Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dawn Teaches Me: Channeling and Mirroring

I’m still learning from my horses, and expect that will never stop.  Dawn’s been teaching me some important things again, that I can take and apply to my rides with my other three horses.  As usual, my learning is all about how I ride, and how I can more effectively present myself to my horses so they can more effectively do what I want.

I’ve been riding Dawn now for over 7 years, and we have a very close partnership.  She’s a good teacher because she’s so profoundly sensitive and responsive - she gives great feedback.  We’ve been thinking/feeling together about some important things lately, that I believe will further transform my riding and how I think about my partnership with my horses.  The more softly and with thought I ride, the better my horses go - funny how that works.

Dawn’s been teaching me some important things about what I can “mirroring”.  But, before we get to that, a few words on the difference between directing/channeling and bracing/blocking, and on the relationship between directing with thought/intention and physical aids/cues.

Before I started learning about how to ride with softness and thought, I thought of myself as a pretty effective rider, and in some ways I was.  I could get the horses I was riding to do most anything I wanted, but, although I wasn’t rough or punitive, I basically muscled/pushed/pulled my horses into doing what I wanted.  It never really occurred to me that there was another way to ride.  The way I ride now bears little resemblance to the way I used to ride.  It used to be that all my cues and aids were braces, my contact with the horse through the reins was a brace, and much of what I did with my body blocked/interfered with the horse’s motion.  My horses got the job done for me, but I made things a lot harder for them.

Here’s how I think about things now.  My body, and its position and actions (including breathing and where I focus my eyes), serves to direct the horse’s motion.  My thoughts and intention lead/direct the horse’s thoughts and intention.  My body - arms, legs, seat and the position of my torso and head - provides a channel that the horse moves inside of - they provide shape and limits.  I try to avoid bracing - if the horse encounters any of the physical limits I’m setting, I want to offer softness while still giving definition to the boundary of the channel.

My internal energy, intention and focus direct the horse’s energy level, rhythm and destination.  Increasingly, this also takes the place of physical cues, but the “channel” of my body provides the cues the horse may need if my thought and focus aren’t clear enough.  Essentially, the horse only encounters a physical cue if it’s needed as a backup, and even then, it isn’t really a cue, it’s shaping of the horse’s motion by the boundaries of the “channel”.

Hope that isn’t too confusing.  Now, on to mirroring.  Think of a horse’s body, from tip of nose all the way to where each foot contacts the ground.  Now rotate a horse’s body vertically, and you’ve got an equivalent of the human body.  When I ride, I think/feel my body as merging with the horse’s body, with the equivalent body parts being as one.  This has two aspects - my body forms a physical channel for the equivalent part of the horse, and my intention for my horse to do something with a body part - say, step under and over with a hind leg - becomes a thought for my body part and the horse’s body part to do the motion together, as one.  If there’s any disconnect between my thought and what the horse derives from it, the channel of my body comes into play, effectively as an aid - although I’m not “applying” any aid or cue.  Since there’s no “putting on” of an aid, the opportunity to brace is reduced and it’s easier to stay soft and relaxed together.

Another way the mirroring concept is very helpful to me (and my horses) is that it gives me a way to position myself in space so that I don’t block the horse’s motion.  I’m a pro at blocking motion - most of my problems with bend and/or horses falling on the forehand have come from my blocking a shoulder.  Most of it comes from my using rein aids that block or bracing in my shoulder rather than mirroring the motion I want to create a soft channel. Dawn’s been helping me figure out how not to do that any more.  

Perhaps a couple of examples would help.  Using mirroring, together with thought and intention, here’s how we bend through a corner, or turn off the rail.  As we come into the corner or initiate a turn (tracking right) - all of this happens simultaneously - I turn my head slightly (keeping my head and eyes up and not tilting my head to the inside) and direct my eyes around the corner, open my right shoulder slightly (which means my right hand comes back towards my hip slightly), and think our two right hind legs (her right hind, my right leg) stepping under and slightly to the outside.

If it’s really working, what I do and what the horse does are one and the same and they occur at exactly the same time - there’s no separation and the horse and I just do the movement together - there’s no ask and response, just us together as one.  This is the true mirror - where we mirror each other with no separation between us in time or space. This is how Dawn and I are operating now, and almost all the time there’s really nothing more to it.  If there were any separation, the horse would in the instant and softly encounter the boundaries of the channel, which would serve to direct the horse’s motion.  If I’m doing all these things (or more importantly, not “doing”), if you were watching you’d see me doing almost nothing or perhaps nothing at all.  When Dawn and I go around a corner or start a turn, if you watched really closely you might see my eyes move but that’s about all.  If my inside hand came back a fraction, it was simultaneous with her bending her head, neck and shoulder slightly. And my eyes and hand are just “going with” what Dawn and I are already doing.

The ask is the response is the release - it's all one thing.  How cool is that?

Dawn gets the “excellent teacher” award, and my other horses say they appreciate her efforts.  I still have more moments of separation with my other three, where the channel providing shaping/boundaries comes into play, but those occasions are getting fewer and fewer and smaller and smaller, and the improvement will come all from me - my horses are ready and able to respond if I offer clear intention with my thought and focus and soft channeling by mirroring with my body.


  1. Dawn sounds like a wonderful teacher!

  2. Another great post Kate. You and Dawn are so right! Bracing is so one sided compared to working as one. You explained this so well.

  3. Lucy is my excellent teacher -- been too cold and snowy here to ride.

  4. You have a way of explaining things that puts a clear picture in my mind. Thanks for all the help you have given me by posts like this.

  5. Lovely description of how you ride - I keep adjusting and hope I will eventually be able to ride this way! -A


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