Tuesday, September 29, 2015

There is no Drug Like Lightness

This horsemanship journey is such an unusual experience.  I would say that my equine education has been in many ways more difficult and challenging than obtaining my veterinary degree.  Wouldn't it be wonderful, if when confronted with a difficult problem with your horse,  you could just hit the books and find the answer?  Or do a blood test and discover the source of the issue at hand?  Being a vet is easy stuff compared to being a horseman.

If I could pin point the one thing that really kicked me off on this journey or quest for equine zen and the one thing that keeps me striving each and every day to make myself better it would be lightness. In reality I'm likely a shiny newbie when it comes to truly knowing what lightness is.  When I watch master horsemen at work, you can't see them move.  You can't see them touch the reins or cue with their legs. That's lightness.  When the horse and the rider move through space as one body and one mind.  That's lightness.  At the point that I am at in my horsemanship journey I have mediocre lightness that comes and goes.  But every time I get that glimpse of what true lightness and partnership feel like it about makes me cry.  It's that kind of overwhelming feeling that makes you want more, right now, and lots of it. That's the addictive part.

You see, lightness is like a drug.  It's more addictive than cocaine, meth, or any of those other substances that causes folks to lose great parts of their lives in pursuit of their next fix.  For those of us on the quest of true lightness, it defines our journey with our horses.  It's part of everything that we do.  It encompasses every thought that we have about our horses and how we handle them.  For those of us that are truly addicted, it is what we dream about, night after night.

You may think I'm being a bit dramatic or romantic about this, but that is just because you haven't gotten properly addicted yet.  I am at that part of my journey where my addiction is such that it has begun to get in my own way of progress a bit.  I discovered just how crippling my addiction can be this past weekend.

I've made tremendous progress with my horses this summer, most especially with my gelding Chico.  We are finally, after 10 years together beginning to really cultivate lightness.  There are times when I'm riding him that our partnership is such that all I have to do is breathe or think it and it happens.  I can just turn my hips and he bends his body lightly around my inside leg.  He is lighter in the snaffle than he has ever been.  He is soft in the bosal.  Though I haven't put him back into the bridle yet, I think the transition and results are going to be great.

The problem is, that like all horses, Chico's partnership and softness come and go.  I know in my heart of hearts that this is normal for every horse and rider.   But once you have felt the lightness that is there and possible, the absence of it is almost more than I can bear.  Because I am so addicted to the feel of that lightness, when it leaves, it is almost heartbreaking for me.  It is especially bad on those occasions when the loss of lightness is accompanied by the complete loss of partnership.  It feels like every step in the right direction you have made over the past months has just been wrenched away.

It's those moments when lightness leaves that I can really experience the "downer" of coming off the lightness drug.  This past weekend Chico and I participated in a Cowboy Dressage retreat on the beach in Washington.  While it was our first time to the ocean, Chico and I did participate in a group beach ride a few years ago on a reservoir.  At that time, all that open space and horses loping by in the sand completely cooked his goose.  It was all I could do to keep him underneath me and not racing away into the distant horizon.  I had him in the bosal at that time and the best I could do was ride in a series of small circles that acted like a centrifugal sling shot flinging us down the beach until we were back in the trees again and he felt somewhat more like himself.

While I wasn't expecting anything of that sort on this trip, I bring it up to remind myself of how far we have come from that time.  This time I had Chico in the snaffle.  We were able to lope and play in the sand and the surf with only moments of checking out.  It was while I was trying to work on loping 20 m circles that we had the worse downer time.

The other horses in our group are natural lopers.  Chico is not.  I have to work hard to hold him together in the lope.  He wants to get strung out and he blows out on his circles through his shoulders, drops gait into a terrible bone wrenching trot and then throws his head in the air.  Sounds fun, eh?  Well it feels miserable.  I've been mostly able to contain that mess and keep things soft this year, but with the sand, surf, kites, wind, wide open spaces and everything else, our circles were not perfect and soft at all.  Or at least they didn't feel that way to me.

As I struggled to mold my horse back into an semblance of softness and collection beneath me I really began to struggle as an addict of lightness.  Instead of remembering that this is hard for Chico, how far we have come and remembering to go back to those moments where he feels good I continued to fight and struggle for the lightness that wasn't coming.

What's the adage of the insane, "A lunatic is someone who continues to do the same thing but expects different results"?  Yeah, that was me, getting more and more desperate for the lightness I was craving until I couldn't see the waves, or the sand or anything around me anymore but a red haze of frustration.

While my friend and clinician, Dale,  attempted to cheer me up and said things really had looked pretty good out there I knew that the feel of it wasn't what I had been after and all I could do was concentrate on the lack of lightness that I was craving.  Finally, she sent me off to recoup and refocus and regain a little perspective.

I walked off, breathing deeply as my horse attempted to regain some air after loping circle after circle in that beach sand.  Eventually the haze in my head cleared and suddenly I could hear the waves again.  I looked up at that gorgeous sight of blue sky, white waves and blue ocean and remembered I was lucky to be riding in such a beautiful place.  As Chico and I slowly walked off down the beach I suddenly realized that I was quite a ways away from the other horses; something that wouldn't have happened without a mental breakdown for Chico even 6 months ago.   We were on a section of brand new pristine beach.  The perfect place for a fresh start.

I began to create figures in the sand.  First soft 10 m circles at the walk, then jog, then 20m circles at the free jog, keeping my breathing and cues light with Chico's breathing.  He stayed with me in partnership and lightness.  Before I knew it we were loping circles again.  I'm not going to say they were perfect (I'm waaayy to much of a perfectionist for that!) but they sure were improved.  The lightness and partnership were back.

So what did I learn from that?  I learned that lightness is wonderful and is of course our goal, but when it's not there like we really want it to be it's not the end of the world.  Lightness comes and lightness goes.  Our horses can have off days, get distracted, get sore, or just plain decide today isn't the day.  We cannot ride the horse we had yesterday nor can we punish the horse today for not being what we want him to be tomorrow.  All we can do is ride the horse we have today the way he is today in hopes of what he might be tomorrow.  

If any of you have seen Buck the film you've heard his quote about lightness.  I can't remember exactly how he phrased it, but it was something like this:  If you could get even a glimpse of what I'm talking about, you would spend the rest of your life trying to get a piece of it.  I guess my problem this past weekend is I was trying so hard to get a piece of it, I lost the reason for the journey in the first place.  Instead of waiting for my horse and I to go together I tried to force my horse to come back to me, insisting that he get soft and respond like I wanted him to because I wanted that softness so badly.  What I should have done is stopped everything and gone back to place where it felt good and tried again to get him to come along with me.

Leave it to a druggy to be so anxious for another hit he hurts the ones closest to him.  That's what I was doing to my horse.  I wanted so badly to be one with him that I forgot to be the kind of rider that a horse is going to want to have a partnership with.  Next time I will try to remember that this dance takes two.  It takes a leader and a follower in partnership together.  I'll try to remember to lead not only with lightness, but with grace and dignity that any partner would be proud to be a part of.