A couple of days ago, I did a post on the first of two challenges that Mark Rashid gave me at the clinic in June. The first challenge was to ride all my horses the same - here's the post on that, which you might want to read before you read this one so things make some sense. The second challenge was to develop my own style, not just imitate how others ride. That's what this post is about.
I've been thinking about these things a lot, and just mulling them over. And it occurred to me that a lot of this applies to life generally, not just horses. But that makes sense - it's not possible to separate horses from life, and how you are in one place is going to be how you are everywhere else. For a moment, think about how things are in your life. I know for me, a lot of what I've done over the years has either been compliant/imitative - doing what others want me to do or what I think others want me to do (not always the same thing), or oppositional - not doing what others want me to do (resistance) or trying hard not to imitate the behavior of others because I don't like their behavior or just don't want to be like them (righteous opposition). In thinking about this, this imitation or opposition sounds a lot like bracing, and has made a lot of what I've done or been "deformed" by trying to either accommodate or avoid acting like someone else.
But where is the "center" of me in all of this? If we're defined primarily by imitation or opposition, then who are we, really, in ourselves? I think this is the key to both challenges. In the first challenge, to ride all my horses the same, it comes down to offering all my horses the same feel and connection, rather than deforming my style based on a "story" I'm carrying about them. (Mark says people often tend to fall into the trap of riding each horse in the way its prior owner did, which tends to reinforce whatever it is that's causing issues.) That feel and connection has to come from me, first, consistently, before the horse can make the connection.
The second challenge is to develop my own style. Mark says that his goal is for his students to surpass him - that's one of the reasons I consider him a master horseman and not just a trainer. I'm not sure that's necessarily possible for me but the fact that he says it is very freeing - this means that in the process of developing my own style, not just in imitation of him or Heather, he's encouraging me to think outside the box - even the box he's drawn for me so far - and develop my feel, technique (although I think that's the least of it) and understanding, for myself, in my own way. I also have to avoid riding in a way that's just oppositional to the ways others ride that I don't like - that's a brace in the opposite direction.
So if imitation and opposition can produce braces, mental or physical, what am I to do? I think the answer has to come from my own values and perspectives, expressed in my relationship with the horse. And another important thing - those values and perspectives have to be expressed in the rest of my life, too, to have them be most effective in my horsemanship.
So, what are your values and perspective, from the center of you, and how are they expressed, or not, in your life with horses and your life without horses? I think if our horsemanship comes from this center, from our deepest values, then it's possible to build a personal style that can take parts of what we've learned to do (or avoid) from others, and make something that's our own. It takes a lot of self-examination to do this, and it's not easy. It involves experimentation, and a willingness to change what you do and adapt what you find useful from others.
Here's where I've been so far in my horsemanship journey over about the past 10 years (I started out as a traditional "whack them and make them obey" rider, and became disatisfied with this, both because it didn't work well with - and in fact harmed - lots of horses and because it began to be at odds with my personal values):
Stage one - wanting to hear what the horse has to say and understand the horse's point of view - "what does the horse think about that?" Beginning to understand that horses don't do things - even extreme things - out of cussedness - they always have a good reason for what they are doing. Almost all horses with "problems" have people problems. Wanting a better way - one that doesn't involve coercion or punishment for wrong answers or gadgets as a training method (although not understanding, really why gadgets are a bad idea - I now believe it's because they have no "feel"). Becoming aware of how we inadvertently train our horses to do things we don't want them to do.
Stage two - learning how to recognize when the horse makes a try - however small - towards your goal, how to give a properly timed physical release, and how to ask without bracing/pulling/blocking. Learning how to build a "learning chain" of links starting from the foundation up. Learning how to breath and move with the horse's movement. Awareness - of your own body and the horse's body. Beginning to communicate - to ask and wait for and acknowledge a response, rather than make/dominate/force. Offering the horse leadership by your focus and intention for speed, direction and destination.
Stage three - learning to influence the horse by dialing down cues to almost nothing, and using breathing and thinking how actions would feel to you if you were doing them to lead the horse with your thought. Learning to feel the feet in order to better time and influence movement. Still operating on the outside of the horse, but beginning to access the inside of the horse - riding "in" the horse instead of on it - looking for softness from the inside. Improving your ability to "be" with the horse mentally and to offer the horse your leadership through thought. Releases become much smaller and approach and then become simply mentally softening. I've been mucking around with this stage for a while now, having progress, set backs and revelations along the way.
Stage four - having the horse's body be your body and the horse's feet your feet, and actually feeling that. Offering the horse "feel" at all times - any physical connection is only a whisper - the drape of a rein, the lie of a leg on the horse's side. Offering softness at all times so the horse can meet that with softness. Hands, legs and seat now only boundaries - all the communication is mental - you offer the thought of what the horse's/your body and feet will do and the horse makes the mental connection and just does it - not riding on, or even in, the horse - you are the horse. The work, and connection, and joy in that, with continuous feel/softness, is the release. This is where I want to go - I'm getting glimpses of it from time to time, but I think what Mark was saying to me is that I can't get there without beginning to meet his challenges.
Now none of these stages are bad - even the first stage represents a big improvement from how I was working with my horses before. Technique can be very good, and if used correctly can produce excellent results. But stage four isn't about technique, it's about feel. To develop feel, and my own style, it has to come from the inside of me - my values and perspectives - not from anyone else - to the inside of my horse. I'm still very interested in learning anything any true horseman (especially the Dorrances, Ray Hunt, Harry Whitney, Mark Rashid and those from their lineage) has to offer me. I'm also interested in hearing about more useful techniques offered by competent trainers, although I'm a lot less interested in technique (except insofar as it helps me understand an approach to doing something with my horse I've never done before) than I am in the development of feel. But I have to take what's offered by others and examine it and consider it in light of my own values and core - who I am and how I act in the world. It has to come from my center, no one else's. I also have to be willing to experiment and just get in there and do it - sometimes it'll work and sometimes it won't but it's all part of the learning. And it's never done - there's always new ways of approaching things and more feel to develop.
So it's all one thing - ride all my horses the same and develop my own style - from the inside of me to the inside of the horse. I'm looking forward to continuing the journey!