You know how the cat magically goes to the person with the allergy? Or she goes the person who happens to agree with Preacher Man, the Corgi, who believes that all cats are agents of the devil? Meanwhile, the person who loves cats is cooing and coaxing with raw fish but the cheeky cat hoists her tail a bit higher and gives us that view as she saunters her way out of the room. Cats think people try too hard. They’re suckers for the one who plays hard to get. Corgis are doomed.
How to catch a cat: Just don’t. Don’t look, don’t talk, and absolutely don’t let the thought cross your mind that you’d like to scratch those ears. Then relax and let the cat sneak up on you from behind. Cats can’t resist mystery.
Now pretend that a horse is as smart and curious and playful as a cat. And you want to think you are at least as clever as a corgi. This part is much more complicated because we’re only human.
Sometimes we let our minds get a little soft. We are prone to thinking we’re not predators or prey; instead we act like intellectuals, spending time in our minds and mistaking that for the natural world where cats and horses live. In other words, we’re boring.
We debate training technique but then work by rote, busy with opinion and not being fully present with the horse. We unconsciously halter the same way every time. We lead them like they are bricks on the end of a rope.
What if we thought of ourselves as artists? We agree that riding is an art, but do we hesitate to call ourselves artists? That’s silly; it takes an amazing amount of creativity to get out of the house in the morning.
We are a creative species but we get lazy and use our intellect to doubt ourselves. We let ourselves be ordinary when all we need is a bit of conscious energy. Energy that we can dial up or down like a thermostat on an oven.
Creativity isn’t a mystery, it’s a habit like brushing your teeth. Or cooking with spices. Or loving someone. Creativity is the cherry on top; it’s the extra dollop of energy that adds zing to life. It’s a skill –like horsemanship, only with a smile on your face.
When I meet a horse, I start with a simple question like can you please take a step back? I ask him with the method I least expect the horse to know. I ask politely and he thinks about it.
His owner wants him to succeed, so she interrupts and tells me how she cues him to back. To be clear, all three of us know he can back. And I could care less if he backs, I am establishing a conversation.
If a horse has just one cue, how do we know he isn’t answering by rote, too? Unconscious action might be the first thing we teach horses. I want a fresh response, so I want to engage him. I want to be interesting and mysterious. That’s how he’ll know who I am.
The two things I know more than anything else about horses is that they like consistency. They are like us that way, they like dinner on time and the comfort of knowing they are safe in their home.
And second, horses get bored easily. Just like us. Are you both so used to acting by rote than you think it’s normal? Is your horse unresponsive? Would your horse say that you are?
So, I give the horse a minute to up his game. Anyone can back, I want him to be curious about me. Not because I have a stick or a loud voice but because I listen to him. If he looks like he’s thinking, then I reward him profusely and it’s game on. But if he looks like he isn’t thinking, I’m not fooled. Horses are as smart as cats; I reward him, too. Because energy should always be rewarded.
Here’s the secret: Disarm him with unpredictable release.
Be brand new; fluid in your movements, soft in your eye, agile on your feet. Step out of his space. Unpredictable release.
Go in his pen and actively don’t catch him. Hold the halter in your hand and studiously do not try. Unpredictable release.
Go to the mounting block and don’t mount. Scratch his withers and go untack him. Unpredictable release.
Work at liberty but trust him. Ride bareback and massage his ribs with your knees. Ride with a neck ring that you are patient with… patience is creativity, too.
Instead of warming up with too much contact too soon, along with too much distraction and worry, warm up with too much music and fluidity. Unpredictable release.
Being mentally active means the rider is using less physical strength but keeping her energy up. He mimics you. If he isn’t forward, well, wake your-own-self up, change the length of his stride, longer or shorter using just your sit-bones. Think with your seat and legs. Still your voice and breathe. Crank up the music.
Long walk in a soft leg yield, barely asking his withers to the outside. Think inside leg to outside rein while moving in serpentines. Continue reversing direction until neither of you can remember having a stiff side.
Sometimes ask for tiny things and sometimes big. It isn’t that you don’t train the hard challenges; it’s that your train them as if they’re fun.
Then ask again, and be ready for a different answer. You don’t know what he’ll do and that’s the best part. It’s the call to energy and creativity. Unpredictable release.
I want to be the most interesting thing in the world to my horse. I want our conversation so scintillating that he hangs on my every word, and by that I mean, that I don’t cue by rote. I keep my energy percolating.
I want to have the consistency that makes him feel safe and yet still be mysterious and interesting enough to hold his attention. I want him focused on me and I’ll train that by focusing on him. I want him to think it’s more fun working with me that staring at plastic bags flapping in the wind.
Ride like a cat. Listen, bat some ideas around, then mentally pounce on one and chase it down so you can play with it. Now reward your own creativity for making work feel like play.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro