Two weeks ago when I was riding dressage in the arena, I kicked Little Love fairly hard. I kicked her because she didn’t want to move and I got angry and frustrated because I wanted to ride. She pinned her ears back and started trotting with more power. This didn’t last very long. I had to kick her again. And then again. By then I felt so bad that I was nearly in tears. I asked for the canter, she obliged but only grudgingly, barely moving forward. “Are you going to kick me again?” she seemed to be saying.
I claim to be pro horse – no force, but there I was, kicking my horse. What a hypocrite. I stopped, came off her back and felt like an utter failure. And not for the first time, mind you.
Two years ago Little Love hated everything that involved working with a human. She still doesn’t love humans, but she tolerates me. I could even say that there are moments that she enjoys my company. These are mere moments, but I take them with gratitude for it is those moments that encourage me to search further, to understand her better.
But, of course, the myopic human that I am, I sometimes manage to abuse those moments, without really realizing what I am doing.
I have mostly been able to let go of the image of myself as a dressage rider, and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I used to work in the arena several times a week, but now it’s more of a miracle to see me riding in the arena. But it does happen, about once or twice every two weeks. But I’m starting to realize that it may be once or twice every two weeks too often. Not because of me, but because of Little Love.
She absolutely loathes ridden work in the arena. Loathes. There are of course exceptions to this rule, and I think she actually endures the ridden work better with her owner than with me. With me she feels comfortable enough to express her opinion loud and clear. Or perhaps she knows I am trying to listen to her more attentively than I was before. I have to admit that my listening skills have definitely improved. I do believe, however, that my comprehension skills still need a lot of work.
Despite my decision to let go of the dressage riding there are days when I get obsessed with the idea of riding in the arena. I feel like I have to. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps I’m afraid I’ll forget how to do it. Or I feel like I need to do it for the horse (or her owner). Or I’m just plain selfish and want to do it for myself. Because I used to love riding dressage and somewhere deep down inside I still do – just a little. Because isn’t that what you are supposed to do with your horse? Obviously I am still working on letting go completely.
This really wouldn’t be an issue if Little Love shared my interest. Some horses apparently do. But she doesn’t. Sometimes she lets you know this already when you are tacking up; she pins her ears back at the sight of the saddle. If I am smart enough, I choose to go on the trails or not ride at all.
But then there are the days when we actually get into the arena without a single hiccup beforehand. Little Love accepts the saddle, she seems energetic. Hopeful, I start riding in the arena, but discover ten minutes into it that Little Love is done. It’s not that she stops, she is moving reluctantly, but when she trots it is as if her feet were made out of lead. Which is undoubtedly what she feels like, too.
Under ordinary circumstances, a horse like this would get whipped. And she has faced similar consequences before. I used to do that; make sure my horse was listening to my aids by giving a small squeeze with my leg and if the horse didn’t react, I would use the whip. A few well-timed smacks and the horse was up and going. I was proud that my horses were moving from the slightest leg aid.
But, I have changed. I now believe that to achieve true connection we must abandon the use of force. We have no right to force another living being into doing something they don’t want to do simply to please our own desires to “have fun”. That all said… What am I doing kicking my friend? Perhaps I shouldn’t even be in the arena trying to ride?
Little Love teaches me the art of letting go. I’m not always a very good student, but she is patient and kind and above all, she is forgiving. I don’t deserve her as my teacher. I try my best, but unfortunately I have to admit that I am only human. And us humans, we like to be in control, we like to have goals, we like to be doing instead of being – all things my horse teacher does not understand or even appreciate. We are also very, very slow to learn what life is really about.
Every time I make a little progress, Little Love takes me to another level. I have no idea where this will end, but I’m starting to get a faint idea. She may not be done with me until I have truly let go of everything I ever believed in. But one thing I know for sure; the more I let go, the more I gain in trust, friendship and respect. And not just that, I learn to be surprised by the generosity of a horse. Because, despite my mistakes, my butt headedness, my inability to let go fast enough, and the preconceived notions of equestrianism that still haunt me time to time, she manages to somehow meet me half way.
Yesterday, after a particularly good session or in-hand work, Little Love and I were walking in the indoor when I suddenly hear her think out loud: “Ride me bareback!”
What? I looked at Little Love and I swore she was smiling from ear to ear.
“Come on,” she seemed to say, “try it.”
I looked at the bench in the corner and thought: “Fine, if you let me get on, then I’ll do it.” I walked Little Love to the bench and she stood stock still while I climbed on. I guess it was meant to be.
It certainly was. I haven’t had such a great arena ride for months. There I was, riding bareback with a rope halter and Little Love was round and light and energetic and collected – just like that. I even managed to sit her enormous trot without falling off. What the heck? After ten minutes I got off with a smile on my face and thanked her. She licked and chewed as if to say: “Bet you didn’t expect it to be that good.”
No I didn’t. Now I just have to control my human brain and let go of the image it immediately created of me riding Little Love bareback in a rope halter all the way up to FEI level.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer. ~Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet