Category Archives: Mindful Mastery

What are we really communicating to our horse?

horse to waterIf we watch horses in the wild, or just in a group turned out in a field together, how do they communicate their feelings to one another? Those who have a close relationship will nuzzle and groom each other. Some might put ears back or shove the other to move them out-of-the-way. Only if there is conflict does the ‘touch’ between two horses get hard or brutal even.

When we first start to train our horses, we give praise by either voice or a gentle pat. Even the great horse whisperer Monty Roberts says to ‘give your horse a gentle rub on the horse’s head as a reward.’ But why is it that in competition, the excitement of a great test or jumping round do we see some horses being slapped quite hard across the neck or even hit on the head?

Seeing the expression of shock on the horses face (even fear in some) makes me ask myself ‘What does that communicate to the horse?’ It must be confusing for a horse to jump to the best of its ability, and although sensing the riders pleasure with the effort, is subsequently hit around the head.

A horse can take firm pressure and quite enjoy it in the form of a massage or physiotherapy. But even when doing a massage we build up the pressure slowly, starting with long gentle strokes to relax the horse and the muscles. We don’t dive straight in with firm pressure, as this just causes tension and discomfort for the horse.

It has certainly made me look at the way I praise my horses. I do still pat them on the base of the neck or shoulder but in a gentle way, sometimes choosing just a long stroke down the neck and a friendly scratch on the withers. When I start off the young horses they are patted all over with a cupped hand (which makes noise but will only send a gentle vibration through the muscle) to help desensitise them. Firm pressure is only used to reprimand unruly behaviour and should be used sparingly but in a sympathetic manner.

Your Thoughts?sonicschool smile 02

Riding Mindfully

Here are a few M.I.N.D.F.U.L. strategies for riding, (click on the diagram below).

Mindful Jpeg

MManage Your Emotions.  Fear, a crisis of confidence, performance tension, frustration, anger, to name just a few, are all emotions horse riders experience at some point or another.

Our internal dialogue has a big impact on the outcome of a situation. If someone commands us to “Don’t do….”, our attention is immediately focussed on the thing we are not supposed to do.

Repeating a ‘mantra’ or ‘affirmation’ in time with the horse’s stride can help to alter our state of mind and emotions. Saying ‘Calm and Confident’, or ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ – or whatever state of mind you want to achieve – out loud and with purpose, will create a more positive attitude in both the rider and their horse.

Warm up exercise, such as going for a walk or run before riding, has helped clients to reduce anxiety and to release ‘feel good’ endorphins.

Negative memories of a bad experiences can be transformed into a positive in a short space of time by changing the meaning of the stress inducing memories. Seeing things in a different way means fear, lack of confidence or frustration no longer need to be part of our riding.

IIntention, Attention, Attitude. At the start of a ride or training session we need to set an intention. Whether it is going for a quiet hack around the block or teaching our horse a new movement we can visualise our intention after asking the question, “What would I like to achieve today?”

As James Baker reminds us with his 5 ‘P’ principle:

‘Prior preparation prevents poor performance’

Then we need to give attention to the equipment you will need, planning a route, deciding what pace to use and whatever needs to be done to carry out the intention.

Then we  need to engage our attitude. A positive, happy attitude gives a different feel to you and your horse, than one that is forceful and agitated. Enjoy what you are doing and…smile!

N– ‘Notice What Happens When…’  The book: Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Galway uses the technique of focus to improve ability.

When riding, it is useful to pick something to channel your focus on to. Feel is developed by noticing what happens when we ride and how little shifts can affect the horses way of going. We can scan our bodies for areas of tension and consciously relax those areas.

How does doing that affect the horse or your position? (Horses tend to mirror us so by relaxing ourselves, the horse will relax too).

“What happens if I lift my focus up and in front of me instead of on the horse’s head or neck?”

By experimenting with different things, we can decide what feels more comfortable and right. Also, learning to develop our focus and block out things in the environment that could interfere with our performance, is great preparation for competitions.

D– Divide the task into manageable chunks. A good way of learning something or teaching your horse a new movement is to divide it up into smaller chunks to learn, then build them up together as confidence grows. Like when learning to jump and understanding the 5 elements of a jump – approach, take off, flight, landing and get away. Working on each element separately, then joining them together at the end teaches us to jump better. Similarly, if there is a lack of confidence in something, breaking it down into smaller parts and giving time for the confidence to grow before moving on to the next part.

F– Focus on excellence not perfection. The saying: ‘Competitions are won at home’ is true. Aiming for a higher standard in our practice than we intend to compete at, sets us up for a better outcome when the pressure is on. Treat everything as feedback, if something isn’t working then try another way. The person who is most adaptable enjoys more success because they keep taking small steps on the path towards excellence.

U– Unify your breathing. Focussing on your breathing, as is done in meditation, will naturally calm you. This also aids relaxation in your horse. Breathing in sync with your horse creates a ‘spiritual’ connection with each knowing what the other is thinking and feeling. Letting go of expectations and being in the present moment, will help build a deeply rewarding relationship with your horse.

L– Loving Kindness. Have compassion and respect for yourself and your horse when mistakes are made. Remember life is a journey so don’t get into the blame game. Accept the situation, move forward and leave the past where it is.

Show loving kindness to your horse.  If they don’t understand, don’t punish them. He will get things wrong sometimes but it’s okay. You didn’t learn everything on your first day at school either so be patient. Horses tolerate a lot from us humans. Most of the time in a different language we expect them to understand.

Be mindful and respectful of your horses feelings as well as being a leader for them and you will be shown what true loving kindness is…by your horse.

Riding mindfully can have different meanings for different people. These are just a few of my own. I hope that in the future these too will evolve to give horses and riders a greater connection, communication and understanding with each other.SonicEmma 01

‘Horses are the mirror of your soul, of who you really are. It is your reflection that you see through their eyes. Through them, you can more easily come to know yourself. Through you, they can more easily come to fulfill themselves.   ~  Dominique Barbier – Meditation for Two.