“M” word? Mindfulness? Good one, but not quite. Well, you can’t mean that “M” word!! No, this isn’t that kind of blog. The “M” word in question is…..
Yup – I said it. I just rolled out the woo-woo, hippie, New-Agey word. The word of saffron robes and incense and people who have nothing better to do… I can see your eye rolls from here, for heaven’s sake!!
It may (or may not) interest you to know that meditation does NOT require you to be able to sit in lotus position (thank God!), nor does it require you to be a willowy 20-someting clad in spandex with a serene expression and nary a wrinkle in sight. It doesn’t even require you be sitting on a deserted beach or standing on a majestic mountaintop! Who knew?
So, are you willing to stick with me (at least grumblingly) for a few minutes to learn a little about what meditation is and how it can help with your horse? Good. You never know – you might even surprise yourself and give it a try!
If you’re like many people (including me up until a few years ago), you are pretty certain that meditation isn’t, never has been, and never will be your thing. Why? Glad you asked – let me list the ways:
- you’re too busy
- you don’t have the time
- you can’t sit still long enough
- your mind won’t stop
- you’re too busy (trust me, I used to trot this one out frequently)
- it’s boring
- it’s too woo-woo
- and, last but not least – you’re too busy
I had all these reasons, and dozens more – but I got to the place where I was a little tired of living my life on auto pilot, never “finding” time to ride for enjoyment, sit and read a good book, or even sit and read a trashy book. I would get to the end of a day and wonder how the hell I got there. Yeah, not exactly the queen of awareness. And I started paying the price. Migraines, a big uptick in my fibromyalgia symptoms, being completely exhausted and depressed – I wasn’t living, I was existing, and it sucked.
So, I “tried” meditating. I would set my timer for 3 minutes and wait for my mind to go blank. It never did. I thought -“Wow – I can’t even get this right! It’s freaking sitting still for God’s sake and I can’t even do that! What kind of a failure am I???” (Did I mention how kind I used to be to myself? No? Well, you probably get the idea…)
Now, before I get into some of the benefits I’ve received from meditating (and I meditate anywhere from 5 – 20 minutes a day, that’s all), I want to tell you how it relates to this whole Find Yourself on a Horse thing…
In this post I spoke about how your horse is likely to react to you when you approach him with an agenda. Horses are much better partners when you’re fully present. Whether you’re “just” bringing your horse in from the field or you’re running barrels to win a kick-ass buckle, the more present you are, the better the experience will be – for both of you.
The first thing you need to be able to do to improve your level of presence is to be aware of what you’re doing. But awareness does not just happen. Let me repeat that: Awareness does not just happen. It takes work, it takes awareness… wait – if we need awareness to become aware… Yeah, the whole chicken-and-egg thing, I know. And here’s where meditation becomes a useful little tool.
Make meditation your bitch.
When I say “useful little tool”, I really mean make meditation your bitch.
Meditation isn’t just for hippies any more. It can help “normal” horse owners (does such a creature exist??) with things like remembering your dressage test, controlling your road rage, alleviating your constant stress, oh yeah, and giving you a better relationship with your horse and the key people in your life – especially yourself!
Meditation isn’t just for hippies any more.
By sitting (or standing, or walking, or lying down, or riding) in meditation, you step back from the chaos that is your mind. You detach long enough to realize that your mind is chaos, but that chaos is not you – not all of you, anyway.
Meditation helps you observe the rabbit, without getting dragged down the rabbit hole.
So if you’ve “tried” meditation and found that “it doesn’t work” (see above), you’re going at it with the wrong expectations. You see, meditation doesn’t mean your mind goes blank. It means you start to find tiny spaces between the to-do list, questions that pop up, memories of your grandmother’s plum cake – God, that was so buttery and good and …. Hey! I’m still thinking here!!! Yes. You’re a human being. We think. Get used to it – but, not so used to it that you believe that’s all there is.
Mind the Gap
Remember that tiny space between the questions and the memories of the plum cake? That’s your first opening into the world of meditation. That tiny fragment of open space allows you to realize that there is a space not occupied by thoughts. A place where you are a human being, not a human thinking or a human doing.
Mind the Gap
If the first time you meditate, you have a gap that lasts for about a millionth of a second – congratulations! That’s a great place to start. If the first time you meditate you have no gaps at all – congratulations! That’s a great place to start, too. The important thing is you started. Don’t expect miracles overnight. (I’m still not a willowy 20-something with no wrinkles and oodles of serenity).
Once you see that little chink in your thoughts the first time – notice it. Remember it. The following day, you may have 2 tiny gaps. Notice them. Remember them. As for the endless stream of thoughts? No worries – they’re not going to just go away, (because that would probably mean you’re dead, and that would suck, too…) What do you do about the thoughts, the itch, the ache in your left ankle from getting stepped on last year? Nothing. You don’t have to try to evict them from your mind. You don’t have to tally them, worry about them, or feel guilty about them. They are there – so just let them be there. (Isn’t it nice to have something you don’t have to do anything about?)
I Do It My Way
As you may imagine, there are thousands of “right” ways to meditate (explained to you in the thousands of books, apps, courses, and videos about meditation). I simply sit in a comfortable position (on a chair, not on a meditation pillow, mountain top, or beach), close my eyes, and focus on my breathing. Just noticing the breath going in and out of my body. I don’t change my breathing or try to breathe a certain way – I just breathe and notice the breath. Thoughts come up, I notice them, and then I come back to noticing my breathing. Sometimes I come back to noticing my breath within a few seconds, sometimes it’s not until the timer goes off at the end of my meditation (damn that plum cake!), but that’s fine, too. You see, one of the best things about meditation, is that there’s no wrong way to do it.
If you truly want to see benefits in your (horsey) life from meditation, commit to a week or so before you decide that A) Meditation sucks B) You suck at meditation C) I suck because I recommended you try meditation in the first place.
For those of you who want to explore meditation a little further and don’t want anything preachy or woo-woo, check out the app 10% Happier – Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. It’s available for your mobile device of choice. 10% Happier was developed by a team led by Dan Harris, an ABC News anchor who started his meditation journey after having a panic attack… on live TV. (Kind of makes forgetting your test in the last dressage show seem pretty insignificant, doesn’t it?)
The app is part instruction manual, and part humorous autobiography of how Dan found meditation to be helpful. If it turns out you love his self-deprecating humor/actual useful advice style, check out his book on Amazon. (This is an affiliate link – when all tens of millions of my readers order this book from this link, I shall retire to Tahiti and continue to write my blog from there). 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story.
Whichever path you choose, I hope you’ll give meditation a try, and that it becomes at least a small part of your daily routine. While you aren’t likely to become an Olympic-calibre rider overnight, it will help improve your relationship with your horse – and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?
As a mid-life, happily married woman, I have to confess, horses add a lot to my life that I just don’t get elsewhere. They fulfill my desire for beauty, for nurturing, for connecting with another life form, and yes, even for petting something warm and fuzzy. (Although the Beagle would insist I can fulfill my entire warm fuzzy petting needs with her…)
The reasons for the depth of the connection between horses and women are myriad, but even though many of us are aware of the connection, we’d like to make it stronger, or we simply go on in our habits (which might be decades old) of interacting with horses, and therefore miss a lot of the advantages of spending time with these amazing creatures.
I started this blog to help women become more mindful in their relationships with their horses, with the important people in their lives, and, most importantly, with themselves. I’ve owned horses for 45 years, and been an internationally certified instructor for most of that time. I’ve owned and run a large boarding, training, and lesson barn; taught everything from kids on ponies to adults who were working on national rankings in the dressage arena. I’m a certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning, and I’m an avid student who has learned (and continues to learn) important life lessons from horses. I’ve picked up a fair amount of wisdom (as well as knowledge) along the way, and I’ve helped dozens of women find their way. I’d like to help you, as well.
I’ll be focusing on 10 key areas over the weeks and months to come. They are:
I’ll be posting on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I hope you’ll join me on this journey and that in some small way, I’m able to help you find yourself on a horse.
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Check out this quick exercise!
If you’re like many women, getting to the barn to ride usually happens after you’ve spent the day at work, taken care of the family, done a load or 10 of laundry, and tried to find the cupcake pan that you knew you had for the school bake sale last year…
Your list may look different, but however you slice it, you’re usually pretty tired and stressed by the time you head to the barn for a ride. Sound familiar? If it does, I’ve got some great news! You can do a simple exercise that will take less than a minute (on most days, anyway), and will allow you to walk into the barn and greet your horse with a relaxed and positive attitude.
Introducing: (Drumroll, please…) The Magic Box!
OK, I can see the eye rolls, but bear with me a minute. If you’re tired of arriving at the barn stressed, and it’s been forever since you were relaxed at the beginning of a ride, you owe it to yourself (and your horse) to read on. Here’s the deal.
What it is: The Magic Box is an exercise to help you not bring your baggage into the barn. You can use an imaginary box, or you can get an actual box that you keep in your car, under your saddle rack in the tack room – anywhere you have access to it before you go see your horse.
How it works: When you arrive at the barn, do a quick mental (and physical) inventory of your current state. Tense from an argument with your daughter? Crabby because your co-worker baked double chocolate macadamia nut cookies even when she knows you’re trying to lose weight? Whatever it is that you’re lugging around with you – take a deep breath, exhale, and deposit it in your Magic Box. Whether it’s anger, frustration, or even fatigue – put it in the Magic Box, and leave it there till you’re done with your ride.
Note – sometimes it helps to imagine your negative feelings as a physical presence (assigning them colors like red for anger, yellow for frustration, etc.) Once you can “see” your negative stuff – place it in your Magic Box, and make a pact with yourself that the Box stays closed till you leave the barn.
If you go to the barn directly from work, using a physical box will allow you dump in your brief case and heels right along with the self-abuse you’re giving yourself for eating 2 of those damn cookies.
Why it works: By taking a minute to do an inventory of your situation, you bring awareness to it, which is the first step in affecting a change.
Physically – Once you’re aware of the tightness in your shoulders, clenched jaw, and stiff neck, you can take a deep breath, do a few shoulder shrugs, and prepare for your ride with a more relaxed body.
Mentally – Ditching the negativity puts you in a better frame of mind to actually enjoy your whole ride.
So, you get to dump your baggage and enjoy your ride and your horse gets an owner who is fully present and relaxed. What could be better? Well, as an added benefit, you may find that when you finish your ride, you don’t feel the need to reopen your box and take back any of that baggage. Then even your family benefits by having you smile your way through folding a load or 10 of laundry. Oh, and that cupcake pan? Check with your son – he used it for his art project right after the bake sale…
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.
First of all, let me offer a nod to the United Negro College Fund for the title of this post. This slogan originated in the early ’70’s and has gone on to acquire a life of its own. Now let me tell you that this post has nothing to do with ad campaigns, and the higher education I’m talking about is more “higher” as in evolved than “higher” as in further up the grade progression.
Think back to the last time you rode your horse – how many great steps did he take – steps that were relaxed, balanced, rhythmic? How many times did he trip, or perhaps not bend enough through the corner, or maybe spook just a little bit when a turkey trotted across the trail in front of you.
Now, using the same ride as a reference, how many great steps did you ride – relaxed, balanced and aware of your horse’s rhythm? How many times did you lose your balance a bit, stiffen your shoulders or discover that your outside rein was too slack on a turn or circle?
Got these two pictures clear in your mind? Great – now I want you to think about how your horse felt about the ride while he was out grazing that evening. I can pretty well guarantee that his inner conversation didn’t go like this: “Man, I can’t believe that I tripped in the corner between A and K – what was I thinking? That was so totally stupid! I’ve trotted through that corner hundreds of times! What is my problem?”
His thoughts as he ambles across the pasture with his buddies probably are more along the lines of: “Hmm, there’s a nice bit of grass… no wolves in the area so I can munch and relax… my back itches – time for a roll…. hmm, there’s a nice bit of grass…”
How about your post ride dissection of your performance? As you’re driving home from the barn, are you running your usual Negative Nellie tape in your head? You know the one – “Why can’t I ever (fill in the blank)”, “How come I always….”, or worse still – “What a frustrating ride! I can’t believe Trigger was so stubborn – he knows there’s a big show this weekend and he’s doing his changes late behind just to tick me off. They were perfect all last week but now that it really counts, I can’t buy a clean change…”
We can take a few dozen lessons from the imagined conversations above, but today, I’d like you to focus on just one – Stop beating yourself (and your horse) up in your mind! (I’m going to assume that you would never cross the line, no matter how frustrated, and actually beat your horse physically).
Whether you ride competitively and are honing your skills in your chosen discipline or you love to take in the beautiful scenery along your favorite trail from the back of a horse, you’ll enjoy your rides more if you follow a few simple steps – and chances are that your horse will enjoy your rides more, too!
1. Have a positive goal for your ride. This can be as varied as “I will keep my shoulders relaxed in the canter” or “I’m going to feel my horse’s steps underneath me to be more aware of the sequence of footfalls” or “I’m going to ride down by the river and watch the heron and turtles, breathe deeply, relax and unwind”.
Having your goal couched in positive terms is very important. Since our brains unswervingly work to achieve goals set in front of them (kind of like an over zealous Lab with a ball), the words “not” and “won’t” get by-passed in a determined effort to get to the meat of the challenge. So phrasing something like: “I won’t stiffen up over my jumps today” becomes “stiffen up over my jumps today” – and, lo and behold – it will happen every time. Instead, of using no/not/won’t/can’t words, try framing your intentions with what you do want – “I’ll stay relaxed over the oxer today”. That gives your brain a positive target and it will work relentlessly to achieve it. For more information on this interesting peculiarity of the human brain – check out Jane Savoie’s book That Winning Feeling, or the granddaddy of the “brain-as-guided-missile” books Psycho Cybernetics – written about 50 years ago by Maxwell Maltz. This book has been updated since, but I still have the original – and it’s a classic for a reason.
2. Don’t blame your horse. We’ve all heard this, and quite honestly, sometimes it’s easy to feel that our horses spend their nights getting together to devise new and more creative ways to thwart our every attempt to have a good ride. Truth be told, your horse is just being a horse. He’s actually quite good at being a horse – an expert in fact, it’s been bred into him for millennia. The problems usually arise when we forget that he’s a horse with all of the physical and mental characteristics thereof (remember – he’s prey animal).
Sometimes I’ll hear my students say – Aaagh, he keeps getting the wrong lead/falling in on the corner/speeding up on the long side/yada yada yada. My response is to ask the student what they’re doing to create or allow that situation. I have them break it down into A: What is your horse doing?, B: What do you want the horse to do instead, and C: What do you need to change to create the new situation.
Learning as much as you can about your horses mental and physical makeup is one of the most important (and sadly often neglected) aspects of learning to ride. If you understand his motivation, you’ll be better able to remedy resistances. Learning a bit about his physiology (and your own) will help you to help him, whether it’s picking up the correct canter lead, keeping the correct bend in the half pass or riding down the trail straight. To really improve your horsemanship skills, remember that horsemanship is a lot more than just riding.
3. The last simple step I’ll offer today is so simple a 3-year-old can do it (and in many situations, is requested to) – Time out. When you feel yourself getting frustrated (notice I said “when” and not “if” – it happens to most of us at least once in a while), stop. Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and neck and quietly evaluate the situation without asking anything from the horse until you’ve clarified both the problem and a few possible solutions in your mind. Once you’re ready to proceed, ask the horse something a bit simpler than the movement or exercise you were just attempting. Give yourselves both a chance to have a positive experience – then move on to where you encountered the challenge. Approaching an issue in a clear and relaxed manner is a big part of the solution, and may even help diminish similar problems in the future.
I hope these ideas have been helpful to you and that you and your horse both enjoy your next ride. Having fun with your equine partner is one of the best parts of living the horsey life.