Don’t Pull, Don’t Push


“Don’t pull. Don’t push”
– Shi Heng Yi, Shaolin Master

One of the principles of Kung Fu martial arts described by master Shi Heng Yi speaks specifically to balance. I find it is a very useful idea for us as riders so I will do my best to describe my interpretation and include a video link so you can listen for yourself. I hope you find it helpful too. 

When we see something we want or have a goal in our minds, we often try to pull that thing towards us. The thought of pulling what we want towards us already involves effort and brings tension into our bodies. As riders we all know “don’t pull” especially with the reins, and yet we all have a hard time not pulling on the reins. There are many reasons that we, as humans, struggle with not pulling on the reins, but one reason that is seldom said out loud is our ambition. We desire to win at the show, we desire to achieve our personal goals, we desire a great moving horse or desire to help our horses by improving their frames through the reins. All of our desires are our ambitions. What we pull towards us in our minds affects the use of our bodies more than we might realize.   

The more effort we spend trying to pull something towards us, the more that very thing swings away from us when we relax our effort. Just like a horse that is held on a tight rein, as soon as we release the pulling force on the reins our horse’s neck moves away and our horse falls forward with too much weight on the forehand. This perpetuates the idea that we need a tight rein, that we need to pull our horses together in order for them to move correctly. But the very fact that our horse falls apart without a tight rein actually shows us that pulling a horse together does not work. Where is the self-carriage? On a more subtle level, our ambition for our horses to move through training faster and perform on our time frame also becomes a pulling force. The harder we pull, the more tension or anxiety we carry regarding our goals, which also means the farther they seem to swing away from us if we relax. 

When we see something we don’t want or when our horses do something we don’t like, we often try pushing that thing away from us or pushing our horses away from an error. Pushing something away also requires a lot of effort and the more we push, the more that thing swings right back towards us when we let go. As riders we never hear “don’t push” but instead are instructed to push here and push there with our seat and legs to shape our horses into what we want. But as soon as we quit pushing, our horses just fall apart, losing forward energy or losing agility. Again, where is the self-carriage? 

Our brains notice more of whatever we focus on. With our horses, this desire to push away problems is where most of us get stuck in a negative loop. The energy we spend pushing though problems or pushing our horse towards an ideal is the very thing that inhibits listening to our unique horse and finding the path of least resistance towards our goals. 

What happens if we just quit pulling and quit pushing? The first thing that shows up is the hard truth regarding what our horse knows about balanced self-carriage. If we quit pulling on the reins, how does our horse respond? If we quit pushing for forward or quit pushing for specific maneuvers, how does our horse respond? The way our horse responds once we quit pulling or pushing tells us where we are starting and what we need to help our horse learn. For a horse to carry the head and neck lightly, the hindquarters and back must be stable. Maybe we need to think of lighter reins back to front instead of front to back. A horse moving energetically forward or finding agility in maneuvers requires strength in the back and hindquarters. Maybe we need to patiently help our horse develop that strength through building blocks and gentle repetition. 

The way we “don’t pull” and “don’t push” is by bringing our minds into the present moment, by accepting ourselves and our horses just as we are, right now. We all have more to learn and ways to improve. Learning to ride a horse is an endless journey of discovery. When we stay in the moment with our horses, we can become curious about challenges that arise and experiment with different ideas until we find creative ways to build self-carriage, ease of movement and even find joy into our daily work with horses. 

To refrain from pulling or pushing, both mentally and physically, does not mean we lose all ambition or become passive. It simply means that we find an inner stability as we work towards our desired outcomes. Feeling internally stable, internally peaceful with “what is” allows us to help our horses learn authentic self-carriage during daily work and allows us to improve from all the challenges that pop up along the way. 

To find balance, harmony and even unity with our horses, we have to begin by finding our own mental, emotional and physical stability. The message of “don’t pull, don’t push” is a great place to start because we are no longer spending extra energy on imagined futures or muscling our way pushing through problems. Instead, we can become calmly focused on what we can do today with what we have. We can see clearly what the next logical step is to build towards our goal. Horsemanship and riding are long journeys we take with our horses. Once we quit pulling or pushing our horses down the path, we find a partnership with our horses for every step of the entire journey.  

I hope you enjoy this video with master Shi Heng Yi 


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