We need to become like water, soft and yielding but extremely powerful. Water is emotion, and horses are all about emotion, they live by what they feel and are heart centered beings. If you could sit on a horse with no tension whatsoever, then your movements created by the movement of the horse would become your aids – no restriction, just flow.
We all want our horses to be flexible and free moving, but are we giving them that chance as riders? The horse is all about emotion, so what state are our emotions in when we go to ride? We cannot expect the horse to be calm and relaxed if we are not. It’s our job as the owner or rider to check our emotions at the door of the barn, easier said than done right? But we can at least be conscious of it and make an effort to take a few deep breaths and let go of the day before we interact with a horse – be it your own or a school horse you are taking a lesson on. Horses understand how you feel on a very deep level, and some will be able to block it out, and others will react very strongly to how you are feeling. I call it the “living Mirror”.
Physically the stiffness in horses that trainers call “resistance” is created by the rider, and sometimes from injuries. We build resistance into our horses by not being flexible enough in our thinking or in our riding abilities. Every rider needs to examine their belief system around how to get a horse to do something, how do you ask? What are your muscles doing? Are you stiff and tense or are you relaxed? Learning for either human or horse is only possible from a place of relaxation. A tense horse or rider cannot learn, as the brain is engaged in the “flight or fight” response and it’s impossible to do two things at once. Horses are born to be free, running across the plains and hanging out with their friends and family. They do not do well in confinement, and neither do most humans. The confinement comes from stiff thinking, not allowing but forcing. This puts the horse automatically in a tense and worried state. It’s unnatural for them to be that way. It’s our job as owners or horsepeople to find ways to allow them to live as naturally as possible, to give them back the freedom of expression and movement, so that even the horse living in a paddock and stall can have mental and emotional freedom.
This does not mean that you don’t have discipline, as you have to be safe around a large animal. There are rules for interacting with humans that allow you to stay safe, and the horse must respect that. What I am talking about here is thinking of the horse as an individual, sentient being with a personality and feelings of its own. For instance, if I go on a long trail ride one day with my horse, the next day I will probably give him a good grooming only or ride only at the walk so his muscles can recover from any stiffness he may have had from a long ride the day before. I’m certainly not going to go and start drilling circles or jumping. That would be unfair. I personally don’t work out hard at the gym every day as it breaks your body apart. The horse is no different. I keep a riding log book and I write down daily everything I have done in my ride so I can keep track of where I am in training and how the horse reacted. It makes things a lot easier.
Try to think of life from the horse’s point of view. They need lots of fresh air, time outside with friends and exercise. Their digestion depends on exercise, as with over 100 feet of gut, it needs movement to keep things moving. These are the basic needs along with good hay, and clean water to drink. If you would not lie down in your horse’s stall, then it’s not clean enough. If you would not eat out of their feed bucket, then it’s not clean enough. I personally will not board at any barn where there is no pasture turnout for the summer, as that is relaxation for a horse mentally. If you want the best out of them physically, then you must allow them to relax emotionally.
When riding you are in charge of taking the tension out of your muscles so the horse can relax. Breathe deeply and watch that you are breathing too fast. A horse’s respiration rate is only 12 – 15 breaths a minute. A human is up around 30 – 40 breaths a minute, so just by our breathing – the horse figures we are nervous, so learn to slow your breath. Slowing the breath also takes us into a relaxed state, and our learning can begin. Really look at your horse – how do you think they feel? Are they happy and relaxed or tense and dreading the ride that is about to begin? By tapping into your own emotions you can tap into the horse’s emotions. Every thought has a vibrational energy, so your emotions create an electromagnetic force field around you. This is known as quantum physics, and is a proven scientific fact. You know that some people you meet you just want to stay away from, and others you want to be with them all the time. The horse feels the same, but how many of them get to choose who rides them? So they feel trapped, invaded and overwhelmed. I never get on a horse until the show me they are willing to be ridden by not moving away from the mounting block. I give them the choice and it works every time. If they move away from the mounting block, there is something I have missed so I begin to look for a reason, it could be physical or it could be mental. Last year I rode a very nervous mare who had been scared by an overly aggressive trainer. It took us 10 minutes just to get the horse into the barn. I told her I would not ride her until she was ready, and it took 4 sessions for that to happen. The mare was still nervous but she soon figured out that I was there to make the ride pleasant for her, and not just a “do as I want” experience. She calmed down and began to listen and gradually her fear and anxiety decreased. She sighed and relaxed and it was wonderful to feel and see. Her confidence grew and she began to move much better.
I learned a long time ago that “less is more” with horses. When I ride I try to move very little, make my aids the softness of the wings of a fly and have the weight of the reins only as contact. Of course there are exceptions – like when a horse is used to being held up by the rider, they are not light in your hands, but you have to train that by not getting sucked into a pulling match. Riding really is about flow and movement, guiding not restricting, listening not talking. It’s a good philosophy for life as well, as when life flows over you with no restriction, you are calmer and you end up places you never thought possible. Freedom and calmness are the reward for allowing instead of demanding.