As an instructor, what I struggle with the most when teaching students is not the physical aspect of riding, but the mental. Intent is hard to teach. We all have good intentions when we work with our horses, but, where is the mind? This is a fast paced, over scheduled world we live in. It is easy to be thinking about what we need to add to our grocery list, what time the kids need to be picked up, that insulting thing our boss said, and so on.
Our horses, on the other hand, are very simple, they are present in each moment in the here and now. That may be the greatest thing that they can teach us. Not just in work with them, but in life itself. Sometimes we are too concerned with the goal or destination, that we forget to enjoy and embrace the journey.
The first horse that that taught me that lesson was an off the track Thoroughbred that I had in college. He was a very sensitive, high energy horse. I was going to school and working two jobs while trying to train him. Sometimes I would come out to the barn thinking, “I have 40 minutes to do this before I have to go to work”. When I worked with him under that mentality, all we did was rush and fight. When I used that same amount of time with the mentality that I have all the time in the world, and I only focused on the present moment, I was able to accomplish so much more. That was a very valuable lesson and I greatly appreciate what that horse taught me. If I had an “easier” horse it may have taken me much longer to see the bigger picture.
I think one of the things that block us from being present, is the idea of perfection. We have an end result in mind instead of the baby steps it takes to get there. It is good to have a goal or a plan, but we have to be flexible enough to change with the circumstances. Sometimes our horses just have other plans, and we need to be able work with that instead of against it. For example, on a windy day if your horse comes out as high as a kite, maybe our plan of canter work is going to be more of a fight than a success. We could instead work on tasks that ask our horse to engage his mind and think about where he is putting his feet. We have to be adaptable.
Another block can be fear in the rider. In this case, the rider is thinking about the future. The “what ifs”…. The problem here is that we send that energy and feeling of fear into our horses. They are herd animals. When one member becomes unsettled by seeing something potentially dangerous, all the horses take note. When we are scared, our horse does not realize that it is him that the rider is fearing. He senses the fear and believes something could be of a threat to him, like a mountain lion, and that he should be on guard as well. I once had a student riding one of my horses as we went on a trail ride. I pointed out that there were three graves by the trees. The young lady that was riding kept saying “that is so creepy, doesn’t that scare you that there are graves there?” Well that horse had been down that lane a hundred times with no incident. He suddenly started jigging, his head was up in the air, and eventually I had to have her dismount and lead him back. What we need to channel to our horses in those moments is not “don’t spook”, because the horse gets “spook”. That is what our mind is focused on. Instead we need to think “lets remain calm” then our mind, energy, and horse focus on “calm”.
In order to be mentally present in the moment we need to let go of our “to do” lists, put our phones on silent, and focus on our current task. I highly recommend yoga practice for my students. The physical asanas certainly help with riding, but the breathing and meditation help us to connect with our horses and how we communicate with them. How can we be clear with our intent with them when our mind is full of everything else? It takes time to learn to just “be” but once you do, it will benefit you and your relationship with your horse and how you both handle the world around you.
About the Author: Deanna Preis runs a lesson and training program in Southern IL where she teaches not just riding, but an understanding of the horse, how it communicates with us, and value in horses as living beings. You can see more of what she does on Facebook at Deanna Preis Horsemanship or on her YouTube Channel ShadeTreeStables.
Special thanks to the horses and students who have inspired me and taught me new perspectives along the way, and to the yoga instructors in my life who allow me to bring their wisdom into all that I do.