As equestrians, we strive to practice doing our best, hoping to achieve the highest standards of excellence and safety in our schooling sessions as well as in the competition arena. The key to reaching the ultimate relationship we seek with our horse, in a state of learning or competing, and the number one principle that provides us with the best value to practice first is our personal state of ‘being present.’
Neglect this element in our practice, and all other skills we attempt to learn and/or apply remain elusive or worse yet, land in the dirt. Horsemanship is first and foremost about what state of being we bring to our horse/human conversation. If we don’t put ‘being present’ at the top of our practice list, we might as well be a headless horseman, as we have entered into valuing a relationship with our ego more than our horses.
Taking time to examine our horse and human states of being helps us understand what horsemanship is all about. As I write from the Wind River Mountain Range, where the equine species evolved from, I honor the fox-sized, multi-toed, omnivorous forest dwellers that developed into our sleek, four-hoofed herbivores of today. Intimately knowing our modern day, sensitive, long-legged, flight-or-fright creatures, I study their evolutionary development and compare our horse/human relationship to gain a better understanding of how our communication and collaborative living systems work. The more we know and understand about horses, the easier it is to communicate with them, enjoy our time together and coach others articulately as efficient translators.
At first glance, our horse/human differences seem apparent. Yet, if we look below the surface, our similarities bring us together in ways we couldn’t imagine. One similarity is what keeps us evolving together like no other species recorded. Horses and humans share a common genetic ancestor — the basal epitherian — placental mammals of the same family Epitheria. Horses provide us with a unique way to connect to the rhythm of nature, and an inexplicable feeling of freedom. Ultimately, as distant relatives, they show us the peace we seek to see or experience within ourselves.
For horses, just ‘being’ is always fine with them. Survival instincts keep them grazing at least 12 hours a day. Our peaceful tail swishers keep time with the earth and store energy so they can be on the go in no time. Just hours into their lives, they are on the move, learning to stand, gallop and graze. After millions of years (56 million) nature still requires them to remain sensory centric, in a constant state of ‘being’ — being aware, being conscious and, in one way or another, being ready to respond. Even though horses have made dramatic physical changes over 56 million years, some things haven’t changed much at all. Their digestive systems are pretty much the same. Physically, they are taller; however, longer legs in proportion to their height remains typical. Even though our modern day horses don’t need a full set of long sharp teeth, they still grow them.
In contrast, give or take 52 million years, we humans are a much younger species. We take years getting to our feet. When we do, we focus more on doing than ‘being’ and learning words that represent all our doings. Horses continue to rely on their senses, yet, as humans, we put our beloved words on pedestals and pride doesn’t fall far behind.
What continues to attract humans to horses is their seemingly uncomplicated state of ‘being-ness.’ Simply, we ride to match their rhythm. What appears to be an effortless state, from lazy grazing to fleet-footed furies, manes and tails flying in the wind, we want what they have. When humans get together with horses, before a sound is uttered or a word is spoken, it is our ‘states of being’ that is communicated first.
Horse-man-ship in action…
Recognizing this as centric to the successful evolution of our partnership should be at the forefront of our equestrian education and practice. From a horse’s perspective, being in a centric rhythm, in a state of ease, yet aware and conscious is how and where our horses like to live. When we humans pause to stand still, take a deep breath and just ‘be;’ when we take that feeling of being and put it next to or on a horse, that is where we sync up our collective senses, exchange energy messages and put ‘horsemanship’ into action.
Contrary to the early definition of horsemanship — to control a horse — I am more comfortable with the concept of being present and communicating with a horse. As an equestrian, to listen and be present, to learn a horse’s rhythm before I do anything, is centric to effective communication and how I was first introduced to horses.
The rhythm and feel of being…
That first feel of ‘horse being’ occurred before I was 2. Sitting bareback astride an 18-hand Clydesdale in the middle of a busy city street seemed like a perfect rhythm match to my observer and listener personality. I remember feeling recognized and affirmed by that horse, like no human encounter had inspired before.
Awakened to my life existence, maybe this was the first time I felt plugged into a greater pulse than my own. It seemed as if my parents took my life changing event all in stride. As it turned out, my experience was nothing less than what they already knew for themselves, and my parents were just as keen as I was on keeping horse language and rhythm alive and well throughout our lives.
Over the years, many horses have helped me practice the art of being present. I’m thankful I only needed a few serious equestrian grounding opportunities to remind me. However, valuable lessons are learned in the dirt — when it’s all about us, blue ribbons or the star who is teaching us and not about being present with our horses. We can’t absorb what our horse is communicating, let alone learn what our coaches are spelling out, unless we are present for the experience. Subsequently, our horses find a way to ground us and get our attention in clear be-centric language.
If perfect practice makes perfect riders, then being present and with our horse’s rhythms is where we perfect our practice. Feedback via our horses is emphatically delivered. Being always comes before doing. With ears pinned, a twist in their tail, crow hop, buck, a lie down or, if necessary, a serious ‘equestrian grounding opportunity,’ our egos are asked to leave the arena as our trusty equines deliver the message. Hopefully we get the message. If our egos are too big for our breeches, their know-it-all agendas leave no room for us to actively listen, observe and learn.
If we are not humbled by and honor the mere fact that the 56 million-year-old equine species we humans share an animal kingdom with allows us to sit astride and share their most vulnerable space, then how will horsemanship survive let alone evolve?
Being present and open to learning about horses, from all horses and our human coaches who have taken the time to practice being present, is an honor not to be taken lightly! For where would we be without our horses? If we are going to ride, to excel as equestrians, shouldn’t we be willing to learn all we can about how and bring our most at ease, aware self to our practice?
Beyond human athletic abilities, ranging as far as a horse’s 350-degree eyesight, no matter how we look in the mirror, our horses sense how we feel first. If we aren’t in the mood to be a good leader or aren’t present for our own safety, why are we surprised horses take advantage of this gaping opportunity? Some of us are built to ride while some of us must practice adapting more than others. However, our very first step into the kingdom of horses reminds us that both our species are first and foremost sentient beings. It is when we understand we are humans being, not humans doing, that we begin our equestrian education with the concept that perfect practice perfects our horse-and-rider skills.
The product of our communication, cooperation and collaboration, the synchronicity we evolve into horsemanship, is tangible evidence of that process. The feeling of being totally in sync with our horses starts with this approach and leads us to create a masterpiece of connection. Standing still or running with the wind, when we are both in sync, the brilliance of our being-ness shines through. Proof our horses provide our muscles, minds and hearts with happy and memorable experiences!
Take time to value being…
Before you head to your next ride, stop, stand still and close your eyes. What state of being are you in? What state of being will you be bringing to your horse, your practice, coach or competition? Now pause and think about your horse and their natural state of being. When you get to the barn, get out of your car, close your eyes and just breathe. Take a moment to observe your horse, stand next them and observe their breathing. To complete the connection, sit on your horse bareback, at ease and just breathe. Listen and feel what they are all about.
If we have listened to our horses and coaches, prepared well, practiced applying collaborative communication skills and what we have learned sequentially at each skill level, alignment of communication principles allows communication applications to appear seamless.
Remember…we are humans being, not humans doing…
Value the state of ‘being present’ so you can do the best for your horse. From a horse’s perspective, ‘be’ always comes before ‘do.’ This is your most appreciated communication tool.