We have often been told that the horse is a reflection of ourselves. The way we communicate and interact with the horse shapes how the horse communicates and interacts with us. Most people who have lived around horses believe this. Sometimes we may even feel that the horse can read our mind. The truth is animals pick up on all sorts of things that we can’t begin to understand and given that our relationship with horses extends into training it’s naive to think that our personality and behaviour doesn’t shape how they respond to us.
Yet quite often we forget this. We look at dressage in terms of a training scale to be achieved and we forget all the elements that contribute to our shared success. I for one fall victim to this a lot. I will be concerned with outside things, anxiety, worries, pain, missing home, or just having a bad day, and I take this to my horse. I forget that he sees this, that when I ride him I am different, that I am less patient, less relaxed. The parts of my body that resemble fear become more heightened and he senses that something is up.
However, we go on with our training and wonder why it isn’t working out. Why isn’t he moving forward? Why is he looking in the trees? Why does he seem to be not listening to me? His mind seems to be elsewhere. Then it dawns on me that my mind too is elsewhere, and I have to bring my focus back, talk to my horse, put myself in the moment and stop worrying about the future and stressing about the past.
I am not a big meditator, but I find the benefit of it because horse riding for me, is my version of meditation. It forces me to learn how to be in the moment, because when I am not, my horse is not, and we do not work together. I have talked before about being in your own bubble. Training your horse in your own space where it feels like the two of you have been cut off from the rest of the world, and it’s in those moments that you can work with the horse, and that he can better understand you.
How can he make sense of you if you can’t make sense of yourself? How can a horse do what you are asking if there are one hundred other things in your mind at the same time?
“What I cannot or won’t do I cannot expect the horse to do. I achieve trust and respect from a horse only when I offer him trust and respect. With forced methods or punishment or abuse I only create a horse that doesn't’ want or can’t (do what I ask), or is afraid of me or reacts in panic,” said Dr. Gerd Heuschmann (Balancing Act, 2011).
A horse that understands his rider is always far more beautiful to watch than a horse that fears his rider. You see the difference even before the rider gets on the horse. Alternatively, we often see in the arena, a horse that has lost his spirit, and unfortunately, we see it a lot. Even knowing this and striving for this connection, for your horse to understand and work willingly with you, there are days when it just doesn’t happen. We all have lives outside horses, which affect how we are around and on top of the horse. Sometimes it’s good just to be aware of this, so that we can understand better how our horse behaves and how this behaviour is related to us.
I have a quote that I keep in my mind each time I go out to ride, so not to fool myself. “The horse is your mirror. He never flatters you. He reflects your temperament. He also reflects your ups and downs. Don’t ever be angry with your horse: you might as well be angry with your mirror” (Rudolf G Binding, Riding regulation for a loved one, 1943).
This quote can then stem out into many elements of training. “Do not ask what you cannot come back from,” said Nuno Oliveira. In a bigger sense this works for everything and yet we see riders who cannot sit the canter asking for the flying change. We see riders who are not relaxed in a working trot asking for the medium. If you cannot do it, then your horse will not be able to. You get back only what you can give yourself.
If you do not have the patience of mind to repeat the exercise calmly, your horse will not either. Go out everyday thinking it’s the first ride for all the rest of your training days, and maybe the last, and then make it the best ride you ever had.
“It is rare to see a rider who is truly passionate about the horse and his training, taking a profound interest in dressage with self-abnegation, and making this extra-ordinary subtle work one of the dominate motivations of his life,” Nuno Oliveira stated.
by Sarah Warne - Photo © Astrid Appels / Lukasz Kowalski