One of the reasons I love working with horses is that the journey is never done - there's always farther to go, together with my horses. I have a sidebar called "Steps on the Journey" which has a series of posts about my history with horses, where I came from and the steps I've taken so far on the journey. It's been about 10 years now since my horsemanship world started down the new path I'm still on, and I doubt I'll be "finished" 10 years from now, or ever - that's what's so exciting. I hope I can convey some of the excitement I feel to you.
Where I am now, and what I'm working on now with the help of my three fine horses, is hard to write about - the concepts aren't really "mind ideas" and are hard to describe in words. (Side note - I increasingly believe that we humans are prone to over thinking things - all things - including those involving horses - and are likely sometimes to lose the whole - mind, body and spirit.) But I'll give it a try - see if any of this means anything to you or your horses. I could write a whole lot more, with lots of examples, on each piece of this, but I'll try to keep things (relatively) short (for me).
Where I am now: building connection. That's it, that's all, that's everything - there's a universe - sun, stars, moon, the whole shebang - packed into that phrase. And it's not just about horses, or rather it's that horses are the whole thing, too - horses and life cannot be separated, and whatever's inside of you, and how you approach your life, will be reflected back to you by your horse. If you want calm from your horse, offer calm; if you want confidence, offer confidence; if you want consistency, offer consistency - you get what you give.
To me, the words connection, and softness, and feel, are all the same thing. Different horsemanship masters use different words, but I think they're all talking about the same thing. These words aren't techniques, or exercises, or aids or cues, or even necessarily something physical - although they have physical expressions, they're "more whole" than that - emotional, mental, and yes, spiritual, elements are primary. It's a live feel, a flow, between the inside of the horse and the inside of me - once you've felt that, things are never the same and you want to have that feeling all the time.
Connection isn't just riding well, or effectively, it's about unity with the horse so everything that happens is an expression of you and the horse as one. The energy and flow of this, the feeling of it, is overwhelming when it happens. And it opens doors - it makes it possible to do things with ease and grace. Building connection will be a lifelong horsemanship journey for me - I'm certainly no master of it. When it's there, you and the horse are together, as one, resting in and relying on each other in every moment.
Connection starts with us offering it to the horse - it starts with us and deficiencies in connection are almost always from the human side - even when the horse does something unexpected or that we didn't ask for (more in another post on maintaining connection through things like spooks and bolts, and on the common complaint "my horse is easily distracted"). It's our job to offer it - as continuously as we can - horses are very able to take it up if they know it's available - that feeling of the horse "locking in" to your offered connection is wonderful, but indescribable.
What's necessary to build connection? - these are just my ideas/opinions and you may have other/additional thoughts to offer.
1. Respect for the horse. Horses are living, breathing, sentient beings with feelings and emotions - and this isn't anthropomorphizing - humans are animals too and share this with all animals. Horses, however, don't think about things the way we do - they don't plot or plan or scheme or conceptualize, like people can do - they experience and then express how they feel with their bodies. Horses can develop defensive behaviors, even dangerous behaviors, or behaviors that can be labelled "bad", but those behaviors make sense in horse terms, and are almost always "taught" to the horse by a human rider or handler. In everything I do with horses, it's important for me to ask "how does the horse feel about that?" and to remember that my job is to help the horse feel better inside. If you don't respect the horse as a fellow being, there is no chance for connection. Connection isn't about controlling the horse, or making the horse do something - that sets it up as human versus horse - connection is about human plus horse - the horse does what you want because the horse is in connection with you, understands what you want and willingly does it.
2. Being present and aware. This is a hard one. Humans are incredibly distractable, and staying present and aware in the moment can be a real challenge for us. Humans are also prone to "mental chatter" - it's another form of distraction from the present moment. Being present is a practice that can be developed. Being present and aware - of yourself and the horse - in as continuous a manner as possible - is essentially a meditative/being in the moment practice like any other. Doing other practices like this in your (non-horse) life can help develop this. One aspect of this is to "listen" to your horse - give the horse your quiet mind so the horse can speak to and with you - this is part of offering connection. This awareness encompasses your own and the horse's body, movement, thoughts and emotions - they're all part of awareness.
3. Providing leadership. Most of the problems people have with their horses are really people problems, and boil down to failing to provide confident, clear, and consistent guidance and direction to the horse in a manner that allows the horse to build understanding. This has nothing to do with compelling, dominating, forcing, or making - it's about explaining, offering and shaping. It's about patience and persistence and fairness, too. We humans also tend to "shout" - we overdo things - "it's a big animal so I have to be big or forceful" - and just simply toning things down can make a big difference - in fact the most effective horsepeople are often the quietest in their dealings with horses. It's also about not leaving gaps and being present and aware, and providing leadership with your thoughts, on a continuous basis - easier said than done. Someone's got to be providing leadership and making decisions at every instant, and if it's not you, the horse will need to step in and do the job for its own self-preservation - this is how horses think. The result may be that the rider says "my horse didn't do what I wanted" when in fact the horse is saying "guess there's nobody home and I'd better do it myself" - this is in very small time intervals on a continuous basis. This is part of connection - building that continuous communication back and forth from the inside of you to and from the inside of the horse so there aren't gaps in the conversation. And that connection exists even when you're standing still on a loose rein - if the motor's still running and the connection is still there the horse can be completely relaxed and still instantly available at any moment.
4. Riding the whole horse. To me, riding is about a lot more than mechanics. There are certainly good and bad mechanics, and I think a lot of us start (or restart) our horsemanship journey by getting rid of coercive or punitive mechanics and learning how to do things (still mechnically) in a better way - I know that's certainly where my journey restarted. Learning how to give a properly timed release is mechanics, at least at the beginning. And there are lots of benefits to learning how to time cues with footfalls and think about directing each of the horse's feet. But there's a dimension beyond that, I think. When I'm able to offer connection to the horse and the horse joins that connection, all of a sudden I'm riding the whole horse, not just parts of the horse, and the feel (the gestalt) is a complete one - it's a bit like when we walk - we don't think about picking up one foot and putting it down, we just walk. This allows both straightness and bending - true bending can't occur unless straightness also exists for you and your horse - to occur in a flowing manner - Pie has had a lot to teach me about this. When the connection is flowing, the horse and I are just moving together as one and thought, focus and energy alone can guide what we're doing together, and things now automatically happen from the horse's engine - the hindquarters. This total feeling is physical, mental, emotional and yes spiritual. My aids and cues are really now a back up system to redirect the horse and me back into connection - they're a fallback/boundary/teaching aid, nothing more.
5. Allowing/going with/blending. This is where most of my work (on me, with resulting benefits to my horses) is happening right now. The power of this is extraordinary. Two years ago at the Mark Rashid clinic I began to scratch the surface of this with Dawn. The concept covers a lot of ground and includes such things as allowing time for learning to occur, allowing the horse to try and make mistakes, without fear of reprisal, while you guide the horse to the answer you want, and allowing the horse to move. It involves how you use your body - not blocking motion with your body or by how you give your cues, and not bracing even when the horse braces, but rather redirecting. There's a huge amount to learn and to practice. Red has been a great teacher for me on this. For me, a big breakthrough was learning, first with Dawn, how to have an allowing - following - body and hand, where there came to be no disconnect between me and the horse and the release became the work we were doing together itself - the feeling of connection and softness and balance and blending. It's this allowing that permits the so powerful combination of forward plus relaxation. I've also been learning how to "go with" rather than block or brace, even when the horse does something unexpected.
But more on some of that, and on what I've found builds connection and how to get it back (or avoid losing it) in the next post . . .