The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship

The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship

mindful horse human eyes

The moment that mindfulness as a concept is having seems to be extending into a full blown movement. It’s difficult to cross the threshold of the internet without running across the idea applied to some context or other. But what does mindfulness mean for riders? What is the place of mindfulness in the barn? Can approaching our horses with a mindful attitude improve our horsemanship?

For the Uninitiated… What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the act of bringing full attention and to the task or process at hand. It is acknowledging distractions, but not allowing them to distract. It is total engagement with one’s present occupation. Being mindful is being totally present in the moment. It is experiencing and responding to your thoughts and environment without dwelling on the past or worrying about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness is about embracing what you are doing in its totality, without diluting that totality with things that don’t matter or apply.

 

mindful meditation
Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash
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Anything can be done mindfully. Meditation may be the ultimate form of mindfulness… being mindfully mindful, if you will. Meta-mindfulness. But the concept is applicable to any task. You can eat mindfully, work mindfully, play mindfully, etc.

What Mindfulness is Not

Sometimes mindfulness is better understood in contrast to what it is not. Mindfulness is not multitasking. It is not simply going through the motions while your mind wanders off to other topics.

What Does Mindful Riding Look Like?

Mindful riding is something that we owe to our horses. We expect our horses to give us their full attention and effort. This is only really possible for the horse when we return the favor.

horse rider galloping
Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash
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Riding mindfully means that we engage fully with the horse and our ride. We take steps to reduce the baggage and distraction that we bring to the barn. We leave the phone in the tack room… or at least silence the ringer and notifications. The rider is wholly engaged with the horse, returning always to breath and feel and rhythm in the same way a meditator constantly redirects attention to the breath or to a mantra.

Again, to contrast, the opposite of mindful riding is sitting astride the horse in the center of the arena, clicking away on the phone. It isn’t plodding down the trail on a group ride chattering about politics with the other riders. Plodding lazily around the ring, letting your mind wander while your horse sets the velocity doesn’t count as mindful riding, either. That isn’t to say that either of those examples is terrible or abusive, or that they don’t sometimes have their place. Only that they tend not to foster the emotional, mental, or athletic growth of horse or horseman.

How Can You Incorporate Mindfulness Into Your Horsemanship?

Practice Mindfulness Away From The Barn

Practicing mindfulness away from the barn makes it easier to adopt a mindful mindset in the barn. Seems simple, right? Intuitive, even.

There are a number of free or cheap apps available for short guided meditations tailored for the newbie. YouTube has a wealth of channels dedicated to yoga videos, many as short as 5-10 minutes. Tai chi is another excellent low-impact and mindfulness-fostering practice to dip your toes into. Dedicating just a few minutes a day to practicing can provide benefits.

Photo by Rima Kruciene on Unsplash

Less formally, you can practice mindfulness by trying to live its definition. Choose an activity that you normally do, say, eating, and commit to doing it mindfully. Silence your phone, eat at the table, off of a real plate, and only eat. But even though you’re only eating, really embrace the experience. Let yourself fully chew and taste before swallowing, rather than bolting the food to get to the next thing. Don’t try to multitask, don’t rush to get on with it.

So, how do you know when you’re being mindful? I find that when I “click” into a mindful frame, I lose track of time. That 10 minute yoga session is over in 3. I get barn chores that would take half an hour done in 15 minutes. I look up from the blog post I’m writing and find that it’s suddenly dark outside my window. Call it “flow,” call it “the groove,” call it what you want, working mindfully seems to help trigger the effect.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Leave the phone in the tack room. Unless you ride solo and it is your “safety buddy” for an emergency, in which case put the thing on silent. You don’t need to be checking it for phantom chirps every 10 minutes. And you don’t need it actually chirping, either.

Make the most of riding lessons. Much like a guided meditation, your instructor can keep you on-task and focused on your riding. If you don’t take lessons regularly, consider scheduling a few with a good instructor as a general refresher and an intensive immersion in your horsemanship. Riding or auditing in clinics is also a great option.

This is my favorite tip… set an alarm. With my day job, I have limited time to spend in the barn, especially in the mornings. Assuming that I don’t want to arrive at the office smelling like a horse, that is. I set myself an alarm for 5-10 minutes before I need to be back in the house cleaning up. That way, I can completely engross myself in mucking, grooming, groundwork, riding, etc., without worrying about losing track of time or breaking my flow to check my watch.

Make a Plan… And Stick To It. Flexibly.

I’m a big fan of Warwick Schiller. One of his trademark quotes is “stick to the damn plan” (STTDP).

Going to the barn with a gameplan gives you focus, something to guide your mind to task. Think of it like your mantra for the day’s meditation.

Dressage stallion 3
By Lbpetersen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons
That is not at all to say that, when you get to the barn, if the situation is such that you need to adjust your plan, you shouldn’t. If you intended to polish your half-pass, and your horse tells you that today the focus needs to be on walking past the new red folding chairs lined up along the rail, by all means, adjust your plan. But stick to the plan that you’re working.

Embrace the Entire Process

Mindful riding is more than just riding. If you distractedly multitask when you tack up and warm up, it will be hard to ride the workout in a mindful way. Similarly, you don’t want to scramble and slap your untacking and post-ride routine together either. Really commit to bringing mindfulness to every facet of your horsemanship.

Part of embracing the entire process is accepting that you will struggle to be mindful, especially in the beginning. Like so many other things, it is called “practice” for a reason. Think of every time you catch yourself distracted and unmindful, and bring yourself back to mindful task, as a “rep.” Mindfulness is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to develop.

Benefits of Mindful Horsemanship

Mindfulness in the barn brings a number of benefits to your horsemanship. Most particularly, though, is the benefit of meeting the horse on a more even footing. A mindful mindset is much more similar to the horse’s natural state. Sure, horses get distracted, but their distractions are a result of being mindful of their surroundings. Contrast that to some very typical human distractions… that driver who cut you off and flipped you the bird in traffic this morning…. that donut you didn’t need to eat between breakfast and lunch… the growing to-do list for tomorrow… All that the horse is distracted by is the present.

Photo by Daniel Cano on Unsplash

Meeting the horse on this playing field allows the horseman to become more effective at communicating. This effectiveness allows us to improve our feel and timing, to understand the horse and his wants and needs and distractions, and to meet the horse, understood as a horse, as himself. This is an invaluable tool.

Furthermore, riding mindfully allows us to connect our purpose in riding to our present. This may seem super woo-woo and meta, but consider how powerful of a tool that this can be to overcome fear in the saddle, or to get over a training plateau.

What’s In Your Mind?

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Do you practice mindfulness in the saddle or in the barn? How do you do it? How has it changed the way that you ride, or approach horsemanship? Or are these ideas that you might take with you to the barn for the first time? Share your comments and stories below, drop us a line, and remember, you, like me, should be riding!!

The Problem With Natural Horsemanship (and Strategies to Overcome It!)

The Problem: Natural Horsemanship Isn’t “Natural.” No Horsemanship Is.

The problem with Natural Horsemanship is really very simple… horsemanship just isn’t natural, in any sense of the word.

Horses don’t naturally socialize with predator type creatures.

This category certainly includes humans, yet horsemanship takes the unnatural aspect even further. We ask the horse to calmly and willingly carry a predator on it’s back and perform without fear! The basic fact of predator and prey animal working in partnership flies in the face of all that is “natural.”

Humans don’t naturally understand equine psychology and communication.

If we did, can you imagine how much simpler of an endeavor horsemanship would be? It is unnatural for a human to set aside linear thinking patterns, and to not register the horse’s behavior and responses to us on an emotional level. It is our human instinct to anthropomorphize, to fit our understanding of the horse into human terms. This problem can be overcome, and there are clearly many, many people who excel at understanding the horse on his own terms, but it is far from a natural ability for most humans. The study of horsemanship itself is the attempt to overcome this barrier.

Horses aren’t built to carry weight where the rider sits.

They aren’t naturally suited for a domesticated lifestyle of confinement, punctuated by bouts of structured exercise. Humans impose these unnatural conditions on the horse, and then make other unnatural modifications to compensate — metal shoes to protect the hooves, blankets to help keep warm and dry, support boots and gel saddle pads for protecting the legs and back.

An entire industry has sprung up to compensate for the unnaturalness of the horse’s modern domestic lifestyle and the unnatural endeavor of horsemanship. From the gear to the books to the lessons and training and clinics and DVDs… none of it would exist if horsemanship were natural.

Stock photo courtesy of Pexels.com

The Miracle of Horsemanship

The miracle of horsemanship is that, despite its unnatural nature, somehow, it can all work. Humans can and do form partnerships with their horses. Horses are, astonishingly, willing to do some very unnatural things if asked in the correct way.

The trick of the miracle, and the tough-love lesson for the would-be horseman, is that it is all up to the human to recognize how unnatural it is. It is up to the human to learn to “speak horse,” and to train their own body and mind to work in harmony with the body and the mind of the horse. The horse is not able to learn to “speak human.”

Strategies to Make Horsemanship Less Unnatural

Communication.

Communication is everything in horsemanship, and it is the onus of the horseman to be in the constant practice of improving communication. We do this by observing equine behavior and applying those lessons to our behavior with the horses. All of our movements, cues, and aids should be clear, consistent, and meaningful, reducing “static” in our body language. We can be more mindful in the barn and the arena, more focused and less distracted.

Management.

We can strive to keep and manage our horses in a way that mimics the horse’s natural lifestyle as closely as possible. Turnout and freedom to move and graze in fresh air are ideal. Uninterrupted stable life can be harmful to body and mind. There can be an increased risk of colic, ulcers, and heaves among other maladies with stall-kept horses. Stables of any size typically house at least one cribber, weaver, or pacer. Stalls may be convenient for us, but tend to be less desirable as a default housing strategy.

Education.

We should always be striving to become better educated as horsemen. I’ve written before about how the learning curve never ends in horsemanship. We can learn more about the horse’s physiology to make better stable management decisions. Studying biomechanics helps us ride with more understanding and finesse. Brushing up on equine psychology helps us communicate better. Good riding lessons never did a soul a bit of harm. Even lifetime riders and seasoned horsemen fall into bad habits or don’t recognize an opportunity to grow and improve in their art.

Collaboration.

As much as I advocate for self sufficiency and self reliance, it is important to remember that you and your horse are not an island. Even Olympians have coaches. While you should be able to recognize illnesses and perform basic first aid, you should also have a good relationship with your vet. Be able to ask questions and get advice beyond your (hopefully rare) emergencies. While you should be able to recognize lameness or pull a shoe, the same goes for your relationship with a good farrier. Even if you don’t take regular lessons, get to know a better horseman than you personally. Keep an eye and ear open, and soak up what they have to teach, even through conversation. Horses are herd animals. Humans can learn a little something from that mentality. Don’t be afraid to utilize the resources and equestrian community around you.

Final Thoughts

I may be opening a can of worms, but I am interested in opinions. Where do you stand on the idea of “natural horsemanship?” Am I off base? Can horsemanship be a truly natural endeavor? Perhaps I put too much meaning and thought into a ubiquitous buzz phrase is, at root, a marketing tool. I believe that it is well worth bringing more naturalness to horsemanship; the horseman ought to on the burden of the unnaturalness as much as possible. This would make the horse’s life easier physically, mentally, and emotionally. Are there parts of horsemanship that cannot be optimized for naturalness? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section.

You really should be riding!

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