A gallop across the field... An alternative perspective

It had been a long time since I’ve galloped.  Literally.

So very often I have people tell me their horse “loves” to gallop, and as I watch the horse move at a faster pace, I often see fear in the horse’s eye and body.  In my personal experience more often than not, the horse displaying what is typically interpreted by the human as having the “desire” to run, when really it is a horse trying to flee the scene.

For me, the more I learned about all the “stuff” I’d missed in regards to my horse’s brain and emotions, the more I realized I had no right galloping for many, many reasons.  My priorities have since shifted to the concept that not until the horse is mentally, emotionally and physically with me, do I ask for the faster speeds. 

Looking back I now would classify most of my galloping experiences as A.) A challenge of surviving the ride based on my ego vs. doing what was best for my horse, B.) A frightful experience for the horse due to lack of effective support I offered to the horse, and C.) Something I’m surprised I’ve did so frequently with as little crash-and-burns as I have had for how sort-of out-of-control I was.

Now you may be imagining me as having been on one “of those” scary riders on “crazy” or “difficult” horses, but I was not.  I actually blended in quite well with the rest of the riders.  Same strong horse, same strong bits to stop, spurs to go, and devices to help keep the horse's head down, and a hopeful mentality every time I swung a leg over the saddle.  

No one thought it was odd to exchange equine related ER stories over dinner, to have dramatic rides or heart stopping experiences.  The collective "we" in my world at that time thought that “that” was what it took to prove that you were up to the task.  Accomplishing the end goal whether within a certain time frame, over specific obstacles, or just surviving better and faster than anyone else had, was our sole focus.

An ex Chef’d Equipe to the USA Eventing team once told me in a lesson to keep a riding journal.  It was some of the best advice I had ever received.  But it wasn’t until years after most of my entries had been made that I then realized the power of what I’d written at the time.  When I read it in present day, it seems as if someone else wrote the journal, as if I can’t even remember how “I” used to be in my approach towards horses.

I have always naturally been analytical, and I believe part of what interested me in teaching others was my “problem solving” mentality.  But when I review the old journal entries I realize, as literal as I was in taking the instruction back then, and how much of it (classical) was addressing major and valid points in my riding and my horses, every single instructor no matter their background or discipline had “missed” presenting the pieces that would allow me to mentally connect the whole picture of the whats, hows and whys I was supposed to be do something.

It was like lessons would focus on what seemed (from my student perspective) as to be some random problem, rather than addressing the root cause, which in my own  riding (and many other riders) was a weak foundation causing the unwanted results.  We kept trying to band aid symptoms, rather than do surgery and fix the foundation.

Most of the instruction was often focused on both what my horse and I were NOT supposed to be doing, rather than creating a clear concept in my mind as to what we were supposed to be accomplishing.  No one mentioned that when the little pieces were connected it would create the ideal “ride” we were striving for. 

I was basically learning how to ride defensively and in a critical manner towards the horse; critiquing each wrong move, rather than communicating to the horse what I wanted from the start.  It was sort of like a game of chess.  I’d wait for his move, he’d wait for mine.  Then it was a mental challenge to see who’d “win” the round.  It was exhausting.  To work so hard to get “it” right and feel like I was still grasping at air and even with the compliments from mentors, I never really felt my horse recognize any relief from my constant demands. 

There was a time when I rode race horses from 6am-10am, then headed to ride for a Dressage international USA representative and judge for three hours, then early afternoons were spent at an internationally competitive jumper facility and finally evenings with my own horses.  I was riding a LOT of horses.  Ranging from mediocre racing lines to hundreds of thousands dollar “super-star” steeds.

And I approached each place as if it were a completely “separate” world from the previous one.  Why?  Because that’s what I’d been taught.  “These” are ______________ (discipline) and this is how we _____________ ride these _______________(breed) kind of horses.  And I believed what I was told.

Never, ever, ever, EVER did I consider the horse was still a horse, no matter the breed, background, discipline or experience level.    I was taught to consider lots of things ABOUT the horse, such as if the swelling I felt in the leg was new or a result of an old injury.  I considered the level of “excitement” the horse would have if he was turned out too long or not lunged enough.  I was taught a lap of walking around the barn as equivalent to a “hack” or let down time for the horse.  I was told trotting on the side of a narrow European back country road in the pouring rain with cars flying past as “quality training” to teach the horse to be reasonable even though every muscle in his body was taut with fear.

I didn’t give a second thought towards the fidgeting, fussy horses.  Or ones that had vices, didn’t like to be groomed or tacked, and were a bit “hot” to start or ones that I had to do things a certain way in order to get the horse to comply.  I worked at barns where horses were kept sedated and with cages on their face to prevent them from attacking humans. 

I didn’t realize that a horse could be respectful when led out of the stall or gate, could stand while being mounted or that his pinning of his ears when I applied leg pressure was not a fluke.  I didn’t worry if he swished his tail, or couldn’t halt in the middle of a “work” session. 
I laughed at the horse and all the things he was scared of and “forced” him through those scenarios.  The ones that were difficult I was taught you just had to sedate to shoe or load into the trailer, and these were just normal occurrences.  That” was just how it was, and I had lots of other things to hurry up and do.

Now you might be thinking, sheesh, maybe I just wasn’t “getting it,” and that it had nothing to do with the quality of the instruction.  Over the years my learning experience has ranged from the local Pony Club volunteers to Gold Medalist Olympians to the dying breed of what I call “real world horsemen.”  It is very, very, very rare to have someone who can communicate in a way that makes sense to “everyone,” and who can offer both the detail oriented instruction and still offer the big-picture perspective all the while prioritizing the horse’s needs first.

Way back then I could rattle off all of theoretical clichĂ© dos and don’ts of “classical” riding.  But I had no feel.  I had no timing.  I had no rhythm.  I had no finesse.  I had no awareness toward’s my horse’s brain, emotions and body.  I had no sensitivity in how I used my energy.  I had no concept of pressure, whether it was physical or spatial.

And yet I was still going through the motions of appearing to have somewhat successful rides on a multitude of horses. 

As most people would agree, the horse is usually the best teacher of all.  The problem is most people (not purposely- such was the case for me) are completely unavailable to honestly hear and/or consider the horse.  I know that may sound funny, but it is true. 

Give the person the option of A.) Sneaking past the “scary” object and continuing on as if it didn’t exist, or B.) Stopping and addressing what was bothering the horse and nine out of 10 folks would (and do) pick option A. 

Are they trying to avoid a conflict?  A blow up?  A potentially dangerous ride?  Yes.  And smart of them to think that.  But I mostly believe they choose option A. because they don’t have enough effective “tools to communicate”, they don’t have enough tools to give them options in how they communicate, and they don’t connect the dots that if something is bothering the horse now, that he will not just “let it go” and move on, but rather he will continue to carry that emotion and stress and it will increase as the ride continues if it is not addressed.

So it wasn’t until one day at some low level competition in England where I was grooming that I started for some reason to look around me.  I saw stressed out riders.  I saw stressed out horses.  I didn’t see anyone smiling.  Even the rare pat offered to a horse for a good performance was perfunctory rather than heartfelt.  I saw injured horses being asked to do things too soon in their healing process.  I saw horses still willing to try, even with injury or fear or both.  I saw how much “masking” was going on, all for the sake of the “end result.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I think competition can be awesome.  But what I was finding was that more often than not, the end goal became such a focus point that the quality of the journey to get there was lost.  Perspective was nonexistent.  Why was I having to hand walk  a soaking wet (with sweat) horse at 8pm on a cold winter night after a top international level rider/instructor/Olympian decided the horse wasn’t “getting it” and rode the horse for three, yes THREE, hours for the horse to “better understand.”  Hmmm.

You may say, “oh bad trainer.”  Well this same person is currently coaching top level competitors worldwide.  For me, that was the beginning of the breaking point.  The preparing of horses for photographing the “ideal "ride" to go along with the idealistic and inspiring magazine article by another big name trainer, and then behind the scenes when no one was around next day, to have the same horse run into the ground to “teach him a lesson.”

I also started realizing the more “soft” I was getting towards the horses, the more severe the judgment, criticism and harsh instruction was directed towards me.    And as with anything, once you start questioning the fundamental “basics” of a specific belief, the rest of the thoughts and things you thought you knew start coming crashing down at a rapid pace.

So long story short, I extracted myself from the horse world as I knew it.  I had to mentally and emotionally heal from a life long trauma I hadn't even realized was happening through my experiences.
I had to reintroduce myself to the horse the years later.  The most basic fundamentals of being around an animal, showing it respect, offering my own availability to actually recognize what the animal was trying to communicate.  

For the first time EVER I had no agenda, other than trying to figure out how to get my fire-breathing-red-head-thoroughbred at the the time to keep all four feet on the ground when stressed.  And oh how my world changed.

Every time I thought I’d tried, offered and experimented “enough” to get a change in that horse, he’d demand more of me.  I think he was my karma horse for all I’d unintentionally “done” to past horses I’d worked with.  EVERYTHING was a big deal.  He was either 100% okay or 110% not, and there was NO middle ground.  You couldn’t manhandle his athleticism, you couldn’t “make” him do anything and I certainly was not someone he trusted. I tried everything I knew, and nothing worked.  At all.  In fact it just made things worse.  So I finally had to ask for help. 

I remember laughing when I reminisced about the “old” galloping I used to do at a break neck speed, and here I was just trying to get this darn chestnut to walk a straight line at a reasonable pace without rearing, bucking or _____________. 

On one hand I was in awe of him because of his acute awareness, his infallible timing, his athleticism and his persistence at not becoming “submissive” towards me.  On the other hand it was overwhelming to feel no progress, and only a worsening in his fear, worry and discontent.

With nothing to lose, I reconnected with an old timer who wasn’t fazed by much.  When I unloaded my red steed, the cowboy straightened up by about four inches.  His eyes danced with enthusiasm at my “project.”  I was open to trying anything, so we started at what should have been the “very” beginning of establishing a connection with the horse in order to create a mental availability. 

I was standing in the middle of a round pen while my horse was having a nervous breakdown over something happening a mile away (literally), when that cowboy stood up and asked if he could go in the pen.  Ever have that feeling where you can’t wait to “get away” from your own horse?  I had it.  And then I watched. 

It didn’t even take a full two minutes and there was this HUGE but almost unintelligible conversation happening between my horse and the cowboy, courtesy of using the lead rope.  He’d wiggled the rope with a finger.  He’d shift his hand ever so slightly; he’d pick up the energy in his fingers just a notch.  My horse hadn’t moved; no circles, no fleeing, no dramatic behavior other than what at first appeared to be just a few nods of his head.  And suddenly, he was blowing his nose.  Over and over again, dropped his head and let all tension out of his body, passed manure, sighed, breathed, relaxed his eyes, and cocked a hind foot.  The worry peaks over his eye were gone; there was a softness and alertness in his body, rather than defensiveness.

I wanted to scream, “Why hadn’t anyone told me about …. About… THIS?” How had no one ever, EVER offered me the idea that my horse’s emotions could change everything?  I mean, we talked about stressed out horses, and how to contain them, sedate them, wear them down, etc. but never had anyone I known even considered that we could influence a mental and emotional CHANGE by doing so LITTLE if we were specific and clear.  And then to imagine what we could ask physically of a mentally and emotionally happy horse?  Wow.

So that week I had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew.  Years after the fact, I was still having epiphanies about what had happened that day.  And from there everything gradually became clear.  There was NO option for me to NOT address my horse’s mental and emotional availability in order to accomplish the physical tasks I presented.

Which brings me to my most recent present day galloping.  With a refined sense of awareness and understanding of the horse, as I increase my horse’s speed, I want it to be a reflection of his brain.  Although the steps may be larger and faster, there still needs to be softness, lightness and balance.  If at any moment I drain all my energy, my horse needs to immediately halt balanced on his hindquarters, WITHOUT me pulling on his face.  If while cantering I feel him asking to drain into a slower gait, I need him to relax if my aid asks him to go forward, rather than pinning his ears or becoming defensive towards me.  The irony is the faster you go with quality, the slower it feels, and the more time it seems you have.

So I spend a lot of time going slow nowadays.  Very, very slow.   I mean slower than you’ve probably ever imagined asking your horse to go.  As in, one-step-at-a-time slow.   I always joke it takes me forever to go nowhere.  

In the long run, by the time I’m asking a horse to move forward, my goal is that the horse offers to do so with a willingness, confidence and availability, and perhaps that carefree romanticized version we all have in our heads of what galloping across a field felt like as a kid.

And the other day it happened.  I hadn’t planned on it, it hadn’t been my goal.  But there I was working with a horse that had come a long ways from his shut down, fearful, insecure self that I’d met a while back.  As we rolled up into a light canter, there was a moment, almost indescribable, but where you can “hear” the horse reaffirming he is okay.  So I asked for a larger stride, and as my seat instinctively lifted out of the saddle and I lowered my upper body, almost floating above the horse, I could feel us shift gears and we were off… He stretched out all 17 hands of himself and all I could feel was the softness of the gigantic stride below me.  Time stops in those moments.  Nothing else exists.  It is why we all ride.  It is the ultimate escape and emotional release for us humans.

As I slowed him back to a lovely trot, I realized my adrenaline had kicked in.  When I sat back down in the saddle I instantly felt my fatigued muscles quivering in my lower back and legs reminding of just how long it’d been since my last gallop.  So even if for the rest of the day my legs felt like Jello, I was still grinning, and so was the horse.  And to me, that is what the gallop is all about.