I am with you. You are with me.
How often do we hear about the ever-elusive harmonious state of being so many of us riders strive to create with our horses? Harmony. A lovely concept, and a daunting goal. A moving target (literally!) when it comes to our efforts to become a more unified pair with our four-legged partners in the arena and outside of it. Harmony. Lofty pictures of horse and rider pairs floating effortlessly across the ground come to mind, a dance of two perfectly matched creatures, a smile evoked by synchronized perfection.
Lots of different parts of our lives are demanding attention while we’re all trying to cut out a few hours of quality time with our precious horses. Rushing from work, school, home and family, some quick stops at the post office, market, bank, gas station, bring a change of clothes or change at the barn, and there we are, out of breath, literally or in a manner of speaking, ready to have another go at it: Harmony!
Get yourself ready, get your horse ready, hurry, enter the arena or the trail, perhaps a bit out of breath and with a sigh, out we go, no matter what, and now, quickly let’s remember what it was we wanted to work on today? Oh, yes, everything! And how much time is left? Oh yes, I know, never enough!
For a long time I have used and taught many of my students my riding mantra: I am with you. You are with me. It connects us with our horses on all levels. It’s simple and all-encompassing. It works when I go and lead a horse from his pasture or stall, when I groom and tack up, when I check for signs of discomfort, when I make decisions about his care and well-being, and when I just stand quietly and watch him eat his hay. I am with you. You are with me. It grounds and centers me when I’m in the presence of a horse, it helps me shed the daily worries and concerns when training horses under saddle or on the ground. It reminds me to follow my horse’s motions first before feeling my way into his rhythm of the day. It reminds me to slow down my breathing and to smile every once in a while. I am with you. You are with me. I a with you. You are with me. It’s so easy to get lost in our heads, there’s just so much to remember every day! Just like any art form needs a theme, we do so much better with a lead motif when we’re trying to connect with our precious horses. As we start the warm-up, transition into the working phase and end with the the cool down part of our ride, the mantra never changes. I am with you. You are with me. If we are lucky it may feel like I am you. You are me. Those are the moments of pure bliss. The moments of moving, breathing, thinking and feeling as One with our horse. Harmony. It’s just a breath away. And just as precious.
In the book “Dressage Masters” by David Collins, each of four legendary masters was asked a catalog of questions. One of the questions was “What physical and mental qualities are most important for a rider to develop in order to advance?” Three of the masters gave a lot of thought as well as rather lengthy answers. The fourth, grand seigneur of Dressage and Rumanian trainer legend Georg Theodorescu gave a short but very poignant answer: “A rider must have a deep passion for the horse. If he has that, it’s enough.” This statement struck me as such a profound truth that it has never left my mind. To me this answer means that if you have passion, in other words if you truly love your horse, you will do right by him -- not just in general ways but you will do your absolutely best each and every day for him. You will make sure that all matters of his well-being are a top priority. This means staying in a mind-set of continuous learning and possibly changing old habits. By now most everyone knows that clipping a horse’s whiskers and sensitive inner ear hair – their vibrissae -- is a much bigger deal than people used to think. According to German animal protection law it is an illegal offense to clip the horse’s vibrissae. Even if it is not against the law in other parts of the world, knowing that the horse’s whiskers are 'for touch' just as the eyes are 'for sight' is part of what I think of as having passion -- and compassion -- for our horses. I am with you. You are with me.
The same goes of course for our on-going education about riding and keeping up our own physical and mental part of the equation. Reading, riding in clinics, auditing, staying fit, trying different riding approaches or changing trainers when things don’t feel right for a longer time. Paying attention to detail such as tack, fit and cleanliness, keeping in touch with what goes on in the world of health and horsemanship. No horse should ever be alone for any length of time. We can avoid a lot of stress and unhappiness, even depression, by leaving horses in groupings that match their sense of comfort in a herd setting. The times of letting a horse ‘sweat it out’ alone in an enclosed area, stall, pasture etc. so he ‘learns’ how to deal with being by himself are antiquated! We now know that horses are hard-wired to be herd-bound and need at least one other horse or companion nearby in order to stay mentally healthy and to avoid short- and long-term symptoms of stress (ulcers anybody?). I am with you. You are with me.
As conscientious horse people it is our job to make our horses’ world not just ok but that the best it can be, not just under saddle, but at all times and places throughout their existence that largely depends on the outlook, care and treatment they receive from their humans . When I talk about ‘their humans,’ I don’t just refer to their owners, I am talking about anyone who comes close to and is in actual touch with a horse. This includes people who are hired to clean, train, provide health and farrier services, groom and feed the horses, friends and family members who help with certain parts of the care or exercise our horses, people who lease a horse on a monthly or on a ride-by-ride basis, people who come to experience the presence of a horse under various circumstances. When I was a kid and rode in my riding school, I didn’t own a horse, but the school-horse I was given for each lesson or trail ride was referred to as ‘your horse,’ the implication being that for the time being all the responsibility and all the pleasure of being with this particular horse was mine. This was an honor as well as a wondrous, hugely joyful feeling to me, a feeling that has never left me up to this very day.
What it comes down to is that the horses in our world are precious gifts. They need to be cherished. Their generosity is unlimited, their kindness rarely matched, their spirits tender and their hearts as big as the ocean. Consider this: This is a species of flight animals that has evolved on this earth over the period of 50 million years! Humans? Evidence of the first human predecessors have been found approximately 2.5 million years ago. Not really a question here who has the been longer in the game of survival. Horses are hardwired to follow decisions to be made in split seconds -- despite of all our domestication efforts -- or they may be dead! And yet they let us take on the huge responsibility of guiding them through a daily life of many fear-instilling stimuli. Trust and trust-based leadership are the key. Trust that needs to be earned, built and maintained. Only a self-assured, balanced certainty, an inner stillness and grounded awareness, communicated on the ground and under saddle, can sustain the fragile, ever-present question of who is in charge and who is to be trusted with the two lives, the horse’s and the human’s, that become a centaur-like One when facing the rest of the world. If the answer to this question is not sufficiently clear to both entities, the disharmony makes itself visible in many ways. Disharmony that can grow from a mere misunderstanding into a full-blown miscommunication, leading to conflict and getting in the way of not only a harmonious, joyfully shared experience, but of the safety and well-being of both parties.
So it is of tremendous importance to consider and educate ourselves in an on-going manner not only about all matters concerning our horses, but also to take a good look at our own physical, mental and spiritual aspects. Taking care of our horses is only one part of the equation. Taking care of our own precious selves is the very important other part. I am with you. Are you with me?