Whoa, Give. Letting Go.

A simple but important lesson that has stuck out to me lately is, “Whoa, give.” I like to think that I’m not one to sit in the saddle and just hang on to the reins, but often I hold on just a little too long. With a light connection it could be that I just have hands that are lifeless or too vague in communicating my aids. Sometimes I try to just hold on to the correction I’m trying to make – whether it’s actively holding or just unchanging, I wait a few strides too long, one stride too long, even a half of a stride too long. I don’t relent the control.

It may have started simple, but as usual my brain spins and tries to take things deeper – bear with me. My train of thought goes something like: Whoa, give. –  Short whoa, clear give. – Whoa, let go. – Whoa, trust. – Reminder of good balance, let go and see what comes of it.

There’s a reason that so much is written on letting go. Come on, you know that you hear Passenger cooing about it on every other radio station. It sells because it’s hard, and everyone seems to struggle with it in some way, shape, or form. We can relate. It could be control, fear, a relationship, an idea or plan, bitterness, resentment and baggage that’s so old you can’t even remember why it still weighs so heavily, or whatever…  Isn’t it all the same with training? Horses and riding lessons tend to teach me at least as much about myself as remembering to put my heels down and figuring out the timing of my whoa, gives.

I tend to want to hold on a little too long. I want to make my own vision happen all on my own. I want to sit down, close my legs, and hold on to that rein until I create the push, until I make the butt sit, and so that I don’t let those shoulders get away. But if I never give my partner the chance to react, if I don’t trust him to stay when I let go, if I don’t let him show off how he can dance and live and shine, well then he just won’t. I put a glass over the flame. I try to make that fire burn by keeping it close, by holding it tight, but I suffocate it.

Holding on slows progress. Holding on feels natural, instinctive, easy. Letting go seems more like a decision. But oh the world is lighter and fancier when it’s gone! Holding on, whoaing longer and tighter does not make you anymore in control. Without the give, without the instant willingness to let go, there IS nothing to trust. You can’t control the result you want without giving it the chance to exist. 

Letting go leaves a space for bigger mistakes to happen. If something goes wrong, you can’t give yourself credit for trying to avoid it or not letting it happen. Holding on gives that security. Holding on keeps the fear at bay. Letting go makes room for progress. Letting go allows the magic that we can’t see or grip a chance to come in and shine.

There’s a large element of trust and willingness to trust; however, if the horse doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain and continues to run around like a freight train, then of course after my clear give I must give a bigger correction saying, “Hey, that little something I just did, yea that meant something! Specifically… whoa boy!” Courtney said something like, trust that he knows what it means. Yes, correct him if nothing happens, but give him that chance to understand my quick little whoa, give or else he never will.  It makes such a big difference in the lateral work, transitions, mediums… everything really. That clear give, moment of trust, just allows him to step up to the plate and bring the spark. I can feel the energy from behind go over his back and up to his poll. I can feel his feet dancing a little lighter off the ground – a feeling that I can’t quite create, a feeling that only he could show me was even a possibility.

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Sensitivity, Stretch, and the Power of Mental Pictures

It continues to amaze me how sensitive horses are. That what seems like just a mere thought, a slight shift in balance or frame of mind can transfer through my body, through the saddle, and to the creature carrying me around. Sometimes it’s the simple act of imagining a feeling or a picture that creates that same picture in the horse – there must be a clear change of an aid in my body too, but it often feels so subtle it doesn’t seem possible that they could understand… oh, but they feel and listen ever so closely.

Do you remember in the movie Avatar the way that the Na’vi (yes, I had to look that up.) can attach the tendril at the end of their ponytail to the same tendril on the horse? (and later with those awesome dragon-like creatures that will only bond with one master…) It connected the avatar’s mind to the animal and made them hear their thoughts as if they were one being. Cool, right? Sometimes these boys make me feel like my hair must be plugged in to theirs somehow.

One of Courtney’s themes with all three horses has been to “think stretch,” but don’t actually stretch, just think it… Invite the horse to stretch but don’t let the poll go down. This change of mentality immediately makes the back feel more supple, soft, and moving underneath of me. I can feel the back rolling… the connection is more honest and makes it so much easier to access the hind end. I don’t have to prepare so much in order to make good transitions. It’s like the rolling back builds a bridge to the butt. Throughness. It’s kind of like having the horse compress into more of a ball. The feel of stretch fills the ball a bit fuller with air so that it’s rounder and quicker to bounce on and off the ground on its own without me just trying harder to make it jump.

I remember the understanding dawning with Fargo’s canter. When Courtney said to think stretch, everything in my body pretended that the horse was stretching, and my aids prepared him for stretch without ever letting him. I find myself subtly playing my fingers on the reins and my seat imagines what it feels like to sit on a stretching horse… a bit softer, deep, but allowing and encouraging the energy to flow. Immediately, the quality of the canter felt better and his back felt strong and supportive.

In another lesson we worked on adjusting the canter within an actual stretching canter. I was going along on a circle in a normal working canter when Courtney told me to ride a collected canter without changing the stretch. I loved how easily he understood my aids – by just sitting down a bit more, thinking of collected canter, using my core to tell him to stay with me (not to go forward with bigger strides), the collection was so available. His back was really working which made it so easy to then activate the collected canter more with my legs. It makes sense that the two thoughts and aids for stretching within collection and collection within stretching go hand-in-hand.

With Bimini I noticed how the stretchy thought really helped our canter to trot transitions. He often feels a little tight and wants to blast forward in the transitions instead of sitting and pushing. If I just pull on the reins I end up blocking him more or pulling him too deep. But thinking stretch before the transition (knowing that if I let him he really would stretch down in that moment) once again bridged together his front and hind end and the pushing, collected trot we are always looking for was right there! It also makes a big difference for Shanghai’s transitions who likes to test the bit and come against the moment of a transition or a couple of strides later.

Now I’m not one who thinks you can simply “will” good riding to happen. It takes real training and rules, but there’s definitely something to having a mental picture that makes my body search for the right feeling instead of just being bogged down in whatever simple goal I’m trying to reach or rule I’m trying to keep. The power of a thought to my body is as interesting to me as it is that the horse is sensitive enough to react to such a minute change.

A while back I went to Courtney’s house to pick her up and bring her to the barn.  As I was filling a water bottle I saw a picture of her riding a horse’s trot lying on the kitchen counter. I immediately thought, “Wow, now that is beautiful.” It was so graceful, powerful but natural, and of course Courtney’s position is picture-perfect.  It’s definitely not an image that you see around often. Then I thought, “Hey, that’s the frame she’s talking about!! (and has been trying to get me to find)” The poll was up, nose out a bit, but the horse was very much over his back with a round neck, and was pushing forward to light contact. I think that it was about half of a second after I finished my thought that Courtney told me she set out that picture so that I could see the horse’s frame.  I wanted to just stare at it for the rest of the morning.

Today when I was trotting around toward the end of a lesson Courtney was saying, “Show that horse off.” She was calling out what she wanted different pieces of the horse to be doing, butt down, poll up, nose out, not too fast… it was all ok but not great. I wasn’t quite making enough of a difference. Then she said, “like that picture of me.” Sometimes at clinics Courtney will refer to me as  her “body.” But in the moment when I imagined the picture of Courtney’s body, the horse’s frame, and the whole energy of it all, it seriously felt like she was in me. Immediately Courtney said that it was good. I just started giggling at what a big difference the thought of her picture made for me and how it really felt like Courtney was riding for me in those few strides.

I think I’m feeling even extra thankful today.  I love it when I think my capacity to love and appreciate must already be as full as it gets, and then it just fills even more.