Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Solving the Equation

My philosophy as an equestrian coach has evolved quite a bit over the past few years. I initially started off as a biomechanics trainer, who focused solely on the rider’s seat. This is still the premise for all of my teaching as it is an easy starting point for all riders, no matter what their background. But there is so much more than biomechanics to riding and my hope is always to uncover these other, often hidden, issues people encounter with their horses. Mainly, I hope to bring my students to a place of mindful awareness of how their actions, attitudes, thoughts and emotions affect the horse. In addition, I hope for them to discover compassion and empathy, not only for the horse but also for themselves, because these emotions are the building block on top of which true partnership is built.

Everyone comes to my lessons from their individual starting point. You could be a very traditional rider with long-term goals or someone who mainly trail rides with a bitless bridle and a saddle pad. Or anything in between. All I ask is that you have a respectful attitude towards your horse. Although I do recognize that respect is an elusive term in itself and subject to interpretation. One person’s respect can easily be another one’s abuse. I always trust that the fact that they have chosen to ride with me, is a sign of something. If it is a natural continuum in their already budding curiosity of a different, more horse-centered way of being with horses or a subconscious call for help is left for me to discover.

Whatever the framework of each individual student, I proceed at first in a standard manner. Everyone understands biomechanics, at least once it has been explained to them. Whether we stay solely with the biomechanics is up to the rider and the horse. Sometimes it takes only one lesson with me to open up the floodgates of emotion, others ride with me for months before we dive deeper.

This past weekend I was working with a student on one of my favorite subjects: turning, something that is rarely explained to riders correctly during their formative years. My student was performing an exercise in which she rides a small square at the walk, working on turning the horse correctly at each corner. Mary Wanless, the British biomechanics guru, introduced me to this exercise years ago and it brilliantly exemplifies the correct turning technique, which has nothing to do with the reins and everything to do with the seat. In addition, it often helps the rider realize what it means (and feels like) when a horse is straight and aligned.

The most important fact about this exercise, however, is not in my opinion the mechanics, but that it always and without fail brings the following two realizations to the forefront of the rider’s consciousness.

1. Horses are extremely sensitive and responsive animals

2. We, as riders, manage to confuse the horse by over-riding, often with incorrect aids.

It never gets old to witness the shock on the rider’s face when she realizes her horse is capable of turning with what seems like only a thought, a breath, a wish. Because a horse will, every single time, if you let him. Without exception.

“Wow, my horse is really sensitive,” my student exclaimed on Sunday with words I have heard dozens if not hundreds of times.

No, your horse is not really sensitive. All horses are really sensitive. More sensitive than we can ever truly appreciate. They react to every movement of our bodies, every weight shift, muscle tension, the passage of breath, thought and emotion we have. Every second we spend on a horse’s back is merely a string of reactions for the horse. Therefore, if the horse is not turning left of bending right, it’s usually not because of the horse, but because of us.

Oh yes, it’s true that horses are crooked and stiff. But still, when we are riding a horse and we break down what we are doing into small, miniscule pieces, the finger eventually turns to point at us, the person sitting on the horse.

The horse is crooked to the right and is leaning over his shoulder? Adjust your seat over and over again until he can align himself. Getting pissed off and frustrated won’t help. Neither will name calling or using the whip. Not to mention pulling on the reins one way or another. None of this helps, especially if we are not aware of our responsibility as the likely culprit to our horse’s way of going. And even if we are not the direct cause, we are always – always – the solution.

That is why this aforementioned square riding exercise is perfect. Not only will the rider learn how the horse turns and straightens, she will also understand that when the horse doesn’t turn or straighten, instead of smacking the horse with the whip or kicking it resentfully while telling it to stop being a jerk, goddamnit, she needs to look in the mirror. The world you get is the world you give away. Or in other words, what comes around, goes around. As hard as it is to admit sometimes, this applies to horses, up to the hilt.

I know I can be a tough teacher to chew, because I think that nothing is ever the horse’s fault. That is, if we are looking for culprits, which I’m not. Why? Because I believe that riding is a string of exercises, problems, to which we must find a string of answers. Finding the answers is challenging, but very, very interesting and rewarding, and it is done one piece at a time, like a puzzle. There is no time for finger pointing and blaming, but plenty for empathizing and understanding. We analyze our, the rider’s, pieces, where they are and how they correlate with the horse’s pieces. Then we find out how to rearrange ourselves so that it fixes the horse’s alignment. Sounds simple, right?

Solving the equation, the puzzle, the problem, takes a lot of time, but it is so engrossing that it can completely consume you. The short-fused and resentful rider who I identified with in the past has in my case disappeared ages ago. She was replaced by a curious, creative rider, a person who is not afraid to question her own actions. Why would I get frustrated when I am presented with a multidimentional problem and an incredibly wise horse, who is more than ready to communicate and help me find the answers? What could be more interesting than finding the solution together?

Rarely does a rider grasp all this at once. The mechanics of it perhaps yes, but the emotions and attitudes that can follow not. Many find it hard to accept that the horse will do exactly what we ask, we just need to know how to ask correctly. It is so much easier to blame the horse. And to smack its shoulder that is falling in or out. And granted, that smacking/yanking/kicking/holding etc. will make it move towards correct for a split second. But it won’t fix the underlying problem, because that can only be solved by finding the root cause of it.

When I was living in Switzerland I knew a dressage rider, who was aspiring to compete the higher levels with her young horse she had trained from scratch with some help from her German trainer. The dressage rider, however, had a massive asymmetry in her body. I don’t know if she was aware of this or just in denial, but the effect it had on her gelding was tremendous. This was clearly visible in lateral movements, which highlighted the asymmetry issue tenfold. Often the gelding could simply not perform the movement correctly even though the rider did everything she could to make it happen. There were times when the rider’s aids were so conflicting that the horse performed the movement in the opposite direction than the rider had intended.

What can I say, this can happen to anybody. The sad fact about this particular case was that the rider repeatedly reprimanded her horse with a long dressage whip for “the mistakes he made” even though she was clearly the direct cause of these so called mistakes. Without going into a spiel about why positive punishment (i.e. the whip in this case) never works as a training tool and is not a correct way to treat a horse regardless of what it is doing, it was clearly completely out of line in this case. But the rider never stopped to question why her horse was responding this way and refused to discuss it with anybody who dared to try to explain their observations.

This past weekend, when I witnessed my student grappling with her own limited abilities to ride and communicate correctly with her horse, I realize once again how hard it is to let go of the idea that we know more than the horse. That instead of being partners, the horse is somehow below us, the one that always makes the mistakes. Or perhaps more accurately it is difficult to admit that we, too, make mistakes. Many and often.

On the other hand, when I watched my student, I could also appreciate the dedication and commitment in which she relentlessly tried to understand what was happening between her and the horse she was riding. Everyone is not capable of such introspection and I always have respect for those who do.

After the lesson we discussed the exercise and what my student had learned during it. What was the take away? Despite her wonderful insights I realized once again that the process which I had started during our lesson was simply too big to comprehend in one sitting. I watched her face carefully, trying to see the internal process that I knew was there. Would we have another lesson soon? Or ever? As I said before, this work is not for everyone.

I am unsure of what will happen in the future with this particular student, but I am happy for what transpired between us in the lesson. I was able to dislodge something, open a small door of awareness in her world. Once the door is cracked, it is best to let the door open in its own time, instead of kicking it down at once. If it were only about the biomechanics, this would be so much easier. But it isn’t. That is why when people ask me what I do for a living, I struggle to answer. Equestrian coach or biomechanics coach does not even begin to cover it, because as I said in the beginning that is just the starting point to a journey which can last a lifetime and take us to landscapes within ourselves we never even knew existed.

The degree to which a person can grow is directly proportional to the amount of truth he can accept about himself without running away. ~Leland Val Van de Wall


  1. Lately my horses have been great teachers in showing me where my faults are. Interestingly enough- so have my dogs.

  2. I love that you feel (and know) that nothing is the horses fault,I totally agree with you. I was always being told 'make him who's boss...he's taking the *#@s'.it just wasn't what I wanted to do with the precious & privileged time I spent with my horse. It was such a relief to find other training methods which are kinder, more interesting & more fun for us both. Horses are beautiful, clever animals with good hearts,if they're given the chance to show us :-)

    1. Thank you for your comment! I, too, was told to show horses "who is boss" and sadly often obeyed, thinking this was the only way to be with these sensitive animals. I'm so happy to have found another way and now to be able to help others find theirs. But I still want to remember my past as it helps me understand and have compassion towards those who are still seeking. So happy you have found better training methods as well that bring your closer to your horse.