Horses have the fastest response time of any common domestic animal. Yes, they measure these things, and horses are quickest to perceive and respond to stimuli–partly because they are prey animals. Sharp awareness, coupled with the ability to flee immediately, is crucial to survive in the first place.
Conversely, humans have a conscious thought process that’s arrogant enough that we think we know what’s happening–without even using our senses. We think too much, to the point that we live in a dream state, a predator’s luxury for sure. Although it’s true that we do startle from time to time, we can also sleep through fires and earthquakes. Again, it’s a miracle that natural selection gave us a wink and a nod.
I’ve heard the actual number–a horse’s response time is 7X quicker than ours. We don’t have a chance. How are we supposed to be the leader when we start this far behind?
Step one: Think less, sense more. Leave the thoughts of your day at the mounting block, along with any other benign intellectual activity. Instead of chattering away in your thoughts, get quiet and take in what your senses tell you. Start with your body; check for stiffness and when you find it, breathe into that tight area. Then feel your horse exhale and relax that area in his body. Is your horse’s poll tight? Loosen your neck and jaw. Use of few moments to fluidly follow your horse’s stride, like a mutual massage, connecting sit bones to spine. Then say thank you.
Horses live in the present moment, forever sensing their surroundings in real-time. They notice the environment in detail, but they don’t wish it was summer. They are aware of every part of your body that’s bigger than a fly, but they could care less about your Olympic aspirations. Horses are a bit Buddhist that way. So, bring your wandering, day-dreaming mind gently back and put it into your seat; settle into the inner world. If we want to have any chance of keeping up with our horses, we have to still our distracted thoughts and feel the now.
I know… feel the now is a bliss-ninny phrase that’s boring and quiet, and it’s so much easier to let your mind run like a rat-on-a-wheel, planning world domination, but stop. Go back and mentally get your horse. Change your point of view to his side.
The more rhythmically the horse moves, the more he relaxes, and to the degree that we take part in that, we become one with our horse. The only way to influence his brain is through his body, and he wants that conversation quiet and reciprocal.
When your brain is eventually quiet you can hear your horse speak. Does he have an opinion about your hands? Of course he does, and he’s right. Listen to him. It doesn’t mean that you can’t ride on contact, it means that you need to let him teach you how to do it and he will do that by communicating through his body to yours, while you ‘listen’ with each one of your senses. For all the physical drama of riding, it’s a sport of interior awareness. Riding is the place where you and your horse’s awareness aligns.
Any riding technique is only as good as the horse and rider’s perception of each other.
You can strike a correct pose in the saddle, but your horse is looking for more communication than that, and he doesn’t speak English. Follow him physically until you get to the vulnerable place inside where you can lead him mentally. Dressage riders are famous for riding with a seemingly blank stare in the vicinity of their horse’s head. It’s because they are not looking outside, so much as feeling inside. It’s also called oneness.
Once we find that place of partnership, then we can begin to negotiate asking the horse to come along, even if his response is faster than ours. Our guidance becomes a calming thing that provides him with a sense of well-being and with that confidence, he feels safe enough to respond in a less prey-extreme way. In other words, now your slow response time is something he likes about you. You begin to seem a bit presidential.
But then you two of you sense that fearful feeling of an almost imaginary thing, before the tiny thing, before the small thing, before the quiet thing, before the audible thing, before the accelerating thing, before the screaming bloody murder thing, and finally, the I-am-so-gone-dead-flop-sweat thing. Think eyes squinted shut, hands over ears, and an endless la-la-la screeching over top of everything. Your horse is responding badly and yes, 7X faster than you.
And at long last, here’s the good news about your horse responding 7X faster: if you manage to stay present enough to maintain that physical communication that lets him feel you, and you give him a breath of help from your gut to his, even if it comes late, he will sense it immediately and remember that you’re his safe place. And then he will come back to you 7X quicker as well.
I don’t know if they can measure trust like they do reaction times, but if so, I’m guessing that increases about 7X, too.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.