I was a horse thief. I stole their grace. I took it without asking. Not only did I steal it, I also disregarded it as if it had no value at all. Not only did I steal it, I squashed it, stamped on it, pushed and pulled it until it died. I used force to try and contain it so that I could mold and manipulate something that did not belong to me. Like a thief, after I had stolen it, I tried to sell it to others. I had no idea of the real value of the grace I was stealing. It seemed normal, everywhere I looked, everyone was doing the same thing.
The tragedy about stealing grace is that once it has been stolen, it is really hard to put back.
What am I talking about? I’m reflecting on a lifetime of physically assaulting horses. Did I hurt them on purpose, no, was I just doing what I had been taught, yes, does this mean I am not guilty? No, it means I was not conscious.
Since childhood, I have always felt a powerful connection to horses. My autism gives me a direct line to their source energy. Their energy and sensory realm has always provided me with great comfort and soothed my frazzled senses. Through them, I am able to connect to a sense of my own energy that feels real to me. The size and rhythm of their bodies and their powerful presence always nurtures and reassures me, their spiritual power seems to refresh and rebalance me when my overactive brain wears me out.
Like many people, I was taught to try and harness this power by attempting to control it with force and pressure, to believe that it was ok to hurt horses to make them compliant, to manifest their grace just for myself without really acknowledging the source of the power I was seeking. Whenever I so chose I felt perfectly justified to parade around astride my stolen grace. My well trained mind on the back of a horse destroyed the very thing my heart and soul were yearning to connect with.
It took a near fatal car accident and a horse with a broken leg to shift my rigid thinking. With my dreams of competitive dressage stripped away I was left with two broken bodies and no frame of reference about what to do with either. Looking back, I can see now that this was where my real learning about training horses began. Everything fell away, the fancy gear, the cavallo boots, the brands the braids the whole charade. Who was I going to be beside this horse without my tool box of tricks and subtly hidden dominance.
I began to notice a different relationship developing as my role changed from sergeant major movement dictator to carer and close observer of healing and soundness. Through this process I had to think about movement differently. I had to think about the mechanics of movement from the horse’s perspective.
One of the great gifts of autism is attention to detail. I can sense the smallest shifts and changes on the deepest sensory levels and I have since discovered that I can see energy fields and work with this energy to aid healing, but that’s a separate story.
My horse had always loved movement but she now had a chipped cannon bone and was psychologically motivated to protect that hind leg at all costs. This got me thinking about the incredible wisdom of the horse’s body. How it will make decisions about what is the best course of action for the whole of the horse. With this in mind, I reckoned that as long as I worked alongside this wisdom, we might have a chance of recovery and soundness. Now, when I say ‘soundness’ I mean a horse that is equally free and fluid in its movement, totally level and highly motivated to carry itself just for the sheer fun of it. Not many of those around in our livery yards today!
So, I have a horse who has learned not to use certain parts of her body, for good reason, and, I was conscious enough to take no notice of top trainers who said things like ‘give her a smack and ride her through it’. If you think about this comment it is so absurd and makes no sense at all, a bit like this insane idea that we have to teach horses how to carry themselves. Do they fall over without our assistance?
Anyway, back to the good stuff that I can be positive about! Through a little bit of trial and error I manage to facilitate experiences for my horse where she could move freely. I very gradually introduced some ground work exercises to re introduce that hind leg to her brain. The really interesting thing about this was that as the holistic benefits to her whole body clicked into place when she experienced the feeling of greater balance from her hind quarters being level she naturally changed the way she carried herself. BINGO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This got me really excited, which might make me weird but pay attention please. If, we can get out of their way enough and stop confusing them with a half halt here and a shoulder in there, they will naturally make decisions about the best way to carry them selves and us. I’m not disrespecting the benefits of lateral work but in my thirty years of training and mainly rehabilitating horses bodies damaged by humans attempting to improve them with lateral work I’m a tad skeptical.
I came to realize that the more I allowed her to make her own decisions about how she carried me the better job she did of it. We forget so quickly once we are astride our horses about our relationship with them.
Horses are highly motivated not to fall over. When we work co creatively alongside this kind of natural motivation we discover so much about the natural wisdom and intelligence of the body. Denying this wisdom and intelligence leads to all sorts of problems.
The more I inquired about conceptualized horse training methods through my body and soul and the more I allowed my indoctrinated mind to unravel as my spiritual world was realigned by my horses authentic power beneath me the more I realized the false premise of almost everything we do to them.
Seriously, the more I tested my new insights, the more I discovered that not only do horses not need us to teach them how to carry themselves but that as long as we give them the space and time that their bodies need, they have extraordinarily intelligent internal guidance systems that will always find the path of least resistance, plus, most horses love to move. These two facts combined make the horse the most compliant and easily trainable being you could hope for. Why then, are most horses stiff, reluctant to move, resistant, crooked, lame, upside down and inside out, the list goes on.
I have only given you a snapshot of the work and revelations I experienced through this approach. My final gift toward the end of this journey with my beautiful Cara was this. As if I needed any more convincing. We had reached a point in our dances together where we were beginning some canter pirouette work. Bareback, barefoot, no nose band and just a chewed up rubber snaffle which I swear she loved, we boinged around the arena like the lead dancers in foot loose! As her capacity to shift her weight further back and mark time with her hind leg increased and she naturally held herself in collection for longer periods, I noticed a small hole appear in the top of the scar from the broken leg operation. Just poking out was a tiny piece of bone, like shrapnel leaving the body of a soldier, the genius of my horse’s body had cleansed itself of anything foreign that was a threat to the health of the whole.
The suggestions I am making may well be hard to grasp for a brain that is closed to the option of experiencing sitting on a horse and trusting that alignment will occur naturally without the need for any dominating pressure. I have to wonder what it is that stops us from trusting that the horse responds willingly to the lightest touch, how we forget so easily when we are with horses that the word humane means tenderness.
A balanced rider who can allow the horse the time and space to find its balance through the repetition of experiencing its full range of movement without pain or restraint will discover that the horse naturally adjusts its balance in accordance with the whole. This process is essential for the foundation of correctly formed muscles in the basically trained ridden horse. A horse who has been allowed to experience and enjoy movement around people without fear will have no problem figuring out quite quickly how to carry itself. The horse knows how its body feels.
Trust emerges when two living beings fully embrace each other’s wholeness in the absence of pain, in the presence and pleasure of free flowing forward movement that feels good to both of them.
By trusting a process that was wiser than me, by following a new leader, by becoming a willing participant in the natural design of my horse and not forcing a change with my will, by uniting through acceptance the forces in myself with this amazing force of grace I was carried beyond my mind into the natural realm of the horse. There is a part of me that seeks to enter their realm of union as a species and never return. I am in awe of their authentic connection to being and their powerlessness to contrive to live in any other moment than this one. The grace in my horse, the grace I have not stolen, carries me when I think I will fall. I have nothing, and yet, I have it all.
I do not want to hurt my horse’s mouth. I do not want to feel like a burden to carry or to have to kick or smack my horse to make her move, I want to feel like a link in chain, I want to lubricate and free my horses joints and merge with this most graceful and natural power until we are one. I do not want an isolated experience when I ride, I do not want to be separated from the real power by micro managing each step and intention. I want the grace and energy that inspires me to flow freely though my mind and body.
I do not want my compartmentalized thinking to create tiny boxes of trapped energy all through my horse’s body, and unconsciously, project my fear and physical contraction onto this spiritual being beneath me. I want to participate in a process that will set us both free. I want to be a gift to my horse, a reconcile of the world of man and the world of spirit, a bridge of compassion and kindness that dissolves resistance and restraint.
To recognize and stop when I am feeling out of control, to pause and reflect. To feel with my body the impact that carrying me has on you, to be soft and light and fluid for your body, to be patient as your body naturally adjusts and re-balances my weight. To provide all the time you need with kindness and simple gratitude that you have agreed to carry me. To know and respect your body enough to stop and just enjoy being with you, that this is its own reward.
To embrace the peace and joy of connection with you without pressure and demands to be making things happen, to cultivate grace, from your body to mine, a continual flow of allowing and receiving. I want my body to feel like an open landscape to you, where you can run and express your intentions and desires without fear of reprimand or restraint. I want to be the gatekeeper who protects you from pain and discomfort.
I know that if I want to connect with you, to form a deep bond of holistic knowledge about your power and wisdom I must seek the fullness and depth of the breath that flows through my body. I know I will harm you if I unknowingly disconnect you from your breath, the source of your power and grace. I know I can be with you and hold a space for grace to enter our dance, or I can push and pull you until all the grace has gone, the choice is mine.
If we wish to call ourselves humane horse people, we must not just speak with tenderness towards our horses. We must also act with tenderness. As we discover our imperfections and apologies to our horses, our powers of empathy and compassion expand. This work is pure gift, the most nutritious food for the soul.
I am an expert in maximizing positive reinforcement by facilitating opportunities for humans to ride horses without hurting them.