“If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be”
– Maya Angelou
Finding Harmony with Our Horses
In order to truly find harmony with our horses, we have to step away from “normal” training and be willing to explore a relationship that is dynamic and unique. Relationships, like those we have with other people, have no rules aside from maintaining mutual respect and love for each other. When we become too absorbed in our training agendas, we often lose site of what it really takes to maintain an authentic relationship with our horses. Sometimes we have to reach beyond what is “normal” with our horses in order to find the magic that they have to offer.
Collective Motion, Murmuration, Swarming and Lockstep are all terms that describe how individuals synchronize during motion in order to move like a single unit. This synchronization is what we see when a flock of birds or schools of fish move like one giant bird or fish. Horses, as herd animals, also synchronize movement with each other using their highly developed sense of touch in order to move as one unit. Synchronization of the group is a survival strategy that not only comes naturally to horses but also provides a deep sense of safety and trust. Our horses become more interested in communicating with us and working with us only when they trust us and feel safe.
Who’s Turn Is It to Lead?
Moving together in synchrony does not always mean that we have to be the leader. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers moved harmoniously together because both dancers knew their own steps and both maintained self-carriage. Dancing beautifully together is the type of relationship that our horses seek. While taking dance lessons long ago, I was surprised that all of the men could follow and all of the women could lead. Good dancers easily took opposite roles from the norm in order to master dancing.
With our horses, we could do the same. We don’t always have to be Fred and our horse does not always have to be Ginger in the normal roles. In order to synchronize motion and move as one unit, it is much easier to start by being the follower of our horse instead of the lead. When we let our horse lead the movement, we have to learn how to adjust our balance left to right and adjust our speed with great detail in order to find a quiet stillness or harmony with the horse’s movement. Can we follow our horse’s movement or can we only lead?
Learning to follow a horse’s movement, even at the walk, in perfect synchronization, is much more difficult than it might sound! Our minds no longer have time to think in the past or the future because the present moment of a horse’s movement is changing every second. Our brains have a hard time keeping up! It takes a tremendous amount of mental focus to find the quiet, stillness of perfect synchronization. But once we can do this, from the saddle or the ground, we find that our horses become much more interested in dancing with us. Once we are in harmony with the movement, we find that our aids – or taking on the role of the lead – is effortless. Our horses become so connected to us that they willingly follow with our thoughts with very light aids instead of resisting our guidance. And, we become much more adept at shifting roles with our horses between who leads and who follows moment to moment.
Letting Go of Control Makes Room for a Conversation
As long as we are busy controlling our horses to turn here, go there, go faster or slow down, we cannot possibly synchronize with the actual movement in real time. Our mind is not focused in the present but instead in the past of what might happen again or the future with what we want to accomplish. We are always talking and never listening, making a conversation impossible.
Letting go of control, without allowing the situation to ever become unsafe for us or our horse, is a surprising way to overcome defensiveness in our horses and build a relationship that goes way beyond physical synchronization. By following and acting like a trusted, non-demanding, herd member in motion, horses open up to us. Because synchronized movement is part of a horse’s survival instincts, we earn a kind of trust and softness that is hard to achieve when we see ourselves only as the leader.
To try this out for yourself, safely, you can start on the ground just hand walking with a halter, lead rope and riding whip. The lead rope should be loose and only used if needed for safety or a “re-start” when things get too tough. The riding whip is only used to ask the horse to move forward AFTER the horse has made the choice to stop for a minute. Your point of reference to find perfect synchrony is a “shoulder-to-shoulder” relationship. Our shoulder must be precisely parallel to our horse’s shoulder during motion, at all times. It doesn’t matter if you are 6” or 3’ from the shoulder, just that you are perfectly parallel to the shoulder at all times. No need for steering or speed adjustments from you. Your mission is to learn how to synchronize your motion in perfect harmony with the unpredictable moving shoulder of your horse. After about 15 minutes of shenanigans from your horse going to the gate or the corner or stopping or rushing, you will find that your horse softens, calms down and starts to offer you more and more attention. We give our horse the lead of the dance and we learn to follow.
It is difficult for us, especially as trained riders, to do something so simple as walk with our horses in perfect harmony without offering any guidance to the movement. To do this requires more mental focus and self discipline than we might expect. But, after the first chaotic 15 minutes or so, you will find a bit of magic and horse whispering as the synchronized movement becomes stronger and easier to maintain. I find that every rider at any level of experience can feel the “moment” of perfect harmony clearly and unmistakably. We don’t have to know anything special to feel it. Perfect synchronization is obvious. We know it when we find it because it feels as good and safe to us as it feels to our horses.