Connection is mutual.
Horse and human attentive to each other.
Focused and present from moment to moment.
Connection is mutual.
Horse and human attentive to each other.
Focused and present from moment to moment.
Life really is too short. Too short to sweat the small stuff. Too short to hang on to grudges. Too short not to forgive. Too short to let dreams go by unfulfilled. People always say it’s important to tell those you love how you feel, spend time with them while you can, because you never know…
I feel her presence cheering me on, sending me love, and for the first few days after her passing just so much peace.
I have no regrets. We spoke daily for the last the six months, with few exceptions. We shared absolutely everything. Left nothing unsaid. We didn’t get to do all the things we wanted to do together. Time worked against us, robbing her of her strength and energy first, then flat taking her way too soon. I plan to follow through on our plans with the certainty that she walks beside me always.
Late last year I started taking stock. Looking at my herd of horses, I realized my core herd has been with me for more than twenty years. One by one those horses that have taught me so much, made me the horse woman I am today, are passing. Romeo, Jiminy, Hercules, Fafnir.. Now, Dillenger is 35, Gin 30, Aero 31… I had the feeling 2019 could be a tough year with lots of good byes. How do I wrap my head around letting go?
It feels like the end of an era. I found solace in looking forward to what the new era might bring. Never in a million years did I think the end of that era would include losing my Mom to cancer with such abrupt finality. She taught me so much in her last weeks! She was absolutely furious that she spent all year in doctor’s offices and didn’t get to go on any vacations. When she found out she wasn’t going to make it, she insisted on one last family road trip.
Shaking in our boots the whole time, my family made it happen. We managed to pull together a family trip to stay on a house boat on Lake Powell for 5 days. One week to the day from receiving the news that her cancer metastasized to her brain and spinal fluid we were loaded up and driving. In that one week, Mom went from feeling weak but walking with the help of a walker to needing a wheel chair and not being able to help herself stand. Mom had to adapt to being totally dependent and we had to learn on the fly how to care for someone in a wheel chair on a boat with no wheel chair accessibility, no reliable cell service, and a group of people having to come to grips with the new reality that our family matriarch was dying before our eyes.
I can’t believe how brave Mom was to take that plunge and go on that boat in her condition. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but in hind sight it was a great gift she gave us. We came off the boat one day earlier than planned. By the time we got her home she was fully bed ridden and on morphine to manage her increasing pain. That was Monday evening. She was gone by Wednesday evening, two weeks to the day that we got the news she had 4-6 weeks to live. I still can’t wrap my head around it.
The end of an era indeed.
I have no idea how this loss will shape me, what this new era holds. But I do know that Mom taught me to embrace life and live it fully. No regrets. Nothing left unsaid.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert. Dune
When I was a teenager I was terrified all the time. I lived in a state of constant anxiety, finding my refuge in the art room, in books, and with my horses out in nature. When I read Dune, Frank Herbert’s quote about fear became my mantra. It would be many years before I understood the sources of my fear, even more years before I learned how to work with what I felt. Oddly enough, the method I learned that allows me to work with whatever I feel follows along the lines of the quote:
This technique of allowing myself to feel what I feel, to fully experience it and breathe through it, came from Michael Brown’s Presence Process, a technique he developed to help himself manage the chronic pain he experienced.
“It’s about becoming authentic, growing up emotionally, and reclaiming integrity. It’s about grasping life intimately, with both hands, and raising ourselves up from being “the emotionally dead.”
― Michael Brown, The Presence Process – A Journey Into Present Moment Awareness
Fear has been a strong presence in my life in the last two years. I care for an array of older horses, most of whom have been with me for a good twenty years or more. Perhaps one of our greatest fears is losing those we love. The inevitability of their passing weighs on me a little more each year. When this group of old guys passes it marks the end of an era. This little herd taught me everything about how I work with horses now.
A few weeks ago Aero gave me a scare. He acted like something was very wrong, like he might be in a lot of pain, and I thought, this is it, this is the day. I gave him a little pain management and by noon he seemed back to his normal self. He told the animal communicator I work with that he was still with us and when my friend did some bodywork on him she told me she had the feeling he was sticking around for me. That statement stuck with me, and I made a mental note. Because I was able to let the initial fear move through, I could act objectively to help him through this small setback.
Last November my Mom received a cancer diagnosis and embarked on an aggressive treatment regime. Talk about fear. I have never experienced the kind of fear I felt when the surgeon had us pinned against the wall with a portable table, sat a foot in front of us, then rapid fire delivered the diagnosis and treatment options without pausing. She kept talking to me and I couldn’t figure out why. I kept trying to use body language to get her to talk to my Mom. Then I looked at Mom and realized she was paralyzed – like a deer caught in the headlights. I realized I was not in my body either, only catching about every other word, and that Mom was definitely not hearing what she was saying anymore. I snapped myself back into my body and tried to take it all in.
The kind of fear one experiences when faced with a scary diagnosis, or the inevitable proximity of death, is paralyzing. From that moment on I felt I was chasing after a freight train that just took off down a track and left me in the dust…
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is that causes us to abandon our own senses, our own sovereignty in the face of ‘experts’. I remember going to a clinic with Rio a number of years ago, swearing to him that I would prioritize our relationship over anything the guy said. That if either one of us didn’t like what he was saying we’d walk away. After barely watching us warm up, without even introducing himself or asking for our names, goals, history, he says to me: ‘you have nothing. No impulsion, no nothing. You are afraid of your horse. He challenges you all the time and you do nothing about it.’ I was in total shock, and from that place of shock the lesson began.
I couldn’t think. Rio clearly wasn’t happy and instead of walking away or challenging this guy some part of me decided the only way out was to jump off this moving train. And I did just that the next time Rio bucked, I jumped off and landed not so gracefully, knocking the wind out of myself, gasping like a fish out of water while someone else caught Rio and proceeded to ride him ‘through it’. And yea, then I found myself in pain, back on Rio, on a lunge line for the rest of the lesson.
How did that happen? I completely abandoned my horse and myself to this authority figure.
Since then I’ve become quite aware of how people use shock and awe, or fear, to manipulate people. I saw it in spades in the last 5 months walking through cancer treatment with Mom. When the fear is so strong that you will die, and die quickly if you don’t take swift action it leaves no room to digest what you’ve been told, to seek a second opinion, or to explore all the options available. Before you know it you are walking a path and you might not even know how you got there.
The week after Aero gave me that scare I was hanging out with him and Gin. Feeling fear again as Mom’s symptoms continued to worsen even after pulling the plug on chemo the first of May. Numb and shell shocked I found Aero standing beside me just oozing waves of love. I felt an invitation from him, to lean on him a bit. So I did. I rested with my back nestled into his ‘armpit’ and he settled into me. Soon Gin came over and positioned herself in front of me so I was oh so gently squeezed between them. They literally held me up as I let tears flow for the first time since Mom’s diagnosis in November. It’s all happened so fast and I’ve sat with her through every single appointment and infusion in the intervening months. It’s endurance on a whole other level to walk a path with someone through all this scary stuff!
Last week we learned that Mom’s cancer has spread to the lining of her brain and into her spinal fluid. Western medicine has nothing left to offer her and of course, they stamped a very short expiration date on her before discharging her into our care.
Talk about shock.
The day after we received this devastating news Aero walked up to me, looked me in the eye and I knew – this is what he meant when he said he was sticking around for me. He knows I’ll need support and the kind of love only a horse can give.
And now, finally, our family is taking time to digest what we probably needed to take time to digest last November before ever embarking down a treatment path.
Fear. It is insidious. It can so easily rob us of our will to stand up for ourselves, our will to stop, breathe, take stock – even if just for a moment – to discover the path that is best for us, rather than the path those in authority push us onto. I’ve been numb with fear since November. Only now I find myself thawing, capable of looking at this new reality in a way that is adaptable, responsive, creative and intuitive. To see possibilities in the face of dire news is the gift inherent in all these years of practice: allow myself to feel what I feel, breathe, let the feelings wash over and through, somewhere beyond those intense feelings I can access myself and all the knowledge available to me.
Mom wants to go on a road trip. I applaud her desire to be bold in the face of death. And so we work swiftly to get all our ducks in a row to take a trip to Lake Powell and hopefully spend some days on a houseboat floating on still waters. It would be so easy to succumb to the fear, all the ‘what if’s’? But Mom wants to be bold and focus on living. Mom wants to explore her options and live as well as she can for as long as she can. As she said, ‘she has too much to do’. Who am I to let fear stand in the way of her courage! In the face of imminent death, what else is there to fear?
Please, be bold, be courageous and don’t let anyone use fear to manipulate you. When you feel fear, pause long enough to breathe and get your bearings. It might only be a split second but that split second is often enough to get you on the right path instead of that runaway freight train.
‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived’
– From the movie Strictly Ballroom
Obviously, this one is dedicated to my Mom – and to my family who are throwing caution to the wind and finding a way to make this trip happen! Life is short. Live it well my friends.
The little gelding and I walked side by side, working in hand as part of his rehabilitation from a tendon injury. I remember the feeling of excitement that bubbled up inside me as he quietly executed the movement. He wasn’t always so easy. More often he tipped toward that edge of ‘overly sensitive’ and ‘reactive’. It had taken a year of patient, consistent practice to get to this point. It felt like a huge breakthrough!
When a horse is really with you there’s nothing quite like it. I feel this sense of potential energy where the possibilities of what we might do together become infinite. That’s how it felt with this gelding, like we could move in any direction, at any speed, in any sequence I could imagine! That feeling of excitement that bubbled up inside me went to my head. I began imagining all the movements we could do from here, movements that would be so good for his body and….
In a split second my partner turned into an anticipatory mess, dancing and prancing and hyperventilating. It took a moment for me to realize what was happening. Just before I asked him to stop and collect himself I realized he was obediently trying to execute all the ideas I had formed in my mind at the same time. I had, in rapid-fire succession, imagined him going from one move to another and he was trying to comply!
In that instant I realized what a huge responsibility I have when I begin the training process. I am the self appointed leader in a partnership I chose, not the horse. One of the hallmarks of the greatest leaders in Tango is their ability to adapt to each new partner, giving their follower the best experience possible. In this moment with this gelding I realized how critical it is to acknowledge my communication was confusing rather than rush to blame the horse. It was so clear he was responding, accurately I might add, to something I wasn’t even aware I requested. This is the kind of thing that no doubt got this horse in trouble with people in the past, the reason he had come to me for his rehabilitation, his ‘behavior’ was getting him into trouble.
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow
I think one of the greatest challenges when coaching people to work with horses is giving them enough structure to be effective and safe, without leading them to believe there is only one way to interact with horses. It’s normal, even necessary, when we first start learning, to have some structure that helps us build a solid foundation of useful skills. Some programs take such structure to an extreme, perhaps with an eye towards marketing, certification programs and the use of specialty equipment. These are all things that make a system or approach recognizable and repeatable – effective and maybe even efficient, but not necessarily adaptable.
When I look back on my own learning curve I see how I started out within various programs or systems, then branched out and away as my own skill set expanded such that the system became a barrier instead of a benefit. It’s also normal, as our aptitude expands to need less structure to feel safe and confident, allowing our instinct and intuition to guide us when we encounter something new or unfamiliar. This is a necessary part of mastery, and part of skill development that often gets left behind when we get stuck in a system or approach. We unintentionally limit our ability to adapt to new or challenging situations.
I can easily use myself as an example.
Not every horse is as light as a feather and tuned into my every thought like this gelding was. Over the years I tended to attract horses considered overly sensitive. I learned to whisper, to refine my movements and requests so that these feather light horses could dance with me without anxiety. My personal system evolved to be soft and light. And that worked great for the horses that were feathers.
One of our very favorite Tango lessons included an exploration our instructors called ‘feather and fridge’. They explained how some people are light as feathers in how they move and others heavy, more like moving a refrigerator. The ‘leader’ has to adapt to what the ‘follower’ presents in each moment. As the designated ‘follower’ it was my job to become a feather or a fridge so Steve could practice adapting his ‘leading’ style to accommodate a partner that is light as a feather or heavy as a fridge.
I never realized I was developing a personal style in response to the kinds of horses I was ‘dancing’ with until I encountered my first horse that was a ‘fridge’ instead of a ‘feather’.
A few years ago a friend brought her gelding to board here with me. He was the polar opposite of the responsive gelding that actively responded to my thoughts. Of course, I started out whispering my requests as though he were as sensitive as these other horses I’d honed my skills with. And he is just as sensitive. He does pick up on my thoughts. It’s just that instead of becoming anticipatory when people confused him he went the opposite direction and blocked it all out as meaningless noise. He shut down and became quite unresponsive. Or so it seemed, if I assumed he should be feather light.
It took some time for me to discover how to be effective moving a ‘fridge’ of a horse. At first it didn’t feel good to me to be so overt and direct in my requests. But anything less caused him anxiety. He’d go sullen and worried in an inward way, moving with uncertainty or wiggling his lip in his version of anxiety. All he wants is clarity. It took some time to develop my own movement aptitude to discover how to present clarity without aggression. I’m not going to ‘hit’ a horse to ‘make’ them go, so I had to dig deep inside myself to discover determination and perseverance that he could respond to.
There is no way I could approach all the horses I know in the same way, with the same energy and intention. Part of our necessary skill development is learning to expand beyond technique, to be creative and confidently adapt to each horse, each situation, fluidly. To stop seeing every horse as a fridge, or every horse as a feather, to expand our tool box to include more than just a hammer!
I had the distinct pleasure of interacting with a young mustang mare on the weekend. She is only recently adopted and has yet to form a bond with humans. Despite the trials and tribulations of her early forays into domesticated life, I find a curious young lady communicating exactly how she feels long before I reach the gate to her paddock. It doesn’t take much to learn to read a horse’s language – a little attention to detail, a willingness to be responsive to what they present, and a touch of empathy.
Horses are so exquisitely sensitive and responsive…
This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with a mustang before they have been ‘trained’. She sees us coming from a long way out and responds by moving off of her hay to create as much distance as possible between herself and us. This is such an opportunity for me to let her know that I hear her. She has already begun conversing with me and it’s critical to the success of our first dance that she knows I can hear her, and that I respond appropriately. I stop walking, lean away, turn my shoulders away, take a step away – progressively but minutely discovering which gesture makes her feel comfortable enough to go back to her hay.
Just a few steps back and she is back to eating, but warily, eyes on us. On an empathic level I feel waves of anxiety pouring off of her. I experience this as a physical sensation burning along my lower rib cage. It’s her way of letting me know how she feels. All mammals convey their emotions this way, including humans, and when we learn to feel, we gain access to our horse’s sensitivity in unimaginable ways. Why? Because now I can stand where I am and breathe until I feel her anxiety diminish, then vanish, before I take one step closer. If I didn’t feel anything from her and went ahead and approached it isn’t the end of the world, she would simply use visual body language to let me know how she feels.
You see how this is going? She is assessing me. Who is this lady? Does she see and respond to my visual cues? Check. Does she feel my emotional signals? Check. Now she knows how sensitive I am, and she has a pretty good idea how subtle she can be in her communication with me. Had I not felt her wave of anxiety and waited for a visual cue, then she would know she needs to be more visual with me.
We could sure learn a lot from horses about how to start a conversation or a dance. She made no assumptions about me. Instead, she simply started communicating how she felt while making note about how I responded. I did the same. In a sense, we started dancing the moment I got out of my car, maybe even sooner! We felt each other out so that by the time I went in the pen with her and began interacting there was a tone between us. A tone that is unique to the relationship I now have with this mare. How many times do we enter our horse’s space with our techniques, our agenda, and our assumptions? How many times do we have our ‘way’ of doing things that we apply equally to all horses regardless of whether or not it’s needed?
Before I even open the gate into the paddock area, this mare knows I know how to read her signals. I know she has healthy, normal responses, and is interested, maybe even curious, with a healthy does of anxiety. Fair enough. How does she know what I might want from her and how I might go about getting it? I have a clean slate with her. I’ve never met her before. This is my opportunity to show her who I am, setting the stage for all of our future encounters. What I hope to show her is my good side. The person that is patient, kind, consistent, listens well, and is adaptable. The other side is the greedy one who just has to touch her, has to prove I can get the ‘job’, whatever that may be, done. The one that will take what I want from her instead of allowing her to give what she can.
Thankfully, with some force of will, I keep my grubby hands in my pockets and my ego back in the car…
I want to show her exactly who I am, how I move, how I breathe, how I feel. When she seems comfortable enough with our presence (because of course I’m not alone), we just walk to the gate into the paddock area, open it, close it and I set my water bottle on the tub near her gate. I talk to her the whole time, explaining what I’m doing and why, but I don’t focus on her, and I don’t pussy foot around. I want her to know this movement isn’t about her, soft eyes keep her in my peripheral vision so that I can make note of how she responds to our activity. She moves quickly off her hay to the back corner, but she faces us and watches warily. I love that she didn’t spook, charging for the shelter, hiding her head in a corner. She consistently shows me a sensitive, communicative demeanor. As her person says, ‘she’s very workable’. Indeed, she is.
All horses are as willing to communicate as this mare if we give them half a chance. As far as I’m concerned, a horse is a horse regardless of breed or sex. They all have the capacity to be just as sensitive as this young lady. I think mustangs have a reputation for being sharper than domestic horses simply because we aren’t used to being around horses that still have their instincts intact. Horses that have not learned to tone down their natural responsiveness to match humans that just don’t tend to listen so well. It’s our insensitivity and lack of attention to the small details of communication that teach a horse to be dull or reactive.
This little mustang is one that would quickly be labeled reactive, hair-triggered, possibly dangerous. Rather than ‘desensitize’ her by scaring her stiff, I’d hope to maintain her exquisitely delicate communicativeness, learn to work with her fine-tuned instincts rather than against them.
When I open the gate to her small paddock, I do so with the knowledge that I step into her home. This is her territory and I always want her to feel safe in her own home. Every horse needs a place they can go where they feel safe, I don’t want her paddock to be what Anna Blake often refers to as ‘the scene of the crime’. Imagine how stressful it would be to have someone come into your home and force you to do something there, to scare you there?
The first thing I do is go squat in the corner furthest from her and busy myself plucking bits of green grass that are just out of her reach. And I breathe a lot. Smiling helps. Noticing the sun shining warm on my face and the beauty of this Colorado blue sky spring day. I am no threat. I don’t need or want anything. Before long she ventures out of her corner and our dance begins in earnest. I’m thrilled when she goes back to her hay and starts to eat, but also note she’s eating frantically, a sign of stress, so I move back to another spot further away from her, reducing the pressure of my presence as much as I can. We are feeling each other out. I want to know if she can handle me being in her home without it being too stressful. When I move to a less invasive spot she calms down, turns to face me, reaching tentatively for my outstretched offering of grass.
She snatches that first mouthful of grass from my hand, clearly conveying her concern that I might try to grab hold of her or try to touch her. And so, I walk away as I carefully shove that greedy part of myself away, that part of me that so wants to touch her pretty face, her soft muzzle. Resisting the temptation is vital. I hope to prove to her that I really do listen. I will not ‘take’ anything from her. Every move I make is deliberate. There is nothing random about even one step. When I move, I pay attention to my rhythm, speed, direction, intention, making note of how she responds to my position relative to her. This is how we begin developing a shared vocabulary. She has not had great experiences with people around her head, so I try hard to avoid interacting in any direct way with her front end. I always position myself so she has the opportunity to move away, space to move into, and room to turn to face me should she choose to.
She frequently chooses to face me. Sometimes she even walks toward me. Sometimes she lets me walk towards her. My assistants kindly keep me well stocked with a handful of grass. Why not. It keeps her curious about me. After a while, she stops snatching the grass while simultaneously retreating to a safe distance, and chooses to stay. She allows her muzzle to softly brush my palm while she gently takes the blades of grass offered from an open palm. She even starts to reach across my body to see if she might partake of the grass in my other hand. Every action on my part is intentional. I want her to explore me. Sniff my arm, feel safe enough to reach across my body, and trust that I will not try to touch her! Oh boy is that hard!
In less than an hour she is readily engaged, touching my hand, letting my thumb casually stroke her muzzle as she takes the grass from hand. As she reaches across to the other hand, I softly touch her lower jaw and hang out there. I want her to get a sense that my touch is not invasive, that I won’t grab for her. Now she is hanging in my space reliably so I test the waters, carefully assessing how she feels about her face being touched. Leaning toward her, she stays. I begin thinking about touching her face and she stays, but lifts her head and turns it away. Her eye is level with mine. Her soft eye turns hard as a rock. So, I take a breath, lower the hand that was lifting and lean back without stepping out of her space. She stays, turns her head back and sighs with relief. This was probably the most important moment in this newly formed relationship. It’s why every single move I make is mindful, present, and adaptable to her response.
By the time I left her she was reliably walking when I walked, I could change my position and stop her, slow her down, and change her direction. She was turning to face me and walking up to me. And so I left her pen with a great big thank you, knowing that the best way to let her know that she did everything right is to remove myself from her personal space, her home.
The reason things went so well with this mare and I is because I did every single thing with focused intention. I made it clear to her that she could not make any mistakes. I paid attention to everything she did in response to my movements so that I could repeat the things that provoked a response in the direction that moves us forward in building mutual trust and connection. The things that will ultimately lead to other things that matter for a domesticated horse. I cannot over emphasize the importance of mindfulness while interacting with horses, all the time, but especially in our early encounters with young horses or horses of any age that are new to us. Those early encounters set the tone for all future interactions.
As Maya Angelou so aptly put it:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The same is certainly true of our horses!
Want to learn more about how to be a responsive human for your horse? Come join me online or in person: Andrea Datz Tango with Horses: A Slow Horsemanship Revolution
It takes time to progress in skills and aptitude.
Sometimes I think we hold ourselves to standards that are so high we get discouraged or feel a failure. Maybe we start out trying something new that’s simply more than we are physically or mentally/emotionally able to do right now. That doesn’t mean we can never do it, but it might mean we need to break it down into smaller chunks, design a logical progression that develops our aptitude over time. Sometimes it seems easier to give up then try to find the time in already packed full lives to develop a new skill. But I think that feeling stems from this quick fix, over achiever, perfectionist that lives in so many of us – at least I know she lives in me! She wants immediate gratification and short-term commitments. It takes dedication to develop a new skill in 5-minute increments on a daily or weekly basis.
I am learning. The smallest progress is still progress. And any progress is better than stagnation!
Developing my personal physical, emotional and spiritual adaptability is a life long journey. Skillful, efficient movement, for example, is refined through careful progression. Never has this been clearer to me than the last few weeks as my body releases holding patterns, some of which go back more than twenty years. Steadily expanding beyond my comfort zone to include types and patterns of movement that challenge my limits shows me where my weaknesses lie while building my strength. This kind of slow, progressive work requires focus, determination and patience. It demands enough mental and emotional discipline to keep listening to my body, to stay present, even when unraveling a pattern means I am in pain.
Releasing holding patterns and uncovering pain is scary. It’s easy to panic and retreat to my comfort zone, back to masking the pain. But on a deeper level I know that the pain is simply letting me know I never truly recovered from that old injury. Being in tune with my body allows me to accurately discern if the pain is an injury I need to attend to, or something I can carefully train through to re-build functional movement in a previously injured area. There is no rushing this process. Changing old patterns and building new ones takes an enormous amount of energy. I am learning to rest when I need to, sleep when I need to. I am finding balance that allows my body to finally heal while simultaneously becoming a fully capable human being. All the while just inserting small bits of movement practice into my daily life.
Have you ever really looked at what humans are capable of? We are movement generalists, not specialists, meaning we can walk, run, crawl, climb, swing, roll, balance, dance….. Our movement possibilities are pretty much limited by our imagination. How much of that innate capacity do we make use of in our modern world? As I explore these evolutionary movement possibilities, I find so many parts of my body I never really used as nature intended. My personal movement aptitude, hence my adaptability and capacity to thrive no matter what life throws at me is also limited. It makes it easy to find a comfort zone and stay there for fear of hurting myself if I venture outside those carefully constructed limits. Paradoxically, by not making full use of my body I am/have been prone to injury from misuse, overuse or compensation. The more I engage all of myself and stretch gently outside my range of comfortable movement, the stronger I become.
But more importantly, the more capable, focused, determined, confident and adaptable. I believe in myself more than ever. I feel completely capable of handling any situation I might find myself in because I know exactly what my body and mind can do, and equally important what I cannot do. As I tap into my own ‘stuff’ I see how my movement patterns impacted my confidence over the years. How those patterns played into the injuries I’ve experienced and the challenges I’ve faced in working with horses. I am beginning to see how not feeling physically capable and adaptable impacted my mental/emotional state. It’s hard to feel confident when you know you have a limited range of ability to respond to things that happen in life, let alone around horses.
Learning to dance is the first time I consciously pushed far outside my comfort zone. It was also the first time I felt a significant shift in my confidence around the horses. Learning to follow someone’s lead, to adapt to the leading style of many different partners, created new neural pathways that showed up with my horses as the ability to seamlessly flow with them no matter what they did.
The first time I became aware of how easily I could flow with a horse I was riding a client’s horse in an indoor arena. We had paused to rest, standing next to the owner on her other horse, you know, hanging out on a loose rein, totally relaxed. In that moment, a herd of cows rushed past such that my horse could just see the movement through the high windows along the long side of the arena. His response was instantaneous. He flew into a 180-degree turn, ready to bolt away from the terrifying cows! Normally this kind of maneuver would have knocked me at least partially loose from the saddle, and I would have grabbed those reins, hauling on his face to stop him. This time, my body instinctively flowed with him. I kept both stirrups, gathered the reins quietly while in motion and steadied him with ease. I remember feeling both stunned and thrilled by the fact my dancing had such a literal translation and benefit in my riding!
About a year and a half ago I stretched that comfort zone again by starting weekly lessons at a local Parkour gym. Here we really started to learn in earnest about these evolutionary movements: jumping, rolling, balancing, climbing. So many things seemed out of reach at the time, but consistent practice, even only once a week for an hour, and within a year I was doing some of those things that were previously ‘out of reach’.
The last few years I stopped riding my horses. I knew there were things in me that were interfering with my ability to communicate clearly and effectively with them. I knew I had a lot of fear about riding. I wanted to figure that out, to find my own path in horsemanship that I could feel good about before I got back on a horse. When I finally did decide to get on a few weeks ago, I found myself able to jump on bareback with more stability and control than I’ve ever had in my life. I rode with more confidence and ease than I ever have.
I am blown away by how much focus, mindfulness and determination it takes for me to move my own body, by myself, over an obstacle. Even a simple one. This process of learning how to move myself through the world with confidence and ease has woken me up to the importance of having this kind of fine motor control, adaptability, mental and emotional control of myself before I even attempt to build a movement-based relationship with a horse. I cannot wait to see how much better riding feels when my body is finished unraveling this current piece of old ‘stuff’. When I feel genuinely strong and balanced, I have no doubt that will translate to my horses.
So much happens in the connection and communication between horse and human. If it takes this much time and focused energy for me to build my own aptitude to move by myself, imagine how much more complexity we add when we endeavor to move in harmony with a horse? It’s a life long journey building that kind of skill. Remember that as you go out to do things with your horses. It’s one thing for them to move themselves around at liberty. It’s several orders of magnitude of added complexity to ask them to move with us attached to them or on their backs. If you find yourself struggling, or your horse getting flustered, remember to break things down. See if you can discover the source of the difficulty. More often than not there is something going on with both you and your horse that needs unraveled so you can progress together. Take the time it takes to unravel yourself, unravel your horse, and keep revisiting those challenging movements until they become easy.
Then don’t rest on your laurels. Find a new challenge that opens you both to another level of movement possibilities. Progressively build your mutual competence, confidence and joy in moving to your evolutionary limits!
I was 49 years old and Steve and I were standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon overlooking the Bright Angel Trail head. It was Steve’s first time seeing the Grand and I hadn’t been here since I was a child. The trailhead sign is covered with cautions about the risks of hiking this particular trail. The bulk of the warnings run along the lines of: it’s long, it’s hot, it’s steep and people die down there – know your limitations and come prepared. Having spent the last year or so plagued by plantar fasciitis in my right foot, something going on with the toes in my left foot, and my knees giving out going up hill from time to time, I looked at that trail and realized it was out of my reach. With a pang of deep regret, I realized I had missed my opportunity. I was too physically damaged to ever hike the Grand Canyon.
On the cusp of my 50th birthday, it was the first time in my life I felt my ‘age’, and that I might be getting ‘too old’ to do certain things, a creeping decrease in confidence and my sense of being ‘capable’.
When we got home I was scrolling through Facebook and came upon a news item that for some reason, grabbed my attention. It was about senior citizens in Great Britain doing Parkour (here’s the video). Feeling a bit senior myself I decided to watch the news clip, with no clue what parkour even was. What I found was a story about elderly folks going out into city parks and creating opportunities to move inspired by the environment. Practicing balance on curbs, using benches like vaults they would sit on and swing their legs over, walking sideways to get through tight spaces and climbing up jungle gyms. I had never seen anything like it but I was intrigued enough to go look up Parkour and find out what it is.
The rest, as they say, is history. I discovered we have a Parkour gym here in town, rallied Steve, and we started going once a week. We’ve been at it for about a year and a half now. And you know, I’m starting to think I might be strong enough one day to do that trail in the Grand Canyon! I’ve a ways to go yet, but I can see things beginning to shift. There is something immensely empowering about tackling these tasks I’ve never done before. We are not doing backflips off of buildings, we learn fundamental skills that are innate to humans: crawling, rolling, balancing, jumping, hanging, swinging and climbing. Skills that get you fit in a real world sense, that make it possible to navigate and adapt to any environment you might find yourself in. The boost to my confidence is crazy as I realize how capable my body is.
This year I’ve committed to expand my knowledge of ‘natural movement’ even further, training to go to a certification for teaching people over 50 in November with MovNat. I look forward to sharing what I learn and adapting my repertoire to include the range of movements and strength specific to working around horses.
I have let go of the myth of aging, that I will inevitably break down and lose physical aptitude as I age. I can do things now I never could have done a year ago, let alone in my 20’s, and now that I’m incorporating these evolutionary movements into my daily life my body is literally getting stronger every day!
What I learn about my own body and mind is intensely fascinating, and of course it’s got my wheels turning about how all this relates to the horses. Let me share my most recent experience…
Bodies adapt to the movement they get exposed to. Muscles, bones, posture, and movement patterns all shape themselves to support the dominant activities. If we decide to expand our range to include new movement possibilities, we quickly discover just how adapted our body really is to this particular set of activities we engage in day in and day out.
Unfortunately, in this modern and domesticated world movement tends to quickly be specialized according to the ‘jobs’ we do. And movement is constrained or limited by the limited space and demands of domestication. Free roaming humans and horses had to move to survive. They had to be adaptable, moving through a wide variety of terrain in search of food, water, shelter, to escape predators, hunt and so forth. This wild life encourages the use of a full range of species-specific movements that we just no longer explore. Movement, it turns out, is just as important for our overall health and wellbeing as food, air, water and shelter.
So what happens when our bodies adapt to these limited ranges of movement possibilities? Specialized movements that might overuse or stress certain body parts while not using others at all?
Back in my days as an equine body worker I saw a lot of horses that were ‘slightly off’. Not lame enough so a vet could pinpoint the cause, but lame enough that the rider or trainer could sense something wasn’t right. Horses, and I think humans too, are physiologically hard wired to mask pain. By that I mean that the body adapts and compensates for weaknesses or injuries, working to stabilize the ‘weak’ area. The result is a functional sort of movement that allows us to appear ‘sound’ enough that we can still do the things we need to do with minimal discomfort, and in the case of a horse, not become the ideal target for a hungry predator. I always warned people when I worked with these ‘slightly off’ horses, that it was highly possible I might release their compensation patterns, and they could show up quite lame as a result. On the up side that allowed the vet to accurately and easily diagnose the source of lameness, and appropriate management could be planned.
I never really thought about what the release of compensation patterns means from the horse’s point of view until I experienced it myself last week! The problem with these adaptations our bodies go through to stay functional enough to keep working, is that the compensations put additional stress and strain on a whole host of other parts. If you work around horses you are probably like me, lots of injuries over the years – some large, some small, and you probably powered through a lot of them because that’s what horse people do! Practically speaking, releasing compensation patterns means, in a sense, destabilizing that old injured area and making it painful again.
Here’s what I mean:
I’ve had more than a few injuries to my hips, pelvis and tailbone over the years, and a few good blows to my mid back. Neither of those areas has bothered me much in the last few years, but my shoulders, neck, knees and feet have begun accumulating issues. As I pursue the new movement possibilities available in Parkour I realized my shoulders and neck are not at all adapted to supporting weight – I cannot swing or hang and I struggle with any weight bearing movements (crawling, climbing, pulling myself up onto something). When I engage in these activities I can be sore for days and often end up waking up in the middle of the night with a headache.
So why not just avoid those movements that cause discomfort? Well, because I have had increasing issues with my rotator cuffs over the years. You might say I’ve been ‘slightly off’ and we know that if we ignore ‘slightly off’ in our horses it’s likely to turn into something bigger down the road! It’s worth discovering why I can’t do these movements, why my shoulder joints seem to be a weak point for me.
Last week I spoke to an expert in human biomechanics. She identified the source of the problems with my shoulders and neck, worked to release the areas that were limiting my use, and gave me things to do to increase my awareness and strength appropriately. My neck and shoulders felt fantastic! In just a week I can see my strength and function developing in positive ways! But… her work also released a very well established compensation pattern. The muscles on the right side of my ribs had shortened and tightened in an effort to stabilize my weak left hip. I went looking at the anatomy when the day after my shoulders and rib cage got released my left hip was screaming at me. No big surprise that there is a fascial connection from the right rib area to the left lateral hip area… No wonder my right side had felt tight and short for all these years!
As my shoulders and arms began working correctly, my mid back started screaming. It hurt so bad the morning after Parkour last week that I could barely breathe. I recognized the pain in both my hip and my back as familiar old injuries. Injuries I thought had healed or resolved, but really my body had just cleverly adapted so that those areas were stable enough for me to work relatively pain free. Why not just keep the compensation patterns and continue on then? Because the compensation patterns were creating subtle misalignments, patterns of tension and strain that made it impossible to use my shoulders effectively – straining my shoulder joints and causing damages to my rotator cuffs. The same patterns of stress and strain were impacting my knees, ankles and feet. Over time I would continue to break down from the excessive wear and tear.
I used to think I just would never be able to get really strong and fit. Every time I tried over the years I seemed to ‘throw my back out’, injure my rotator cuffs or dislocate a kneecap. Now I understand how my body compensates and I understand how to build strength that is functional in a real world, adaptable sense. I also understand what it means to release compensation patterns! You can bet I have a whole lot more compassion for my horses as we work through expanding their range of movement possibilities. For a horse that tries so hard not to be vulnerable enough to attract a predator it must be just terrifying to lose those patterns that make them appear only ‘slightly off’ versus limping. Never mind figuring out how to build strength that allows the old injuries to fully heal without creating a new compensation pattern! But it’s worth the effort!
It can be a challenge to find opportunities for expanding our movement repertoire in our domesticated world. Get creative. Find ways to move more, move better, and move through all the possibilities you are designed for. The benefits are immense! And while you’re at it be equally creative with your horses! Here’s to not only aging gracefully, but aging with strength, courage and the self confidence that comes from being physically capable in real world ways! Bright Angel Trail – I’m coming for you. Maybe not this year, but you no longer seem out of reach!
If you’d like to join me on this journey please check out my online class or come join me for a movement-based retreat at my place! Don’t see dates that work for you? No problem, get a few friends together and plan a customized group retreat, or contact me about one on one time when it works for you!