For all their marvelous computing power, the human brain can sure get in the way of engaging in a fluid conversation with a horse in motion. Healthy horses respond instantaneously, intuitively, and usually accurately, to our requests. There isn’t a lot of time for me to think about my next move because horses simply act, or don’t. If I am in my head, focused on technique, or thinking about what I should be doing, or this horse just has to be exercised, then I am not fully present in the moment. My thinking mind is simply not quick enough to keep the dance fluid and appropriately responsive, to choreograph every step in real time…
Being stuck in my head, I am more likely to miss opportunities to provide clarity, or miss something important the horse is trying to communicate to me.
Unfortunately, anytime we determine to move with our horses in any way, but especially those involving head gear and ropes attached to faces, good technique is required – both for effective communication and as a kindness to the horse. Learning technique without thinking too much is a challenge. If you have someone coaching you while you learn, staying fully present with your horse, and out of your head, might seem impossible. Words kind of naturally put us in our head space, disconnecting us from our body and what we feel.
What I feel in my hands as I hold the lead line, long lines, and reins, provides crucial information about the horse. But only if I hold that line with sensitivity and tact. Any excess tension in my body, but especially in my fingers, hands, wrists, forearms and shoulders, blocks any body signal I might send to my horse, AND prevents me from accurately feeling the horse. If I am fully present in the moment, sensing with my whole body, I can literally feel the level of tension or relaxation in the horse’s mind and body. I can even sense their emotional tone from moment to moment, gauging how they feel about each request. I can feel when they are in good balance to ask for a transition, and when they are not. I can use my entire body to influence or support them, providing clarity and ease in how we move together.
It is not easy to think and feel at the same time! It is a challenge to process the lesson I just read, that video I just watched, and put it into practice without getting stuck in my head space. To take a lesson and implement a coach’s suggestions without disconnecting from a place of feeling and sensing is something I had to learn. It’s easy to get stuck in a mindset that hampers my ability to connect with the horse. Whether it be the idea that I have to exercise my overweight horse, or I have to hold the line a certain way, these are thoughts that tend to disconnect me, making my interaction with a horse rote and goal focused. These qualities don’t make me fun to dance with!
I always remember feeling a certain amount of frustration when being coached. I mean, the coach is not holding the lines, or sitting on the horse feeling what I feel. Most act on what they see, giving rapid fire instructions that get louder when I don’t act quickly enough. I get it. I can be that coach! Because horses tend to respond with such accuracy and immediacy, it’s hard not to give rapid fire instructions.
Unfortunately, by the time a coach says something it’s too late for me to act anyway, so I learned to stay connected to what I was feeling from my horse, allowing the coaching to filter through, making small adjustments according to what I was hearing, in timing that felt appropriate to the horse in the moment. If I heard the same thing over and over again, or my coach got louder, then I knew I was not implementing what they had in mind. I learned things went much better for the horse if I stopped so I could ask them to clarify please without losing the connection with the horse.
Sometimes I think people figure if they work with their horses at liberty they can focus less on technique, and that it’s inherently kinder to the horses since the horse has a sense of choice. But if a horse is in any kind of confined space, or being motivated by food, they don’t really have a choice. And working without the physical connection provided by those lines (lead, long lines, reins) is like working without a safety net. The possibility for confusion on the part of the horse goes through the roof. So while I may not be pulling on their face, I can be equally disconnected, and possibly even more confusing. My responsibility for being fully present is amplified ten fold.
It is much easier to create stress and confusion without a line between us than with one. The level of focus required to notice and respond to all the subtle nuance in the horse’s body language at liberty is amazing and intense. My own body sensing must be sharp, remembering every small gesture and position that helps us dance together with clarity and ease. It’s easy enough to get a horse to walk, trot or canter round and round but to do that in a way that the horse chooses to participate and enjoys the shared movement, now that’s the trick!
Find ways to practice your technique away from the horse. Develop your ability to handle ropes and lines practicing with other people who can give you verbal feedback. Practice being organized and consistent so that when you are with your horse you don’t have to think about how to hold the rope, your body just knows. You don’t have to think about how to gather the reins without bumping your horse’s mouth, your body just knows. When being coached, learn to allow the coaching to filter through while maintaining your connection to your horse. Stop and ask for help if you need to. Develop your body awareness away from your horse so that you can move with precision when you are with them.
Feel, timing and balance is not something you can think your way into. It is a full body experience that starts with feel for a reason. Timing and balance, in my experience, can’t happen without feel. Feel begins with breathing, and staying present in your body first. I use my mind to help me train intelligently when I am not with my horse so that when I AM with my horse I can prioritize what I feel and sense on a moment to moment basis. Feeling and responding fluidly gives me immediate, accurate information that guides our shared movement toward something that is magical, but also, and more importantly in my estimation, in a way that takes the horse’s feelings and current physical capacity into account so that what we do together is appropriate, affirming, and mutually beneficial.
Think less, feel more. Your horse will thank you!
Come check out all the fun learning opportunities in the Tango with Horses Online Classroom!