Life Is Not An Emergency – Lessons from a Grey Horse

By , September 5, 2014 4:07 pm

Tomorrow I am going abroad with work, which (to my conscious mind) I was looking forward to. It took me by surprise then when I woke up this morning with a sense of sadness. My first thought was that today was the last day I was going to ride my horse this summer. I didn’t realise how much I was going to miss it. Then my logical mind wondered why I would feel like this?

I started riding in April this year, as I was away from Jan – Mar with work. Since April I’ve ridden Oz 80 times. Not bad for 5 months. I know this as I’ve been keeping track of every ride & writing down our daily progress, including clinics and ‘horse related’ activities.

Yesterday a book I’d ordered arrived in the post. It was Mark Rashids ‘Nature in Horsemanship’. Crissi his wife & one of Ozzie’s favourite people wrote the foreword, and I loved this sentance:

“[Horses] offer us the opportunity to experience something that is less about thinking, and more about reconnecting with a wisdom that we don’t often tap into.”

It was with this thought in mind that I set out today, to ride Oz.

I’ve been really fortunate this summer to dabble in a few things that have helped to get me understanding ‘the dance’ a little better. It started about 18 months ago.

In the past I had loved Mark Rashids books and had been to 2 or 3 clinics in the UK to watch him. I knew he did Aikido but it really wasn’t my thing, so I didn’t bother to learn any more.

But 2 years ago, I had quit my job, said bye to office life and decided to take control of my life again & start my own business. This had the side effect of making me more likely to give other ‘unusual’ things a try.

So 18 months ago, when I saw someone talking about Marks Aikido course in England, I thought ‘hell why not’ and signed up. I ended up doing 2 Aikido courses (much more fun than sitting on a beach for my hols!), which then led to Mark & Crissi coming over to teach in Ireland & a lot of fun & progress & all sorts of cake was had.

A side result was that I learned a good lesson (again) that amazing things can work out when you do something that’s not ‘normal’ for you.

During these courses I loved how I started to learn more about feel and softness. How I can look for an opening in other people / animals and work with them effortlessly through this opening. How by not tensing up, and instead accepting pressure and then ‘helping’ it to move in another direction, can you achieve a lot more than strength or physical force can ever do. Some of the results between ‘helping’ and ‘making’ blew my mind.

In July, Steve Halfpenny came over and spent 2 days with us at my home. This was the first time in 4 years I’d had a lesson with Steve & my horse, and the first time ever with Steve that I was riding an Irish horse who didn’t look like he was going to buck me off any minute because his mind was 45 miles away!

So we started to work on similar work to Marks Aikido clinic. We did some cool moves, but the main focus I got from it was softness first – after you get that, they go & do the moves. This was what Mark & Crissi worked on with nearly all of the horses at their clinic as well in Tipperary this summer. I am really lucky though as in the past I’ve ridden really really soft beautiful horses out at Steves. So while Oz and I weren’t 100%, I knew the feeling I wanted to get, which makes a lot of difference.

If you don’t know that something exists, you’ll never ask for it.

Ozzie started to turn inside out.. at the beginning of the summer he was happy to work, but we had a few basics to fix up which we did at Marks clinics – mounting block, trotting, working with Oz to give him confidence & direction in a strange place & travelling in a horsebox. Since then he’s grown & grown in awesomeness (though I may be biased!).

A big element with riding is to know where the feet are, and to work in time with them to move them. No point asking a foot to move to do a yield when all the horses weight is on it! I had a basic handle on this & was working to improve it.

A comment from Steve about getting a saddle thats less ‘hunting’ style, and to see if I could improve my posture led to me deciding to do something a bit unusual again. I opened up Google and booked myself in for Alexander technique lessons. These have impacted my horsemanship quite a lot already.

At the first session, we all had to describe what we ‘did’ with our horses. I said something about first working on getting Oz relaxed, then doing mainly flatwork moves after that for now. The teacher said it was quite uncommon to hear someone say they work on relaxation first. All I can say is it definitely works!

The AT helps you to start noticing what muscles you are tensing up, doing day to day activities. We get into odd habits with our bodies and some of them, while they feel normal & comfortable, as not that at all! I had learned that in the saddle, some of the things I tense up are my knees, thighs & ass.

‘Why’ you may ask? The answer is I have no idea. I didn’t even know I was doing this. So for the last few days every few times I’d say ‘doh’ when I checked in while riding & realised I was all tense, and relaxed again. I had a little breakthrough today… Up to now my focus was on noticing & releasing those muscles. Today I noticed what happened after I released those muscles. I could feel the hindquarters move ALL of the time – and not just when I paid attention to them. This was a pretty massive leap forward in my riding awareness.

With my seat & leg muscles now relaxed my body was moving much better with the horse, so the horses steps to me felt a lot more obvious.

Another strange ‘coincidence’ happened in the AT class yesterday. I was being shown how to breathe & take steps backwards & forwards with less energy. The result was I felt much freer & lighter than what I do normally. The interesting part is that when I breathe, if I’m not tense, the breath will move my head a little. This is turn is enough to ‘help’ my foot to move forwards on its own. Its the same as the aikido… look for the opening and then go with it. It feels so easy and graceful and there is no force involved. Its a very mellow and harmonious feeling.

Life is not an emergency.

I was reading an AT book last night and it reflected on living in the moment. What if we forgot all the stuff that happened yesterday & happened all last week. What if right now, you just enjoyed riding your horse. Or chatting to a friend. Or eating something delicious. Or focusing your whole mind on ‘now’.

During the summer I dusted down my Buck ‘7 clinics’ DVDs (which has been sitting there for 6 months doing nothing!) and started to watch them. It was another lesson in how its useful to know something exists, as then you can ask for it.

For the first 2 groundwork DVDs, I had done a lot of these before with varying degrees of success, but watching Buck the quality of what he did was just through the roof. So I took out my pen & paper, and as I watched the 2 DVDs wrote down the exercises I needed to improve & went out to the horse over a week or so to work on them.

Today I put a halter on Oz and then as I tightened up the girth in stages, we played around with some leading, mimicking the soft feel I would like in the saddle. Oz did some pretty lovely soft feel to backup on a loose rein. I was nearly ‘on the edge’ at that stage, and then when I walked Oz up to the block and positioned himself beside it perfectly while loose, it was hard not to get emotional.

Over plan over the last week or so, since I’ve been practising the AT lessons on Oz by myself, is to get soft feel from Oz & then to work on me. For me, its about relaxing my muscles, looking up & turning my eyes before my head, and breathing always helps too. I’ve been aware of the 3 pelvis positions as well to communicate to a horse how to move.

So we worked on halt – soft feel – backup – trot departs. We worked on my turning only my eyes & often times Oz following them. We worked on walk, slow walk & a relaxed trot.

When we were doing backup Oz was a bit asleep so I realised, back to watching the Buck videos – I was settling for second best. I’ve seen Oz trot backwards with Steve! As Steve explained – don’t pull on your horse. Ask very gently, but if it doesn’t happen, put in energy some other way to get movement. Don’t pull & brace up your horse. So we worked on that & it got a lot better. Then I decided to play with walk – halt – backup changes with my seat only.

First I got a soft feel. Oz was very relaxed & listening to me 110% perfect.

Then backup involved me tilting my pelvis like I was slouching or sitting on the back pockets in my jeans. My reins were relaxed, a slight loop. My horse understood and backed up softly & lightly.

I changed where my pelvis was so it was now upright and Oz stood still, and I could hear his brain listening for the next communication from me.

I tilted my pelvis forward and he walked forwards softly listening back to me all the time. I sat more straight and we had a halt, then sat back a little and we had a soft backup. There were no rein changes that I consciously did. My horse was ‘there’.

As Mark noted in Cahir this summer, when you are waiting at the traffic lights in your car, if you put the car into neutral, put on the handbrake, then turn off the engine, roll up the windows, unlock the doors, step out of the car & lock all the doors again, it can take a while to get your car going forwards again when the lights go green.

Steve & Buck call that feeling a ‘drug’. To me it feels like something I can only describe as ‘magic’.

I’ve learned a few useful lessons this summer. In no particular order:

1. Find out whats possible by finding the best teachers in the world in your area / field / sport. They will show you what you didn’t believe existed.

2. Do odd, unusual and crazy things you wouldn’t normally do. Get out of your comfort zone. You could find yourself in wonderful places.

3. Life is not an emergency. Slow down & do less rushing about.

4. And above all, thank your horse every day for the gift of living in the moment.

‘The real discovery consists not in seeking new landscape, but in having new eyes’. Marcel Proust.

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