“A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step”
– Lao Tzu
Bricks and Mortar
We all do things with our horse, such as trail riding, jumping, dressage or cow working. Each sport or type of work we do with our horse requires that we learn specific skills. These specific skills are what I would call the “bricks” of training. The basic bricks that are essential to all riders are halt, walk, trot, canter, and steering on straight lines, turns and circles. Those are very basic bricks that are the foundation of all the fancy stuff we also want to do.
How we put together the bricks, or skills, needed to work with our horse is the specific area of training that I focus on. What I found by working in the area of rehab training was not that any horse or rider lacked skill development, but that the bricks were stacked without any mortar holding them together. So the bricks came tumbling down creating behavior issues or lameness issues that lead the horse or rider into rehab work. In order to successfully rehab horse or rider, I always had to create the mortar and then stack all the existing bricks back up, but this time with a solidness that was previously missing.
The mortar of training, that holds all the bricks of skill solidly in place, consists of two important ingredients:
- The Learning Frame of Mind
- Basic Balance as a coordination of movement
I have also referred to the first ingredient as balance in the mind, mental and emotional balance and being dominant in the parasympathetic nervous system during work. I have referred to the second ingredient as balance in the body, physical balance and coordinating the five functions of the spine into ideal mechanical use. It does not matter if the training is entirely focused on the horse or the rider during the process, both horse and rider must develop and habituate both of these essential ingredients in order to make the mortar that holds all the bricks of skill development in place.
The Learning Frame of Mind
The first part of developing the mortar is what I call The Learning Frame of Mind. This ingredient means that the mind is simply ready to learn.
If the mind is focused on fear, defensiveness, is distracted or does not trust the other, then learning any new skill becomes very difficult. Learning new skills is hard enough and many mistakes must be made, so the mind needs to be prepared for the challenges of learning first.
This seems like such a simple, obvious ingredient but is one that is often missing in the training ring. Horses or riders under pressure are typically pushed harder in order to subjugate emotions, thoughts or uncertainty. But those feelings and thoughts have a way of lingering rather than going away. Over time the subjugation of fear based defensiveness has a way of exploding out from deep inside the individual. Fake it till you make it can only work for so long and no more. Authentic thoughts and feelings will reside below the surface, until they don’t.
Developing The Learning Frame of Mind, wherever possible, is the antidote for long term, chronic defensiveness and for preparing the mind to learn or re-learn the bricks of skills. Drawing out a mind that is ready to learn requires that we first actually notice if the mind is ready to learn or not. We learn to pay attention to the energy and body language that tells us if the body is dominant in the sympathetic nervous system and needs some time, or if the body is in the parasympathetic nervous system and is ready to move into a new challenge.
When the mind is not ready to learn, then we feel all kinds of negative feeling and have thoughts that do not help us progress. Our horse will demonstrate all kinds of unwanted behaviors, resist our guidance and do things to protect against us. An unwilling mind comes up with a huge variety of creative ways to protect and feel safe.
When the mind is ready to learn, we see the same simple qualities in our horse that we feel ourselves. These simple qualities, during any interaction or during any skill, tell us that The Learning Frame of Mind is present, so any errors or challenges are just the learning curve and not the mind working against us.
The three qualities that are very consistent with a body dominant in the parasympathetic nervous system are:
- Calm or Stable Energy
- Soft Mental Focus or Curiosity
- Willingness to Try, Adapt, and Try Again
For us, we know when we are in The Learning Frame of Mind because we feel these qualities internally. If we do not feel all three simultaneously, then we might need to pause and figure out if we are really ready to take on the current challenge. We might need to adjust our expectations or training plan in order to get our own mind ready to learn.
For our horses, we can tell through energy levels and body language if they are in The Learning Frame of Mind. Not only will our horse feel safe to be around, our horse is cooperating with us as much as possible. These qualities in our horse are easy to recognize when there and when missing. They have nothing to do with speed or intensity of work. Our horse can have stable energy, mental focus on us and feel willing to work with us at all speeds, on any direction, during any work, or not.
The second ingredient of the mortar is what I call Basic Balance. This ingredient is a bit more complicated because it involves understanding the five essential functions or types of movement possible in the spine.
Bio-mechanically the coordination of the spine in a horse or rider is what dictates the use of the limbs. Dysfunctional use of the spine in the rider means we can’t get away from gripping with our legs or overusing the reins. If our spine is not stable, then our seat is not stable and we find a million ways to compensate. But, we either never feel entirely secure in the saddle or have trouble improving our horse’s performance. Dysfunctional use of spine in the horse alters the impact forces though all four legs and influences the use of the neck and head. Physical instability, poor movement and even mechanical lameness are all the result of poor coordination through the spinal functions.
I think the reason that so many horses and riders are not reaching their full potential is because the information about essential spinal coordination is not part of our traditional training vocabulary. The information was hard for me to find and took even longer for me to understand and integrate. But altering the functional coordination of the spine in myself as a rider and in my horses was singularly the biggest game changer. We both felt more secure, more ease in motion and learned to develop qualities that are often considered “talent.” As I looked around the horse industry and worked with rehabbing horses, I saw that the essential coordination of the spine, or Basic Balance, was just not happening as a result of skill development. It is not only possible, but common for horses to do many things while compensating internally with very dysfunctional use of the spine. The stacking of bricks had no mortar, the skill development was actually creating more dysfunction in many horses rather than leading to balance.
While there is far more detail than we can address in a newsletter, it is important to understand how simple Basic Balance really is. Just because the information on the mechanical detail is new, the problems resulting from not having a clear understanding of healthy spinal functions are as old as humans riding horses.
The five spinal functions that we must understand and learn to coordinate in ourselves and our horses are:
- Longitudinal Flexion
- Longitudinal Extension
- Lateral Bending
Each of the spinal functions are directly related to performance issues. The combination of alignment and rotation are related to accurate steering, lateral stability and even steering without the reins. While longitudinal extension provides instant access to power or temporary stability, the long term effect is physical breakdown when this function is sustained. Longitudinal flexion is the technical term for lifting the back and is the healthier long term function for gaining stability, power, speed and agility. Flexion and extension are opposite directions of the spine, up and down. Horses can do all the skills we require even up to Grand Prix levels of riding, with the spine in extension or flexion. So just mastering a dressage movement, getting over a bigger jump or winning a race does not mean that our horse is moving with a lifted back at all. Lateral bending is also a function that is often misunderstood, leading to compensation through the other spinal functions. Coordinating rotation with lateral bending is not part of traditional training, and much of our modern lateral work can create stress to our horse’s body instead of building strength.
Without a clear understanding of each spinal function, what it feels like and how it is meant to coordinate with the others, we cannot achieve Basic Balance in our bodies or help our horse learn how to move in a healthy, sustainable way through the bricks of skill development for our sport or hobby.
By hoping that balance is the side effect of skill development, we stack up our bricks of skills without any mortar. We wonder why our horse’s behavior deteriorates or think that it is normal for our performance horse to develop lameness issues or stress related health issues. But taking the time to understand and master the essential coordination of the spine that is Basic Balance is what brings out the latent talents in ourselves as riders and in our horses. The benefits are worth the effort because our horses remain sound, move with more ease and look more talented while developing the same skills needed for any performance.