Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Horsemanship lingo can be maddenly vague and obscure. Some of my favorite expressions include: Riding the thought; having "soft eyes"; and following a feel.


"Following a feel" makes no sense to the uninformed and, from a writers perspective, is a botched use of language. The Word Police could find and prosecute me for that one.

Nevertheless, the term refers to something that transpires between horse and rider. When open, clear, calm communication is taking place, a horse naturally follows what they are feeling from the rider. This includes not only cues (unfortunately) but emotion. It becomes important for a rider to "ride the thought," focusing on the performance he wants from the horse.

Recently my daughter, near the end of her ten-year-old rope of patience, exclaimed in utter frustration, "How come you can always get Chance to pick up his right lead, and I can't!"

I paused before answering, eager to seize the teachable, Zen-like moment. "You have to feel it, Sweetie. Think about the lead you want, then push him into it with your hip--see?" I slung my hip to the side to illustrate. Haley got back on Chance to try it for herself. Already frustrated, her motions were crude and forceful. They did little except confuse Chance who immediately reacted negatively to her unconcealed frustration. The cue was not the primary problem.

"Like this Haley," I called again. Only mildly suggestive before, my hips motions now bordered on wanton as I attempted to make a subtle cue obvious. It was to no avail. Knowing she was punishing the horse inadvertently from her own lack of self control I told her to get off and take a break. She fought to keep back tears of frustration.

"You can always do it!" She said, accusingly, and stalked off. So much for the Zen moment.

Horses are being used increasingly in unconventional settings to teach communication skills to people. This is because they are unable to lie, are incredibly intuitive (see post, Smelling the Soul), and spot-on mirrors of their handlers/riders. Seasoned horsemen say that a nervous rider makes a nervous horse. So too, an angry/fearful/rigid/reactive rider will make the same sort of animal. This is hard for humans to accept because we are experts at hiding our feelings and intentions. We harbor negative emotions and ways of relating but expect to get a positive response from our environment. The horses are not fooled.

This was illustrated to me recently while I worked with Eli. I may be 36 but my self control is sadly not always better than a ten-year-old. Eli loads confidently into larger, stock type trailers but became claustrophobic and nervous in my smaller, two horse straight load. He is a sensitive, non-confrontational horse who wants to please so getting him into the trailer was no problem. Getting him to stay in, quietly, was another story. I worked several days with him, concentrating on his obedience staying in the trailer and waiting for my cue before backing out. At first I was understanding and maternal. Trailer loading is often problematic in horses and I wanted Eli to become confidant before taking off down the road.

My frustration began to build when, after several days, Eli continued shooting out of the trailer unbidden. The process was taking longer than I thought it should. One day, after loading and unloading him successfully a few times, he regressed by kicking out after I released the butt strap. My anger instantly flared. I fought the urge to flick the whip at his hocks. While Eli could not see me, or my body language, his response was dramatic. Scrambling backward as fast as he could go, he continued backing up across the yard, neck raised in alarm, until he reached the end of the 12 foot lead rope. As far away from me as he could get. Disguising my anger didn't fool this horse one bit. He could feel it.

The term Soft Eyes comes from the classic, Centered Riding, by Sally Swift. This is a fascinating book on horsemanship. When one has soft eyes they are able to see/take in more of the world around them. They are open and receiving, able to react appropriately to a situation. Hard eyes speak of a focus on only one thing. A hard look closes down the environment and gives the rider only one perspective. This reminds me of an instance with my daughter, several years ago.

Children are much more transparent and honest with their feelings. They can feel the truth around them, even when they cannot articulate it. This is humbling and, at times, hilarious. One such a time was over Thanksgiving when Haley was only two. It had been one of those days....preparations for coming guests including loads of cleaning and cooking and plenty of stress. In addition the kids had me running--"Mommy help me/get me a drink/wipe my bum/I want to watch Barney...." You get the picture. When we all sat down to dinner I breathed a sigh of relief and dipped my fork into a mound of mashed potatoes for the first buttery, mouthwatering bite. At that moment Haley, who had visited the bathroom unbeknownst to me, called out. "Mommy, I went poop. Come wipe me." It took every ounce of self control and maturity to keep my mouth shut. Inside I screamed out my annoyance: Is it too much to ask for ten minutes of peace and pleasure with my mashed potatoes?! Can you not wait until after dinner to go poop!!!

I stalked to the bathroom, ripped off a wad of toilet paper and bent over Haley. My hard eyes were focused on only one thing--personal irritation. Looking up at me with the open curiosity unique to young children, Haley asked, "Mommy, are you nice?"

I don't remember what I said, only that my first response was to burst out laughing--Actually, I'm not nice; thanks for asking. Kids and horses....good for keeping one humble.

Gotta get--and quit losing--that pair of soft eyes.

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