Your Thoughts on an Interesting Post...?

i'd like to recommend the following blog post:

Do You Demand Your Horse’s Complete Attention?

I came across this great post over at Enlightened Horsemanship Through Touch, a blog I happen to love! This is a subject that is near and dear to me and my personal training style, but it was never something I thought about in any formal way, so it was really cool to have someone put it all out there in words where I could wrap my brain around it a bit. The result was a comment too long to post that I thought I’d post here in hopes that some of the readers here might visit the original post and share some of their thoughts on the subject too. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents:

This is a post I instinctively agree with but have never put into coherent thoughts, so I’m grateful someone has so succinctly put it into words for me! This gets right to the heart of much that I dislike about natural horsemanship and all its talk about “being the alpha” and “respect.” There is such a fine - but critical - line, especially with a prey animal, between “respect” and fear, and yet some people, inexplicably, seem to think they are one and the same. I believe a horse is only capable of giving its full focus, as described in the post, to something it fears on some level. The sense I get from the horses whose owners demand complete focus is of a deer in the headlights - of an animal so absorbed by his own hyper-alertness that his ability to function normally is impaired. This is hardly where I want my horses to be, above all during training – I want quite the opposite! And yet I see this with so many NH and dressage horses in particular who become mere machines, acting out their programming in a state of constant, vigilant caution rather than interacting with their human partners in a state of composed trust.

Without ever really thinking about the connection, one of the things I try to do when I feel myself getting tense in the saddle or becoming too focused on particulars is overcome that kind of focus in myself. Our level of focus is way too intense for the horse to understand, much less respond to positively. Dressage in particular often brings this kind of focus out in people, who start to obsess over outward appearances, mechanical perfection and formulaic manipulation of the horse, piece by piece (all the while focused on gaining and maintaining the unfortunately termed “submission”) rather than feeling a way forward with the horse in a way that relates to and takes in the entire horse, mind and body.

Because I study horsemanship and think so much about the mechanics and philosophy of riding, I have a tendency to want to think too hard while training. I can get hung up in details pretty easily. But it has occurred to me how different I feel and ride when speeding around a jumper course or galloping in the field, when there is little time to obsess over details; all of that is let go and I’m just riding in the moment, unconsciously absorbing all the information my horse is sending me and responding instinctively. And I realize that's where I want to be as a rider. And that’s where my horses are at their absolute best. This is probably because I’m not constantly interrupting them with a thousand nagging demands and disrupting their amazing ability to take in the entire environment, handle their own balance and movement, receive subtle input from a rider, and probably a million other things, all at once. Distracting them from all that with an obsessive need for single-minded focus on ME becomes absurd. And I can’t help but think the need for that kind of control over another being is unhealthy, to say the least. It goes along with the view that horses need to be broken rather than trained. While NH gurus vocally condemn and renounce the abusive ways of the past that “broke” horses, all their talk of “being the alpha” and “respect” at all cost seems like a rebranded version of breaking to me.

I realized in reading this post that my riding actually improves when I make the effort to avoid focus. When I feel myself getting into that hyper-focused mindset, I try to soften my awareness to take in everything (which, it seems, mirrors that of the horse) to relax and clear my mind of... well, everything, so that I can absorb everything without concentrating on anything in particular. Riding isn’t about seeing the forest OR the trees, but being aware of both, individually and part of a unified whole. To do this one needs all their faculties, including empathy.... I see so many riders focused, for example, on getting and ideal head position that it's as if all that exists of the horse is the head. They forget to feel whether the back is loose and swinging or coming up under the saddle, whether the hind legs are engaging, whether the gait has a pure rhythm, if the jaw and poll are soft and mobile, if the horse is receptive or resistant, relaxed or tense, etc. – all things that can all be felt easily, but only when one’s concentration is not directly on any of them! It's easy to lose track of the whole picture when we have such a narrow focus. That's just as true in riding as it is in life.

I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this but, whenever I’m riding relaxed on a loose rein and my horse spooks, somehow I just react instinctively and manage to not only stay on the horse with balanced ease, but actually calm him in the process. On the other hand, when I’m waiting for a spook, getting my legs tight, my seat secure, my reins ready, etc., that’s when I have the hardest time staying on and I end up making my horse even more tense. For me, riding with that kind of focus and readiness is always counterproductive. Which I suppose is why riding is a kind of meditation for me. To do it well, I have to let go of all of that intellectual focus on the surface and just be with the horse. In that state, I can feel, almost unconsciously, everything the horse is doing without having to process it intellectually, formulate a response and then react. I’m just there. I trust that all of that knowledge is in there somewhere, unconsciously influencing my actions and awareness, and over years of practice I have developed the muscle memory to carry it out. The moment I start to focus too much, it all falls apart. In a way it comes down to trusting; even if I can’t yet fully trust my horse, I try to trust myself enough to let go – to accept that I can’t control everything and to be alright with letting my horse just be a horse. And maybe in the end the way to gaining the horse’s respect without fear is to be without fear. After all, how can I ask the horse to trust and respect me if I don’t yet trust myself?


  1. Very interesting! I have a couple of thoughts.

    Maybe that's why I'm a better trail rider than an arena rider? On the trail I'm a big picture person. In the arena I'm detail-oriented, even though I hate it because that's how I thought I had to do it to get better....Maybe a change in thinking is in order. My horse AND I certaintly enjoy the trail better, probably because we both aren't stressed out by perfect circles.

    I've always been drawn to mares and I think some of that is because I feel like mares "get it" better than geldings. They "get" the grey areas better. Sometimes it's OK to eat while riding, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's OK move while mounting, sometimes it's not. Sometimes you get to pick speed and gait, sometimes you don't. (I'm completely brain dead from being exhausted, so that's my excuse if this post is way off subject or doesn't make sense!)

  2. that makes perfect sense! and yes, i do agree that the boys tend to be more black and white than the girls - something i have to remember when going from training one to the other!

    i have actually gotten to the point where i use trail and field riding to gradually school a lot of our dressage (think of all the dressage moves and aids you use to open and close a gate, collect going down a hill, or keep on a spooky trail!) that way the basic training sort of takes care of itself, and it helps keep the arena work form getting too intense. then when we're in the arena we make work into games and patterns to refine everything while still trying to keep it on the light side :-)

    i've been told by old school h/j trainers that they used to teach young horses to jump in the hunt field by just letting them follow the more experienced horses and figure it out as they went along! there's something appealing to me about training in an environment where what you're doing has a practical application. i think it has to make more sense to the horses than learning something new in the arena where it is sort of out of context. but i digress! ;-)

    now i'm the one who's tired and not making sense! thanks for the interesting comment!

  3. I have to agree with you completely and applaud you and Kim for putting all this into coherent thought for me.
    Once again great post and food for thought.

  4. "I believe a horse is only capable of giving its full focus, as described in the post, to something it fears on some level. The sense I get from the horses whose owners demand complete focus is of a deer in the headlights - of an animal so absorbed by his own hyper-alertness that his ability to function normally is impaired. This is hardly where I want my horses to be, above all during training – I want quite the opposite!"
    You said it--so well!

    I love your term, "composed trust."

    "I realized in reading this post that my riding actually improves when I make the effort to avoid focus." With this statement, you actually make the point I was aiming for in my next post on the subject, which is taking a cue from the neurological organization of the horse. It speaks to the state of mind taught in Centered Riding, best typified in Sally Swift's "soft eyes," which is more than an isolated exercise, but an entire approach to riding in, as you say, composed trust, and moving about the world much as a relaxed prey animal does.

    "The moment I start to focus too much, it all falls apart" Ordinarily, when this happens, folks blame the horse. But whose problem is it, really?

  5. kim- i can't wait to read your next installment!

  6. Very interesting posts, both yours and Kim's.
    I totally agree with your conclusions, and I very much feel that our horses have to be our partners. There has to be an element of play and of mutual joy in the work we do together.
    However, being a dressage rider I don't recognize myself in your description. I believe this has more to do with what kind of person we are - how we ride mentally (left or right brain rider), and not what kind of discipline we ride.
    Personally I tend to go very much with the flow when I am riding dressage - so much so that I have a problem when I am jumping instead. I have problems to focus on the course and the obstacles just kind of happen, lol!

  7. I love Sally Swift's 'soft eyes' approach, and it sounds like this is similar to your approach.

    One of my trainers taught me to do this sort of "rolling focus" technique, where I would go from head to toe with my focus while riding around the arena.

    I'd focus for a few seconds on each part of my body, noting if something was off and making a quick and easy correction, then rolling my focus down to the next part - i.e. eyes up and looking well ahead, shoulders open and back, arms relaxed and giving, hands... etc. etc. all the way down to my feet.

    Then I would ride with no focus at all, the soft eyes thing, until I felt something needed tweaking, at which point I would start the rolling focus again.

    It was an amazing tool and I think at this point it's just part of what I do. Now that more parts of my body can do what they need to for longer periods of time, I'm able to roll to the "trouble spot" more quickly, but overall it's a great way to have self-awareness w/o getting hyper-focused on any one thing.

    She also had me do this in response to the HORSE having an issue - instead of making a correction on the horse, I did the rolling focus and made the correction on ME.

    9 times out of 10 this fixed everything, and at least in the 1 time it didn't, I knew it was more than likely NOT me, and could then deal with what was happening with the horse.

    The mare/gelding thing is interesting. I have certainly ridden mares in my life but have only known one well, and that is Salina. The best way I can describe her is that she is not a "say/do" horse. She has an ongoing conversation with you, and it includes everything going on in you at the moment, whether or not it has to do with riding directly.

    With Keil Bay and Cody, I feel more of a yes/no/okay/you want me to WHAT? kind of back and forth going on... although I will say that with each of them I do feel a telepathy whereby I can think the requests and they respond. If I can shut down my body and get very quiet with the aids, then they listen better and they get quieter too.

    With Salina it feels more like we're doing a sort of intensive biofeedback therapy session, where she uncovers everything and THEN when you're centered and clear, things move into harmony. Sometimes it has happened so fast I couldn't keep up in my "head" - just had to go with her and let it roll - and that's when we did beautiful flying changes, etc. together.

  8. HOC - thanks for your comment! i should clarify that i wasn't singling out dressage riders, but just suggesting that maybe some of the more intense, single-minded (almost militant!) ones aren't doing their horses any favors ;-) i ride dressage and would like to think i don't fall into that category!

    billie - i have never heard of the 'soft eyes' thing until this subject came up, but it does sound similar. i'll have to read more about it. the 'rolling focus' also sounds interesting, though for me i think i could easily get caught up in it - i'd probably turn it into a pre-flight checklist! but i think i will give it a go next time i ride (if it ever stops raining here!)

  9. jme, I think you're probably too accomplished a rider to actually *need* the rolling focus technique!

    It was especially helpful for me, coming back to riding after such a long gap, b/c I could remember how it FELT to do things right, but my body didn't always cooperate. So this technique really gave me a low-key way to touch base with my own body as I rode.

    Ultimately, as each body part gets competent and stable, that part of the exercise should just drop off the 'list' - at least that's what has happened as I've continued riding and found some stability along the way.

    I still do use it though as a sort of touchstone to see where I'm at in a ride.

    However, I'm much more likely to get caught up in the moment and forget everything except the movement of the horse, so there is no danger of me turning anything into a rigid "checklist" - probably to the woe of past trainers who were trying to get my attention back on the lesson. :)

  10. ha ha :-) i think we all need a little help after taking any time off from riding! it's shocking how uncoordinated i've become after a long winter (and now rainy summer) of almost no riding. i need all the help i can get! the problem is, once you begin focusing on what's going wrong, it's hard to get past it. for me, anyway...

    i know they are a great tool but, i have mixed feelings about getting mirrors for the arena. on the one hand it will be enlightening :-\ to see where my position is these days and try to fix it, but on the other hand it might be traumatic to actually have to look at it! aaah!


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