Have you ever had your horse do something totally unexpected? (If not, I’d love to meet your horse!!) It seems that just when you’re on cruise control, everything’s humming along smoothly – bang. Weird response from your horse. A sudden spook at… who knows? A shift in behavior, a habit that’s just starting to annoy you. I hate to be blunt, but chances are it’s probably not your horse – it’s probably you.
Please understand, there could be medical reasons for a change in behavior, so be sure to check with your vet to rule out any physical issues. Sometimes a change in behavior is due to pain or other health issues, and that’s not what I’m covering here.
So – I dropped the bombshell, it’s not him, it’s you. Take a bit of time reflecting on this. How well do you really understand your horse, physically and mentally? Being the (allegedly) higher life-form in this relationship, it’s up to you to learn his language and behavior before you expect him to understand yours.
- What’s your horse’s normal T/P/R (temperature, pulse, and respiration)
- What do your horse’s legs feel like before and after work? Is there heat, filling? Are there old “jewels” like windpuffs or splints? Are they changing?
- How well is he drinking – especially in the hot weather we’re experiencing this summer (at least we are here in VA!)?
- How quickly does he eat his breakfast and/or dinner? Is he a picky eater or an equine omnivore?
- What’s his typical overall behavior? Is he a type A or more of a cool dude?
These are just a few of the things you should know about your horse. If you can’t answer any of these questions, learning the answers is a good place to start. Record his health data – whether in a notebook or in an app. By taking a few minutes every day to analyze and track this info, you’ll catch any changes earlier rather than later.
Ready to jump in? Here’s step 1, Be Still
Step 1 – Be Still
It’s hard to learn anything when you’re not paying attention. In the case of understanding your horse better, not paying attention typically takes the form of distraction. Here are a few things to avoid:
- Thinking about what you need to do when you get home
- Chatting on the phone while you’re with your horse (the exception for this is a call to the vet).
- Working on the wrong part of the puzzle i.e. – when your horse is muddy, don’t think about getting rid of the mud, view it as getting your horse clean. Your different focus will be noticed.
So, what does an “un-distracted” visit with your horse look like?
- Leaving your phone in the car or the tack room, unless you keep it with you in case of an emergency. If you do keep it with you, turn off the ringer, don’t answer any texts, and resist the urge to pull it out every time you get a ping, ding, chime, or rhyme. Assign special ringtones for your family so you’ll know when the call could be important and you need to answer it.
- Leave the outside world outside the barn. I shared this exercise in an earlier post to help you do just that. For some more great exercises check out my 10-Minute Toolkit.
- Breathing, relaxing your body, and just being with your horse.
There is a time to be “busy” and strive for goals, but this isn’t it. Let your only goal be to learn about your horse, how well you understand the way he communicates with you, and how well he understands when you communicate with him.
Ready? Head out to the barn, and let the learning begin.
Next up: Step 2 – Be Curious
We’re all getting tired of being quarantined. We wonder when things will get back to “normal”. This pandemic has made life feel like we’re in some suspended animation. We can’t make definite plans, we can’t spend time in groups, and some of us weren’t able to see our horses for months.
I have a cure for the Pandemic Doldrums – follow along with my 5-day series: 5 Steps to Better Understanding Your Horse. It kicks off tomorrow, Monday, July 27.
In this series of posts, I’ll walk you through 5 simple steps to improving your understanding of your horse, which, in turn, will lead to clearer communication.
If you want to get a jump-start, download my free guide, The 10-Minute Toolkit – a Collection of Quick Exercises to Help Overcome Feelings of Frustration, Fear, and Failure, in the Barn & Beyond.
I’ll see you back here tomorrow!
None of us signed up for this. The pandemic, the social and political turmoil, the fear. To be blunt, things kind of suck right now. We’re in survival mode, and the best we can hope for is a reluctant acceptance of our circumstances… right?
What if I were to challenge you and say that now is an even more important time to embrace what is? What if we were to look for one positive thing every day? What if we developed our practice of gratitude so that we appreciated things that went unnoticed before?
It’s important to know we’re not alone. Having some sort of safety net in times like this can make the difference between navigating the crisis mainly intact, or picking up the pieces when all is said and done.
We, as horsewomen, have a safety net, therapist, warm fuzzy, and amazing listener all rolled into one – our horses. Horses have a way of grounding us (and I don’t mean by bucking us off!) Their daily routine doesn’t involve watching news of the latest death tolls, getting a swab stuffed so far up their nose they expect to have it come out of the back of their head (seriously, COVID tests are NOT fun), and heading out to shop at 6:00 a.m. in hopes of finding some toilet paper and avoiding too many other shoppers. Horses can be our ultimate path to being grounded in the present – and to embracing what is.
Being present is something I talk a lot about in this blog (you can read other posts HERE and HERE). It’s so easy for us to let the noise in our heads take over. When things are “normal”, we have a constant playlist of inner conversations, what we need to do, what we wish we hadn’t done, what on earth we could have been thinking when we did THAT… Pre-COVID we were rarely fully present – we had a routine (read: rut) that we’re in, we become automatons marching through our days. That was then…
In these during-COVID, and hopefully (eventually) post-COVID times, it’s all too easy to cling to those patterns to try to maintain some semblance of normality in our lives. There are big changes taking place, and undoubtedly more to come.
Changes, especially ones out of our control, can be frightening. It feels safer to block out as much as we can and try to keep going. Here’s a challenge your horse and I have for you – the next time you see him (or her), stop for at least 30 seconds and just observe him. Is he relaxed? Is he holding tension anywhere in his body? Or is he just busy frisking your pockets for peppermints? Whatever he’s doing, chances are he’s embracing what is (especially if “what is” involves peppermints!) He’s not worrying about the future or regretting the past – he simply is.
I realize that horses have the luxury of not having to deal with groceries and masks and hand sanitizer and a lack of toilet paper, but we can still take a page from their playbook. For 30 seconds, just stop. Take a breath. Relax your shoulders. And think of one good thing about right now. It can be something as major as not having had any of your friends or family becoming ill, or as trivial as the fact that the store not only had toilet paper, but they had your brand!
Will this change your life? Probably not. It won’t make COVID go away, it won’t stop racial and political unrest, it won’t bring people’s jobs back; but, it will give you one tiny piece of your day that you can own. It’s your chance to embrace what is.
Embracing what is is a choice. It’s a very conscious choice that needs to be made over and over until it starts to become a regular part of your life. Next week, I’ll be discussing the difference between response and reaction.
In the meantime, stay safe, and do your best to emulate your horse, and embrace what is.
You’ve had a long day – perhaps even a long week, month, or year – and you’re ready to head to the barn to see your horse and de-stress. Before you pull on those barn boots, take five minutes to run through these 3 simple exercises. You and your horse will both be glad you did.
1. Take a Few Deep Breaths.
It may sound trite, but taking a few deep breaths really can help you get centered and de-stress. There are a few reasons for this:
- When we’re tense, we typically don’t breathe fully. When we don’t breathe fully, less oxygen travels to our brain, and we’re more likely to make decisions based on habit or our subconscious rather than conscious choice.
- We often carry tension in our upper bodies, particularly our shoulders, neck and jaw. That tension can make us less comfortable when we’re grooming, less effective when we’re riding, and most importantly, can be transmitted to our horse.
- The act of stopping to take a few deep breaths has the effect of slowing you down and bringing you into the present moment – which is the best place to be when you’re with your horse.
Once you’ve taken a few deep breaths, do a few shoulder rolls and neck rolls, open your jaw wide (as if you’re yawning) and then let your mouth close and your jaw relax. The minute or two you’ve taken to do these are the first step.
2. Have a Goal
It’s a good idea to have a goal any time you head to the barn. Having a goal will make you clear on why you’re spending time with your horse, and give you a chance to pat yourself on the back for accomplishing it.
If you’re visiting the barn to destress, your goal can be as simple as, “I will spend 45 minutes enjoying the company of my horse. I will be fully present, and if I find my mind wandering to work or things that are stressing me, I will release those thoughts until I return home from the barn.”
Sometimes giving yourself permission to delay dealing with life’s problems while you’re with your horse is hard, but it gets easier with practice – and it’s worth it! As I covered in this post – you’ll get more enjoyment from your visit if you’re fully present – and so will your horse.
If you find it very challenging, try setting aside a half hour after you get back from the barn to deal with the situations that are stressing you. Make an actual appointment with yourself, and then when you’re at the barn, you can let go of those thoughts a little more easily by knowing that you have a specific time set aside to deal with them later.
3. Leave Your Troubles at the (Barn) Door
One of my students used to arrive at the barn stressed, and she found it very hard to unwind during her lesson until I made a suggestion. When she arrived at the barn, I asked her to imagine taking her stress and leaving it in a box just outside the barn door. She found this hugely helpful.
It became a little ritual for her to stop just outside the door, close her eyes, imagine her stress as a physical object, and “see” herself putting it in a box. Although slightly self-conscious about the whole thing at first, she soon discovered that once that stress was in the box, she always “forgot” to pick it back up on the way out, and the rest of her day was more enjoyable as well.
I had another student who felt her stress was wrapped around her, like a cloak. Once she started using visualization to remove her “cloak of stress”, she also found it easier to unwind and enjoy her time at the barn.
So the next time you need some equine therapy to relax and recharge after a tough day, take 5 minutes to prepare for your visit using these 3 simple exercises, and you and your horse will both get much more out of the visit.
You may have read the title of this post and been indignant – “Of course I remember the last time I groomed my horse, it was right after I rode him yesterday! What a stupid question!”
Do you really remember?
First off, let me assure you that this isn’t a condemnation of your horsey hygiene habits. In this post I’m more focused on the experience you and your horse had than debating your care of your equine partner – so here’s a little quiz.
- What did you hear while you were grooming?
- Name 5 things you saw while you were grooming.
- Can you remember a particular smell?
- What was the first thing you felt (physically or emotionally)?
Had some problems answering those questions? If you did, don’t worry, you’re not alone. A lot of us go through life on autopilot. Our brains are racing, filled with the things we need to do. How often have you driven somewhere routine, and on arriving, realized you didn’t remember most of the drive? Poured a cup of coffee only to find it still sitting on the counter an hour later? Left the barn and not remembered if you picked your horse’s feet, checked the water bucket or latched the gate?
With our busy schedules and the advancement of technology, we’re less physically involved in our everyday chores, and that convenience comes at a price. When we’re not as physically engaged in a project or chore, we’re not as mentally engaged either. Automation allows our minds to be on other things, and we end up missing out a lot of enjoyable experiences because we’re simply not present.
Each moment is a gift – perhaps that’s why it’s called the present.
Want to be more present? I have good news. I’m going to share some exercises with you that will not only help you enjoy your next grooming session even more, but can also improve other areas of your life – like interacting with your family, being productive at work, and paying attention during your commute.
First, I’d like to define what I mean by “being present.” Being present is a state of awareness where you use your senses to experience this very moment. Right now you are using your eyes to read, but what else is going on? Are there birds singing? Traffic noise? Voices from another room? Do you smell coffee? The left-over aroma of the burrito someone just heated up in the break room? Are you warm or chilly? Are your shoulders tight?
Being aware of your state in this exact moment means letting go of the dozens of thoughts buzzing around in your brain and just experiencing now. An impossible task? Maybe not. Here are 3 exercises to help you get into the present moment.
1. Centering Breaths. The purpose of this exercise is to ground you in your body. Close your eyes (please don’t do this while you’re driving, skiing, operating a backhoe or any other possibly dangerous conditions), be aware of your breath moving into and out of your nose and lungs. Feel your chest rise and fall. Become aware of the center of your body. Don’t get too wrapped up in where the exact center of your body is located, just be aware of an area that seems like it might be the center of your body. Now focus on it as you take 3 slow breaths. Practice this exercise a few times a day. Next time you’re faced with a tense or stressful situation, you can take 2 or 3 centering breaths (you won’t even have to close your eyes), and it will help you become more grounded and less reactive to the situation.
2. Pick a color. The purpose of this exercise is to help you improve your awareness of your surroundings. Pick a color – it can be any color, but preferably one that is reflected in your normal environment at least occasionally. For the next 2 or 3 minutes, notice everything you see that’s your chosen color. As you go through your day, notice everything you see that matches your color. Another great exercise is to look around you for 1 minute, then close your eyes and see if you can name 10 things you saw. Both of these exercises help you focus on your immediate surroundings. Bonus? This is a great way to increase your personal safety when you’re alone and in high-risk areas.
3. Use all 5 senses. This exercise is useful in expanding your awareness through the use of all 5 of your external senses. (We’ll discuss your 6th sense in a later post). As you’re reading this, try to catalog what’s going on right now using all of your senses. We’re so used to being bombarded with noise that we often stop listening. Right now as I’m typing, I can hear my dogs breathing (they’re both sleeping right next to me), a car out on the road, the clicks of the computer keyboard, one of the cats twitching in her sleep on the windowsill, and a bird in the yard. I wasn’t aware of half of these sounds until I stopped to listen. Touch is even more elusive to our awareness. Start at the top of your head and do a quick run down through your body to see what you’re feeling. Shirt collar on your neck? Jewelry, clothing, contact with furniture, itches or areas of pain – all usually go unnoticed as we bulldoze our way through our day. Take a moment and really feel what’s going on with your body.
You are a Human Being, not a Human Doing.
A very wise friend of mine has often reminded me that I’m a human being, not a human doing. Good words to live by, especially when you’re deepening your relationship with your horse. I hope the exercises I’ve shared here will help you be able to answer a resounding “Yes!” and share the details the next time I ask you if you remember the last time you groomed your horse.
For the next post, I’ll be discussing some of this from your horse’s point of view. If you’d like to join my mailing list to receive notifications of upcoming posts and more information on improving your life by improving your relationship with your horse, please sign up for my mailing list in the box below.
Little girls and horses. There’s some kind of magic in that combination. Whether the little girl ever gets to ride real horses, or makes do with her My Little Ponies and reading (and re-reading) every horse book she can find in her library, it’s a passion that often doesn’t subside as the years go by.
Fast forward fifteen, or twenty years, or more. Here is the little girl, all grown up. Still loving horses, but maybe life hasn’t offered her the chance to own one. The obligations of family and work and being a grown up have extracted their toll, but no longer will that voice inside be denied. The dream becomes reality, the little girl finally has her horse, and they live happily ever after.
It would be wonderful if life could replicate some of our favorite fairy tales. OK, maybe not the wicked witches and hateful step sisters, but happily ever after would be nice. Sadly, what happens to a lot of women when they finally get their dream horse is that the reality doesn’t quite live up to the dream.
Whether it’s a hectic schedule, training challenges, or guilt over spending time away from family and responsibilities – there are many factors that can derail our journey to happily ever after.
Whatever the cause, when spending time with her horse becomes something that produces stress, guilt or fear; our heroine often doesn’t know where to turn. Her instructor may help with her riding, but what about all the other facets of her life? Many instructors aren’t prepared to take on the challenges their students face outside the lesson. Her horsey friends may be willing to help, but many of them could be facing the same issues; and, while misery may love company, simply complaining to each other over a glass of wine isn’t going to lead to any lasting improvements.
Help is at Hand
Our heroine is the woman I had in mind when I started this blog. As an internationally certified riding instructor, I’ve worked with a lot of women like her for over 30 years. Women who remembered how much they always wanted to ride when their kids started taking lessons, or who had some free time when the kids grew up and finally decided to start riding. Some of the women just took lessons, others had finally made the leap and found their dream horse.
I’ve always loved working with these women, (who are all heroines in my eyes). The come to the barn with a passion to achieve their dream. While they may struggle with fear, a negative body image, or a lack of confidence in their ability to learn a new skill, that passion supported them and carried them forward.
I loved developing and sharing exercises to help my students overcome challenges, both physical and mental. I loved providing a supportive atmosphere so these women could start to live that dream. Allowing themselves to finally live a dream they’d had for so long. Challenging themselves in new ways – and succeeding. Conquering fear. Developing a partnership with an animal that outweighed them by half a ton.
But whatever their challenges and victories, one thing all of these women had in common, was that it wasn’t just about the riding. Their successes followed these women when they left my barn. I began to realize that my lessons were empowering women in the barn, and beyond.
I hope that this blog will become a place where you can come to find support, answers to questions, lessons about your relationship with your horse (and ultimately, yourself), and a sense of community.
Here are a few of the things I’ll be covering in upcoming posts:
- Why awareness is important and how you can develop yours
- How your level of self-confidence influences the level of trust between you and your horse (and how to improve it)
- The Three C’s of Communication (Clarity, Congruence and Consistency)
Please join me each Monday to read more about how you can Find Yourself on a Horse. Have comments or questions? Please feel free to leave them in the comments below and I’ll be happy to chat with you about them.