If you look over at the right side of this blog, there is a sidebar called "Steps On the Journey". There are a series of posts there that are my thoughts over time about my horsemanship journey, and where I think I need to go next - what are the challenges, or rather opportunities, that I see ahead to make my horsemanship - my ability to be an effective partner and leader for my horses - take the next step. This is the next post in that series, and was sparked by the Mark Rashid clinic I rode in during May - there is another sidebar over there with the posts about the 2011 clinic, where I rode both Dawn and Drift.
The first post in the Steps on the Journey series has some history of how I got to where I am now with horses. The next couple of posts are about the development of feel, attention and awareness - both of myself and my body and of the horse's thoughts and body. Then there are some posts on what I think of as the "virtues" I need to develop and bring to the horse - the most recent post is called "Developing the Virtues: Me" and is a good summary of what I continue to work on in myself to bring better horsemanship to my horses.
My time and riding at the clinic brought another concept fully to my attention. It's been there all along, but in bits and pieces and never as a unified concept - the concept of "allowing" and how that matters to my horsemanship. The two things I really took away from the clinic are: first, how important it is to be able to allow the horse to move - directing and channeling the energy rather than just controlling it or bottling it up; and second, how important it is when teaching a horse a to focus on getting one thing right at a time and not expect everything to be there at once - as one thing comes right then another element can be added and then another - you can't get it all done at once and it's okay to allow the horse to be imperfect.
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. When I was working with Dawn, and we were starting our work on leg yield, Mark had me only work on "sideways", completely ignoring things like head position and speed (both of which weren't what I wanted) - he said if she needed to mess with her head position or speed to get the concept of sideways figured out, that was fine. And in fact as we worked, once she got the concept of sideways, the other things fell into place pretty much on their own without my having to do anything else. The message of this for me was that sometimes you lose something you already have (head position) while the horse is learning a new skill but that it's still there and will likely come right back - but only if you don't fuss at the horse and try to work on too many things at once. Once the pieces are there, then you can refine things, but not before - otherwise the horse becomes frustrated with too many demands and can't understand what you're trying say as the message becomes muddied.
Second example, also involving Dawn: When we were working on our cantering, I had to allow her to move forward and not hang on her out of concern about what she might do at the canter (buck, bolt, etc. - by the way, she's never done any of these things with me under saddle, ever, but she used to do them a lot in the past so they're always in the back of my mind) - she can't canter properly if I don't allow her to do so, and the less movement I allow the more likely it is that problems will arrive. We're still not quite ready for this one - I need to do a lot more trotting with her first, allowing her to move and freeing her to give her best trot - collected, medium or extended - until our mutual trust (you won't hang on my mouth and I won't bolt or buck) isn't an issue for either one of us and we can canter together.
Third example, involving Drift. He's basically pretty green, and needs a lot more practice just moving with a rider at trot and canter before we can work on refining anything else other than basic softening and pace regulation - he isn't ready for anything else until basic balance and rhythm are in place. I just need to allow him to move at those gaits and begin to figure things out, again without a lot of fussing or attempts to fine tune by me - he's not ready for that yet - I have to allow him the time and space to figure things out without a lot of micromanaging by me.
These concepts lead directly to what I mean by "allowing".
Allowing with my body. It's been a real revelation to me how many times we actively interfere with our horse's ability to do what we want - we pull, creating braces, we brace with our bodies, including our seats, blocking motion. For our horses to do the things we ask, they must be able to move. Guidance and direction are important of course, but the trick is to learn to do these without holding, constraining or blocking. We need to do the exercise "with" and "in" the horse, not "to" or "on" the horse. When working on leg yield with Dawn, I was "with" her by thinking "leg yield" in my own body as if I were on my feet, then allowing her feet to be my feet. This is a very different feel than pushing or pulling on the horse to ask it to move over. Think of it as creating mental and physical openings for the horse to move into - this creates boundaries and guidance without any pushing or pulling.
Allowing with my mind. This is a corollary of allowing with the body. If I'm not allowing with my mind, I can't allow with my body and all those braces and blockings come back into the picture. With a horse like Dawn, developing mutual trust over time is very important - we've come a long way on that road but have a ways further to travel together - lots of trotting in our future before cantering will happen easily and naturally. This is where human anxiety and fear can get in the way - which are essentially anticipations of what might happen rather than fully being present with the horse in the moment. This isn't at all to say that you should just go out and do something with your horse that one or both of you aren't prepared to do, either because of skill level, incomplete preparation or circumstances. I think of it more as, whatever you are doing, be there, fully present and mentally give your horse the space to do what you're asking.
Allowing the horse to try. This is also a mental thing that flows over into the physical. If I ask a horse to do something that the horse hasn't yet learned to do well - like Dawn with leg yield - I have to give the horse the space and time to try. Some of these tries won't be what I want - like Dawn rushing or sticking her head up - but the best course of action is almost always to keep the ask clear and simple, ignore the unwanted behaviors and reward the primary behavior you want to shape what the horse is doing. And in Dawn's case - she's already got a good bit of training and knows what I want on pace regulation and head position - as soon as she was able to figure out that I wanted sideways, the other things came right back without my having to do anything more. It's our job to make the horse's job as easy as possible by making sure the ask - particularly if we're asking for something new or the next link in a chain of skills - as clear as possible. I think our horses often justifiably become frustrated with us because our asks aren't clear or consistent and we complicate the picture too much by fussing at too many details at once. Dawn, as usual, is a great teacher for me - she is super sensitive and tries very hard and shows her frustrations openly when I confuse her or ask for too much at once.
Allowing time. I'm fortunate that I have no deadlines - I don't show and I don't train horses for other people. Sometimes time and hours in the saddle are the best solution - as in the case of Dawn's and my mutual trust and Drift's developing his trot and canter. I have high expectations for my horses, but the joy and fun are in the journey and the slow but steady progress on the way. This also involves allowing for bad days or periods like now when I can't ride - in the long-term scheme of things, these don't matter, and I also find that if the horse has clearly understood what you wanted and you've properly rewarded it, the training pretty much sticks even over layoff periods. It's also important to allow the horse time to figure things out while you're working - all I have to do is keep asking, as clearly, consistently and calmly as possible, and reward the tries, however small, to shape the horse's responses in the right direction. Sometimes taking time is the best way to a destination - for example, with Drift, if I were to rush his trot and canter work, I'd likely end up with a poorer quality trot and canter and a less stable foundation to build on. Once his trot and canter are rhythmic and balanced, we can do anything, but not before that, and it's going to take the time it takes.
Allowing "not perfect". This is a hard one for me - I have an image in my mind of where I want the horse to be, mentally and physically, but sometimes allowing the horse to not be perfect - Dawn's head position and pace when learning leg yield, or Drift's need to figure out his rhythm and balance at the trot and canter - is the road to success. I started out, back at the beginning of my journey, being a very "controlling" rider, and that certainly worked up to a point. I've since learned that being "with" the horse, and guiding and directing the horse - giving the horse leadership the horse can trust and rely on - while allowing the horse to fully participate and try while knowing that they won't be shut down mentally or physically by me - can be much more powerful and can lead to true softness and partnership.
I hope some of this makes sense to you - it's where I need to go next with my horsemanship.