Horses and Head Space
I feel lucky to make a living doing what I love. I spend most of my time riding horses, six days a week, most weeks, working with eight to ten horses, one after the other, most days. Of course, training horses means I do other stuff, too: I give and take lessons, pay taxes, and so on. But riding my clients’ horses takes up the largest chunk of my time, by a wide margin. It’s the main ingredient of my work day; everything else is just garnish. I spend most of my time on a horse, or with a horse, one on one.
People often ask me: “Don’t you get bored?” My answer is, every time: No, I don’t. Please don’t misunderstand me. My work is not easy. It challenges my body and my mind. At the end of the day, I feel bone tired. There are times when I feel discouraged because a horse does not seem to make much progress, or because I don’t think I know enough. There are plenty of times when I feel uncomfortable - cold in the winter, hot in the summer, covered in dirt any time of the year, sand blasted on windy days, which are common in New Mexico. But bored? Never. Honestly, never.
For me, working with a horse means being with that horse all the way, on every level of my being: physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s a mutual kind of mindfulness. It means opening myself to what the horse has to say. It means responding to what the horse tells me, with with kindness and understanding, instead of pushing my own agenda on him no matter what. I like to picture a bubble around each horse and myself, a transparent boundary that creates space for the two of us. There is no room for anyone else. We talk to each other - his back to to my back, his mouth to my hands, his sides to my legs. I answer, with my seat, with my reins, with my voice. It’s an ongoing conversation that flows both ways. Sometimes, we argue, sometimes, we make small talk, sometimes, we have deep and meaningful discussions, sometimes we joke around. Sometimes we tell each other how much we love each other, other times not so much. Sometimes, we’re silent, but still aware of each other’s presence. Neither of us is alone. Neither of us is bored.
The phrase I most often use in conversations with my horses, a kind of mantra when I’m working, is short and simple: “You’re with me.”
This means: You, horse, don’t have to worry about the plastic bag blowing across the arena or the orange tractor driving by. You’re with me. You’re safe. You’re going to be ok, in spite of everything that’s going on around you. Nothing bad will happen to you as long as you’re with me”
It also means: “You’re with me. You are listening to what I say, so you don’t have time to focus on other horses, or noisy weed whackers. I will ask you for things you may find challenging, but I won’t overwhelm you. I will back off when you get anxious. I won’t punish you for trying out a range of responses to what I’m asking. You’re with me. Your body and mind are occupied. You don’t need to look for entertainment elsewhere.”
On yet another level, “You’re with me.” implies its opposite: “I’m with you.” It means: “I will give you, horse, my full attention. My body moves with yours. My mind connects to your mind. I will be with you, reassure you, be there for you. You can count on me. I won’t let you down.”
Being with a horse in this way takes up all my head space. Being with a horse pushes aside all the unproductive, often negative chatter that goes on in there otherwise. When I ride, I stop fretting about all the unchecked items on my to-do list. I stop worrying about about making an idiot of myself at the next show, about what I forgot to pick up at the grocery store, about when my car is due for an oil change. I stop beating myself up over how I handled a difficult conversation with a client, or about the time I rode off pattern in a dressage test even though I had a caller. I stop ruminating. I stop analyzing. Instead, I get to spend a lot of time in the flow state. When I work with horses, I don’t think of checking my email or Facebook feed. I don’t wonder who has texted me since the morning. I don’t know where my phone is when I’m with a horse. There are days when I look at my watch and realize that I have forgotten to eat lunch.
Of course, this does not mean I’ve forgotten how to worry, fret, or beat myself up. I’m still good at all these things because I’ve had almost 50 years of constant practice. But working with horses means I spend less time engaged in mental self-flagellation, and more time in the present. And, as mindfulness teachers keep pointing out, spending more time in the present is the key to becoming a calmer, kinder, healthier, less stressed-out, more considerate human being.
I’ve tried meditation, so far without much success. Sometimes, I manage to focus on my breath for a full minute before I get distracted. Sometimes, I manage to sit quietly for a full three minutes before I start to fidget. But I can ride for eight or more hours a day without a problem. Horses remind me to stay in the here and now more effectively than any more formal mindfulness practice. On the long list of reasons horses are good for us, this one has to rank near the top: they make us better people.