Let’s turn our attention to the most important part of both the horse and the rider – their brain.
It is not a coincidence that the fundamental philosophy of training a horse is “Calm, Forward and Straight”. All too often we forget the first part of that phrase – Calm.
When our brains are highly stimulated, or we are distracted by pain, fear or excitement it is next to impossible to learn – or even hear. This is even truer of our equine partners who are wired to flee first and think later. This is why so many exponents of natural horsemanship are keen to spend time on the ground, repeating basic groundwork again and again until the horse is calm and unafraid. Only then will the handler move along to the next stage. Yet, we as riders often come to our horses in a frame of mind that is completely unsuitable for what we want to achieve with our riding.
How often have we arrived at the yard after a stressful day at the office, or dealing with fractious children, or feeling ‘up to here’ with life? We often are living against the clock as well, so instead of taking time to breathe, work out the tensions in our own bodies and steady our minds, we dash out to the fields with a headcollar and drag our horses straight onto the yard, then rush about grooming and tacking up so that we can jump on before the light goes, or before someone else wants to use the school or we have to get back for other commitments.
Unsurprisingly, our horses find this approach very stressful as well. Some horses protect themselves by switching off. These are the ones which are accused of being ‘lazy’ and ‘unresponsive’. Unfortunately the oppposite is usually most likely to be the case. These horses are extremely sensitive, but have learned a coping strategy that allows them to survive the hurly-burly of modern equine life.
Other horses fizz, won’t stand still, are argy-bargy, and spooky and silly when the rider finally gets on. Often labelled ‘naughty’, or ‘silly’ – again these horses are often reflecting their own stress picked up from their riders. (Of course, both types of horse can also be struggling with their own issues of discomfort or lack of confidence – it’s not always just the rider).
So, we as riders not only need to take control over our bodies, but we need to control our minds as well, so that we only ever provide a reflection of calmness to our horses.
Easier said than done. Of course it is, but practicing control over our emotions will stand us in great stead not only for our horse riding, but over many other aspects of our lives as well. Not only is the horse a mirror of ourselves, but we are also a mirror for our horse.
It is the little internal voice that rattles on to us that needs sending on holiday. We know that voice – it’s the one that chunters away saying things like “I wonder if my horse will spook at the hedge again? I don’t like it when he spooks, what happens if he gets me off this time?” or “I hope that X is not there today, I don’t like her and I’m sure she is talking behind my back, I’m really angry with her”, or “I really don’t want to ride, I’m frightened, but I know I’m being silly – how can I be such a stupid person?”
That horrid knot in our stomachs is not a physical problem, it is a mental problem that manifests as a physical problem. Until we can calm our own minds, put away all the cares of our outside world, and approach our horses with clarity and peace, we cannot start to become the rider and trainer that our horse requires. Taking time with ourselves as people, taking care of our own internal peace will pay great dividends later.
This is where the concept of Centering comes in. Centering is the foundation of all the martial arts, it is a foundation of Yoga and every person who exudes that lovely sense of calmness, and who are always good to be around has found their centre.
Learning to breathe correctly is a great start which is where pilates or yoga sessions can be very helpful – or a relaxation class. It is well worth actually learning how to breathe as it has so many other benefits outside of riding. Ideally, we should be able to feel our stomachs and chests expand when we breathe in, and, if we put our hands gently on our own sides, we should be able to feel our ribcages expand and contract as well. Far too many of us breathe just in our upper chests, which is why when we do start to breathe properly sometimes we actually start to feel quite peculiar as our bodies are receiving far greater amounts of oxygen than usual!
We’ll also discover that in order to breathe well, we need to lie/sit or stand well. So good breathing begins to help good posture. Being straight and open will allow us to function better and will dramatically improve our riding. Weirdly, if a person stands well, and breathes correctly all sorts of strange things start to happen in our minds – everything seems to slow and achieve a greater clarity. Our hearing improves, and the knot of tension in our stomachs and shoulders lessens and can even disappear.
Breathing and standing well is something we can all practice at any time of the day or night. Like everything, practice makes perfect and our horses love it and respond in all sorts of positive ways. So, get breathing and Centering!