Friday, January 20, 2012

Mind the Gap . . . Intent, Focus and the (Un)Cluttered MInd

This post has a number of aspects, but it's mainly about how we (at least I, but I'm going to use "we" on the assumption that I'm not the only one) mess up our communications with our horses through various types of mental clutter.  Working (there's that word again) with horses is primarily a mental/emotional thing - of course we have to have physical skills as well, but, once we're past a basic level of competency, the whole thing is driven by our minds - in the broad sense of intent, emotion and degree of "mental clutter" - and how they help or hurt the interaction with the horse.  It's the union of our minds with the horse's mind that drive the union of our bodies so we can do the work together.

Mugwump did a post a few days ago that touches on this topic - read the comments - some of the most interesting stuff is in there. For those of us who rode as kids, it's interesting to compare how it felt to ride as a kid and how it feels now - there's often a big difference and a lot of the difference may not be positive.  Yes, maybe we know how to do a precisely timed canter departure or jump a hunter course or do a dressage test or ride a reining pattern, but is all that "knowing" enough?  I'd argue that often there's a big something that can get lost - and it's an innate, direct connection with the horse where we wanted to do something and we (the horse and I) just did it together - what I'd call an instinctive way of riding.  There really wasn't a lot of thought involved, just a close connection with the horse.

I know this is true for me.  I started riding when I was very small, and had no formal training at all until I was in college.  I just got on the horse (almost always bareback), rode until I fell off, got on again, and just did that for years until it felt right.  I would ride most any horse, even those other people didn't like or were afraid of, and anything I wanted the horse to do the horse just did.  I raced, I jumped, I rode in parades, I took horses swimming, and mostly I just rode, at all gaits and on all types of horses.

Now, why did we have that connection with the horse as a kid and how does that very close instinctive connection (sometimes or forever) get lost as an adult?  This is the "gap" I refer to in the title - it comes from the announcement "mind the gap" that's made on the London Tube (subway) when you board the trains - it's that scary gap between the platform and the train.

For me the problems as an adult come from two things - muddying our communication of intent to the horse, and allowing doubt (or recently after my bad accident last summer even worry/fear) to creep in and contaminate the intention we communicate with our thoughts to the horse - and it's no wonder the horses have trouble doing what we want or even trusting us enough to listen.

First, on muddying of intent.  Mugwump's post makes a very important point - if you clearly intent to do something, and it's important to you, the horse can act on that intent.  It's partly a matter of expectation - if you expect the horse to do something, good or bad, that's likely to be what you get more often than not.  I think part of this is having a clear, specific intent that your horse can read (and not to get all mystical, but there's a lot more to it than physical cues - it's a matter of focus and mental energy as much as anything).  And then there's the expectation that the horse will do it, because you think it's important (if you don't care or you're uncertain about whether you want it, your horse will pick that up and you're unlikely to get it).  Now of course, horses have to have the space and time (and our patience)  to learn how to do what we're asking, but if we focus on what we want, clearly and calmly, no matter what the horse's response, and reward tries towards our goal, we'll get there.  This focus on what we want the horse to do with us, instead of on what we don't want the horse to do (this is why, in my opinion, training schools that focus on making the wrong thing hard rather than on making the right thing easy often have things backwards), is one of the most important things I've learned from Mark Rashid.  (Please take a minute to read his very important post on the question of degrees of separation that we introduce into our interactions with the horse due to our tendency to take our focus off our goal, often in reaction to something the horse does - I cited this in an earlier post but it's very germaine to this question of focus and intent.)

The other way I think we muddy our communication of intent is to overanalyze/intellectualize what we're doing.  I think this is a particular risk for "technical" riders - dressage and reining come to mind, but there are other types as well - and also for those of us who are working to improve and who are learning new "techniques" - ways to time cues, ways to be softer/more precise, ways to think about moving particular feet, etc.  There's a risk that, if we over-think (what we're doing or what the horse is or isn't doing) or over-complicate, we will lose the clarity of intent and focus that communicates most effectively to the horse.  It's not that simple, of course, but I think you get the idea - our minds, in an intellectual sense, can introduce a separation between our intent/focus and the horse.

And then there's the problem of the cluttered mind - what some of the meditative traditions refer to as "monkey mind" (no insult intended to monkeys, but then tend to be very busy little creatures) - full of thoughts, doubts, memories, plans, distractions of all types - if you've ever done any mediation work you know what I mean: there's a lot of clutter in there most of the time.  I think horses have some trouble interacting with people whose minds are not (relatively) clear and focussed - the intent that's communicated to the horse is clouded by mental noise and also often by emotions - doubt, fear, worry, etc.  Horses pick these emotions up very easily and they can color their responses.  It's well beyond the point of this post to talk about how to unclutter a cluttered mind - I think it's partly a matter of recognizing the issue and partly a matter of practice and habit.

A brief digression on Dawn, Drifter and Pie.  After my accident, my interactions and relationship with Dawn were pretty much unchanged - we worked together just as before - our riding relationship goes back several years now and nothing much changed.  Both Drifter and Pie had some physical issues due to their infection with the EPM organism that interfered with our work and their comfort level and ability to do what I asked.  Drifter was picking up my uncertainty and my emotional clutter - he's very sensitive and a bit emotional himself - and his answer was to test me - he wasn't sure I could be trusted or ought to be respected as a leader. Pie had a reaction to my fall that isn't unusual for a young horse (read this post I did on a young horse at a Mark Rashid clinic whose rider had fallen - the horse came unglued and lost most of its training - Pie's case is different but there are some similarities).  Pie had confidence in his rider - his old man and then me - and in his rider's guidance and leadership if something scared him - one of the best things about him was that if he spooked/startled, he would calm right down again.  But when I fell and was incapacitated, I was not available for him to calm and guide him after he was scared by whatever it was (a group of fast-moving bikes with large flags on the back, or so I believe) - it was as if I had abandonned him.  So now he's much more inclined to worry and be spooky, and to not calm down once he's scared - he's not sure he's safe any more with me and this is reinforced by the gap I'm allowing to come between my intent (to go down the trail) and him - "will a deer jump out?" "what's that noise?" "is that a child running down the trail?" - my guidance and leadership for him is not only muddied but contaminated by worry.

I think for me the solution lies somewhere along the lines of: Have a clear thought of the task (very specifically - say, ride at a walk from X to A in a straight line) I want to do together with the horse and keep my physical movements/cues/aids to the barest minimum so the horse can pick up what I am thinking, avoid inserting extraneous thoughts/emotions in between my intention and the horse, and keep my focus on the task no matter what - if extraneaous thought/emotions arise, just gently refocus on the task; if the horse does something other than what I intend, refocus the horse on the task.   Much easier said than done, of course, but I think we can get there and that Pie and Drifter and I can reconnect and keep going from there - the objective is softness from the inside where there's a real, live connection and they can respond to my thought and direction.  Here's hoping for spring . . .

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