Of course, more than a week has now gone by since my last post. But I’d like to resume the subject of straightness as one of many good examples that can help describe what it means to be present with our horse. If you jotted down a few of your own ideas about it, you can compare your notes with mine. If you prefer pondering a different subject or are working on something other than straightness, feel free to insert whatever issue you’re sorting out with your horse. You might be surprised at how much all issues are related.
Whatever you choose, the thing you’d like to work on becomes the goal. You know what you want to be able to do, but in order to reside here in the present you will need to put your goal to the back of your mind. It is still there, guiding you, hopefully inspiring you. You can review it at any time. But if you hold on too tightly to that future event, it will blind you to what is happening in the present moment and you’ll miss many important clues that might make achieving your goal that much easier if you had only been paying attention to things you thought weren’t important.
This is exactly the way it was for me when I began working with Tom. During my first session with him, he had me turn my horse loose in the round pen to “send him around.” Tom began noting aloud everything he was seeing. “You see how Blackie leans in here? You see how he tucks his nose there? You see how his tail curves now? You see how he flips his head when he steps up there?”
Well, yes, I could see all of those things. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. Trivial details that meant nothing to me.
Ah… they meant nothing to me because I was seeing them through the filters of my past assumptions that told me that all those “little” things had no meaning, and so I tuned them out the moment they appeared. I mean really, what did it matter that my horse tucked his nose two inches for a split second when he transitioned from walk to trot? I still didn’t know the answer to that when he seemed to miraculously stop tucking his nose in the transition about a year later, but it sure got me asking a lot of questions. Looking back, it was my willingness to ask them that marked the dawn of my ability to begin learning, which set the stage to knowing what it meant to be in present time.
Assuming an inquisitive mind means we are admitting we don’t have all the answers and are looking to assess each situation with new eyes. This doesn’t mean we don’t rely on past experience and know-how. It means that no two situations are exactly the same, and while we may begin to look at things with some ideas already in mind, we are simultaneously asking, “What more?” For example, getting back to straightness (or whatever else you had in mind):
How does your horse move when you walk him in a straight line on a loose rein? Is he forward or hesitant? Nervous or calm? Settled or unpredictable? Does he list toward one direction or another? Do his hind feet track up into the tracks of his front feet? Do you even know what that feels like?
Which shoulder does he put more weight on? Is he soft in both reins, or more on one rein than the other, or not at all? Do you automatically step in to make “corrections” with your hands or your legs or both? What are his reactions to your aids? Is he perfectly responsive? Do you have to make the same corrections every time?
Do you feel (that kinesthetic, inner knowing) the relationship between the softness or stiffness in your hands and whether or not your horse is settled? Unpredictable? Shut down?
Do you feel the relationship between the softness or stiffness in your hands and whether or not your horse is easy to move forward, on the muscle, or slow to go?
And do you feel the relationship between all of that and whether or not your horse is straight? Or balanced, if that is your preferred goal? Or bending evenly on a turn? Or spooky when you try to ride past that certain spot in the arena or in the field somewhere? Or hesitant going down a hill or through a ditch?
Wait… what does spookiness and going through ditches have to do with softness in the hand? And what does that have to do with straightness… and all those other things that surely aren’t related?
Gustav Steinbrecht (1808-1885), considered one of the German “Masters of Dressage,” coined a phrase that can be seen posted above many entrances to riding halls throughout Europe. It says: “Ride your horse forward and make it straight.” (Yes, “it.” The German word for “horse” is neither masculine nor feminine).
At first glance the words appear simplistic, but distilled within their meaning is the foundation of dressage or any discipline mindfully practiced. Why? Because if you know what goes into bringing about forward and straightness, you know that it all comes back to the horse becoming free of a history of tension and stiffness, or said in a positive way, becoming supple. Ray Hunt used to talk about “getting back to the original horse” — the horse that existed before he developed a need to armor himself against us humans and the world. Only muscles that are supple and loose are free to stride forward and evenly on both sides. Think about it. If there is no brace to restrict the natural reach of the stride, you have forward. If there is no brace to armor your horse against your touch, you have responsiveness. If there is no brace to resist your hand, you have softness. If there is no brace on one side of the horse vs. the other side, you take away crookedness entrenched in the musculature. (The horse may still be crooked for other reasons… we’ll get to that later… maybe even next week?).
Meanwhile, feel free to ponder, and ask lots of questions. 😀