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Do You Demand Your Horse’s Complete Attention?

I came across this great post over at Enlightened Horsemanship Through Touch, a blog I happen to love! This is a subject that is near and dear to me and my personal training style, but it was never something I thought about in any formal way, so it was really cool to have someone put it all out there in words where I could wrap my brain around it a bit. The result was a comment too long to post that I thought I’d post here in hopes that some of the readers here might visit the original post and share some of their thoughts on the subject too. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents:

This is a post I instinctively agree with but have never put into coherent thoughts, so I’m grateful someone has so succinctly put it into words for me! This gets right to the heart of much that I dislike about natural horsemanship and all its talk about “being the alpha” and “respect.” There is such a fine - but critical - line, especially with a prey animal, between “respect” and fear, and yet some people, inexplicably, seem to think they are one and the same. I believe a horse is only capable of giving its full focus, as described in the post, to something it fears on some level. The sense I get from the horses whose owners demand complete focus is of a deer in the headlights - of an animal so absorbed by his own hyper-alertness that his ability to function normally is impaired. This is hardly where I want my horses to be, above all during training – I want quite the opposite! And yet I see this with so many NH and dressage horses in particular who become mere machines, acting out their programming in a state of constant, vigilant caution rather than interacting with their human partners in a state of composed trust.

Without ever really thinking about the connection, one of the things I try to do when I feel myself getting tense in the saddle or becoming too focused on particulars is overcome that kind of focus in myself. Our level of focus is way too intense for the horse to understand, much less respond to positively. Dressage in particular often brings this kind of focus out in people, who start to obsess over outward appearances, mechanical perfection and formulaic manipulation of the horse, piece by piece (all the while focused on gaining and maintaining the unfortunately termed “submission”) rather than feeling a way forward with the horse in a way that relates to and takes in the entire horse, mind and body.

Because I study horsemanship and think so much about the mechanics and philosophy of riding, I have a tendency to want to think too hard while training. I can get hung up in details pretty easily. But it has occurred to me how different I feel and ride when speeding around a jumper course or galloping in the field, when there is little time to obsess over details; all of that is let go and I’m just riding in the moment, unconsciously absorbing all the information my horse is sending me and responding instinctively. And I realize that's where I want to be as a rider. And that’s where my horses are at their absolute best. This is probably because I’m not constantly interrupting them with a thousand nagging demands and disrupting their amazing ability to take in the entire environment, handle their own balance and movement, receive subtle input from a rider, and probably a million other things, all at once. Distracting them from all that with an obsessive need for single-minded focus on ME becomes absurd. And I can’t help but think the need for that kind of control over another being is unhealthy, to say the least. It goes along with the view that horses need to be broken rather than trained. While NH gurus vocally condemn and renounce the abusive ways of the past that “broke” horses, all their talk of “being the alpha” and “respect” at all cost seems like a rebranded version of breaking to me.

I realized in reading this post that my riding actually improves when I make the effort to avoid focus. When I feel myself getting into that hyper-focused mindset, I try to soften my awareness to take in everything (which, it seems, mirrors that of the horse) to relax and clear my mind of... well, everything, so that I can absorb everything without concentrating on anything in particular. Riding isn’t about seeing the forest OR the trees, but being aware of both, individually and part of a unified whole. To do this one needs all their faculties, including empathy.... I see so many riders focused, for example, on getting and ideal head position that it's as if all that exists of the horse is the head. They forget to feel whether the back is loose and swinging or coming up under the saddle, whether the hind legs are engaging, whether the gait has a pure rhythm, if the jaw and poll are soft and mobile, if the horse is receptive or resistant, relaxed or tense, etc. – all things that can all be felt easily, but only when one’s concentration is not directly on any of them! It's easy to lose track of the whole picture when we have such a narrow focus. That's just as true in riding as it is in life.

I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this but, whenever I’m riding relaxed on a loose rein and my horse spooks, somehow I just react instinctively and manage to not only stay on the horse with balanced ease, but actually calm him in the process. On the other hand, when I’m waiting for a spook, getting my legs tight, my seat secure, my reins ready, etc., that’s when I have the hardest time staying on and I end up making my horse even more tense. For me, riding with that kind of focus and readiness is always counterproductive. Which I suppose is why riding is a kind of meditation for me. To do it well, I have to let go of all of that intellectual focus on the surface and just be with the horse. In that state, I can feel, almost unconsciously, everything the horse is doing without having to process it intellectually, formulate a response and then react. I’m just there. I trust that all of that knowledge is in there somewhere, unconsciously influencing my actions and awareness, and over years of practice I have developed the muscle memory to carry it out. The moment I start to focus too much, it all falls apart. In a way it comes down to trusting; even if I can’t yet fully trust my horse, I try to trust myself enough to let go – to accept that I can’t control everything and to be alright with letting my horse just be a horse. And maybe in the end the way to gaining the horse’s respect without fear is to be without fear. After all, how can I ask the horse to trust and respect me if I don’t yet trust myself?

Trainingjm elliott