On our recent trip I had the opportunity while on the plane to read Tom Dorrance's True Unity. I'm almost embarrassed to say this was my first read through this excellent book. I've read plenty of excerpts and quotes and am familiar with Tom's teachings, but until recently had not had a copy to hand to peruse at my leisure. If you consider yourself a student of horsemanship and haven't had the pleasure of reading this book, I encourage you to get yourself a copy. You'll need a pen or highlighter while you read because the pearls of wisdom are many and like any inspirational piece of work there will be snippets that speak to where you are with your horse today. For me, the reoccurring theme that I kept hearing over and over again in the book from both Tom and the stories included from his students was "be in the moment".
Tom was unique in his ability to be in the moment. He was an astute observer and intuitive reader of both equine and human natures. There are many, many stories of Tom noticing just a small change in either horse or rider that translated to big changes or happenings when put into the big picture. A dropped ear, tightened eye, lifted tail, or tense mouth spoke volumes to Tom. With these slight reads on the horse he was able to "read the horse's mind".
Dr. Robert Miller spoke at length on the perceptiveness of the horse at Light Hands Horsemanship recently. These animals are so good at reading body language of herd mates as well as other species both predator and prey that they seem to have a heightened sense of their surroundings. A horse is sensitive enough to feel the elevated heart rate of it's rider through the leather of the saddle. And we as, highly evolved, intelligent beings believe we can fool a horse by hiding the halter behind our backs when we go to catch them.
I think Tom had some of this highly evolved perceptiveness and I think it's one of the things that made him such a great horseman. He was incredibly adept at reading the horse and being in the moment with the horse so that he could feel the horse's intentions before the action occurred. He and Ray would often ask their students of horsemanship, "what happened before what happened happened?" While incredibly frustrating for the budding horseman, this is the crux of being in the moment with your horse.
How often does your horse do something, "out of the blue"? Your answer is probably, "All the time!" but, I'm willing to bet that in reality it is quite infrequently. While the horse's highly developed sense of flight of fight does lead to sudden bursts of activity preempted by seemingly insignificant occurrences, many times the horse will be quite explicit in it's intended reaction before it happens.
A perfect example of this happened to me the other day during a routine visit with one of my patients. Of course I've had Tom on my mind and have been in mulling mode since reading through True Unity but being a fallible human, I need lessons drilled into my head repeatedly. I don't learn nearly as quickly as does the horse. On this day I was preparing to sedate a horse for a float. This is a relatively quiet older mare that I have floated at least once before though it has been awhile. She was quietly led up to me for the procedure. As I approached the mare I was busy chatting with the client and watching out of the corner of my eye as their Labrador sniffed the tires of the vet truck exchanging pleasantries with our dogs in the truck. I patted the mare on the neck, noticing as I did that she was a little tense, but proceeded to prepare to give her an IV injection. As the needle touched the horse's skin she exploded "out of the blue". She snorted, reared, flew backwards and looked at me like I was every bit the lion for which I had acted.
After the horse reacted I felt like the worlds biggest fool. Suddenly all the other things going on faded away and I looked at my patient standing there with stiff neck, high head, white eyes and tight lips. She had been standing just that way when I approached he with the needle as well. She told me in no uncertain terms that she WAS NOT READY for her injection. If I had taken a moment to calm her down and talk to her until her heart rate dropped and head and jaw relaxed I may not have had the same reaction to the injection. It probably would have taken me 2 or 3 minutes to reassure her. Instead I spent 10 minutes talking calmly while she danced around in no mood for second chances. If I had been in the moment with my patient at the time I could have avoided the whole incident.
It is hard for me to be in the moment at any time in my life. I am a very accomplished and proud multi-tasker. I have an active mind, always going and churning through any 5-10 things at one time. I used to think this was an attribute, but I think this trait is actually why sometimes things slip through the cracks. Instead of completely doing one task at a time I have 10 irons in the fire and none of them are heating evenly. I'm guessing that Tom Dorrance was not a multi-tasker. I am imagining that when we was doing something, whether it was braiding, riding, teaching, or listening to a student, that was ALL that he was doing. I believe that is why he was able to observe so much about the person, horse or situation. How many times am I in a situation where I am not totally there? I'd have to say it's more often than not, actually. I may be talking to you and I might appear to be listening, but I bet in my brain I'm thinking about the next appointment, my list of diagnosis and possible treatment plan already.
Part of this problem is my personality. Part of this problem is my job. But, the solution lies only within me. I used to spend an awful lot of my time in the saddle with my phone in my ear. It wasn't by choice, it was necessity, but how can I effectively communicate with my horse while talking about a sick animal in the next county? How can I effectively give veterinary advice while I'm trying to give muddled cues to my horse? I can't do either, I'm willing to admit.
So, along with all the other goals in my horsemanship journey, I have made being in the moment one of my top priorities. I'm hoping to carry it over to my job and other aspects of my life to the best of my ability. The few times that I believe I have managed to be thoroughly in the moment in the past week have been very rewarding, making interactions richer and memories brighter.
Giving up multi-tasking may prove to be more difficult than giving up chocolate or caffeine, but I think it's just as good for me. I'm going to do my best to be in the moment in each and every thing that I do in my business, personal life, and horsemanship life. Simplify to edify. The journey continues.