Living in-relation with horses: being present

Any activity performed with skill requires good timing. This is true of catching a wave, for example, or hitting a ball or playing a musical instrument or dancing …. Good timing is also essential to skilful horsemanship, both on the ground and in the saddle. Whatever the specific skill might be, acquiring the capacity for good timing takes never-ending practice, and it depends on a particular temporal way of being – being present.20200710_110249_resized

Although ‘being present’ is quite a familiar term in horsemanship, I have a hunch that it is commonly misunderstood and that people often think of this ‘present’ as a point on a line of past, present and future ‘presents’. But, if you reflect on this for a moment, you’ll see that as soon as you are thinking of the present in terms of a line, you are no longer ‘present’, you have become separated from the living reality of being with your horse or surfing a wave or whatever. In other words, there are different forms of time, and to be present is to experience a form of time qualitatively different from linear time. Confusions can arise because terms like ‘present’ and ‘now’ are used indiscriminately to refer to different forms of time, associated with different ways of being. The important thing here is that ‘being present’ is the temporal quality of a connected way of being.

It is important, then, in our work with horses, to be able to distinguish between being present and other temporal experiences. To be in connection with our horses, we need to be here-now with them, rather than elsewhere in time (and space). And yet, so often, we find ourselves not being present with our horses – whenever, for example, we are in states of distraction or anticipation. These can take all sorts of forms, but, notably, they include any thoughts about outcomes or goals. In these states, we lose a connection and, with it, good timing.

To help think about the quality of different temporal experiences, I’ll return to the kangaroo example described in the previous post. There, I said that, with calmness and good timing, Corey was able to offer Pia the support she needed, so that she was able to relax and become curious about the kangaroo.  Through his open human-and-horse way of being, Corey was able to listen to Pia and to respond to what was called for. Crucial to all of this was his being present. So, what did that feel like?

Here is how I imagine Corey would have experienced time in this situation. Time would have slowed down, gone into slow motion, into a state of suspension. In fact, Corey wouldn’t have been thinking about time at all (or himself, for that matter). He would have had no thoughts such as ‘I’d better hurry up and do something to fix this’ or ‘how long is it going to take for her to change’. There would have been no sense of rush. On the contrary, I think he would have experienced a sense of stillness – an unbounded stillness, in his calm focus and in the world around.

People often speak of these experiences as moments of timelessness, and, in a way, this is conceptually accurate. In those moments when we are absorbed in whatever we are doing, there is a suspension of what is commonly thought of as time – linear time, measured time, the time that ticks away minute by minute. The line of time that is an abstraction from lived reality. Interestingly, the physicists David Bohm and David Peat speak of a ‘timeless order’, the order of wholeness which is more fundamental than a ‘sequential order’ (Science, Order and Creativity).

To return to Corey and Pia. When in that experience of stillness or timelessness, Corey was simply absorbed in being there with Pia, supporting her. He was absorbed in the unfolding presentness of lived experience. And he waited, with patience, for a change in her being, for a relaxation. There was no urging or pushing forward. In other words, he was not distracted by goals or outcomes which would have led to impatience and a loss of connection.  Patient waiting, which is so important in our life with horses, comes from the timeless quality of being present.20200710_110153_resized

Now, of course, it is quite easy to react to a scary situation and to get into a rush out of worry. But with such reactions, we cannot offer the support our horses need. We are not present. Out of worry, we’re elsewhere, lost in our self-concern. In situations when Pia is worried about something and I find myself reacting with worry, I have found it helpful to say to myself ‘breathe, slow down’, as I stroke her and smoothly pick up a feel on a rein: ‘I’m here, come back to our connection’.

In the last post I spoke of the problem of anticipating a scary situation, but there are all sorts of ordinary experiences of anticipation that might be less readily recognisable as such. Here’s an example of one of those everyday experiences that happened for me recently. I was working on walk – trot transitions and, in anticipation, I had got ahead of myself. Being ahead of myself, in a projected future, I was not present, in the here-now of our walk, and I could feel that it had no flow, rhythm, we were losing our path. We were no longer together, in tune in the walk. I knew this at one level, the feeling was unmistakable, and yet I held onto that future-oriented thought. So, of course, the transition was messy, without flow. Had I been present, attending to what was before me in the walk, there would have been good timing in the transition. In short, had I been listening to what Pia was telling me, together, we could have moved smoothly from walk to trot. And, it would have felt just right.

This experience points to the difference between anticipation and preparation. In a state of anticipation, I was unable to prepare properly for a transition. Preparation is crucial to the good timing of any skilful activity. With good preparation, a movement, an activity, can flow with ease. As people often say, it is effortless. The tricky thing about the distinction between anticipation and preparation is that, in a sense, there is a goal or a purpose involved in preparation; but, it’s what we do with that that makes a difference. With anticipation we become attached to a goal; in order to be present to the preparation, we need to set the goal aside, hold it ever so lightly. And then we might just have an experience of stillness in flow in something as apparently simple as moving from walk to trot. Or, as you’ll see in these pictures, doing a turn around poles.20200710_110133_resized

So, what I’ve been suggesting is that if we can recognise the temporal qualities of different experiences, it can help us maintain a connection with our horses and thus good timing. One readily recognisable sign of not being present is the common experience of trying hard, which often happens when we become attached to outcomes and focussed on what we should be doing to achieve them.  I’ll return to this in the next post where I’ll talk about the significance of softness to being in-relation with horses.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey, Marisa and Suzi



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