To Master Horsemanship, Stay in the Flow

shelleyThanks to Shelley Appleton for this guest blog post.

Appleton is a lecturer at the School of Pharmacy at Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, a dressage rider, and horse training coach.

Read her article on Emotion and Intellect in horsemanship.

Read her article on successful horsemanship learners.

She writes:

Have you ever wondered why you ride horses?

It’s time-consuming, difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous. Even if we compete, the rewards in most horse sports are of little monetary value, nowhere near the compensation of time and effort. But still we do it!

Why? Most of us will say we “enjoy it.” But it can be stressful in so many ways and for so little obvious reward, that it appears to defy the usual things that people are motivated to invest time and effort in.
We are not being crazy.

shelleyWhen we work with a horse we can enter a curious and fascinating conscious state. We become immersed with an energized focus and we experience the wonderfulness of being alive.

This state in the western world is known as “flow.” Concepts similar to flow have been discussed and written about in eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They describe states necessary for spiritual development.

Understanding yourself and your human nature can improve your ability to access flow and, correspondingly improve your horse work. We spend so much time focused on horses that we end up neglecting our own skill development, decision-making abilities, and flow consciousness.

So what is flow?

People experiencing flow commonly describe three characteristics:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment where actions and awareness become one and the little voice inside your head, your self-consciousness, self-doubt etc. is silent.
  • A lack of anxiety about losing control. It is thought that this characteristic is one of the reasons why experiencing flow can be so enjoyable and rewarding. Your worries in life are silent.
  • Altered sense of time. When we are in flow, we have little mental processes available to focus on time Typically, time seems to pass quickly.
Shelley Appleton

Shelley Appleton

But how can understanding flow improve our ability to work with horses?

Three key conditions for experiencing flow:

  • Clear goals. Flow tends to occur when we have purpose and direction. This tends to channel our attention so we can structure the experience. Therefore, people need to have a clear understanding of what they are doing, how to do it, and why they are doing it.
  • Balance between the challenge of the activity and one’s skills. Self-doubt and anxiety increases when the challenge exceeds a rider’s skills. Horses may sense the stress or have learned behaviors that increase their difficulty to be handled. Research shows that support and education can keep a person within their “flow zone.”An excellent way of improving skills, for example, is for an instructor to help improve a rider’s ability on the ground and then progress to riding.
  • Feedback. One needs to be able to “see” the horse’s feedback and accurately evaluate it to know whether to maintain or alter their course of action. Again, education and support can help improve one’s ability to see and interpret feedback from the horse.

Ultimately, experiencing flow is about experiencing the sheer enjoyment of being alive and it happens in the space bounded by boredom and anxiety where there is a balance between your skills and the challenge.

For Lent, can you give up being human for a while?

Our piece on the Death of Natural Horsemanship was one of the most circulated pages ever for BestHorsePractices. It invigorated many lengthy online conversations on the state of today’s horsemanship, which brand of horsemanship is best, and what it all means.

IMG_7228Absent in the conversation, of course, was the other animal in the equation, the horse.

  • What would the horse think of all the scuttlebutt?
  • What would he think of those professing allegiance to one training method or another?

Horses likely don’t see any difference between a Parelli Carrot stick, a Clinton Anderson Handy stick, or a tree branch with a plastic bag tied on the end of it.

They don’t wince over your word selection or accent.

They care less what boots you’re wearing.

They do pay attention to how you use that stick.

They do hear what kind of emotion is put into your words.

They do care how you move in those boots.

In other words, the horses operate more like this: Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:18

rrrYou might consider returning the favor. Put down the books and DVDs, walk away from screen time, be quiet, and watch them.

— Watch them move in the field with herd mates.

— Watch how they behave in confined spaces or around you.

— Watch for their curiosity.

— Watch the micro-movements of their ears, eyes, and how they position their bodies vis a vis you.

Put yourself in their proverbial shoes and stop being human for a while. Or: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. James 1:19

As Dr. Temple Grandin wrote in Humane Livestock Handling:

Troubleshooting animal behavior is easier when you understand how animals think…Some adult humans think almost entirely in words. Their thoughts include very little visual imagery. Animals, however, think only in pictures, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes.

Verbal or word-based thinkers tend to overlook the sensory details that form an animal’s world. This becomes a problem when people handle animals based on their own needs and perceptions rather than on the needs and perceptions of the animals they handle.

rrDr. Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, says we need to distinguish horses as who, not what.

“Who” animals know who they are; they know who their family and friends are. They know their enemies. They make strategic alliances and cope with chronic rivalries…A vivid familiar life is not the domain of humans alone.

The lives of our equine partners is deeper and more complicated than we often appreciate. When we slice and dice their reality into neatly packaged portions, then marinate it in fancy jargon, the result is as removed from realness as a fast food burger from cattle on the range.

Seek knowledge, of course. But don’t forget that your best teacher may be waiting for you out in the paddock or field.

Read more about how research can enlighten your horse work.

Read more about Learning to Connect.

Read more about compassion and intelligence.


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