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

Photo Challenge: Opposites.

 

WM Andante movement3 Stillness bounded by movement, offered without demand.
Independent, connected,
Cradled as close as skin,
but set free.

At peace in the eye of the hurricane.

Continue reading “Photo Challenge: Opposites.”

Reciprocity: A Softer Ask, a Softer Bend

WM Clara ShoulderI overheard some riders complaining like old campaigners. Asking a horse for bend sounded like the Hundred YearsWar. They weren’t mean, just grumbling that it was hard to make the horse do what they wanted. Their voices heavy with dread, I had a feeling that their horses probably weren’t wild about them either. Continue reading “Reciprocity: A Softer Ask, a Softer Bend”

How to Defuse a Horse Bomb

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Maybe you’re mentally arranging your to-do list, or rehashing an imaginary rant about something that happened at work, or just daydreaming with the sun on your skin. But that’s when the UPS truck backs over the trash can. Or the wild turkey drops out of a tree on top of your head. Or some kids on dirt bikes come screeching out of nowhere. Life is just a bit more complicated if you’re on top of a horse. Continue reading “How to Defuse a Horse Bomb”

Listening with Your Seat.

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How’s your derrière? Is posterior a more delicate word than rump? Our culture has a lot of fanny chatter: too flat, too round, somehow sagging. Riders should care less about the superficial “do these white breeches make my butt look big?” and more about how does my backside feel…to the horse, obviously. We aspire to evolve our seat.

The dressage master, Nuno Oliveira had what some thought to be the most profound seat on a horse. He rode hunched over during the last years of his life and yet he became a better rider, his horses were also more relaxed and brilliant.

A profound seat…rather than controlling his horse, it unleashed brilliance. What an inspiration.

Gaining skill as a rider starts with acquiring some level of relaxation in the mind and then allowing that to spread through our body, eventually starting to put positive energy in the seat area to work toward a deeper seat.

A more sensitive seat is the crucial step between being a dominating rider and a perceptive, communicative rider.

We all start riding by wanting to make the horse do something, even if it’s only walking away from the herd. We have a picture in our heads and we go to work–pushing, pulling, kicking. Maybe you think you are a quiet rider, whose hands don’t jerk but instead you just pull, adding a pound of pressure as your horse does, until it’s a full-out tug-o-war. Even if your pressure is passive aggressive, it’s still adversarial. About then emotions get involved and things get worse. We are so focused on having our way that we don’t listen. That’s what domination is.

Listening to a horse, to be literal, does not involve your ears. Yes, they may snort or blow, but the larger area (no pun intended) of communication is always through the part of us most connected to the horse; our seat positions us spine to spine with the horse, nervous system to nervous system. In order to evolve a deeper, more aware seat while in the saddle, a rider must quiet the mental chatter, relax the actual gluteal muscles, and become internally aware of how the horse physically feels between our legs.

Put delicately, riding is the process of getting our brains out of our heads and into our behinds. It means less brain-thinking, even if it’s about hand position and cuing transitions. We are searching for feel, for finesse, and that’s a sensual awareness, not an intellectual opinion.

A mentally dominating rider uses a horse like a dirt bike, revving the engine and slamming the chassis to and fro attempting to meet a requirement. The rider is talking with herself about how to make the horse do something and leaving the most important thing out–the horse.  Whether the rider is angry or just quietly frustrated, it’s still a fight because it starts with two sides, each alone and distanced. It’s like trying to learn the tango by counting the beat and looking down watching your tense, reluctant feet. When the dance happens through mental math, there is no fluidity. No romance.

Dressage riders can appear to have a glazed look sometimes. While a jumper is turning and looking for the next jump, a dressage rider seems almost in a trance of mental stillness, even as the horse performing shoulder-in or flying changes. They glide along effortlessly with no resistance. The secret is that the more intense the work gets, the smaller the cues become, so the horse and rider seem to move as one.

Disclaimer: Moving as one sounds mystical, but it isn’t. It’s a give and take of perception between partners. It isn’t about right or wrong, but rather a physical awareness of a small tension in the neck, or a slight lean of a shoulder. It could be either the horse or the rider, but when noticed so early, the partner’s response can be a small, subtle suggestion–peaceful and rhythmic. In other words, it looks like a dance. Maybe when our lumbering and hyperactive brain gets out of the way, our soul can come forward to elevate the connection. You know this is right because horses don’t inspire our minds, but our hearts. It’s where they live and we have to make our way there to be a partner.

Remember, the only means horses have of communicating with us is through their bodies. We are too quick to judge their actions negatively. We correct them when they tell us how they feel. Their feelings are not any more open to debate then ours are. They are eloquent and honest, but our seats must learn to listen and become more responsive. That desire for an enlightened kind of soulmate connection with a horse is never a mental transaction. It’s beyond pretense and words, deep in our spines, where truth and spirit are all that matters.

A deep seat means that physically we aren’t stiffly perched, but rather relaxed and plugged in, responding fluidly to our horse. Beyond that, deep also means thinking less and feeling more.  It’s being introspective, discerning, esoteric, and if you rest in that silence long enough, even profound.

My first trainer, who absolutely hated dressage, always told me to “take a deep seat and a faraway look.” It’s cowboy talk for the same thing.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

It’s About Greeks and Romans. Even Today.

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Is there a natural way to ride a horse? Is it possible to ride in such a way that the horse goes willingly forward, without constriction, as if he were moving at liberty? Is there a path to a different sort of ride, where kindness and understanding are the primary aids? Or should work look like struggle?

Spit has been flying on the internet this week. There’s dressage news from the FEI European Championships at Achen and I have to defend my chosen riding discipline one more time. Flash: there was rollkur–hyper-flexion of the neck–done by dressage riders there. Yes, it’s against the rules; but more than that, it insults the beauty and integrity of our historical tradition. And yet even more than that, it physically disables horses.

I should add that there is a public facility down the road from my barn, filled with riders in western saddles, shank bits and vicious spurs, jerking away mindlessly at their horse’s bits, metal on bone, doing as bad or worse–instructors and students alike. Despicable. Not the disciplines; it isn’t about tack or what we ask the horse to do under-saddle. It’s about how we ask.

Disclaimer: I harp on this topic all the time but Totilas retired this week at 15, and locally, the Dual Peppy abuse case ended in an appeal after sentencing. I am sad. When I started in dressage, the best horses were just coming into their prime in their teens. At the same time, professional trainers are see-sawing on reins and teaching their students do the same. The line between a kind, responsive partner and a broken-down rescue horse is defined by a rider’s awareness and sensitivity all too often–and at every level of riding. So I’m mad, too.

Want a history lesson? Some of the first writing we have about horses is from ancient Greece. Simon and Xenophon wrote about the art of riding:

For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. -Xenophon, b. 430BC

At that time, Euripides was writing plays and the Parthenon was just finished. The Greeks loved culture: art, music, dance. And riding horses.

At the same time, other cultures like the Romans were more barbaric, more materialistic, and less enlightened. It isn’t a value judgement so much as a statement of priorities. Horses were treated more harshly in those cultures where warriors who used them as tools. Romans left no writing about horses during these years.

Through the centuries, these two approaches to riding continued. The equestrian art was increased by one culture, but then “bastardized by war” in another. And so on to the 2015 European Championships. Sometimes we are evolving with sensitivity as riders, and sometimes we’re using brutality as a means to an end.

Under no circumstance should your hand disturb the horse’s mouth. You must learn to stay calm in all situations and control your emotions. There is no room for anger. -Xenophon

There is no trainer in this world who raises their hand and proudly says, “I train with violence and cruelty.” Yet dressage riders are excused from the arena when there are traces of blood on their horse’s bit. Men in cowboy hats make videos of themselves whacking horses in the head with whips–while holding a lead rope tight and playing to the crowd–and pass it off as horsemanship.

Everyone has a good line. Everyone defends their technique in positive terms but walking the talk is a different thing. We actually have to demonstrate that our actions match our words. We don’t like what we see, so to many of us competition is the same thing as abuse. Riders who train with finesse and kindness do compete and win. We need to peacefully claim back that ground, especially in the show arena. It’s a challenge to maintain focus in a storm of show reality and easy to fail our ideals. And brutality will always come easier to a predator, a human being, than vulnerability and honesty. We do horses a disservice to not step out past our comfort zone and let our voice be heard, and more so, seen in our happy, relaxed horses.

Nuno Oliveira defines dressage as a conversation with a horse on a higher level, one of courtesy and finesse. Times change but classical principles remain: the horse should be a partner and not a slave. The goal of equestrian art is the perfect understanding with our horses, which requires freedom of mental and physical contraction. The joy of the horse is the ultimate goal.

In our world today, we see two approaches to training horses and the roots are clearly visible in history. The only real question is how to continue. Who do we want to be as riders? As human beings? Are you willing to acknowledge the version of yourself reflected in your horse? Or is there more to learn?

Control or negotiate. Wrestle or dance. Slave or partner. War or love.

With a nod to Totilas, Dual Peppy, and all the horses who paid dearly for our dreams–and a hope that we will do better for your offspring than we have for you.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Half and Half

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Bold and timid. Turbulent and still. Deliberate and spontaneous. Stoic and emotional. Powerful and frail. Physical and spiritual.

Half and half: The equine paradox and the art of balance.

Stable_Relation_3D_Cover[1]Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)

“Half and Half.”

The Thing About Horses and Healing: a Memoir.

VinniePasture1We see them from the road and use phones to take photos. We keep a legal distance but most of us have seen neglected horses and reported them to authorities… or been haunted, wishing we had.

The photos are long distance and slightly out of focus, just like this one. It’s easy to see ribs showing and they might be visually lame to the eye. You know the horse is in trouble.

So what’s with the pudgy bay in a fly mask? Consider it his photo from the Witness Protection Program.

If you don’t recognize him, this is Vinnie, from Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, here for evaluation. I like this photo of him, blurriness and all, grazing with a fly mask with one ear torn off. It’s hard to see but there’s a bird perched on those pointy withers of his. Oh, and it’s hard to see his ribs now, too. This is his “after” picture; I first wrote about Vinnie (story here) and readers have asked for an update.

Vinnie’s swell. He is more socially interactive now. It took over a week, but he started lying down in the sun eventually. We weren’t sure he could. He’s up to date with vaccines and he’s received a series of Pentosan injections. He stands quietly while I give them; they’ve been nothing short of a miracle for Vinnie. Now he gallops for fun; he comes at a run when I call him in. His stride is wildly long and joyous.

When he arrived it was just the opposite. And we still doubt he will be ride-able with an old injury that means his hind end looks like an egg beater from time to time. But his heart is big and full, he loves being scratched, and it looks like he is headed to foster later this month and hopefully a forever home soon. Yay, Vinnie.

It’s good news, isn’t it? We love these stories and part of it is selfish. Vinnie heals us all a little bit when we hear about him. It’s the crazy thing about horses…

I’ve had a couple of occasions when it was my job to ask people for money for horse advocacy and rescue. I don’t play fair; I ask the tough question first:

“How many of you have been rescued by a horse?”

Then I watch. Invariably most hands quickly go up, with easy smiles and some laughter. Some of us were rescued from being cosmetic zombies, tech junkies, or victims of fashion. We’re saved from boredom and complacency. We use horses as an excuse to be outside in the sun instead of cleaning the house. Each of us has a way of describing that irresistible smell that’s part sweat, part fly spray, and part dream-come-true.

But as I look around the group, some jaws are set and their eyes seem distant, hidden under furrowed brows. They straighten their shoulders a bit but there is no smile. They raise their hands resolutely and hold them high and still–as if testifying, as if standing to be counted. For them, rescue is a life-and-death personal issue. I recognize these committed hands because I raise mine the exact same way. In that moment we lose our humor because the depth of gratitude we feel toward horses is immense. We literally owe our presence in the world to the memory of some old horse.

About then my voice seizes up. I don’t want this to be about me because there are so many others with the same experience. I’m common in this group. So I continue to ask for money and notice quite a few of us have something in our eye. We act like its dust because we’ve developed some pride, but we’re fooling no one.

And so, when we see a photo of Vinnie like this, we see ourselves, even as we celebrate him. That’s how rescue works–it’s contagious. It doesn’t matter who does it first, horse or human, but it starts in a small, seemingly insignificant way and eventually radiates out in all directions. In the beginning, it’s rough. Horses reflect our fear and hurt, but if we ride it out, smelling mane and trying to forge a language with a horse, until in the end, we reflect their confidence. We become good lead mares in our own lives.

Riding is a school of humility and selflessness, its practice if it is done well, tends to make better Human Beings –Nuno Oliveira

We started young. Lots of us came to positive horsemanship because of rough handling as children. We learned firsthand that violent dominance would never build trust, and lots of us escaped to the barn. Horses were the safe haven we found there. They spoke the language we hoped to hear in our homes.

There’s a barn joke that horses are cheaper than therapy. I have done the research and it isn’t actually true. But the more time we spend with horses, the more we heal. As we move forward with our horses, it gets easier to let go of fear in our human lives and forgive ourselves of our pasts. For some of us, being with a horse is our first taste of honesty. It works like church because even the angriest atheist can see the divinity in a horse. They’re undeniable miracles and some of it rubs off on us. Like salvation.

The thing about horses rescuing us is that it works impersonally, just like gravity, healing each of us whether we think we need it or not. We just say yes and whether we need a healing from helmet hair or total abandonment in the world, horses will carry us through it. When the day comes that we realize the debt we owe to horses, we work to do better for them. We learn to ride more kindly and communicate more clearly. We discover we have compassion to spare, so we give back by helping horses.

For some of us, horses are just a “hobby”, an overwhelming passion that drives our lifestyle, finances, and everyday choices and activities. It’s like having a combination gambling addiction and an obsessive-compulsive disorder, that we proudly brag about, while spending every spare moment, year after year, in the company of horses.

And then for a lot of us, it’s something bigger than that.

Stable_Relation_3D_Cover[1]Stable Relation: I’ve written a memoir about the farm I grew up on, the farm I have now, and the horse that carried me in between. I didn’t write it because I think I am so very unique or important; indeed my experience is more common than it should be. I wrote it for all of us who share the experience of being healed by the animals in our lives. Stable Relation is available now on Amazon (book link here) and soon everywhere else, in paperback and eBook. With a big gratitude-scratch to my Grandfather Horse, who gave me my voice.

 

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

How to Ride like a Kid.

WMQuietEyeRemember riding when you were a kid? We climbed on top from a gate or a truck bumper. No bridle, no saddle, no worries. Remember the way the sun felt on our shoulders? If it was hot enough, there was a thin layer of sweat between our horse and our cut-offs–intermingled sweat. We didn’t take lessons, we were free. In our mind’s eye, when we look down we see our tan legs against his flank and sometimes our colors ran together. We were chestnut tan from the sun; we were dirty bay at the end of the day. It was fun and wild and we didn’t always make it back for lunch. We were fearless.

May I break in on this idyllic memory for a moment? There are a few reasons it went so well; first off, we didn’t fight. Most of us had no steering and didn’t care; if our horse didn’t go where we wanted, we went where he wanted. The plan was to ride; that was good enough. If we were still on an hour or two later–it was a great ride. If we had to get off and lead our horse that was good, too. It was summer. We had very low expectations and no thought of controlling anything.

As adults, we get to the mounting block carrying a mental load that weighs four times what we do. And those are just the day-to-day stresses: time, money, relationships. We bring a list of things to do, but we don’t exactly remember what’s on the list. Still we hold on. Most of all, we are on a time schedule. Maybe there is a show coming, or we have another appointment, but usually it’s because we are in a hurry all the time and it’s a habit now. All of this, and we aren’t in the saddle yet.

The biggest killer of the long-lost kid-ride? We worry about how we ride, how we look, how our horse looks; even if we don’t compete we judge it all–usually harsher than a trainer or judge would. We have self-doubt. Sometimes it’s just a feeling; a sticky green nonspecific frustration with a red ric-rak fringe of impatience. It doesn’t look good on anyone.

In truth, I don’t know if our childhood rides were actually all that blissful. I doubt it. I do know that we’re more self-conscious now, and it gets in our way. Maybe if we heard our thoughts in someone else’s voice they’d sound silly, but inside our heads, they seem sacred and true, and a bit more so each time we repeat them. Our favorite jab–we wish we rode like we did as kids. Even if we didn’t actually ride as kids, we still have that fantasy.

So, we grew up and got self-conscious–feeling an over-sized awareness that included uncomfortable emotions like embarrassment and nervousness. Self-consciousness comes with judgement. Humility is good, but if our confidence suffers, so does our leadership. Then we sit on our horse’s back talking to ourselves about our horse and his problems. We leave him out of the conversation entirely. Meanwhile our horse is out there in the real world looking for some help.

We can’t become childlike again. Our hormones see to that. And frankly, riding like we did when we were kids was dangerous and if we keep doing that indefinitely, our guardian angels will give up on us.

Maybe the closest we could get to being childlike again is to replace self-conscious thought with self-aware thought. Less judgement and more openness. It means experiencing the world through our senses instead of our intellect. It’s closer to how kids and horses do it.

Here is where your riding instructor sounds like a yoga teacher. The first step is the hardest: to let our brain rest and open our senses to listen and feel. Breathe. Then be aware of your breath. Count an inhale, 1-2-3. Feel your body soften. Exhale, 1-2-3. Feel his strides under you lifting your sit-bones one at a time.
“Is he forward enough? Why is he fighting my contact?”
Yes, that’s the voice of the self-conscious judging part of your brain. This is important: be kind to it. If you judge yourself for having a thought; if you feel like you need a whip and spurs to push those thoughts out of your mind, then start over. Be gentle with yourself, excuse those thoughts with a breeze of a breath. When they come back again in a few seconds–no problem. Breathe them away again and replace those thoughts with the feel of his barrel relaxing. 1-2-3, soften your jaw. Feel your horse follow suit.
(Yes, I am aware that this is my two millionth post on breathing, cleverly disguised. But I mean it, there is nothing more important.)
Every time you breeze-away a thought, know that you’re being lifted and held in a sacred place. Be grateful and feel your heart melt. You can keep your adult insecurities; be critical and doubting out of the saddle if you need to, but for these few mounted moments, let go. Let your ribs expand, soften your belly, be aware but thought-less.
It’s about then, in a connected moment, that you feel his stiff shoulder. All horses have one, but this time you feel it small and without judgement. You let your leg warm that shoulder while you count your breath, 1-2-3, and give him time. He isn’t pretending and this is an opportunity for hear him with physical kindness. The same kindness that you’ve shown yourself.
And with a breath, you excuse this good thought as well. 1-2-3, and in this discipline of breath and mind, there is freedom from reaction and judgement.
There you are, riding like a kid. Easy as 1-2-3.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

How a Runaway Happens.

guthriegallop (640x530)You know that feeling when a wreck is going to happen but you just can’t look away? It’s a magnetic, anxious feeling, followed by half-hearted guilt; time slows and it would feel better if you could laugh. It’s hoping for the best, but knowing, just knowing…

I was at the rodeo in Cheyenne. You can tell it was decades ago because I can’t sit through them anymore, even if I do want to hear the concert afterward. But there I was in the crowded grandstand and the entry parade had begun: colorful riding clubs and rodeo queens and chuckwagons, one after another, passed in front of us.

The parade continued with a line, stirrup to stirrup, of maybe ten rodeo pick-up men. They wore shiny metallic chaps and bright Wrangler shirts, looking cool and trotting proud. Just behind them was another rodeo queen and her two attendants. This queen’s horse was clearly tense. They sported tiaras on white hats and ribbon sashes that advertised their county fair, waving with cowgirl glamor, beaming huge smiles. The queen’s horse jigged; he wasn’t really trotting or cantering; it was something in between–with a little too much altitude. But the girl-queen was born for this moment. Her smile is bright and her eyes are on the crowd. By now her horse was pounding with anxiety, while the attendants had picked up their reins and rated their horses back a bit. Everyone saw it coming–with dread. I was holding my breath. So was the horse.

The queen waved on. Her attention was on the crowd; she took her job very seriously. Her horse was dancing fast, as if his hooves were burning. He could barely touch the ground, his shoulders were high and he was almost sitting behind. Time stopped, I couldn’t blink. But then the horse got a toe-hold on the earth, all the energy that had been a boiling prance connected together, and his hind end launched them forward like a jet. It was so abrupt that I thought he might run right out from under her. The queen’s head snapped back, but at the last possible second, her waving hand grabbed the saddle horn and they were off.

The queen’s horse slammed into the backside of that line of pick-up men and they scattered like bowling pins. By the time they figured out what hit them, the queen’s horse had passed the chuckwagon and the chain reaction moving forward totally unraveled the parade. It spooked the crowd to silence. A handful of pick-up men gallantly gave chase, but the queen was already out of sight. The crowd was quiet as the announcer filled time, until he could report that everyone was safe.

I felt bad for the horse. He hung on as long as he could but he needed some help. I’m not blaming the queen; he might not have been her horse and it was a pretty strange trail ride they were on. But I always remember this when someone tells me their horse took off bucking for no good reason. That their horse came apart and went nuts when other horses didn’t. Or to a smaller degree, when a horse uses evasive behavior in the arena.

A runaway always starts just one step at a time. It’s a small tension that grows. There was warning but if you miss the first few cues from your horse, it will accelerate and when he’s in full flight–full resistance–it’s too late for a small cue to help him.

Or maybe the first moment the horse tenses, you take that cue from him and tighten your legs and pull on the reins. It’s a natural reaction for us, but it affirms that he was right to be frightened. The result is the same as cuing him to run away or panic.

Some trainers hold the opinion that the answer to any problem is to just ride the horse through it. Let the horse figure it out. That might work for a certain horses in limited situations, but it isn’t dependable. In the worst case, a horse might totally come apart and bolt. And a bad experience can change a horse, making the path back to confidence long and slow.

The bottom line is that a wreck is a perfect time to improve your relationship with your horse. If he’s in trouble, he has lost confidence. He can feel abandoned when you are right there in the saddle. He wants the safety of his herd, in this case his rider. You can push him harder and louder, or tell him he’s done it before and being afraid now is stupid. Or you can take him at his word and slow down. If he doesn’t have confidence, you can’t bully him into courage, any more than a trainer who yells angry corrections during a lesson can expect a soft, sensitive rider at the end. Horses don’t learn when they’re afraid and neither do we.

The biggest gift we can give a horse is the confidence to trust himself.

Step one is stop focusing on everything but your horse. Plug in and listen; ride every stride. If the first thing you notice is that he is totally unresponsive, consider it your reminder to pay attention and feel his tension sooner next time; put him first, so he can have the confidence to do his job.

There will never be a totally bomb-proof horse. There are no guarantees; riding horses is dangerous. But poise and courage can be trained. If you show your horse the respect of listening; if you ride with kindness and keep the conversation going with small challenges and praise, over time the trust grows strong. It’s no coincidence; when your horse is brave and confident, he becomes the horse that will save your life.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.