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