“Begin at the beginning,” I whisper to myself and the trees- poised in awareness of this moment touching my skin. Words settle like falling leaves in my mind: “See her with new eyes...
Meet her again for the first time. Let her meet you again for the first time” Liberation from limitations. The perfect little boxes I fear and treasure - the ones with expectations scribbled in black on their sides - forgotten. What is left? The rich dark soil of curiosity and a desire to belong. Here, something can grow; something living that could bear friendship. Something that carries a firebird in its boughs with a song to remind me that our dance must end at the peak of its light today to be reborn in tomorrow’s ashes. As she notices my approach, a thought warms me like a hug “I love those eyes.”
I wonder if it was mine or hers or a mutual reflected affection for each other. “Who are you today?” I murmur.
The air moves, picking the words off my lips and carrying the offering to her. She lifts her head and frames my question between her pricked ears. The wind brings her answer back to me, “Who are you today?”. The expectant part of me sits back and quiets, there is an internal pause.
A sigh seems to make my insides more spacious as we hold each other’s gaze. Time stretches out like an empty canvas, waiting for my decision... “Let’s find out.”
She starts to move, picking her way delicately across the space between us.
I wrote this poem a couple of years ago in an attempt to put into words the feeling I had within myself on the days when the training with my horses really felt like an effortless dance. Not all days felt like this, and because of this, I wanted to put the feeling on paper so that I had something tangible to reach out to and reread when I got lost and couldn't find my way to to that beautiful state that seemed to be the key to unlocking that magical synergy.
The biggest roadblock I have encountered in my journey with horses is when I meet them with an expectation and agenda. Having a rigid agenda disconnects me from my horse's current needs. It makes my timing inaccurate, and it blocks my creative thinking. This doesn't mean I don't make training plans or have goals I would like to fulfill. But these plans should never become more important than the horse, their needs that day, and their experience of the time spent with me.
To counteract the inevitable "expectation residue" that builds up as we plan and progress, I like to practice the concept of a "Beginner's Mind" - Each time I go out to meet one of my horses and invite them to train with me, I think about how I would be if I were meeting them for the first time. I make an effort to offer them each activity with the same curiosity and openness that I would the first time I presented the request to them. I try my best not to make assumptions about how they should or should not be and instead just respond to the reality of who they are today.
Every day I go out with my compass set on harmony, understanding, softness, light-heartedness, and enthusiastic willingness. I check if each step together resonates with these qualities. I follow the steps organically until I feel the place where things do not quite match, where there is a note that is not quite in harmony, and that is where I allow the space of learning and growth to open up. I pause on that step, break it down a little more, work together with my horse until we unearth the qualities in that particular step. That is the place where we puzzle-solve together, discover new things, and deepen our relationship. When we reach a breakthrough, we can end the session and celebrate, wherever that moment may be, without judging if it was a "better" or "worse" moment to end compared to other days.
In this way, I can give my horse space to be whoever they are today and meet their needs to the best of my ability. I also give myself the space to be whoever I am that day and let go of any labels, agendas, expectations, or limiting belief systems I have about myself, my horse, or our relationship. I can give the relationship space to breathe and time to grow while at the same time building the qualities of my compass in all our activities together.
Some days we might be strangers who need to introduce each other in the field for the first time. On other days we might find ourselves floating along in some beautiful ridden dressage movements. Every day we will have the opportunity to see a new aspect of ourselves and our horse, learn new tools, and experience new outcomes. I find that this balances structure and creativity, safety and spontaneity, planning and progress with presence and attunement. It can be a challenge for our human ego - we do love our little boxes, labels, goals, and visibly measurable progress. But, personally, I find it to be a relief to have the freedom to trust the process, trust my horse, trust myself, and allow the training to evolve in an organic way.
This also doesn't mean that I go into the arena with no plan or understanding of what, why, and how I am going to teach my horse an activity. Quite the opposite! I need to deeply understand each step that I am going to be asking for and also know what the next steps could be. I need to take the time to learn how and why I ask for every movement and exactly what quality I am searching for to be crystal clear, consistent, and congruent for my horse and to avoid harming their bodies and minds with the activities I ask them to participate in. I make notes on what worked and what didn't so that I don't need to repeat mistakes at the expense of my horse's felt sense of safety and confidence. I start with the end in mind but appreciate every tiny step that my horse offers in the direction of this end goal.
I choose not to go blindly into this, as that would be entirely unfair to my horse - it is not their idea to train with me, and it is not their purpose or obligation to do or be anything other than a horse. So I study and plan responsibly to be able to show up as the best partner I can be for them today, but I make sure never to make my plans or expectations a higher priority than the horse that stands in front of me on the day.