Saturday, July 3, 2021

Keeping Cool While You Ride (Connecting to the Feet Series)

By Mary Gallagher 

No, this article has nothing to do with that incredible hot weather we had last week. But wasn’t that something? At Freedom Farm, we survived by starting our day much earlier and getting our riding done before the heat of the day—something that folks in southern climates know a lot about! -MG 

Today I’d like to talk about keeping our cool while riding—maintaining that conscious patience so crucial to building and maintaining relationship. Losing that balanced attitude can jeopardize our connection with the horse, and if we don’t find and restore it, there goes our whole training program. I know this sounds extreme, but there can be a domino effect that takes us right back to square one. It starts with me. If I can just stay cool—keep emotions in check, stay patient and quiet—when my horse gets distracted, it will save time and frustration in the long run. 

So, what happens…? 

Say I’m working with my horse, and he is just not with me, for whatever reason (scary corner of the arena, other horses or weird new object nearby, you name it). If I lose my cool and am too hard on my horse—thinking I am being a strong leader, of course—I can cause him to get emotional, and set myself back. First he was distracted, and now he’s anxious and/or tense because of my behavior. Hello, Square One. I will never get anything done by losing my cool; I’ll only be starting over and over and over, re-teaching, trying to get back where I was just before he got distracted. 

What to do…? 

When your horse gets distracted, and your softness in your ride starts to fade, the simplest answer is to catch yourself before you get tense, and resolve to ride through it with full attention, making the best of each step ahead, being patient and willing to resume where you left off before he got distracted. Another strategy is to leave off your agenda, and go back to something simpler and less challenging, and in the process getting your horse connected to you again. Pick a place where he’s comfortable, e.g., stay away from the scary end of the arena or whatever the trigger, and get your relationship solid, your communication working, then venture out again. 

So, what about connecting to the feet…? 

Glad you asked. I have found that in a calm, patient, and fair way, you can cause his idea—getting distracted—to be just a little more work. When he gets off track because of things outside of the arena, you can cause his choice to be just a little more work by keeping his feet active. Pick a pattern such as a small circle—something he really has to think about because it’s challenging. This is not a punishment in any way—it is about getting him to find his way back to you with the least amount of fuss and dust. 

Whatever the activity I introduce, I just let him stay there a little while and build some desire to get back in rhythm with me. Then we move on. When I ask him to do that smaller circle, by the way, I’m showing him how to be soft and be rhythmic with me, but he is actually working because his feet need to move, and the circle is small. In this way, soon his distraction is no longer a distraction and he is starting to look for a way to preserve his breath or his energy, or just simply just find his comfort once again. The moment that happens, I resume where we left off (before the original distraction) and show him that his comfort was there all the time—he just wasn’t looking for it. 

Of course, as these things go, it may not be long before he gets distracted again. But all that means is, once again, his life will get a little bit harder, work will get a little bit harder, because his feet have to move and his track is more challenging. Once again he has to pay attention to his balance and rhythm to keep everything together. 

So what does success look like…? 

In a working session, after a couple of these little distractions followed by increased work, the little distractions become even littler, my horse spends less time getting distracted and more time finding ways not to lose rhythm, balance and harmony in our ride. So it’s worth learning to stay cool, be patient, and stay in rhythm while encouraging your horse to look for you. If your relationship is intact, you will go forward and move on; if your relationship is not intact or a bit compromised, you will often find yourself going back, trying to mend it. It’s a living process, so learn to recognize which way the session is trending: are you both good at reconnecting and moving on? That’s the ticket.

Bring your horse (or partner with one of ours) and join us for my 3-day clinic, Connecting to the Feet, August 21-23, 2021 (that’s Sunday through Tuesday). It’s three days of ideas like these, fun and learning in various environments around Freedom Farm in Port Angeles, Washington.

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