All The Small Things

One of my personal horses is a handsome appendix gelding named Santo. I’ve owned him for about six years — and he’s taught me more than any other horse. I acquired Santo for one dollar. He had a lingering injury that wasn’t guaranteed to rehab fully. To my delight (and good fortune), Santo recovered well and soon was sound again.

Not many people were interested in Santo at the time. Santo is a weaver. He can be neurotic, especially in new places — where he sometimes tips from high-strung to downright spazzy (a technical term). To add to the picture, Santo also has a small chip in a hind fetlock that occasionally needs injections.

Of course, I fell in love with him immediately. I am a sucker for oddballs and underdogs. Plus Santo has a sweet, bubbly personality that it made it easy to overlook his collection of less-than-ideal qualities.

While easy to ride in his home arena, Santo can get quite troubled in new situations. The first few years, I took Santo to several clinics. Some were large, with many riders sharing the arena. Others were smaller, with cows to stare at (and eventually work). Most of my clinic rides consisted of doing many serpentines (long and short) while attempting to hear the clinician as Santo and I frenetically twirled about.

Over time, Santo improved somewhat. But I knew there was something I could be doing better. I just didn’t know what. Clinicians don’t like to tell riders directly what they need to change. People tend to brace up and hear the advice as criticism, especially when it involves a longstanding pattern. Often a clinician will address the entire class and casually talk about a common mistake, in the hopes that the riders with that issue will “hear” that information and maybe think about it.

The bottom line is that it’s almost impossible to teach someone how to feel for their horse, at least by the standards of vaquero horsemanship. As Ray Hunt once famously said, “I can’t teach you these things — I can only get you aware of them.” The riders can only change if they truly feel the need to do so — rather than being told all the ways they are doing things wrong.

You can’t teach a horse the right thing by only correcting him when he makes the wrong choice. You have to give him the option of choosing what you had in mind, to take you up on what you’re offering him.

This is true for horses as well. You can’t teach a horse the right thing by only correcting him when he makes the wrong choice. You have to give him the option of choosing what you had in mind, to take you up on what you’re offering him. He might decide not to do that — and that’s ok. If you make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard, he will eventually figure out on his own that he likes that right thing option a lot more. But you can’t make the wrong thing impossible — he must be free to make that choice (and make it harder on himself).

A clinician can’t stop you from making the wrong choice. It might drive him or her a little crazy to watch you keep doing something that is so clearly not working. But if the clinician yelled at you every time you dug your heel into your horse’s side, you wouldn’t learn anything. You might get upset or angry with the clinician; you might be so confused that you stop trying; or you might leave the arena in frustration, vowing to never ride in a clinic again.

We have to feel for ourselves that something isn’t working — and then understand what our horses’ behavior is telling us. If he pins his ears and plants his feet when you dig your heels into his side, that’s telling you something pretty clearly. But until you focus on your horse’s response and recognize its connection to your actions (digging heels) — you won’t make much progress toward changing the situation.

To truly see a longstanding pattern in yourself, you need to be emotionally detached. Ever notice how easily we can discern what needs to change in another rider? Usually that happens because we don’t have any angst obscuring our perspective about the other rider (and their too tight hands or habit of clucking constantly).

To truly see a longstanding pattern in yourself, you need to be emotionally detached. Ever notice how easily we can discern what needs to change in another rider? Usually that happens because we don’t have any angst obscuring our perspective about the other rider (and their too tight hands or habit of clucking constantly).

But our own issues? Well, that’s a different story. We all have lots of reasons why we’ve been clinging to a pattern. Often those reasons are based in emotion and irrational conclusions (what I like to call “the fog”) that we’ve made about our riding or our horses. Whenever you have a lot of emotion spinning around, you usually have a distinct lack of awareness. You miss the big picture — you are stuck in the swirling storm clouds, rather than flying above them to calmer skies (and clearer perspective).

When someone hollers at you, “Hey stupid — quit digging your heels into your horse’s side every damn step,” — your brain locks up and says, “I don’t do that!” Your defenses jump in and begin pointing out all the other mitigating factors (my horse is dull, your eyes are bad, how am I supposed to make him go if I don’t kick firmly, my trainer says it’s my horse not me, don’t yell at me, how rude, it can’t be that simple, my horse and I have this whole complex history and so on).

It’s much easier to think that your horse is complicated. Or that you are trying really hard and that should count the same as actually being successful for your horse. Because it’s embarrassing to think that all along the problem was simply that you dig your heels into your horse’s side like a monkey on crack — and if you change that, your horse will change (and pretty quickly too).

So to avoid that whole mess, clinicians won’t bellow at you (unless you are doing something that is dangerous). They want you to learn for yourself, to feel on your own what your horse is telling you. So that the idea to change is actually your own idea. A good clinician knows that you can’t force or coerce someone into making the right choice. They have to choose for themselves. Kind of like a good rider making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard for the horse.

A good clinician knows that you can’t force or coerce someone into making the right choice. They have to choose for themselves. Kind of like a good rider making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard for the horse.

Ok, back to me and Santo. One day, I had an epiphany. I was sitting on Santo, watching someone else ride. We were standing still, just observing the arena scene. Then I looked down and realized that Santo was actually moving around in small ways. His feet stayed on the ground — but his head swiveled back and forth, gawking at birds, grass and butterflies. He shifted his weight from foot to foot. Then his right front took one half step forward, tipping his weight from behind. His head swiveled again, then bobbed down to examine a fascinating manure pile. I could feel his weight subtly teeter side to side, following his head.

Baffled, I began asking him to keep his head straight, just looking forward (like I was), without any dance club neck moves. Santo immediately became emotional, in that lip smacking, neck sweating way that I knew so well from the clinics.

WTF, I thought to myself — all I’m asking him to do is keep his head straight. No big deal, right? Santo began whipping his head melodramatically to each side — any attempt to redirect his neck straight was met with hysteria usually reserved for a zombie apocalypse.

And that’s when I had my epiphany. I REALLY saw that Santo’s lack of focus was the issue — and that his attention had been careening ever since we walked into the arena, snowballing into SQUIRREL levels of distraction that I was now trying to undo much too late in the game.

And that’s when I had my epiphany. I REALLY saw that Santo’s lack of focus was the issue — and that his attention had been careening ever since we walked into the arena, snowballing into SQUIRREL levels of distraction that I was now trying to undo much too late in the game.

Remember, Santo is a weaver. He is used to retreating into neurotic movements, obsessively repeated, whenever he feels unsettled. Distraction is a form of comfort to him (so he thinks, but of course he’s wrong about that). Like the way some people compulsively check FB as a way to “relax” — but of course it only makes them more frazzled and distracted. But try telling that to someone who is glued to their phone punching heart emoticons on every post they see.

The epiphany was followed by a crestfallen sense of “oh crap” for me. Because I knew Santo had been this way all along — and I never helped him, never even noticed what was going on. Because I was a distracted spazz myself (no wonder Santo and I found each other).

A real epiphany doesn’t let you berate yourself or fling yourself into a shamefest. It turns the light on in that dark room you’ve been flailing around in — and you finally understand that you need to just shut up and get to work already.

A real epiphany doesn’t let you berate yourself or fling yourself into a shamefest. It turns the light on in that dark room you’ve been flailing around in — and you finally understand that you need to just shut up and get to work already.

For the weeks and months that followed, I began paying close attention to Santo. If we were standing still, I’d ask for a soft feel or lateral flexion BEFORE his attention began to wander. For Santo, a small, sidewise look out of an eye at a butterfly could be the prelude to a full neck swivel. So I got much better at noticing the start of that eye shift and immediately asking Santo to redirect his attention to me. I practiced controlling my own emotions, so I could radiate a sense of peaceful release to Santo when he was “with” me in the focus zone.

It was a lot of mental work and concentration. My brain would feel wrung out after the shortest rides. But once I got used to it, I began noticing so much more. For example, Santo rarely traveled straight or in a balanced frame. His left side bulged into my leg constantly every few steps. I saw that my legs had no meaning to him. And why should they? I rarely used my legs to do anything useful — like set up a rectangle (with clear boundaries) for him to travel in. I was as random as he was, when it came to meandering around the arena or trails.

All sorts of insights followed. I often shook my head at myself, chagrined by my willingness to wander in a fog for years — but determined to take a quiet, no drama approach to changing myself so I could help Santo more effectively.

All sorts of insights followed. I often shook my head at myself, chagrined by my willingness to wander in a fog for years — but determined to take a quiet, no drama approach to changing myself so I could help Santo more effectively.

I’m not saying we are perfect now. Santo might always be a bit excitable (he’s an exuberant kind of guy). I might always be a tad slow on my timing. But Santo knows that I’m paying attention to the little things that are important to him. And that has made all the difference — to both of us.

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A Feel Following A Feel

1 Comment

  1. Fiona Crichton-Berner

    Did you watch the Olympics? In particular Lindsey Vonn and her preparation for a downhill run. The short sharp breaths she exhaled in ample quantity. Well, I have a rather hot, bright red Saddlebred I had not ridden in about 6 weeks, and knew when I finally got on board it would be a rocky ride. Sure enough he got very light in front and started bouncing around. As quickly as I could collect my wits I started that same quick exhale, over and over. It really tempered his mindset and we ended up with a reasonable ride. Just a little thing that made a big difference.

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