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.

To give a sense of stillness in leadership, I’m going to give the example of grooming. Here is Corey grooming his horse, Dorothy (see photos). Corey regards grooming as a foundational experience, crucial for establishing that trustworthy space for our horses. He insists that, as with every encounter with horses, grooming isn’t merely a preliminary to the real thing, doing groundwork or riding. It will however play an important role in how things subsequently unfold, on this particular day, and in future situations, as the effects of the experience are cumulative. Speaking about grooming, Corey says ‘It’s about being a presence, having a way of being that helps the horse’. And, without hesitation, he says that the best word to describe this way of being is ‘stillness’.

Corey says he can tell the difference between days when he is in this state and days when he is ‘busy with things on [his] mind and feeling time pressures’. (This is relative because Corey always seems like a calm presence to me!) The horse will let him know if he is not fully present to the grooming. He will be less effective in providing that safe space and so the horse will find it more difficult to soften, relax and find comfort in the process. ‘If you’re feeling time poor, you’ll have trouble adjusting to fit the situation’. Which is to say that he will have trouble relaxing into that supportive space of grooming where he can respond to what is called for with good timing.

On occasions of stillness, on the other hand, this is how he feels: ‘When I am in the right frame of mind, I try to feel that every stroke is a soothing stroke. Each stroke matters. With each stroke, I try to feel what the horse is feeling, what the horse is going through.’

This grooming isn’t slow, as some mistakenly think, he says. In fact, it’s neither slow, nor fast: ‘It’s the quality of grooming that matters’. It can be firm or vigorous, but without any hardness, and always done with smoothness and a softness of being. That is, in much the same way that horses groom each other, although the grooming in which we are participating is a between horse-and-human grooming. What matters is that in a horse-and-human way of being we are in each stroke, rather than going through the motions in a perfunctory manner. Being ‘in’ each stroke means surrendering our ‘self’ to the rhythm and flow of the grooming, and thus feeling what ‘the horse’ is feeling in the flow. ‘Feeling what the horse is feeling’ means that, in that intertwined state, ‘we’ too are being groomed as ‘we’ groom.

When grooming, Corey says he is simultaneously doing two things, ‘helping the horse find security and getting a job done’. So, if Dorothy were to get distracted or worried, he would continue grooming in exactly the same way, he wouldn’t react or make any judgement about what was going on. You’ll notice in one of these photos that something has caught Dorothy’s attention. Corey is holding a lead, but he allows her to look away at whatever it is. If she did start to get lost, he’d pick up a feel, to bring her back to that trustworthy connection. And, importantly, he’d continue grooming. He would not stop and look at whatever it was – he’d have an awareness of the environment without fixing his attention on anything. By grooming Dorothy in this way, Corey is reassuring her that this is a safe space, and she softens and comes back to the comfort she finds in grooming.

The idea of ‘getting a job done’ helps Corey avoid turning the creation of a supportive space into a goal. This is simply happening through the ‘job’ of grooming. Significantly, though, as Corey relaxes into the process, allowing himself to be groomed, he will let go of any purpose in linear time that he might have started out with. Then, as he comes into the stillness of the present, ‘he’ will be able to ‘adjust to fit the situation’.

Now, you can see how soft Dorothy is throughout the process, with her eyes closing and her head and neck lowered. But she has had to learn to enjoy grooming and to find it a secure space, and Corey has had to learn with patience what is called for in this process. Had he held onto certain goals, this wouldn’t have been possible. And, so, he emphasises the importance of feel and awareness in providing the right support at the right time. For example, if a horse that had had limited handling didn’t like being groomed in a particular part of the body, he would ‘continue in that area until there was a softening, and then move immediately to another part of the body that they had already learned to enjoy’. Then maybe he’d go back to the new area. This way, ‘the horse’s comfort and trust would build’. If he were grooming a horse that needed to move its feet out of worry, the appropriate response might be to move with it, all the while continuing the grooming, and allowing the horse to come to a stop itself, finding that place of comfort. In other words, leadership is coming through the relational space of grooming-being groomed.

Then, ‘when it feels right’, he says, ‘it wouldn’t matter what else is going on – the horse won’t be worried about anything or become distracted.’ Notice that there is an ambiguity about for whom ‘it feels right’. Implicitly, Corey is talking about horse-and-human being absorbed together, in each soothing stroke of grooming-being groomed. I think he shifts to ‘the horse won’t be worried…’ because he’s thinking about the horse’s needs rather than himself. In fact, he has been able to let go of worries and distractions in that relational space of grooming, so that he can be there for the horse.

So, what can we do if we find ourselves getting distracted or busy, or with a head full of thoughts, or trying hard to be a good leader? Corey provides a clue when he says that every stroke matters. If we focus on being in every stroke, with rhythm, imagining-feeling this as a soothing between horse-and-human experience, we’ll be able to let go of those self-absorbed states and come back to the present. We’ll find ourselves in the safe space of grooming-being groomed, where there is just the grooming, and nothing else matters.

When in a state of stillness we are living in the here-and-now of non-measurable time-space. This is an experience of the order of timelessness in which the time that ticks away is suspended. With no thoughts of what he has to get done, Corey would be absorbed in the unfolding presentness of grooming-being groomed. Time would slow, expand, stand still. And, with that sense of time standing still, comes a quietness, a silence in which you can listen to the horse.

The ambiguity in ‘it feels right’ points to the non-locatable quality of stillness. With no locatable point of origin, it is experienced within and without, between horse-and-human-and-environment. Most significantly, this space feels simultaneously protective and expansively open – we, horse-and-human, feel supported, without confinement. In this protected space of well-being you can feel the sun, the breeze, hear the birds, and have an awareness of other horses, people, dogs nearby without becoming attached to any of it.

Importantly, it is this supportive, holding space that allows for curiosity, creativity and flow. Whether we are standing still or in motion, either on the ground or riding, when ‘it feels right’, we, horse-and-human, are carrying and being carried by the flow, in stillness.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey, Marisa and Suzi.

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