Living in-relation with horses: practice

While everyone knows that practice is essential for developing our horse skills, it is often thought of simply as a means to an end. But, in order to really connect with our horses, we need to be present, undistracted by goals and outcomes. This is where an appreciation of practice in the fullest sense of the term can be helpful, namely practice understood as a vocation to which we are devoted. When engaged in such a practice, we have a sense of participating in something bigger, more important than ourselves. It is something that we feel we should do, that is good: this matters, it feels right. Practice then becomes a way of life and a learning without end, thus allowing us to hold our goals lightly and become immersed in what is before us here-and-now.

Establishing a vocational practice involves setting aside particular times to be with our horses. This routine structure then releases us from the debilitating effects of linear time, and alleviates a sense of the pressures of other aspects of our lives – there isn’t time for this, what about all the other things that I have to get done…. Anxiety and chatter can be left at the gate, because, for this time, in this place, I am being with my horse, and I can attend to other aspects of my life at other times. The gate, like the entrance to a sacred space, is a point of transition where we enter the presence of slow time, where we can find stillness.

When practice is a calling, we can surrender our wilful self and allow the practice to carry us. We do not have to decide on whether we should or shouldn’t work with our horse, or when would be the perfect time to practise – maybe conditions will be better tomorrow, maybe the horse will be calmer, maybe I’ll be more focussed…. Thus, we can avoid those procrastinating tendencies brought on by perfectionism. We also avoid the related getting-ahead-of-ourselves tendencies, for, rather than feeling impatience and frustration, we can accept that this is what is before us today, that whatever emerges will provide interest and learning. Letting go of self-consciousness and destinations, we can learn from mistakes and creatively try out new things, test possibilities.

By bringing us into the here-and-now, then, practice as a learning for life helps us avoid any mindless going through the motions or drilling, which will only result in disconnection. Practice encourages awareness of our state of being, of how our horse is feeling, and, importantly, of whether we are in connection. We become attuned to the similarities and, sometimes subtle, differences in each meeting with our horse. And, in each meeting, we can remain open to whatever emerges, able to ‘adjust to fit the situation’ (Tom Dorrance, Corey).

Finally, I want to note an aspect of horse practice that makes it different from, say, the practice of playing a musical instrument. In the latter case, it should be more or less possible to stick to a certain period of practice time, whereas, with horses, we have to allow for what might arise during the practice session. It is essential that we leave our horses in a good space, feeling relaxed and happy, and confident in our leadership. Consequently, the time that we have set aside might expand. However long it takes for our horse to relax into the grooming, to be curious and relaxed about first steps into a float, to feel happy and calm about having a bridle put on, that is what it takes. And, with an understanding that this is what we are called to do, we can remain flexible, present and patient, allowing time to unfold..

With thanks to Andrew and Corey

Living in-relation with horses: awareness

Throughout these posts I’ve been referring to the centrality of awareness to the development of a connection with our horses. So, it seems appropriate now to say a little more about what is involved in this relational state of being and why it is crucial to the process of learning feel.

I think it might be helpful to begin by making a distinction between awareness and self-consciousness. Writer, Annie Dillard, puts it like this:

Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all….

Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest. … Self-consciousness is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window…. (Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 2007 p 82)

As Dillard insists, it is only when we are living in the present that we are truly alive (p 83), and that glimpse of oneself in a shop window or imagining oneself as if in a movie, distances us from the unfolding presentness of lived experience. In a state of self-consciousness we observe ourselves, or imagine ourselves being observed, with judgement, either approving or critical. ‘Don’t I look good as I’m doing this balanced trot’, or ‘What a mess this is, I’m useless….’ When observing ourselves as an object, we are in a state of separation, abstracted from lived reality, no longer present to or in-relation with the situation before us or, indeed, ourselves. The moment that we objectify ourselves, we lose any flow that we might have been in – we will no longer be in that balanced trot. And, when things are not going so well, if we are not present, we will be unable to address whatever issues are arising. In fact, we are likely to simply distance ourselves further with distracting judgements about ourselves and/or our horse. In short, in a state of self-consciousness we are unable to respond with feel and good timing.

Unself-conscious awareness, on the other hand, involves being fully present, immersed in what we are doing, receptive, open and alive. Rather than being fixated on our self, thinking about what we look like and whether we measure up, we are in-relation with ourselves and our various states. And, instead of the hardness of self-observation, there is a softness in awareness, and a lightness. For example, I might be immersed in a trot and then I ask for a lateral movement which doesn’t seem to work, and I try harder. And then, with a light awareness, it comes to me that I have lost the connection – I have been trying to make something happen and become self-centred. In that moment of awareness and softening and relaxing, I will be back in-relation with my horse, myself, the environment. Then, instead of judging myself for having lost the connection and flow, I can accept what is, and get back into the rhythm of the trot, and try again gently, with a bodily imagining of the horse-and-human lateral movement. Awareness of our state of being, then, involves an ‘unselfing’, a letting go of the self-centred self of self-consciousness, and having trust in connection. (See post on ‘softness’.)

In recent posts, I have been describing the trustworthy holding space provided by us for our horses, and by teachers for students. Developing awareness involves an internalisation of that supportive space provided by teachers – with awareness, we are becoming teacher-and-student, receiving and responding to our own feedback. So, for example, when ‘I’ am in this state of being, Corey is, in a certain sense, with me, participating in that space of ‘internal’ dialogue: My mind is elsewhere. Gently bring it back to Pia. Pia’s attention is on that horse over there, she is needing a little more support. Smoothly pick up a feel on the rein to bring her back to what we are doing together. I’m getting into a bit of a rush here. Slow down, breathe. Becoming aware of my states of disconnection, I can let them go and come back into connection.

By letting go of, for example, perfectionism and frustration, we can instead become curious, and explore possibilities: What happens if I try this? And, in this state of being, we can find mistakes interesting, rather than signs of personal failing. So, in debriefing, reflective sessions, I might ask: How could I have responded differently? This is how learning happens, how we extend ourselves. When difficulties, of any sort, arise, Corey always says: ‘Here’s an opportunity’. The crucial thing here is acceptance of how things are with our horse, with ourselves, with our relationship, here, now. And, as Corey frequently says, ‘it doesn’t matter that you lost the connection, what matters is that you noticed it’.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey, Suzi

Living in-relation with horses: The impossibility of teaching

‘I can’t teach you anything. I can only help you learn.’ (Tom Dorrance, True Unity, 1987, P 49

Deep learning involves discovering an intuitive feel for a discipline or field, whatever it might be – maths, Italian, cricket, playing the piano, working with horses. Like all good teachers, Tom Dorrance was insistent that feel could not be acquired through instruction, the transfer of the teacher’s knowledge to the student – ‘it is not something that can be handed to someone – it has to be learned’ (Dorrance 6). While people might get something at a cognitive level, real learning only happens through full-bodied experience – ‘It’s experience, I guess’ was one of Tom’s constant refrains. Learning feel, then, is an organic process in which each student learns in their own way, at their own particular pace (6, 12, 18, 30). And, a good teacher will set aside any outcomes they might desire for a student in order to allow this learning to happen.

Clearly Tom had people coming to him with an instructional model of teaching in mind, expecting immediate solutions to problems, (usually mistakenly thought of as a problem with the horse):

Sometimes the riders will be so anxious to get going from where they are now to where they would like to be…. [they] might want to get an answer to their questions right early – on the surface. I want them to try to figure out something: I want them to work at figuring out the whole horse – his mind, body and spirit. (Dorrance 16).

Learning feel involves developing a capacity for being-with, in this case, the whole ‘horse’ with ‘our’ whole entwined horse-and-human being (see post on ‘feedback’). To help this learning process, the role of a teacher is to provide a trustworthy, supportive space where students can relax and have a curiosity about their field of interest. This is a non-judgemental space in which students feel safe to try things out without fear of failure, and to make mistakes from which they can learn. It is a space in which they can hold goals lightly, and open themselves to possibilities before them here, now.

In providing this supportive learning space, a good teacher participates with students in what Tom describes as ‘a shared experience, a willing communication’ (Dorrance 6). Rather than trying to influence or change students, such a teacher wholeheartedly shares with students their passion for their field and their love of learning. Fully present, alive and curious, they are in an entwined state of being teacher-and-student, simultaneously teaching-and-learning.

In this state of being teacher-and-student, teachers have a feel for where students are at in their learning process, and, importantly, for the right time to introduce a new challenge, or technical knowledge, which can only be absorbed when it connects with feel. Recognising the uniqueness of every student, Tom said ‘There is so much variation in the human individual that the approach has to be a little different in order to fit the person…. It depends on what the situation might be….’ (Dorrance 30):

I try to work with them just where they are, at their awareness level. Then we build from there. I want to help the person be able to approach his or her horse with acceptance, assurance and understanding…. And I try to offer the person the same (6-7).

That safe space that we are learning to offer our horses, then, has the same qualities as the trustworthy space which a teacher provides for us. Tom frequently spoke of the need to ‘think of where the horse is’ and ‘adjust to fit the situation’ (12, 30-31), and he said the same with regards to his helping people develop this capacity.

To reflect further on the complexity of this learning situation, I’ll turn now to Corey and his role as teacher of horses and people. Like Tom, Corey frequently uses the expressions ‘adjusting to fit the situation’ and ‘it depends’ when describing what is called for in being with a horse and/or being with a human who is learning how to be with horses. Look again at this photo of Corey and Dorothy calmly together in the grooming. As Dorothy easily gets distracted, it has taken time for her to learn to relax and enjoy the grooming space, but the connection established here has been a crucial building block for developing her confidence in other situations. If you look at the photo of Corey riding her, you’ll see that she is alert and relaxed at the same time, interested in her surroundings and their activities together.

Developing this trustworthy space and knowing what is called for in providing the right support at the right time takes considerable skill. If this cannot be taught, how then does Corey help us learn? When I’m having a lesson with him, I find Corey to be that calm, unobtrusive presence that he is with Dorothy. There is no rush. He helps me relax, as he does with horses, so that learning is possible. In offering us the support that we are learning to offer our horses, Corey has to have a feel for where the horse is, for where the human student is, for their relation, and for the whole environment on any particular day. In ‘adjusting to fit the situation’, Corey is, then, participating in complex feedback loops involving teacher-student-horse-environment.

In our lessons together, Corey will either be on his own, maybe sitting on the mounting block or setting up some challenge for me, or he’ll be working one of his horses. Either way, he’ll have an awareness of what is going on for me and my horse, without interfering, allowing me to get on with working out what is called for in developing a connection. He might remind me to breathe or ‘steady myself’, and then I need to notice the change that will immediately come about in my horse, the relaxation. He’ll encourage me to try things out myself, to play with possibilities, to extend myself a little, but is careful not to suggest something that might lead to a loss of confidence. With students, as with horses, he says that what he is trying to do is build confidence.

After I have been trying something out, we will pause and debrief. Usually, I’ll start by trying to work out what I think has been going on, and then Corey will offer his thoughts. Our discussions generally focus on the connection between myself and my horse, and, importantly, my state of being and leadership ability. I can rely upon Corey to be absolutely honest in his feedback, and not allow me to get away with any avoidance strategies. He is insistent that it doesn’t matter if things go well or not so well, because there is learning in it either way. And if I should start to go down the path of being hard on myself, he’ll help me lighten up and laugh and get out of myself. Then, he might make some suggestions as we head off again to either retry something, or, if necessary, return to some foundation. It depends on what is called for.

If, at any point, Corey did feel the need to step in, say if I were struggling, on the ground or in the saddle, he would not be doing so to ‘fix the problem’. Invariably, ‘the problem’ will be one of connection between horse and human, and consequently a relational issue on my part – for example, not being present, not listening to my horse, wilfully trying to make things happen. So, this can be a useful learning experience, if it is taken as an opportunity to reflect on how the situation came about, having awareness of my state of being, and being un-defensively open to learning from situations that haven’t gone so well (see Dorrance 12).

Furthermore, there can be learning, if, in watching Corey, I imagine, in a full-bodied way, the feel of his horse-and-human way of being in this situation. Indeed, sometimes Corey will think it appropriate to demonstrate something with either one of his horses or one of mine, so that I can then imagine his way of being, and, with practice, embody it in a similar situation. And, in those joyful moments when I do experience fluency, when it feels just right, he will say: ‘Did you feel that? Remember that feeling’. I need to take note and re-imagine the bodily experience of being in-tune with my horse in, for example, a forward relaxed walk, a balanced trot, a smooth trot-walk transition, walking side by side up a hill together. (See post on ‘imagination’.)

In summary, this way of teaching is all about encouraging the learning of feel with awareness, patience, and practice. I’ll return to these themes in the following posts.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey, Suzi, Vittoria.

Living in-relation with horses: stillness

In this post I want to talk about the significance of ‘stillness’ to leadership. To reiterate briefly, leadership in our relations with horses involves the provision of a trustworthy, safe space. This requires the relational capacity to be present and open, able to listen to our horses and to respond to what is called for, without being reactive or judgemental. In other words, leadership in human-horse relations, is analogous to that in teacher-student, parent-child, carer-cared for relations. In all of these, it is the relation that leads rather than an identifiable individual. A teacher is teacher-and-student, simultaneously teaching-and-learning; a student is a student-teacher, simultaneously learning-teaching. This is the logic implied when horsepeople say that our horses are our teachers. And it calls for humility on our part.

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Living in-relation with horses: listening

‘Listen to the horse’ (Tom Dorrance, True Unity, 1987, P 21)

Tom Dorrance was insistent that listening was the most important aspect of communication with horses. He said that, while most people start from themselves, from where they are, and try to work back to the horse, he ‘tries to listen to the horse… to feel what the horse is feeling and operate from where the horse is’. Listening, he says, is essential to the capacity to feel the whole horse inside ourselves (pp 12-14, 21), that is, to the capacity to participate in horse-and-human feedback systems (see the previous post).

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Living in-relation with horses: feedback

‘It has to be a togetherness’ (Tom Dorrance, True Unity, 1987, P 11)dorrance_1

Tom Dorrance insisted that togetherness, ‘this thing between the horse and the person’ could not be learnt through instruction – ‘do this and you get that’. Rather, it was a matter of ‘feel’, something that could only be acquired through full-bodied experience. Speaking of his own experience, he said ‘I try to feel what the horse is feeling and operate from where the horse is’. To feel ‘the whole horse’, he said, involves feeling ‘inside the horse, right in his innards’. And, most importantly, we feel ‘the inside of the horse… from inside of ourselves’. In short, feel is an experience of entwined being (Pp 12-14). To develop an understanding of this experience, in this post I want to introduce the ecological idea of feedback. Continue reading Living in-relation with horses: feedback

Living in-relation with horses: stroking

I said that this post would be on feedback, but there’s something more immediate I’d like to talk about here – stroking our horses. Stroking has enormous significance to what Tom Dorrance describes as the ‘foundation’ of horsemanship – horses ‘coming to us for security’ (True Unity, p 12). Without this, he says, nothing will work. Above all else, we want our horses to feel happy and safe with us. This is what leadership is about.stroking

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Living in-relation with horses: imagination




In an excellent article about the significance of connection, Jo Spiller says

So how do you create this partnership? You don’t do anything to create it, because it’s not a matter of doing. It is much more a matter of who you are being. You see, we have language for doing things: we can say ‘Put your heels down’, ‘Sit up straight’… but nobody can tell you how to do ‘being’.

After years of teaching riders and training horses, Spiller says that she suddenly saw what had been there in plain sight. She’d been too busy doing things to see that the basis of good horsemanship was the capacity to develop a connection with horses. And, ‘in order to achieve that connection’, she realized, we ‘must undergo a transformation’, a change in form of being.

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Living in-relation with horses: softness

In previous posts I’ve made references to softness – to soft ways of looking, to the softness in states of being calm, present and focussed, to the softness in a connection between human-and-horse. For example, with reference to the kangaroo experience, I said that Corey softly picked up a feel on the rein, and looked softly at the kangaroo to help Pia soften, relax and become curious. In this post, I want to think more about what is involved in a soft way of being and why this is so important to being-in-relation with horses.20200406_102359-1_resized

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