This movie clip is such an amazing metaphor for me... We are Al Pacino, the blind man leading the dance. Our horse is the beautiful woman who we have invited to learn to dance. She is beautiful as she is, perfect, stunning. The invitation to dance is only to be able to share
in her grace and beauty and to express it through synchronized movement.
The pressure that the man uses to lead her (and sometimes it is a lot of pressure when he dips her and sends her out and pulls her in), is there to support her, to guide her and to teach her; it becomes a comfort and as they dance she releases towards the pressure because she trusts it is there to guide her movements and that it will catch her if she stumbles. It is never meant to hurt, threaten, intimidate, manipulate or humiliate.
She is in the "stretch zone" even bordering on the "stress zone" when they start, but he is able to help her find relaxation and even fun and laughter in the stretch zone because he doesn't care who is watching or what they look like. He never loses his temper with her when she misses a step. It is all about the experience of finding togetherness and harmony, even in the mistakes! They laugh together, regain their balance and continue stepping.
When they finish dancing she is left with a smile on her face and there is an air of dignity and joy between her and her dance partner.
Isn't that the most beautiful metaphor for our dance with our horses?
We are the charming blind herd members asking these gorgeous animals if they would like to learn to dance with us. Imagine ourselves being so confident and so modest... seeing ourselves as worthy and them as beautiful and perfect before we even invite them into the arena; seeing our training as a way of sharing in their grace and beauty and a way of expressing it further through synchronized movement. Imagine having our horses experience our pressure as guiding and supporting instead of correcting and punishing; and seeing our own aids as communication instead of force. Wouldn't it be amazing to bring our horses into the stretch zone with the same ease and sense of humour and be able to feel them open up and trust us that when they miss a step we will be there to catch them and continue guiding them through the dance instead of getting fearful or frustrated that they are not being obedient... Imagine finishing every session with your horse- even the most challenging one - with both of your hearts singing from the feeling of accomplishing something together.
It is not some secret method or movement or trick or exercise that unlocks this. It is letting go of fear; the fear that creates anger, frustration, irritation, impatience, arrogance, self-doubt, anxiety, cruelty, judgement, conflict, desperation, neediness, etc and simply growing a constant feeling of gratitude and dignified appreciation that such a magnificent creature accepted your invitation to learn your dance.
After reading Power of the Herd by Linda Kohanov I had an important insight which clarified the difference between teaching/motivation and setting boundaries. Linda’s pattern that she uses to explain is shared by these two tools and is very similar but the intention should be different.
Commitment -> Increasing volume -> Immediate release
Setting boundaries is all about safety- safety is not a distant, aloof or disconnected place, it is a place where you can feel a deep connection and stay emotionally balanced. When you are feeling unsafe because a horse is pushing into your personal space or you feel your safety is being threatened by something a horse is doing, it is time to set boundaries. The “Commitment” in setting boundaries is to your safety and to acknowledging your vulnerability - setting boundaries is about you and your space. Setting boundaries is not about punishing the horse or about taking away the connection. It is about acknowledging your emotions, acknowledging that you feel unsafe, uncomfortable or vulnerable and then claiming the space you need to feel safe and to feel connected to the horse again. Always check in with your body about how you are feeling about a behaviour the horse is offering you. If you feel tight, tense, anxious or annoyed when a horse offers you a behaviour (your body will escalate this into increasing fear and anger if you do not listen to the first signal) then you know that you need to set a boundary to explain to the horse that his actions are making you feel unsafe and you need space to be able to offer him a connection again. When you are claiming your body space it is not a question or a discussion; you claim it with whatever volume you need for the horse to understand that he needs to give you space. (This is only fair if you allow the horse to be just as open with you by listening when he tells you that he is feeling vulnerable, then giving and holding space for him without getting defensiveor taking it personally). It is also a good idea to assess the situation afterwards: why does that behaviour makes you feel unsafe, uncomfortable or vulnerable? Is it truly dangerous behaviour? Is it something that could become dangerous? Is it a behaviour which is unbalanced, unhealthy or disempowering for the horse or for you? Or is it a behaviour which triggers defensiveness in you because it highlights your own weaknesses or reminds you of a previous bad experience? Whatever the reason turns out to be, you need to set boundaries in the moment, claim the space you need to feel safe and connected and then you can explore the reasons for your need to claim space when you and your horse are in a connected space again.
When we increase volume in setting boundaries we do it by claiming our space through sound and movement with our bodies and an inanimate object eg. A rope, a stick, a jacket, a plastic bag, a piece of long grass, etc. You need to be able to claim a neutral space around you with something that is not a part of your body and does not have a heartbeat. As soon as the horse makes an effort to give you the space you need to feel safe, you immediately release into relaxation.
You will know and feel when you have claimed your space and reconnected with your horse because the feeling of connection between you both will become deeper and stronger. If you use boundary setting in an emotional way or if you are incongruent or if there is an underlying feeling of guilt when you claim space, the feeling of connection will decrease and the horse will either leave or the unbalanced behaviour will increase. Remember that congruent and authentic boundary setting does not take anything away from the relationship, instead it creates a space of freedom where the trust, respect, connection and affection can grow because you both feel safe. It allows the horse complete and honest self-expression in a way that does not compromise your safety. It is also the place where the horse really teaches you about yourself!
Commitment and Presence of question -> Feel and release -> Positive reinforcement for 100% effort
Motivation or teaching can only happen when you are feeling safe and connected to the horse. You cannot motivate or teach anything if you are feeling threatened or unsafe. So both of your boundaries need to be in place before motivation or teaching can occur. The “Commitment” is to teaching and motivating the horse to understand and perform an exercise or movement with you, it is about the horse’s space and about leading him into his stretching and learning zone. The presence of the question is what we call our “inner picture / inner feeling”. The inner picture / inner feeling consists of a mental movie or picture of the movement with the emotion and feel of the movement as well. We always need to think in the positive i.e. what we want, instead of the negative i.e. what we don’t want.
When we increase volume in motivation or teaching, we do it by asking the horse to release space. It might look the same from the outside but the intention is very different and it feels very different to the horse because you are essentially pushing on the horse’s space, asking him to step out of his comfort zone into his stretch zone where learning happens. So when you are teaching, the volume increase is in your presence, it is a question rather than a command, and the increase in the energy volume should come from motivation, enthusiasm and a desire to be clear.
In motivation or teaching, the releases come after every offer the horse makes in the right direction. The positive reinforcement or "jackpot" is offered when your horse matches your inner picture 100%.
When we are using motivation or teaching, we are leading the horse out of his comfort zone into his stretch zone, encouraging him to learn and puzzle solve. Sometimes, if we push too hard or ask too much, this can cause the horse to go into his stress zone which will cause him to set boundaries with us. When this happens you do not have the right to reprimand because you were the one pushing on the horse's space. However you also should back off and give up either. You will take the question one step back by making it a bit easier (this gives the horse the space he needs to reconnect with you - remember that he has gone into boundary setting and needs space, whether it is mental space or physical space, to be able to reconnect with you) and then you hold your question and breathe. Once the horse feels safe and reconnects with you, he will respond with an effort to answer the question and you will immediately release, reward and relax. This can sometimes take as little as a few seconds! This is all about the togetherness and coming to a place where you both feel successful. If you give up on the exercise because it is challenging for the horse then you are confirming to him that the exercise is impossible. If you use escalating pressure in a punishing way when the horse goes into stress then you might get the physical exercise but you will lose the connection and togetherness. Your goal is to preserve and deepen the relationship, and to set the horse up to succeed at the same time. So you create space when the horse shows stress but stay committed to helping him understand the exercise.
There is also a lot more responsibility on my shoulders to make sure I choose an inner picture or puzzle that I know he can solve and be successful at. Because I am no longer "making" him do it and instead setting him up to figure it out and offer the answer, I need to always check that I have chosen a picture that is within his capability of achieving with 100% success. If my horse is successful with every puzzle I present him, it builds his confidence to try to figure out more complex and challenging puzzles. It also frees him up to offer more and more because he trusts that if I have presented him with this puzzle, he must be able to solve it!
If my horse says no to my question then I ask why. I check if my inner picture is clear enough, if my body language and breathing are clear enough, if the question I have asked is within his capability, if I am being motivating enough. I can also break the question down into smaller pieces and make my inner picture simpler. If I focus on the finding the "yes" then my horse will too!
This process sets the human up to learn a much deeper sense of self awareness as well as working towards being authentic and congruent all the time. Only through being aware and congruent will we know when the right time comes to set boundaries, when the right time comes to create space by moving away or when the right time comes to hold the question. If you try to use boundary setting when you are supposed to be teaching (i.e. you feel safe and you are trying to teach by setting boundaries i.e. making/forcing/bossing) then you will end up turning to reprimanding and punishment as tools. If you try to use teaching and motivation when you need to be setting boundaries (i.e. you are feeling unsafe and vulnerable but trying to continue to teach) then the situation can escalate and become dangerous.
Safe, secure, comfortable, easy, relaxed, reliable, peaceful, unchallenging plateau, “being”.
Learning, growing, challenging, rewarding, developing willingness, puzzle solving, stimulating, “doing”.
Panic, fear, anger, tension, exhaustion, survival mode, defensiveness, shut down (after prolonged periods of being trapped in the stress zone).
The final insight I had was about labelling a horse (or human). Linda speaks about a person calling herself “low energy” and Linda’s response explained that the woman is not an energy level; that is just where her comfort zone is. She has the full capacity for all levels of energy but when she feels uncomfortable she will gravitate towards low energy because that is where she feels safe. This explained all the labels we see in horse training eg. right/left brain, introvert/extrovert, low/high energy, mouthy, switched off, flighty, sticky, dominant/submissive, needy, aloof, etc.
No horse is just one thing or another. That is just a behaviour which lies within their comfort zone - it is a coping mechanism. When their stress response is triggered they will go back into whichever behaviour or mind set makes them feel comfortable again. So rather than labeling a horse, we should use this behaviour as information – a signal that our horse is communicating to us that he is feeling unsafe or doesn't understand and needs mental or physical space to reconnect and the support to try again. The goal is to eventually have a horse who is so balanced physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually that he is comfortable with being right brain, left brain, introverted, extroverted, high energy, low energy, in your space, out of your space, “being” and “doing”, depending on what we are doing together! This applies to our own coping behaviours and defence mechanisms as well, we should use the same intention to expand our own comfort and stretch zone and become agile enough to use whichever energy level or side of the brain we need in the moment to be a better dance partner for our horses.
To allow the relationship with my horse to grow, as well as my horse and myself to grow individually, I like to apply my own version of the concept of a "Beginner's Mind". Every day, when I go out to meet one of my horses in the field, I go to them as if I am meeting them for the first time. I offer them each exercise and question with curiosity about what their answer will be today. I try my best not to assume, or expect them to do it or not do it.
I start at the start by asking if they want to come away from their herd to be with me. If the answer is yes then we move on. If not, then that is where we work today. Then I ask them if they can synchronize with me on the halter as we walk towards the arena. This means walking together, halting, moving backwards, moving their haunches over or their shoulders over. If their answer is yes and the feeling is light, fluent and harmonious, then we move on. If not, then that is where we work today. When we get to the arena, I ask if they can stand with me while I groom them and get them ready for the session. If yes, then we start with the first ST exercises in standstill. If their answer is yes, they can follow my feel and soften to the slightest touch, then we move on. If not, then that is where we work today, etc etc. I strive to approach them each day and allow them to surprise me. I have no agenda about what we need to achieve. I am, however, VERY clear and precise about HOW we do things. This means that I value quality over quantity. I am not interested in doing advanced dressage if my horse cannot walk in harmony with me on the halter.
Every day I go out with my barometer set on lightness, self-carriage, harmony, softness, willingness. I check if each step resonates with these qualities. If not, then I work there until we find those qualities in that particular step. Each day I also go out in search of the stretch zone and the "light bulb moment", like a treasure hunt! I follow the steps organically until I feel the place where things do not quite match and that is where the stretch zone opens up. That is the place where my horse and I will puzzle-solve and figure out and discover new things and deepen our relationship. Then when we have reached the peak of the breakthrough, we end the session and celebrate, wherever that moment may be. In this way, I feel that I give the relationship space to breathe and grow, while at the same time building the quality of our training together. I give my horse space to be whoever he chooses to be that day and I work with that horse to the best of my ability that day. I also give myself space to be whoever I choose to be that day, and let go of any labels, agendas, expectations, limiting belief systems I have about myself, my horse or our relationship. I look at my horse and myself with fresh eyes every day.
Some days we might be strangers who need to find each other at liberty in the field for the first time. Other days we might find ourselves floating along in some beautiful ridden dressage movements. Every day we will have the opportunity to learn new tools or experience new fruits. It makes the journey so exciting and spontaneous, while at the same time not dissolving into chaos or getting stuck doing nothing or getting greedy and skipping steps. I let go of the goals of what and when and sharpen my intention of how and why. For me, it keeps the balance of creativity and structure, science and art, safety and spontaneity, the freedom and joy of self-expression and the respect and discipline of togetherness. It is a challenge for the human ego and our predator's mind- we do love boxes, labels, goals and rewards. But, personally, it is a relief to have the freedom to trust the process and allow the movements or activities to arise organically out of each other.
It does not mean that I can be lazy and overly relaxed about it. Quite the opposite! I need to deeply understand each step that I am asking for and also know what the next step is. I need to understand how and why I ask for every movement and exactly what quality I am searching for so as to be crystal clear, consistent and congruent for my horse. I need to start with the end in mind but appreciate every baby step that my horse offers in the direction of harmony. I cannot go blindly into this. That would be completely unfair to my horse, as it is not his idea to train with me! It is my responsibility to study the theory of those who have already succeeded and to deeply understand the mind and body of my horse. It is also important to train and take care of my own body so that I can be an equal partner. Then I can go to him and offer a partnership that is worth his while: going to him every day with a beginners mind, really seeing him without taking what I see personally, and inviting him on the treasure hunt with me.