The biggest hurdle we riders face isn’t our fear or our horse’s fear. It isn’t misunderstandings or the “unknown.” The biggest hurdle most riders face is what we see and hear vs. what we notice and listen to around us. What we missed because we were hurrying.
In the world we live in today, everything is rushed due to time. What is the one thing we can’t buy? Time. How many times have we all said, ‘if I could just have 2 hours to myself!’ We never decompress and learn to idle. We over-extend and obligate ourselves to a rushed, foggy state of cursory accomplishments, with a “GET’ER DONE, PDQ!” attitude. This attitude carries over to working with our horses. And, as a particular student of mine pointed out, consequently our successes are anti-climactic.
During a recent lesson, I asked one of my students how long her horse’s bit had been squeaking. Not only had she not noticed the squeaking, but no one else in the arena had either. I told them to close their eyes and listen “openly” for a moment…sure enough, we could plainly hear her horse playing with his bit to a rhythmic squeak. The rider admitted she didn’t know how long it had been going on, and a week later informed me that her horse was “still squeaking.” How long do you suppose that horse had been playing with its bit to cause it to make a squeaking sound? Quite a while, I imagine.
Listening acutely like that is what helps us notice what we need to know about our horses and ourselves. My mare Briar (who my students call “Bubble Wrap” because of her propensity to get in trouble) was missing her correct lead to strike off of in the canter. As I worked her around the arena one day, a prospective client who was watching said: “she really is being a bit of a brat isn’t she?” I answered, “No ma’am, she’s not misbehaving, she’s off on her left front end.” The client and one of my students watched for a bit longer and then asked how I knew that. When I asked her to canter on a certain lead, her response seemed a bit bratty and mischievous to them. I asked them to come closer to the edge of the arena, close their eyes and listen. As Briar and I trotted closer to them, you could hear the ever-so-slight “off” sound of her feet in the sand; the lack of rhythm to her cadence. Because of this horse’s “try” capacity, it would have been easy for me to push her to canter over and over until she found - or was forced to find - the correct lead. But because I slowed down and listened, I was able to find the “true” problem and work on a solution that Briar and I could both be OK about.
In another instance, a client of mine had been having a hard time with her horse “being mare-ish” around other horses. As I watched her ride with a couple of other horses, I made notes of the things that I saw. For one thing, when this client was riding with a particular task to do, she had no problems with her horse. When she had a particular task to do and the other riders in the arena had particular tasks to do that all differed from one another, she also had no problems with her horse. But when the group was all asked to do the same thing, BINGO! My client’s mare became Sybil! What had changed? By paying close attention, I was able to see that my client began to lose her sense of space with her horse. We all naturally assume an attitude of competition when riding with others who are all doing the same task. She was looking to get the job done “the best,” and was not noticing or paying any attention to the other horses in the arena and their whereabouts. Since she was so engrossed in her task, she wasn’t noticing that her horse was beginning to escalate every time she rode too close to other horses. Over and over again, until bang! SUPER MARE, capable of more Kung-Fu moves than Bruce Lee! Every horse has its own “bubble” of a comfort zone. Truth be told, I can be a bit claustrophobic myself. But not in all situations, or places. It changes. Observe, remember, compare, and ADJUST!
My client SAW the other horses and riders in the arena, but she failed to PAY ATTENTION to them. And she failed to NOTICE the changes in her horse. Her horse had been giving her plenty of signs that she needed space, but my client didn’t notice these specifics, as she was focused on the larger picture. I firmly believe that nothing just happens with a horse (i.e., he “just bucked out of nowhere”). It all begins somewhere, evolves and escalates until we can’t help but finally take notice that there is a problem, and it’s usually too late. In general, this happens because we are rushing or we “gloss over” the situation at hand. Every mistake or mishap I have had the misfortune to be in or to witness occurred because of rushing (time factor), carelessness (misdirected focus, not noticing the problem at the beginning), and hearing but not listening to the situation.
All of these factors are highlighted more brightly when doing trail challenge and obstacle course events. These events can be really fun. But they can also be major stumbling blocks in our relationship and training progress with our horses IF we aren’t able to listen to and understand what we are hearing, and pay attention to what is going on around us. Getting an obstacle done is not just in the doing, but also in the preparation of the doing. How do you prepare for the execution of a trail obstacle? Keep in mind all the examples of misdirected focus and inattention to detail that I have given so far, and I will leave you to think on one of Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance’s most mind-bending questions: what did you do, just before you did what you did, to get what you got? That question may sound like a riddle, but if you read it through a couple of times and give it some thought, I’ll bet you’ll see that any problem you’ve had with your horse BEGAN with some little thing you didn’t notice, some little thing you didn’t listen to.
When we become a slave to the clock in relationships (be it equine or human) we miss the things that truly make for great moments. Forever in search of VICTORY, we forget to relish the small triumphs of a task. This also erases the mantra of “observe, remember, compare and adjust,” because we gloss over the objective. We need to heed what Ray Hunt used to say: “take the time it takes” (unbeknownst to most, it was he who said that phrase first). Do it slower to get it better. Practice doesn’t make perfect, PERFECT practice makes perfect. Unfortunately, none of this usually meshes with our finish-line focus.
So much more comes into focus when we decelerate and break down every task. And when we listen. For example, after teaching a riding lesson, with three other people watching the lesson, I later asked these three people, “what did you hear in the last 5 minutes?” One told me I had been talking about being soft. Another said I had been talking about hand position. The third searched for what she thought I wanted her to say. The truth of the matter is, the rider I had been teaching was doing transitions with her horse, the changing cadences of which you could hear very clearly in the sand of the arena. All the while, a hawk had been sitting on a far fence, squawking. None of the three people watching the lesson answered the question I was asking; and none of them had slowed down enough to hear the subtle sounds going on around them.
Shokota' Equestrian 10/31/2018 ©