There’s a magical moment when you find yourself so connected with a horse that there’s no need to grip, anticipate or concern yourself (much) with going off. Interestingly, it’s often less about the horse and more about you.

Recently, I was talking with a non-equestrian about this light-bulb moment. She likened the experience to finding your center in martial arts. This is the best analogy I’ve heard offered for this Zen-like experience. Funny it didn’t come from a rider or trainer. Sometimes being able to express what’s really going on with horses takes objective perspective from someone who doesn’t understand, yet does in uncanny ways.

How’s a novice rider to know?

Halcyon Acres® hired a gem about five months ago. She came with no horse experience (not in her mind – she spent a day on a horse and mucked a couple of stalls). Fortunately, she’s a quick leaner and great about asking good questions. One day she queried what she should be doing differently to stick with a horse that starts to buck. Long story short, this gal came a long way with very frequent riding lessons and was eager to try one of the young horses in for training. This filly had two months of riding time under her, but she’s goosey and will react if you knock her in the elbow with a toe (get the picture?). My knee-jerk response was more mileage. I was wrong. The better answer is finding your center.

Time in the saddle has little to do with being one with the horse. There are professional riders who will never get it and some rank novices who make the connection almost immediately.

Horseback riding ease is all about the seat

A former jockey turned exercise rider at the track has the shortest legs I’ve ever seen. Many years ago I asked him how he sticks with these horses that buck, wheel, bolt and perform other maneuvers that would dislodge many others able to wrap their legs around a horse. He said so long as he has his stirrups, he’s fine. Now I get it.

Used to be I’d drop my stirrups when faced with a bad actor. Today I’m better off with them – no matter how short they are. The moment you start gripping with your legs, you lose that connected balance with a horse that lets you naturally flow with their movement – no matter how athletic these moves may be. It’s the seat that’s your center – and once you detach a calm, relaxed, flowing and perceptive feel of the horse’s back through your buttocks, you compromise this critical connection for oneness with the horse.

Does it really matter how your body parts lay on a horse?

So much of equitation instruction focuses on where you place your body parts. I suppose there’s a rationale behind this ideal, but every rider and horse balances differently. While a pretty picture may win you ribbons, it’s not likely to set you on a path toward flowing with your equine. In fact, some of the precepts work against a position that enables you to relax into the motion of the horse. Driving your heels down, keeping your knees in and pointing your thumbs up are among them. If you’re short-legged and long-waisted finding your rhythm on the horse is going to look a lot different than it would for someone who has long legs and a tiny torso.

If you want to stay with a horse, let go

If you’re longing for that ah-ha moment where you feel such oneness with the horse underneath you there’s no need to anticipate what they may do next, let go. Gripping with the legs, tightening the reins or tensing up only serves to separate you from the movement of your equine partner – and the possibility of finding that nirvana where you are one together.

While no one can adequately instruct you on how to find your center for a riding experience that has you so relaxed, balanced and in tune with your horse that you easily mimic any movement your horse may make, there are things you can try to help foster this fluid feeling with your mount. Here are some unconventional ideas to try:

It’s a wonderful and awakening moment when you discover a peace, balance and confidence that has you comfortable aboard an athletic and unpredictable horse with the realization you’ve found the key to how to be on their backs in a way that has you with them for almost anything they may do. Better yet, why not develop an approach that keeps both of you happy, confident and connected? I hope you are able to experience the wonder of cool confidence on a horse that has you so connected with their movement you feel as one. It’s even more rewarding when your horse feels the same way.

7 Responses

  1. He he he he. Nanette, again wonderfully put. I’ve been working students from this angle for years. It is the first thing I work on with them. I focus on this first while upping the ante with tricker cuing to get them breathing and staying relaxed. Watching them get that first taste of that moment of Synchronicity is a great joy for me and part of what makes teaching riding fun.

    The cool thing about computers and the internet is that it reaffirms ideas from other people that we have when we share our thoughts. I am grateful to have found you and equally grateful that you share what you think. Having said that there is a response you should read to one of my blogs. I wish I knew who the person is who wrote it. It’s one of those “sticking their neck out there” replies that deserves an award. One you would appreciate. Please don’t stop sharing, no matter what it is that you think.

    1. Hi Stacey, thanks for commenting. If you’re referring to the first response to that blog post, it was me :-). Not sure why that didn’t come through (might want to check to see if there’s an issue on your end). If it’s the second, interesting (and impassioned) reply, there are some great points made. I smiled when I read her (his?) suggestion to call out for all those people logging huge successes with their home project training based on learning from a clinic or DVD. I’d like to hear those stories too :-).

  2. Nanette, Great blog! I love your design and your writing style. I live in horse country and will be sharing your blog with friends who are horse owners.

    I had a wonderful connection with a horse about 20 years ago. I was just learning to ride when my horse, reared upon hearing the sound of a tree branch snapping. I hung onto her mane for dear life and stayed on her until she calmed down. We understood each other after that. She was for sale at the time and I almost bought her. I don’t regret my decision not to, but I miss Tosca.

    1. Good to hear from you, Carolyn. Thank you for spreading the word. It is special when you connect with a horse, isn’t it?

  3. Hi, I have been reading through your comments and wondered if you would give me some pointers about my older Arab mare (22) Elysse. She spent 15 years on 2000 acres w/o being handled except farrier, perhaps ear twitching for that work – very difficult initially to touch her ears bridling, etc. At 16 she was trained by a very smart and kind man using the Ray Hunt method. We entered her in competitive trail and did very well on the 13-mile point chaser. I have sense trail ridden her maybe 5 times with him and another horse in training. No matter how ill-behaved the other horse was, Elysse was fine. There was an incident 6 riders galloped upon us and spooked his horse to rear and almost go over, Elysse did a 180 but I stayed with her and just settled he down. When an unexpected spooked she generally does a hard stop in place, I may whip back but stay in the saddle. Her training began on the ground in a round pen, later advanced to line driving, then riding. Some of this was well done but nothing with carrot sticks, noisy bags, tarps, or milk jugs, etc. so I believe Elysse never really learned how to calm herself down and you could liken her to a former wild mustang that had its feet trimmed. Later, I moved to another barn, the environment is very different, and I am a road warrior, so I paid the barn owner to ride Elysse and my other horse each 5 days a week, sometimes he did mostly he didn’t but some exercise was better than letting their muscles waste away. I took Elysse to a training barn last year, she trailer loads, leads, etc. just fine. In a huge indoor with barrels, jumps, mounting blocks, etc. I walked Elysse through, she was slightly high headed but no large reaction, then I rode her went fine. Later the trainer assessed her in hand and worked with a large ball – pressure to go toward the ball, none unless moved from the ball. Was OK but not really what I was looking for so didn’t leave her there. Back to boarding barn, where I know I paid for work the owner did not do consistently. I decided to buy one well trained horse to ride and show. Recently the barn owner planned to cheat me over selling the other horse, I didn’t see that one coming, but I prevented it. Then he told me the last time he worked Elysse she reared, and he’d need to work with her before I sell her to someone. It is possible, maybe, but I believe is just a sabotage and for the money. I saw him make her crow hop because he used his spurs to engage her back and she barely needs pressure to move out. I told him not to use them on her, he also tightens the girth so much no one can believe the horses can breathe. I asked him to describe the incident where she reared, he has not and avoids me. All he said is she is old, her back hurts and she has no value. This horse has never reared before. I had the vet check teeth, slight adjustment, chiropractor adjustments but was told nothing of concern to cause her to rear. I am no longer paying that guy to ride my horse and I recently gave notice because I found another place where Arabs and English riders fit in better. I described all the fore mentioned because I am puzzled – I don’t know of a good trainer near me, I have horse experience, trained a horse in 4-H, managed a horse breeding barn, used to ride daily, but I have a traveling job and I am not a horse trainer. I want to help Elysse build confidence and control over herself, since August I have started over but not sure what to solve for. I am working her in hand, over cavaletti, we roll the barrels out in the arena together for exposure and she helps push, we push the large ball over the cavaletti, etc. We do a turn on forefront, and side pass over pole, back around the poles, I throw all 12 of them back in front of the tie rail where she is tied, she is comfortable with it. Problems are I notice Elysse does not want to be tied near the arena wall posts, and she gets high-headed and backs up, it never concerned her before. I ask her to side pass along the wall but difficult to get her close to it, is good done in the open. Elysse does not want to get near the mount block, gets wide eyed, high headed and moves away, no saddle on just want to teach her to sidle up to it. I want to correct for or prevent rearing before I start riding again. I’d like to retire in couple years and plan to keep her as my partner. I want to get the groundwork done, including reining work in hand then get back to riding. I like that she is smart and notices things, she can pick her own way through a trail. What do I look for to give her confidence and worry less and avoid rearing?

  4. I just left comment about Elysse and want to add, she is also terrified of the lunge whip, will get high headed, pull back if I don’t lower it or put behind me and she’ll start backing. I had my carrot sick leaned against the wall where I have to tie her to a wall support pole now to brush her, etc. because cannot use hitch rail anymore. I could persist but I want to understand what the problem is with tying and mounting. This is a guess, if she reared, I think either he spurred her and tried to restrain her when riding and she reared or she was tied to the wall and someone snapped another horse with the whip for kicking and Elysse was in the middle of it and struggled and reared. I don’t understand the mounting block thing at all.

  5. Hi Yael,
    It’s hard to know what prompted these issues with Elysse, but it sounds like you were making good progress with your initial trainer. Can you get back with him for some tune ups and pointers. My guess is, given what you’ve shared, she had some traumatic experiences in the places and around the equipment you cite. If that’s the case, the best approach is patience. Don’t force the mounting block or being tied along the wall. Let her move away without tightening your grip on the lead line while encouraging her to come toward it at her own speed. Frankly, I’m not a big believer in what’s cropped up in recent decades as “desensitization training” and wouldn’t do much of this to a horse I wanted to grow into a confident and trusting horse. I don’t see a lack of this kind of training exposure as a downside to your mare’s development.
    Since you’ve already had great experiences on the trials and cite this as a place where your mare excels, why not go there to try to work through some of these issues? You can put a mounting block somewhere along the path, work on tying without restricting her head (give her praise for being brave about a little pressure and loosen the line if she starts to get nervous), etc. I recognize you feel you’ve been deceived in some recent arrangements you’ve made, but for your mare’s sake, it’s time to move on and get past this. She’s already shown you she wants to do the right thing. Give her a place and the patience where she can do this more easily. It doesn’t sound like an indoor arena is an ideal spot for her.

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