Part One: The Strong Silent Type (Of Horse)

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I’ve said it before: While growing up, I saw She Wore a Yellow Ribbon more often than I saw my relatives. My father oversaw the TV and he liked real men like Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne. (I’m sure you can guess what he thought about James Dean.)

Later, like lots of us, I bought the notion of a strong, silent leading man when it came to movie star crushes. They had square jaws and walked with a swagger, always a little mysterious. I should stress here that they were acting. It was my mid-thirties before I connected the crash between my taste in movie idols and my constant whining that the man I was dating wouldn’t talk to me. Duh.

It took longer for it to dawn on me that my horse was stoic, too. His resistance wasn’t easy to read. He hid lameness and acted tough. He did what I asked, even if it was too much. Neither of us wanted to admit that we probably held a grudge. We liked each other, so instead it was more like passive aggression on both sides. Truth be told, you can’t force a horse talk to you anymore than you can a man. In hindsight, I think some of our training problems were more from ulcer pain than anything, but again, he didn’t give me the usual signs that a more reactive horse might have. I’m still apologizing for that.

Disclaimer: I am extremely aware that trainers love to classify horses into personality types that over-simplify horses, so it’s easier for novice horse owners to make assumptions. None of us are that easy to pigeon-hole.

Instead, I consider most horses on a continuum, one end being stoic and the other end being demonstrative. I deliberately choose these vague words, give lots of room for individuality, and always remember that it isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

That said, people like stoic horses because they seem quiet and easy on the surface. They’re commonly lesson horses, therapy horses, and kid horses.

Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com– Stoicism: the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint. Synonyms: patience, forbearance, resignation, fortitude, endurance, acceptance, tolerance.

Does this definition make you a bit sad? What sounds heroic in a movie character is kind of soul-killing for a creature as beautiful as a horse. If you are a dominating rider, you might want that kind of hostage mentality, but if you are hoping for an equine partner, this is leadership without heart.

Old timers had another word they used for stoic horses who seemed almost too easy to read: Counterfeit. They looked like the real thing, but there was something not quite right.

It isn’t that stoic horses are dishonest; they’re subtle communicators. If our cues get loud or inconsistent, he just tucks inside of himself. It isn’t disobedience so much as self-defense. He could look well-trained, but his eyes are dead. You might want to think everything is fine but as time passes, and he gets more withdrawn. He might drop his head between his knees in submission; he might look like a push-button pleasure horse on the surface, but he gives you none of his heart. He doesn’t want to try. Maybe you’ll call him lazy and kick harder, but louder cues will just shut him down more. If you are honest, it feels more like coercion then partnership. (Don’t even dare consider spurs.)

Then it happens, just like the big bloody shoot-out at the end of a western movie. After he’s taken all he can, a stoic horse might explode with emotion. The rider says, “Everything was just fine but suddenly, for no good reason, my horse just started bucking.” Or worse, all the light in their eyes finally goes totally black and they just lose the will to live, looking years older than their age. (Not that it’s my business, but if this is your goal–a blindly obedient, soul-dead ride–then please, don’t have children.)

How to best partner with a stoic horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. Especially if he’s a draft breed. Assume he hates being under-estimated and talked down to just as much as you do. Breathe yourself quiet. Show him respect and don’t interrupt his thought process. Wait for him to volunteer. Listening will require better patience and effort; stoic horses aren’t as blunt as demonstrative horses. Rather than bullying him through work, let him be who he is and answer in his own way. Yes, he will answer eventually, but you don’t get to be the boss of that. Allowing that horse to volunteer is your single goal.

When he gets the answer right, or even partly right, reward him lavishly. Let him know that his input matters. He might act a bit like the shy kid who blushes when the teacher praises him in class. That’s how you can tell it’s working.

Now the tendency of your work together is starting to shift. Instead of being a robot, he might even offer something more than you ask for. Yay, and don’t you dare correct him for trying too hard. See the big picture: He’s learning and shaping his behavior is much more important than demanding perfection.

Nurture this little sprig of confidence. Reward him with a big release. Like that same shy school kid, he doesn’t want to be hugged until he faints; instead slack the reins or the lead. Release! Let him stand on his own feet and feel pride in himself. Pause. Let his introverted bravado bask in the broad daylight. Then reward that; thank him for his honesty.

The day will come when the two of you will be together and you’ll show him a challenge. Just reveal it; nothing more. In your quiet mind, you’ll hear him say, “I got this.” You’ll feel him breathe; your legs expanding with his chest as his steps out.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

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

What To Do When Your Horse Is Wrong

WMIntoSunsetIt started small. It started the way it usually starts; the rider pulled on her horse’s face. It’s a fundamental disagreement: the rider thinks it’s her right to control the horse and the horse doesn’t like having metal jammed on his jaw bone. They weren’t even on the same subject.

So, the gelding got fussy. The rider kicked and steered, trying to make him go. But the horse heard more whoa than go; all the steering happened by pulling the rein back, not that is was ever the rider’s intention to give the horse conflicting cues. There was head-tossing and mouth-gaping. It started small.

The next part is tough. Maybe it’s because we’re predators or maybe it’s our ego about having our way, or maybe we’ve been taught that we must show them who’s boss in some Neanderthal version of dominance, but it’s as if the rider has blinders on, unable to see (hear) her horse. The horse notices it immediately. It takes the rider longer, of course. It isn’t that the rider is mean or belligerent; she just believes she’s right.

It’s just about now that things can start to speed up. It’s like we have a snowball theory of disaster that says if the horse hesitates a second, or gives just one thought of resistance, then all is lost. That one small action will necessarily gain speed and size, like a snowball rolling down a hill, and so we panic and accelerate. Which, by the way, works like a cue for the horse, too. Now things are coming apart quickly.

“If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that’s just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong.” -Ray Hunt

Yes, it’s a quote by a western trainer, Ray Hunt. Lots of classical dressage trainers say the exact same thing, but not with the same blunt honesty.

So right now, I’m hoping that the rider is frustrated. And if the rider pauses before throwing a temper tantrum, she might actually feel that frustration and anxiety, and take it as a cue to herself, to go slow. Hooray! It’s a huge win to recognize an internal feeling and stop the snowball race long enough to become self-aware.

And in that tiny pause that feels almost like surrender to the rider, the horse can take that cue, too, and things begin to decompress immediately. It seems like an accident at first, almost a kind of butt-fall into better leadership, but it counts. Your horse just confirmed it and rewarded you for better behavior. You have to wonder who’s training who? But if you’re smart, you accept the invitation to partnership and start the ride again.

First, let a moment or two pass. It’ll feel like forever, but you are teaching yourself patience. When you label it that way, it should feel slow. Learn to enjoy it.

Now the game begins. It’s that game that we all played as kids; we called it Hot and Cold. As we searched for something hidden, others let us know we were getting warmer and cooler.

It’s a good comparison because training should feel a bit like the two of you feeling your way in a dark room. You are directing your horse toward something he doesn’t have a word for. And if the only answer you accept is perfection, then it’s you that’s failed. Instead, you are negotiating a better answer each time, by rewarding him as he gets warmer. The dog training term for that is shaping a behavior, step by step. Or if you’re a behavioral scientist, you call it successive approximation, meaning an approximate answer on the way to the right answer.

Regardless of what you call it, it means that you have evolved away from being someone focused on failure who makes serial corrections; nagging the horse about what he’s done wrong, again and again, making each ride a punishment. Now training becomes more like a game of cooperative hide-and-seek, with habitual rewards for the efforts your horse puts into the work. The more he offers, the happier everyone is. Now it’s as if you nag him about being a smart horse.

Here’s where creativity matters the most. Knowing that your horse is never wrong, it’s the rider’s challenge to ask a better question, then accept and reward that answer, and continue patiently and cheerfully, until the best habit is consistent. Training is nothing more than the “serious work” of playing a game of collecting and rewarding good experience for your horse.

A moment for the cynics in every discipline that will say that positive training is fine for trail horses or amateur horses, but if they’re asking for really hard advanced work, then pushing the horse hard is justified, whether it’s reining or dressage or jumping. Shame on them for selling their horses short, and for thinking so little of their own skills.

So, there you are in the middle of your ride. Take a breath and remember the best ride you ever saw. It doesn’t matter what riding discipline, but the horse’s ears weren’t pinned and his tail wasn’t clamped. He lifted his feet and his body looked strong and soft at the same time. It was freedom and partnership and trust, and most of all, you could tell it was art because it lifted your heart.

Then, whether you are a beginning trail rider or an ambitious competitor, ask your horse if he wants to play a game. Start where your horse is at right now. Ask for just a stride of walk, and reward him generously. Let it be enough, as you set about helping your horse be totally right.

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

Energetic Tidiness in the Saddle.

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Some of us climb into the saddle and have all kinds of crazy dangerous things happen–right out of the blue. We didn’t do anything at all, and for no good reason, the horse came apart.

Some of us are almost okay in the saddle, carefully moving along until it happens; the horse jerks, we lose balance, and jerk back. It happens so quickly that we scare each other half to death.

Some of us think of our horses as therapists. When we’re cross or out of sorts, all we have to do is go to the barn, climb into the saddle, and in no time at all, we’re feeling better.

Finally, some of us, the very luckiest ones, have horses especially interested in teaching their riders some energetic tidiness.

Right about here, I’m going to stick up for horses. They don’t come apart “for no good reason”; they don’t have some sort of vendetta to hurt people. Short of a bee sting, or some other sharp pain, they give us a series of warnings that things aren’t right. About the time we notice them, we flinch and get defensive. It’s just common sense that losing confidence makes us insecure. So we ride with timidity or bravado and not all horses, especially those with confidence problems of their own, tolerate it well.

It’s an unpopular thought but just because some horses seem good at dissolving our negativity, is it fair to expect it of them? How does the therapist part of his job affect the other work he does?

In these examples, the rider’s mental awareness limits the horse’s behavior options. We all acknowledge that the most challenging horses are the ones who teach us the most, but can we articulate how they do it?

As a riding instructor, I think about it a lot: What does it take for a rider to improve? Sure, there’s always technique involved. Balance and communication in the saddle is crucial. On the mental side, it’s all about energetic balance. If a horse is nervous, do we get scared or become Zen masters. If the horse is dull, can we lift our energy a bit to aid them? The bottom line is we must admit the impact our mental state has on our horse at any time.

We all know that horses sense our fear but it’s more than that. They sense confusion, distraction, and all sorts of lesser emotions. They can even mistake anticipation for anxiety–just like us. That last situation happens while riding with other people and at shows.

If our thoughts and emotions are running like a rat-on-a-wheel we aren’t much of a leader. Again, just common sense. The difference between riders who continue to have the same tense ride year after year and those riders able to progress with their horses boils down to mind control.

No, there is no way you can exert mental control over your horse. No way to control the environment, either. The only thing that will ever be within our control are our own thoughts and emotions.

The first thing to know is that a good rider doesn’t just ignore her fears and concerns. Denial is how most of us got in the nervous hole with our horses in the first place.

It’s a positive action to choose your state of mind; to discipline your thoughts to stillness. Think of it like picking up your bedroom. Put your fear and drama away in your underwear drawer with your flimsy doubt. Close it. Check the floor for stray socks, expectations, over-wrought dreams, and thoughts about aging; those all belong in the hamper. You can do the laundry later. Might be time to get rid of that Megadeath poster…

Now straighten your shoulders as if they’re sheets on your bed. Smooth yourself out. Then open the closet and take out a clean outfit of calm-listening. Accessorize with sparkling intention. Settle your intelligence and awareness inside a helmet and breathe. This is energetic tidiness. You’re ready to ride.

It’s hard in the beginning. Giving our horses on our best parts takes focus. Use kindness to spur yourself to understanding. When a bit of doubt crops up, kick it under the bed, and take another breath. Let your horse see your peace. Even if it’s fragile right now, hold it to the light and let him reflect it back to you. It’s no different from learning to keep your heels down. Repetition builds habit.

Being committed to listening in your inner stillness is wildly attractive to a horse. Horses recognize it because it’s how they are, too. There is strength in vulnerability.

When I look back to my own furious efforts to improve, I’m sure I drove my horses nuts. I wonder at their tolerance. Trying too hard, even to improve, looks exactly like anxiety and pressure. Luckily, horses read the quality of our intentions as clearly as our fear. It’s here that positive change begins.

Soon enough the rider begins to find a tidy and still place inside her horse, too. It’s the place we always dreamed of, that we obliterated searching for, and now we find it, in plain sight. It was that rat-on-a-wheel self-criticism that made it harder than need be.

Eventually a day comes when your energy becomes an aid to your horse. You can share your energy if his is lagging. You can comfort his pain with breath instead of worrying him with baby-talk. You can lift him with compassionate strength in a way that you didn’t always know you could.

I’m not saying that horses or people will ever be perfect. Every relationship is a negotiation: some days they carry us and some days we carry them. If your overall tendency is fine with you, then be grateful. If you think there’s room for improvement, then commit to change your mind about horses.

Know that riding starts deep inside of you. It’s always you; the leader is the one who goes first and shows the way.

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

Riding a Suspension… of Disbelief

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Some of us are okay with who we are in the saddle. We don’t question the ride, or if we do, we put it on the horse and he’s fine with that. It is what it is, and it works for lots of horses and riders.

Some of us pause in the saddle; it starts with a small moment of awareness that there might be more possible. Maybe you are crossing a log and you feel your horse lift his back. Maybe in a canter, there’s a moment of body-to-body unison that hooks you in the heart. Or maybe in a blind or uncertain moment, your horse moves under you and offers more, when he didn’t have to. And then the air feels richer.

It’s a wake-up call and in that instant, there’s a shift in perception; a teasing glimpse into a hidden place. I think it’s horses that call us there, but it’s our choice to listen or not. It’s the threshold where things get complicated for our species. At one extreme is a desire so hot that we fight and try to control–dominate–a horse’s magic. On the other extreme is a whiny envy without action; a fierce fairy-tale prayer that our horse will do it all for us, if we just give them treats.

I’m particularly interested in what it takes for riders to progress; what we have to do mentally to go from being a passenger to a true partner. In the best sense, it’s the transition, beyond fighting or dreaming, to an honest connection. I know; flowery words.

For a novice rider, even one who’s ridden for years, the reality is that we get the ride we ask for. If we want something more, we are the ones who have to change. So we try to do more–we kick and pull and things get immediately worse.

The harder we think the work is, the harder we ask. Not always with force; more often with micro-managing doubt. We think too much. Even if we know that somehow less is more, we try so willfully hard to do less, that our horses wish for a whip… just for clarity. Our desire just looks like dense fog to them.

We are limited by the extra layer of false gravity that we create; we make it harder to accept our own worth because we are always looking at what’s wrong with us. What if the real meaning of improvement was letting go of being our worst critic in our own mind?

We are a species who thinks we can control outcome. We like to focus on what’s wrong, immerse in those problems, and then make them right. Even with good intentions, it’s a negative approach.

Let me be very clear; attitude doesn’t create a balanced riding position or correct bad hands. Your horse cares about those technical qualities and so should you.

But if I could give riders a gift, it would be a suspension of disbelief.

“The term suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.” –Wikipedia.

The reason to suspend disbelief is simple. Disbelief is the sarcastic voice in your head that says, “Who do you think you are? Your horse is nothing special. You aren’t good enough; you don’t deserve what you want.”

Suspension of disbelief is a cue to your inner demons to just shut up; a half-halt to give us a chance to prove to ourselves that we are enough–until WE believe it.

A suspension of disbelief would be a perfect moment when your rider to-do list gets extinguished by a dance where your horse freely lifts you and holds you in the light. Oneness is not a destination you can chase down. It’s something your horse has already, but you have to sit quietly enough to notice and then claim it for yourself.

Maybe when riding, the best thing to straddle is that line of possibility, with one foot deeply grateful for all that the two of you have shared together, and the other foot holding a space of absolute wonder. Good riding is naturally uncertain ground; that’s why riding is an art.

How can you tell you’re on the right path? It becomes forever less about you and more about doing the best for your horse. To truly put your horse first is much harder than it sounds; it requires a humbling level of honesty that will be fact-checked by your horse.

He’ll let you know that humility and insecurity are not the same thing at all. Humility is a place of openness where a horse and rider find balance. The other word for that is grace.

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

Mental Focus Means Not Trying Too Hard

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My friend and I took yoga while we were in high school. It was 1971 or so, and I can’t remember if the group met in a church basement or at the “Y”, but I will never forget my red leotard. It had long sleeves and was a garish scarlet color, with matching semi-transparent tights–think Red Snapper–the fish.

The class began, we were asked to close our eyes, and take some deep breaths. I didn’t bother because trying to breathe made my chest tight, so I squinted my eyes open just enough to critically compare myself to everyone around me. As the class continued, I evaluated my limberness, strained muscles pushing for the most extreme position in each pose, and all  the while squinting to see who was watching me. It wasn’t because I thought I was so good; it was the exact opposite. When it was time for savasana, that meditative time at the end, I fell immediately asleep. It was probably due to a lack of oxygen and relentlessly judging myself.

My keen ability to let my mind run like a rat-on-a-wheel was even less helpful when I began riding seriously–something I had actual passion about. It was the biggest change I had to make to partner with a horse. I get reminded of my Time of Red Leotards sometimes when I’m giving riding lessons. Can we even tell when we’re trying too hard?

You climb on your horse, and with great diligence, pick up the reins, clamp your body into a position, and set our jaw for the work at hand. The horse takes the cue and does the same. Then, you set about correcting every answer your horse offers for the next hour because you want to be really good at this.

It degenerates to a rat-on-a-wheel death spiral: The worse it goes, the harder you try; the harder you try the worse it goes. About now, you hear a Neanderthal voice in your head saying, “You can’t give in and let your horse win. He will never respect you again; he will be ruined.” Because you have passion and it feels true that riding is about the hardest thing in the world, you double down, choking on loud emotions, and ride harder. Things don’t improve but you clutch desperately because you think you’re being tough.

The most common trait I see in clients who want to improve their riding is a misunderstanding about what it means to be focused in the saddle; to be mentally strong.

And have you checked in with this horse through this? He’s the one who actually decides what good riding is, after all. Beneath appearances, he is the one who knows who you are–a mess.  And as kind as he may be, he won’t give you the benefit of the doubt forever.

Still, there you two are; you’ve wrestled him into a hole by trying too hard. With good intentions, trying to get it right, but your horse is tense. Is he belligerent, or confused, or does it even matter? Now what?

Is it too late to remind you that the first runaway is usually the one inside your own head? Because riding isn’t about putting up a huge fight; it’s about having the mental control NOT to. It’s about behaving like a leader instead of a petulant child in the saddle. Do not take the bait. As tempting as it is to throw a fit, don’t lose control of what matters to your horse.

“There is one principle that should never be abandoned when training a horse, namely, that the rider must learn to control himself before he can control his horse. This is the basic, most important principle to be preserved in equitation.” –Alois Podhajsky, 1965

BE STILL.

Start by breathing deep and letting him hear you exhale. He might not mimic you on the first try, so in a clear soft voice, say “Good boy.” Not because he is being good right now; throw it to him like a lifeline in the ocean of confusion. Then slack some rein, ask for something simple, like a step forward, and reward him for that. Not because it’s a complicated task, but because you want to remind him that you are capable of not complaining about everything he does. The priority here is to change the tendency of behavior. Yours.

Mental strength, or the ability to focus, is at the very core of who we are as riders, at any level. It sounds counter intuitive but in order to become a more advanced rider, you have to find a way to do less, do it sooner, smaller, and confidently. In other words, you have to behave as if you have character.

If we become blinded by the goal; if a task–like cantering exactly at a certain letter, or doing a certain obstacle–becomes more important than our connection with our horse, we lose sight of who we are and our character suffers. That’s the moment a horse loses trust in his rider. And they are right to do it. How is a rider being distracted by a task any different than your doctor answering his cell phone during your surgery?

It begins here: Ask your brain to think less and feel more. It will take discipline to train your mind in the beginning. Humans are burdened with self-awareness; the place where our egos live. It’s our nature to over-think; it isn’t a crime. But if you’re on a horse at the time, it creates a separation. It’s selfish.

So start again, embrace this new moment. Bring yourself back to stillness within his movement. Be calm and receptive. Have the strength to not jump to conclusions, to not react with emotion, but rather respond with acceptance, keeping your body soft and your cues small. Patiently maintain a quiet mental place, free of anxiety, where you can feel your horse and he can come to trust you. This mental place is the only part of riding that you will ever be capable of controlling. The good news is that it’s all the control you’ll need.

Riding technique is necessary, but it isn’t enough. Horses respond to our character first. Our temperament matters most. It’s their nature to seek a leader who makes them feel safe. The other word for that is respect.

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Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Book Release; stay tuned later this month. Barn Dance will be available at all online dealers.

 

 

Bite Your Tongue.

wm-edgar-cheekIt’s an election year and I’m a politics geek. There, I said it. But the rhetoric is deafening. Sometimes there are just too many words. I’ll bite my tongue right there. Instead, let me think of something positive to say. Optimism is heavy lifting sometimes. Here goes:

Have you noticed that there are way fewer photos of abused and starved horses on Facebook lately? 

Pathetic attempt. In a separate and only somewhat unrelated story, I tied a client up last week.

Let me start at the very beginning. As a riding instructor, I’m always trying to encourage the horse and rider build a positive tendency in their work. It isn’t about being perfect; it’s about a peaceful process with good effort and positive rewards.

Unless it isn’t. When things spiral downward, and frustration or fear are on the rise, good intention is easy to forget. Some trainers might yell, “Don’t be so tense!” or worse, “Stop being scared.” Not helpful. Being told to not do something isn’t a cue a horse or rider can take. Really, it’s like name calling more than instructing.

Meanwhile, the fight goes on. There’s no bucking; it’s more of a grudge match. By now the rider is over-thinking and over-pulling and over-kicking. The horse is over-stimulated and can’t even remember how it started. Maybe, he finds a corner of a cue to try, but just as he is about to do it, the rider gives a bigger cue that feels like a correction, so he doesn’t do what he was just about to do… which was try. It seems like the uproar and noise in the saddle is un-answerable, so he gets the deer in the headlights look–tense poll, hollow back, furrowed brow. Identical to his rider.

Can we all take a collective breath and admit we’ve been there?

I developed this technique years ago, not that I recommend it. It’s what I do in a lesson, after I’ve suggested breathing and going slow and a few hundred other things. Then I try something creative. (Others might call it something absurd.)

Did I mention that particular client was ramrod straight, with heels pushed down and her hands did not move. Her position was perhaps too good, meaning a tendency toward stiffness. So, I suggest to her that she do an impression of me riding. I’m guessing that she’d say I ride a bit like a boneless chicken sometimes. Her eyebrows become a straight line across her forehead. She’s not amused. Yes, I encourage her, pretend to be me. My rider clearly thinks mimicking me is a stupid idea–so stupid that she makes a face. Now she’s more frustrated with me than her horse. See? There’s an improvement already.

But then she slides down deeper in the saddle and pouches her tiny belly out. I know she is doing it to poke me back a bit, but in the instant that her back releases, her horse blows and goes soft. She melts into his rhythm rather than trying to fight it. Sometimes drawing the attention away from the horse is all the help a rider needs, along with a self-deprecating giggle.

“The biggest enemy to the partnership of dressage is impatience and the human nature to dominate other creatures.”  –Walter Zettl

Be clear on this: It’s our instinct to pick a fight or throw a tantrum. It’s as natural as a filly spooking when a plastic bag careens across the arena. As natural as a Lab chasing a ball all day and then, all night. Riding well means training ourselves to go against instinct. Riding well requires that we put the horse first. Their language; not ours. Best to just lay down whatever shred of ego you have left now.

And the hardest thing to do in the saddle–is to do less. When things start to come apart we instinctually speed up and get louder with our cues. Feeling unheard, we really can’t shut up now; we repeat and nag and chatter. Our hands are busy and our feet bang away on the horses’ flanks. As if the harder we communicate, the more sense it will make.

In other words, we act like Facebook in an election year.

These days, I’m more confident when I use this kind of creative ploy to distract a rider from fighting. I might ask an obscure question or tell a story/example. Sounding ridiculous is fine; I’m just trying to buy the horse a moment of quiet.

So, there we were last week doing groundwork, trying to walk-back a trailer loading issue. I’m not saying my client was over-cuing, but I started to imagine those flashlights with the long red cones that they use at the airport. She’d worked up a head of steam and tied her shirt around her waist. I was nagging her about breathing as much as she was flinging her rope. Her sensitive horse was getting taller by the minute. Stop. Just stop. That was when I tied her up. I used her shirt to attach her elbows to her waist. I was going for a version of Temple Grandin’s squeeze chute. 

My client didn’t get mad; that’s a good sign. Instead, she decided to ridicule the idea. She tells me it won’t work, demonstrating by barely flailing her hands, to exaggerate how much she can’t move. Mid-rant, her horse does just exactly what she’d been screaming about. Then, she does even less, even slower, but with a smile.

She was dead certain he’d never do it. But that’s a release, too, isn’t it?

It’s natural to try to dominate. We’re loud, even if we’re passive-aggressive about it. It’s our instinct. But in our focus to see what our horse is doing; we forget that a horse’s awareness is much keener than ours. It isn’t that they can’t hear us; it’s the exact opposite. Time to hush the brain. When we whisper, they lean in to listen.

I just love it when a bad attitude teaches a good lesson. The other words for that are having a sense of humor. It might be the best cue we can give a horse. Or our friends.

So, with a smiley face emoticon, here’s my advice, less is always more…  Shut up and ride.

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

Riding the Inside of Your Horse

wm-spirit-eyeWhen I was just a dressage-princess-wannabe, before I became a full-blown Dressage Queen, I thought dressage riders all wore a kind of glazed-over look on their faces. Sure, some had furrowed brows and some looked distantly amused, but for the most part, they looked dull. They’re stuck in the arena, after all.

Other riding disciplines seemed more exciting. Eventers and jumpers cranked their heads toward the next jump. Western disciplines moved like they were looking for livestock. Endurance riders checked their watches and heart rates, on the move to the next stop. Jockeys perch like birds and looked under their arms, behind themselves, trying to stay ahead.

But dressage riders look like over-dressed Buddhas. No jumps, no cows. Dressage arenas have letters around the edge but it isn’t like they spell anything. At the upper levels, there are some pretty fancy tricks, but the majority of horses and riders never get that far. What’s the big deal?

You could name-call dressage riders the librarians of the horse world. We all look alike in our helmets. We wear dowdy, neutral clothes. We try to not intentionally scream and flap in the saddle. But librarians? Is it an insult?

Have you known any librarians? It’s a bad stereotype; like most things, the view from the inside is different. Book lovers know that the entire universe is at their finger tips. They are thinkers who value learning the hows and whys of a thing, as well as loving the telling of a good story, for the emotional terrain it covers. When I was younger, I took a crash-and-burn approach to life. I just didn’t know any better. Books led the way to awareness and choice. In other words, freedom.

By the time I found dressage, I’d already competed horses a few years. I had a gelding that people called “push-button”. It was how they excused our hard work. Dressage seemed foreboding; an institution of history and intelligence. I certainly wasn’t smart enough to belong there. But I pushed inside anyway. There was something about the way their horses danced. They had what I wanted, even if I didn’t have the words for it. In other words, a library.

Dressage might be the most misunderstood, but strangely alluring, riding discipline of all. But when I ask my riding clients what their goals are, the answer is always the same. They say they want a better relationship with their horse. Well, don’t let the shadbelly fool you. If your horse is relaxed and dancing under saddle, it’s all about the relationship.

Now back to those glazed eyes; dressage is an internal art. It isn’t intellectually elite, but it does involve mental focus. Because we don’t ride the outside of our horses; we ride the inside of them. How is that even possible? We learn to ride from within ourselves. Am I making it worse?

Think about it; if the rider is sitting still in the saddle, not kicking or pulling or even moving, and the horse is gliding through the gaits with balance and ease, how else can it we communicate but internally? It isn’t like a horse can respond to the words single tempi changes like a dog does to the word sit. And the very best part of how we ride looks as dull as a stack of books. From the start, we teach our horses to walk on a long rein, relaxed and forward. We have a cue for calm.

We rely on being physically aware of their bodies and communicating in small, nearly invisible ways. To ride inside of a horse is to feel more. It isn’t just intellectual and physical; it’s connecting with our senses, spine to spine with a horse, and experiencing being there–listening. We gain that awareness of them by quieting ourselves. Library talk, not a barroom brawl.

We use saddles that can feel more of what a horse has to say, we ride on light contact, using our reins to hear our horses more clearly. We ride in an arena that expands to the size of our knowledge, imagination, and creativity. We know that horses are sentient beings with feelings and opinions. We choose to meet them as equals, and have a dialog, calmly building trust and understanding. It’s a slow process to a relaxed hand-gallop, as free as the wind.

Sure, there are monsters intimidating horses and calling it dressage. All riding disciplines have pretenders. They take the short cut; watching violent video clips that say domination is the answer. They go to war against their horses, with ignorant fear that celebrates destruction and feeds our most base instincts. In other words, they aren’t your usual library patron.

Dressage riders are works in progress. We believe that we will be learning forever. It’s like a lifetime library card; as long as we are breathing, we’ll be striving to know more, communicate better, and most of all, be worthy of our horse’s intellect and greater trust.

It might be science fiction; a line of understanding humans could cross, to find that horses and other animals were ahead of us all along. That they’ve been nurturing us, instead of the other way around. It would be a place beyond our egos. In other words, a place of imagination–a library.

The next time you look at an empty arena, see it the way we do. It is a sacred space as infinite as a horse’s heart, with all the stories ever told about honor and courage. There are obstacles everywhere, but just like life, they’re invisible. And in a place that looks like a flat desert, there are mountains to climb. It might look like a boring textbook to the outside world, but it’s the science of movement and the inspiration for a masterpiece. It’s a library of secrets and possibility. Maybe it takes some maturity to appreciate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go there as kids.

They say it’s the foundation of all riding disciplines. The word dressage literally means training. I think it’s a magnet for true riders. In its best sense, dressage is training from the inside out–of the rider mostly.

And I wonder how many closet dressage queens are out there.

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