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Riding into Relaxation

Photo: Chris Wolf

We sometimes forget that horses can perform any movement we need them to do already. They are masters of movement.  All horses are talented creatures; they can fly without wings (not for long), they can figure out how to talk their owners into being fed early (who can resist those liquid eyes and low rumbly nickers?), will run fast, jump high and move in ways that have us lost in their artistry. 

What we do as riders is attach a cue to a certain movement. There’s nothing fancy about training horses; as long as you understand when to release and when to cue working with a horse isn’t rocket science.

Creating a space where the horse willingly does those moves for you, and is so confident that the movement is relaxed? That is the art of horsemanship. You can’t buy it, cheat it, manipulate or fake it. I will gladly spend the rest of my life pursuing this art.

If you have a horse long enough, he’ll either associate you with relaxation or tension. With feeling safe, or not. 

This is why when I hear riders saying that their horses are stubborn or lazy or <insert any other negative descriptor> I feel drawn to asking them how their own body feels. What if we, as the rider, aren’t breathing? Or we have our shoulders up so high they look like clunky earrings? What if we have a horse who is reading every. dang. signal. our bodies and emotions are sending them and haven’t any clue which one to respond to? All these goings on are within our power to change.

I get being at the end of your metaphorical rope when the same behavior keeps showing up and you don’t know what to do. When all you want to do is hang the picture in your head on your horse and make him match it.

Your horse can already perform any movement you wish. If there is a gap between what you’d like and what your horse is doing, the first place we need to look is at ourselves: What are we doing or not doing that the horse interprets in such a way that she is tense? The second place we look is to our horse’s physical needs. Does our horse need bodywork? Nutritional support? Their teeth and feet balanced? Tack that doesn’t interfere with how they need to move? These are questions I ask with such regularity that the more I ask, the more committed I am to asking yet again. In our clinics across the country, we see horses who more often than not have physical issues, much more so than training issues. I would say true training issues are ten percent of the horses we see. That means ninety percent have something physical bothering them. 

After those questions are resolved and we are working with a horse who we feel confident about their ability to perform how we need them to (whether it is cutting a cow from the herd or performing piaffe or walking quietly down the trail), how do we ride our horse into the relaxation of the movement, instead of train in tension, and therefore limits, on how well our horse can perform?

I was out walking the dogs this afternoon, looking at the different shapes of their paw prints on the ground, and it occurred to me that we spend a great deal of time hunched over. We hunch over computers, hunch in a chair or our bed to watch tv, definitely curl up around our smartphones or tablets and spend any time we have in our car hunched and tense behind the wheel as we try to get from point A to point B without sending ourselves into outer space with road rage, or get hit by a distracted driver. We hunch over the sink to do dishes. We sit down to eat and hunch over our meal. Perhaps some of us even walk with a slouch.

Here’s where we can start to not only ride our horses into the relaxation of movement, but begin that relaxation in our own minds and bodies. The great thing about horses is that because we need to be balanced in order to stay on, hunching while in the saddle is not a good idea. Keeping our eyes on the ground and staying in a slouch while we are grooming, or doing ground work is also not a good idea. Horses require us to look up, to straighten up and to use our bodies in non-habitual ways. They are so much healthier for us than screens.

Besides a practice of riding in relaxed physical balance, we can also develop the skill of riding in emotional balance.

To me this has the quality of a meditation practice. Instead of signing up for a three day silent retreat when I can’t sit for ten minutes in silence in my own house, I sit for five minutes each day, not only watching my breath go in and out but also marveling at how much like breeding bunnies my thoughts are. This, I know, is a contradiction to having the much-coveted empty mind. These racing bouncy thoughts are everywhere and reproduce at an alarming rate, hopping from here to there and outwitting my breath at every turn.

Riding horses is the same. If we drive to the barn shaking our fist and cursing at other drivers, and then want a quiet and centered ride, good luck. If we walk out to our horse’s pen fuming about an argument we had and expect our horses to greet us eagerly, that particular wish may not happen. Riding our horses into relaxation is all about us relaxing first.

But it’s a gradual process. Like meditation, we need to build our being-in-the-moment-with-our-horse muscles. If we dive in too soon, we will frustrate ourselves. If we don’t practice at all and let those bunnies in the saddle too, frustration is a sure bet.

Instead we shoot for a present and happy walk. We take a breath, we feel the warmth of our horse’s soft neck, see the particular shape and tilt of their ears. And then we take another breath and practice staying present and open in the trot.

We need to convince our chatterbox brain that it really is ok to take a break and listen.

Sometimes we help our horses, sometimes they help us. I don’t mean to say that everything in your world needs to be rainbows and Muzak. Life happens all the time, but it’s more about finding ways that are meaningful to us to help set aside our concerns and worries while we are with our horses, so we can give them the full attention they need, and deserve.

It strikes me that we need and deserve our own full attention too. We can ride ourselves into relaxation, just by the choices we make each day.