we looked like sacks of potatoes, that we would never be good riders and we would end up sobbing in every lesson.

    Cut to 55 years later. I have been a riding instructor and horse trainer for 30 years and finally I have my heaven! I spent years competing and then teaching at many riding schools and coaching riders at shows.

    I have five horses of my own and two boarders just north of Toronto. I live on a 14 acre property which is surrounded by the glorious York Regional Forest and I can finally do it the way i always dreamed of!

    I specialize in “Instructional Trails”. I take one or two riders out and we have the most wonderful times.

    Just today I was riding with a client and we stopped to let the horses graze whenever we saw a tasty patch of grass. We explored the shady trails (it is stinking hot and humid here at the moment) and I explained how it’s important that our horses also enjoy the ride. We trotted a bit, we cantered a bit and we jumped a couple off logs.

    We got home and hosed our horses off and watched as they rolled in the dirt and drank their cool, fresh water. We watched them wander off to graze.

    The connection I now have with horses is about being their leader, their protector, the one who they can trust to ‘kill the dragons’ and lead them to safety.

    I teach about how important it is to keep things clear and simple and stay focused. Horses need us to be calm and steady, drawing clear lines of expectation and enforcing those lines if they try to cross them. The clarity and calm focus now come easily for me and I love it when I see my students transform from insecurity or self doubt to a calm certainty that they can keep things simple and not overthink.

  9. “You can’t control your horse, much less the world, but you can control how you treat yourself. What if good horsemanship boiled down to kindly accepting yourself?” And it seems like the things that make us better horsemen, invariably make us better humans…

    Anna – I swear – you are a long distance mind reader. This is what I needed to hear today. Thanks ❤️❤️❤️

  10. An excellent blog to read to round off a wonderful weekend in Lincolnshire on your Calming Signals clinic. I will keep this by me and read it to gee myself up from time to time.

  11. Love all your blogs Anna but this one hits home. Your words from the calming signals clinic still ring in my head most days…..who do you think you are to take responsibility for how your horse behaves?! He spends most of his life without you!…I think as humans we have been taught not to be too confident/arrogant so instead of risk being that way we slip into a self critical mess that our horses can’t deal with because it clouds all clarity and congruency in our actions. Dawson says hi! But only from a distance!! Lol

  12. Loved this one, Anna! Reminds me of an old phrase I read in “Be Here Now” many years ago. “Don’t just do something, sit there”!

  13. True. I nag..I criticize. Then sometimes I hit a wall…too overwhelmed and confused and my mind goes blank. I have to stop everything for days and sometimes weeks at a time to reset. Live my other life. Come back when I’m sane. =-)

  14. I still ride bareback in shorts with lots of hills all summer. I’m trying hard not to give myself a hard time for not doing any technical riding for a whole summer but that’s what’s unfolding. I’m loving it and hoping my horse enjoys it too. Since the clinic I’ve been watching my horse for signs of what he would choose to do. Yesterday he walked off and went to stand in his stall ready for dinner, his favorite activity :0). A few days ago I went in the field and let him decide. He walked away a few feet then stood there to think about it. He didn’t leave. He decided to go with me. He’s 21 and I’m finally learning to give him a choice? Geez Louise I’m a bit slow, but we are enjoying this new chapter. We’ve had a few aha moments. Thanks!

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