Saturday, July 17, 2010

Parts of Body and Mind

Note: Read the comments - they make some things clearer.

Apologies for a second somewhat long post, with lots of links, in one day - it's one of those days where stuff is just coming to me and I have to write it down. If you haven't read the prior post, "Being Aware", you might want to before you read this one, as the two posts are related.

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Last year at about this time I did some posts on my history with horses and where I thought I'd been and where I thought I was going next. These posts were:

The first post was about where I'd been in my horsemanship journey, first climbing the mountain of traditional horsemanship, then breaking it down and starting all over again to climb the mountain of using non-coercive methods to ask horses to do what I wanted in a way that was more respectful of the horse, and much more effective. At that time, I felt that I'd come some way climbing that mountain, and could see the next mountain beyond, where I could further develop my attention to the horse and not just use pressure and release "technique". As I said then:

I've learned not to use force to "make" the horse do things, but to ask, using pressure and release and the softest cues I can. But I've been focussed on doing one thing, and the next thing and so on - building links in the chain so my horse better understands what I am asking and can comply. But I've still basically got a mechanical horse - just one that responds to more humane and thoughtful cues than I used to use.

For me the next step on the road was learning to pay even closer attention to the horse and what the horse is saying, and to start to have a dialog with the inside of the horse, not just working by cuing the outside of the horse.

In looking back at the past year, with all its ups and downs, I feel I've made progress and have been slowly climbing the mountain of attention to the horse. But now I've got to really work on me - my body and mind - so that I can communicate more effectively and subtly - this is the next mountain I need to climb. This will require me to break down and rebuild once more. I always try to remember that a horse can feel a fly land on its skin - no wonder so many of our interactions with horses must feel to them like shouting - as I said back then: "A lot of resistance to our cues comes from the horse objecting to how we make the request, not necessarily the request itself."

Here's a partial list of what I need to be aware of - and all of this has to happen while I'm attentive to the horse and our dialog:

What is my goal - what, exactly and precisely, do I want the horse to do?

What cues will I use to ask and what are the progressive steps of the task - how many steps can I break it down into if it's a more complex task? Can I direct the horse's thought in order to direct the horse's feet?

Precisely what intent will I communicate to the horse - level of energy, direction, speed, destination?

What is the exact level of the very softest physical cue I can use, and exactly when (in terms of space and also the horse's body position and footfalls) will I use it?

As the horse understands what I'm asking, using a very soft cue, is there a way to reduce the cue even further so it becomes just a whisper, or just a change in mental energy or focus?

What's the exact release and how subtle can it become while still giving the horse the signal?

How should I be breathing as I work on the exercise? Are there points in the exercise where I can use my breathing to cue or assist the horse?

Where is my mental focus? Can I cue using mental focus?

Do I have a focus point to move towards together with the horse?

Where are my eyes looking and should this change through the exercise? Can I use my eye position to cue?

What's my head position? Can I use a subtle change in head position to cue?

What's my spinal position and posture?

Where - what joints/muscles - are carrying tension or braces and can I release those so that tensing a particular muscle or stopping the movement of a particular joint can communicate something specific to the horse? (I want to do this during a loose rein walk warm up so that I start working from a point of relaxation and intention.)

How am I breathing - both mechanically and in terms of rhythm?

What is each body part doing - head, neck, shoulders, back, pelvis, hips, and down each leg and arm? Is each body part where I want it to be in relation to the horse and the other body parts?

Am I able to activate any body part independently of each other part while the horse and I are moving together so I can communicate precisely with the horse?

Are there any twists or tilts in my body in any axis? (Sometimes an observer can be helpful with this.)

Am I riding in a balanced position - and I don't care whether I'm bareback or in a Western or English saddle - if the horse were to vanish would I be in a stable position with my feet on the ground, or would I fall over?

Where's my center of gravity - am I "in" the horse or ahead, behind or to one side?

Am I actively riding at every moment - am I "there" with the horse, moving with the horse without braces and feeling the horse - so that I feel what the horse is thinking and if the horse makes a sudden movement I'm "with" the horse?

In ground work (in addition to most of the questions above) - how am I moving my feet and each part of my body? (I don't believe in standing still, even when lungeing, as I think this takes away an important means of communication and also doesn't give the horse the feeling that we're working together.) How is each part of my body and focus oriented and what is that telling the horse? Am I using my center of gravity to stay in a balanced and effective position?

And finally - this is the biggest one and the ultimate objective - can I make my body join with that of the horse, so we are moving together as one, where my thought and slightest adjustments in body position communicate with the horse, and I can really "feel" the horse communicating back to me in dialog - the horse's body becoming my body and the horse's feet becoming my feet as we do the work together with mutual joy and understanding. This is very exciting stuff, and I'm looking forward to climbing this next mountain together with my horses.


  1. Thoughtful insights Kate, thank you.

    What I invariably find as I struggle with my horsemanship is that what I need to do to become a better horseman, is what I need to do to become a better human.

    All of the growth and awareness necessary to bring my horse and I into harmony and balance will bring my life into harmony and balance.

    Or perhaps, if my life were more harmonious, balanced, and integrated then my horsemanship naturally would follow...

  2. I like this Kate:

    "A lot of resistance to our cues comes from the horse objecting to how we make the request, not necessarily the request itself."

    I must admit, I think all the same things you do when I'm riding and it's not going how I thought, and then I get bogged down in all those questions rattling around in my head *lol*

  3. Valentino - your point is a very good one - I firmly believe that horsemanship cannot be separated from life - it's all one thing, and the things we need to work on are usually the same no matter where you look. Aiming for attention and softness everywhere in life is the goal.

    Danni - Other than doing some pre-planning and knowing what the ask should be and what the try will look like that can be built on, I try not to be overly analytical about this stuff while I'm working - for me it's more about having comprehensive body awareness as a goal and using that as a base to be able to make subtle adjustments. Now see - I could have just said that and avoided writing all those words!

  4. Whew, that's a lot to think about at once. I think in Dawn you have the perfect horse to help you down this path. After all, it's the "difficult" horses that force you to grow and learn.

    My Gwen is an excellent teacher. Because of her I've really started to develop softness, control my emotions, and really pay attention to my body language.

  5. Very insightful. All good points to ponder and work toward. It's not easy sometimes for riders like us who have been riding one way for years to reevaluate our riding techniques. But I feel the same way you do and know there is a better way.

    I've seen progress with Dusty using these new methods of thinking and putting them into practice. Lately, I only have to think trot or canter and before I even cue her she's on it. We did have a horse for many years who was as sensitive as she is, but along the way some less sensitive horses came along and so the subtleties of barely there cues got a little lost. It's so important to know your own mind and where your body parts are and how they are reacting to different situations. I'm a big fan of taking it slow with small steps until we both get it right. It seems with our horses there are so many ways we can improve ourselves in our relationships. When we realize it's never too late to reeducate ourselves for the good of the horse we all win.

  6. "It's so important to know your own mind and where your body parts are and how they are reacting to different situations."

    So true Arlene. It's about responsibility. Responsibility over your body, your mind, your attention, your emotions... very, very challenging for me!

  7. You have to be good and quiet, but you really can hear what your horse is saying to you!! Isn't that marvelous! I am baffled that we have such a relationship with the horse when he is the prey and we have so often been the hunter. Thanks again for such a thoughtful post!

  8. Interesting series of posts today, as I've spent a lot of time today reflecting on my journey with Bonnie. It has been very frustrating a lot of the time, but lately very rewarding. I'm trying to think back at the changes I made, and also the changes she made, to better understand how we made such enormous progress together. In a nutshell I started riding a lot better!!

  9. Kate - Sometimes it helps to write exactly what we're thinking, in order to reach a more succinct (sp?) conclusion *lol*

    It's about all of this becoming second-nature to our minds and bodies. Practice, practice, practice!

  10. I love it! I can't wait to read about next journey. You always give me something to think about, a new corner to look around.

  11. A lot of good insight here! So at what point do you leave your "head" behind and trust your instincts? If you're thinking of all these things while riding is it harder to tune into your horse's energy and connect with him/her?

  12. Albigears - once I'm working with the horse, I try to mostly leave the thinking behind and just be there with the horse, feeling what I'm doing and how I'm moving - it becomes much more holistic. What I'm trying to do is work towards the day when all of this will be second nature, and I'll be able to carry that body awareness and precision to the work with the horse, while still carrying in my awareness a complete focus on the horse - I'm a long way from done with that but I'm encouraged by the progress I've made over the past year in being aware of and tuned in to the horse, as I said in the last post. I need to carry both those things simultaneously now in my body and mind - awareness of the horse and awareness of myself.

  13. Hi Kate,
    Love your evolving horsemanship stories - and while my path has been mostly little hills due to a 25 year period without horse anywhere but in my heart. Now I've a horse, but limited physical capacity to ride. People are always asking me, why have a horse if you don't ride it? How can I explain that there is so much more to my relationship with my Cookie than riding.
    I don't want to, tho' I could easily :), go on about my story. I'm fasciiated with your's :) I got goosebumps reading from last year's review of your journey and the mountains thru today's entry, and I just have to ask you if you've ever heard of Carolyn Resnick? I KNOW what you mean about communicating with the inside of your horse...gaining their focus, interest and attention in to a willing partnership - not a mechanical response simply because one can outwit them. I know what you mean when you and some of your followers hint at horses being our mirrors - reflecting back to us how we are.
    Just being with Cookie brings me such peace - is it because she is peaceful? peaceful and safe "with" me? Or because I gain from her innate sense of peace and well-being? CR teaches what I call "horse-speak" - I just find it so uncanny how you and CR essentially seek the same type of two way dialoge with horses, one that recognizes a horse's capacity to choose willingly.

  14. Beth - thanks for reading and commenting. There's a lot more to horses than riding - they're not just pieces of sports equipment, although some people treat them as if they were. I have some physical limitations myself -although mine aren't serious enough to stop me from riding altogether, I may well get to that point at some time not too far off.

    I know Carolyn Resnick's work slightly, and have seen it referenced by others. I agree that the important thing is to think about the horse as a partner in a conversation, who has things to say and choices to make, not just an object to be "programmed" or "conditioned". And every horse is an individual with their own personality and quirks.


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