August 19, 2015

Finding an Opening

When I first met Mark Rashid a year and a half ago, he talked about creating openings. He said that horses are like water and will flow through whatever openings we create.

This image really struck me because of the beauty, ease, grace, and peace of it. I had gotten used to having fights with my horse, and I had been assuming that he wanted, not necessarily to have those fights, but at least to resist what I was asking. It was beyond refreshing to consider that there was an entirely different way and that, if I gave him the opportunity, my horse could be an entirely different (and happier) horse.

One hugely wonderful part of my 10-day course was learning more about openings. In the dojo, I learned not only to soften myself from the inside, but to allow a connection to happen that in turn allowed my partner and myself to move together with our insides connected. Opening myself like this became the first step, always, for finding and creating openings with the horses.

Masterson Method instructor Vicky Devlin
showing us how to help horses feel better.

The Masterson Method work, geared toward helping the horse release tension and allow his joints to be moved freely in a state of relaxation, then taught me how to look for openings in the horse. I learned to feel for where the horse *could* relax and to start there, instead of focusing on the area that I felt he needed to relax or on the technique that I was trying to do. Any place the horse was able to relax was the opening to creating more relaxation.

And this idea carried through to the riding too. If we focus on what the horse can't/won't/doesn't want to do, that generally means that we're focused on where the brace is, which means that movement is difficult and, if it does happen, filled with tension.

But if we focus on where the horse is already moving with ease, we can go through that opening together with him and build from there. That may mean turning left instead of right, or walking instead of trotting, or backing up instead of going forward. But what it means above all is being truly dedicated to listening to what the horse is telling us feels okay and blending with and building on that instead of pursuing our own agenda of what we think he should do.

This doesn't mean that we do whatever the horse wants. But it does mean that we let him tell us how we can get where we're trying to go instead of just pushing him into it.

The moment this really became clear for me was when I was working with Comet on backing. Comet tended to put his head down and brace defensively against going backward. Mark showed me how to lift his head to where he didn't have a brace and ask for a soft backwards from there, rather than continuing to focus on backing from the point where he was braced. And then Comet and I moved easily and beautifully backward.

Maybe if we want our horses to move like water, we need to be willing to have a little of the ability to flow to where there's an opening ourselves.

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On the last day I realized that looking for openings is my own opening to a better perspective. I tend to focus on what needs fixing, what still needs work, what we can't yet do. In short, I see only the negatives. And it's all well and good to say something like, "Focus on helping the horse relax," but it takes my critical brain only a nanosecond to turn that into, "My horse isn't relaxed!" And then we're right back to focusing on the negative.

If I am looking for openings, however, I don't have room to see negatives. If it isn't an opening, then I am simply moving on to what is one. There's no point in making judgments because I'm not interested in judging: I'm interested in finding.

And it's pretty amazing what you can find when you're not wrapped up in focusing on what isn't working. Among other things, Comet and I found a little bit of harmony and joy. And *that* is something worth building on.

August 13, 2015

On Goals and Struggle

I've spent a good deal of time over the past several years pursuing goals--willing myself into doing things, aspiring to do things better, etc. And boy are there a lot of people out there with strategies to help you change your life and achieve your goals.

Generally these strategies involve big money words like courage, determination, heart--and what all of that implies: struggle. And the people who are promoting them generally have lots of positive things to say about struggle and how it is healthy for us to do the work, face our fears, develop our emotional fitness, etc.

Before I go further, let me be clear: it is a hugely valuable thing to know how to persevere in challenging situations and extra bonus points to you if you have a good attitude while doing it.

But if this becomes our normal operating procedure for life--if we're always on some quest, always turning dreams into goals so we can chip nobly away at them--well, for one thing, that's not very much fun.

It's becoming clear to me that there's a much better way. Mark calls it doing what feels good.

Here's an example. As I was riding Gracie, I was having trouble with finding softness at the walk. Mark asked if any part of me was tense. Lo and behold my legs were, from a long-time habit of believing that I needed that tension in them to keep forward movement.

As our ride continued I had a choice. I could say to myself, "I need to change that habit and create a positive new pattern. I need to have constant vigilance on this and do it better." Or, I could just carry on riding and when things weren't going quite right, I could check in with how I felt inside. Could I feel better in myself? Why yes, I could let go of that tension. Which of course made things better with Gracie too. And then carry on.

A more mundane example is my late-night Facebook habit. I can set a goal of getting off FB and going to bed by a certain time and do all sorts of external things to make this more likely and then stay up anyway and berate myself for it. Or I could just pay attention to whether I feel good staying on FB when I'm exhausted and do what would feel much better: go to bed. But, of course, I have to be willing to listen to what my insides tell me and not over-ride them.

And this is true of larger dreams as well. At one point my goal was to do an externship with Parelli. But a big part of me wasn't having it. I thought I was being lazy and fearful about hauling my horse to Colorado and that I needed to get to work on my attitude and confronting my fears. But a friend finally helped me see that actually, I just didn't want to do it that much.

Conversely, at the end of one clinic, Mark thanked us all for making the effort to come to the clinic and all I could think was, "What effort?" I dreamed about studying with Mark for years and it is all I hoped it would be and more and all I feel at the prospect of going to a clinic with him is happiness. "Effort" in this context seems irrelevant.

Now, I'm not saying this to either bash Parelli or make a plug for Mark. Different things feel good to different people. I'm just saying that maybe, just maybe, doing what feels good is the answer. And dreams coming true might maybe should feel good most of the way through and not just at the end.

August 12, 2015

Feeling Good is the Reward

Mark has been talking a lot this week about our tendency to quit just as the horse softens. A lot of us have been taught to quit frequently as an antidote to the all-too-common tendency to just keep asking more and more of our horses: we are trying, by quitting, to give our horses a reward/release for doing what we ask.

But Mark has been showing us how little sense this makes from the horse's perspective. We ask them to soften and then we just kind of drop them. It would be like going up to a dance partner, smiling, getting in a nice comfortable frame with them and then stopping before you ever start dancing.

I think that that's the key right there. We are not thinking about our horse time as dancing. We are thinking about it as training.

And looked at from a training mentality, we are asking our horses to do things that are, on some level and to some degree, challenging for them. So we don't want to ask too much and we want to give them a big reward when they do it well. And those are both good things to bear in mind.

But what if, as Mark said of his border collie Ring, the reward is to do things with them?

It's true that if we just want our horses to "do stuff" and if we are doing things with our horses without softness and awareness it probably does feel like work to them and the only reward they'll be interested in is getting to quit. 

But if we really are thinking of our horses as dance partners--if we're interested above all in finding that space where we both feel good moving together--then why not, you know, dance?