Thank you to those people who have given me glimpses of this thing that I now chase after too…
Over time this blog has shifted from the physical mindset of conditioning and “training” a young non-Arab horse (well 1/4 Arab…) to complete a 100 mile single day event to a wandering road of the deeper life goal and what transformation that kind of journey takes.
It began with the realization that if I was going to ride more than a few meandering hours on the trail with friends I was going to have to learn to ride better. I could trot along for a short burst here and there but upon trotting for miles and miles it became clear to me I was bouncing all over the place at best, and definitely making it harder on my horse than it would be if I had better skill.
Seeking help from a friend with an impressive dressage background led me into the rabbit hole of horsemanship that I had been seeking but hadn’t realized it, and now come to believe is the superpower anyone with insight will develop for higher success in every field and discipline. Above and beyond good equitation what I am speaking of is learning the subtle language of each horse and how to work together in mind, body and spirit not resorting to force to get it done.
Over time my blog has shifted along with this view to interest in the heart of the horse-human relationship over the surface layers of how-far how-fast how-high how-long data. I do have an obsession with getting this little feral mare to a single-day 100, but the real passion has shifted to how we get there and so has my writing.
I’ve asked myself more than once: do these things I’m so fascinated with still work in a blog on getting to an ultra-long distance equine marathon? My own personal answer is that it is at the core. Yet being around the periphery of the endurance community there is much more emphasis put on how to get mileage, speed, increased cardio capacity, how to to dial in electrolytes (or not use them at all!), what to feed on race day, what tack is lightest for the horse and easiest for the handler, but though every rider mentions that “training” and riding skill is important- almost like it’s a given… something we all accept and pay minimal attention to unless it hinders getting to the big goal or puts someone in immediate danger.
If you can load your horse somehow, enclose it successfully at camp, keep it from striking out at the vet check, get on it before the ride starts (often with someone holding it still for you), hold on and not fall for each loop, bonus points for not kicking other horses (who by the way may not be under control of its rider and crowd you or run up on your own horse’s personal space) and double bonus if you can use your arms at the first vet check because your awesome horse is so fast and eager they pull you through the first loop completely braced to run through the bit— you can succeed at endurance riding!
This isn’t limited to distance riding sports and there is a full range of excellence to crazy hot mess to go around. I have been a less than shining example of fine horsemanship and drowning in ignorance more than my fair share. As a whole it is too common that the “training” part in many competitive equine sports is only seriously addressed if it gets in the way of “winning”… Seems like part of the driven nature of competitive people. I speak from experience, I fight it back constantly now or at least when I recognize it.
One day however, when I asked for help from my friend, I saw this thing, this real connection and communication between a horse and a human and it’s different enough from what most of the people out there are doing that it stood out to me and I knew that’s the thing I wanted more than the rest of it. I didn’t see good training. I didn’t see a horse who knew the rules of behavior. I saw understanding. And it shone like the dawn to me. It was different.
What I am still coming to terms with is that not everyone is able to see this quality in a horse and human. I’ve had people to tell me it’s everywhere and most people with horses have it, but though I wondered for a while if I was being blind; it’s actually more clear to me as the years go by: it’s not common at all. Most people are still talking about and looking at good training. Good training isn’t that difficult. It’s much better than no training and hugely different than poor training. But all horse training is finite. True understanding between beings has no limits to where it can go.
Recently I have been considering the phrase prepare to position. I’ve read it in Tom Dorrance’s True Unity, I heard Buck Brannaman talking about it in a clinic video, and it’s come over some other podcast and interview media as well. There is something fundamental about this concept in the horsemanship I crave. I currently struggle to improve at this***.
*** side note as I edit the previous line one thing I have observed from the people I admire for their approach and skill in this work… every one of them to a person has something they are struggling to improve in their own self. Timing, balance, feel, understanding, softer touch… they are all on the hunt constantly not for the next event, but the thing….***
Regarding prepare to position, myself and others I notice are asking horses to do something they are not prepared to position for, and most of the time it comes from this combination of lack of experience, patience, knowledge, timing and feel.
How often have riders talked about a canter lead their horse struggles with yet don’t realize that as they ask for the lead with the cue that should work they have the wrong timing of how the feet are carrying the weight of horse and rider? Certainly horses everyday overcome this and get correct canter leads despite the inadequacy of feel in a rider, but if a rider can prepare to position the horse for the correct lead with a feel of the feet on the ground and then ask in good timing, a higher excellence in riding can come out. The horse can move in a balanced way instead of having to overcome bad timing and feel, there can be a new level of lightness and refinement, strength in the movement. Yet the experience, knowledge, patience and work it takes for the rider to get to this is more than most of us have the time to dedicate when we have 24 more miles to go to get the cardio training in for the next event. Just give me a canter here and lets get on with it.
At least that’s how I’ve felt many many days. Let’s not count the ones I didn’t even understand there was a need to develop two different canter leads at all. Ignorance. Simply putting miles in riding a horse does not make one a good rider. I am proof of this!
It reminds me of the advice to try to figure out what is the thing that happened before the thing that happened. Find insight sooner back in the process: do less sooner so you don’t have to do more later. By the time you’ve landed headfirst into a tree, there were steps that brought you there but many of us haven’t worked at training our minds to observe and act appropriately to these moments. Please don’t confuse this with overreacting, that’s actually doing a lot more way too soon that creates a bigger problem than you really have in the moment.
Prepare to position to me speaks of a deeper understanding of where the horse is holding weight or balance or brace that will inhibit the request we would like to make. It uses subtlety to ask for a weight shift before asking for the movement. It puts the horse in a place where it can easily fulfill the request as long as she also understands the request.
I can ask my horse to pivot around her hindquarters but she is going to do this with more quality and lightness if I knew she had shifted more of her weight to her hind so her front can move with ease. Did she stop heavy on her front end? Do I need to first ask for her to shift her weight back before I ask for the front to move?
The truth is I have barely begun to scratch the surface of these questions. I have a chance on the ground where I can use my eyes, but in the saddle I have marginal feel and understanding of what’s going on that I can’t see. That’s ok because just changing my mindset to care is part of the greater concept of prepare to position. I will never get better if I don’t begin by asking the questions of myself. Mentally I want to feel this better, that must come first.
It IS ok that not everyone wants to get to this level of finesse and lightness in riding. It is incredibly demanding of the rider. Horses are amazing creatures that can do so much despite our shortcomings in feel and timing. In fact they often do this preparation on their own because they can sense what comes before the thing that comes before what the human just cued. They know us better than we know them.
I can’t understand how anyone who rides a horse would not be craving this kind of connection with their horse. Maybe they haven’t gotten a taste of it yet… maybe their lives are busy with other things…
Simply trying to find incremental improvement here brought some moments with Khaleesi over the weekend where everything came together and she sprang with lightness into a movement that felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. When I am in tune to these things and get them right and they encourage her to work in her strength, balance, and lightness with me instead in spite of me it is a taste of something otherworldly. And what I love even more is that over the years I’ve thought I’ve found it in a new depth of movement or feeling and yet always I find there’s more. I think it might just be infinite, these layers available.
In the larger scheme I saw that over these few years of ups and downs with my endurance horse and my sojourn into a horsemanship addiction have been preparing to position me and she for what’s ahead. Through setbacks, mild injuries, incomplete events, personal struggles and everything in between, I can see that all of it has been preparing to position us as a stronger team, with a stronger, lighter, more balanced horse and a smarter, lighter, more balanced rider. I hope that paying attention to building this in both of us will mean a longer window of competitive strength, I hope I can compete her without breaking her down physically even in a demanding sport.
In my case I can look back and see what I didn’t know caused us to have to pay some early fines in physical issues. My unbalanced riding, ignorance in diagonals, leads, and ways to help a horse carry herself properly along with listening to the voices that said to move her into longer distances before we both had a stronger foundation (even though I sensed it wasn’t right somehow) because I was driven toward my goals contributed to some time of having to step back and heal/strengthen physically.
It’s ok. I didn’t understand- it is both a reminder to have grace for others who don’t know more than they do as well as a humility check that I will someday know more than I do today and have things I wish I had done better today. My horse is amazing, well all of them are, and she always leaves the door open for me to grow. She gives me fresh mercies every morning… usually! Occasionally I have to dig myself out of bigger screw ups, but we always come back together…. and sometimes, when it all comes into focus….