Horses are creatures of power, gracefulness and dignity. When carrying a special kind of person, horses are able to sense it. ‘Special’ does not necessarily mean that these riders have special needs or disabilities. Rather, ‘special’ means having a special connection with the horse. This connection may well result from human qualities that develop while learning to cope with significant challenges.
History of Horsemanship in Britain. Human/horse bonding was fundamental to early horsemen in Britain. Communities were small and isolated. Horsemen were the major contributors to information from outside, to trade, and to defense — important factors in community well-being. What kind of people were these horsemen, and why?
Initially, membership in what would eventually become knighthood was based not on specific deeds, or genetic heritage, but was based on the personal qualities demonstrated by horsemen voluntarily serving small communities. Such qualities included awareness of their own weaknesses and strengths, and thus humility combined with proud inner presence, leading to clear outer actions which matched inner values, and the inner strength to remain serene, light-hearted, and gentle during times of turmoil. Their top priority was to nurture each other and the community, unpretentiously and unconditionally.
Today, special riders are special people, who continually aspire to these highly valued qualities.
The Qualities of the Knight.*
1 Consistency: Society often perceives consistency as always doing things the same way; the connected rider consistently does what needs to be done now. This is what a horse does! This important human ability to react to the reality of the moment is guided by sensitivity to both horse and self, even if this action departs from tradition or the Coach’s prescription. (Of course, the Coach can always ask later for discussion of why the rider chose to be creative. It is not a matter of anything goes!)
2 Clarity: ‘Special’ riders do not act only on an external agenda (e.g. ‘make’ the horse go on the bit) but rather take action tempered by clarity – clear perception – of the readiness of horse and rider to perform the task. Clarity in a rider is related to their authenticity – the degree of match between their society-influenced outer persona (ego), and the hidden inner being. Special riders tend to be especially authentic. Horses are totally authentic. Horses appreciate authentic riders because they don’t send so many mixed messages!
3 Profound/Playful: In the deep and dark of the profound lie not only powerful insights into the path to well-being, but also the dangers of darkness, the unknown, and the sinister. The special rider, like the horse, has learned to balance the profound with joy, lightness and humor. Without such playfulness, a person becomes introverted, and dark anxiety, frustration and isolation take hold. Balancing the profound with outgoing lightness is an art that leads to cheerful patience – a quality horses appreciate and competitive riders tend to restrict. In a rider, profound desire to make progress, or worse, to win, will cause tension, loss of connection with the horse, and slow progress! Lighten up!
4 Power and Energy: To be authentic, and connect with clarity, the rider must honestly recognize and confess to (and laugh about) both strengths and limitations, arising from the rider’s level of ability, knowledge or experience. Efforts to dominate the horse through equipment, strength, fear or pain will quickly fail. However, a horse will happily share his tremendous power, if the rider is centered, grounded, has clear intent, and cheerful patience. Such a connection with the horse empowers the rider with amazing confidence, sense of well-being and joy.
5 Modesty: Modesty has nothing to do with being inferior, with formal politeness or hiding your strengths with false words. (Even confession of limitations is a strength!) The horse needs to know who the rider really is and what to expect. Modesty is humility coupled with confident inner presence.
6 Stillness: The stillness of a special rider is not a state of doing nothing. Stillness is the ability to achieve equanimity even in the midst of life’s storms. People living with a disability get lots of storms to ride out! Stillness is an enduring inner peace that cannot be washed away, no matter how big the waves. Check out the horse here!
7 Courage: This does not mean fool-hardy, or taking stupid risks like street racing, hazing with dangerous initiation challenges, or risking your safety just to prove you have the guts to do whatever ‘it’ may be. Courage is the ability to overcome fear in order to uphold your values.
Fear is a natural defense, a warning of potential threats to security. Riders should be cautious if fear emerges and courage begins to fade. Take stock of the values in play! “Is it ego making me want to win and go higher? Is it a personal grudge against someone who beat me before? Could going higher injure me, my horse or our relationship? Perhaps I should withdraw just now, and prepare more thoroughly for the next time?” Courage vs. fool-hardy depends on the values involved.
8 Joy: Joy is not what you may get from partying with drugs or alcohol in excess, or even just being invited by the in-crowd. The joy of a special rider comes from the inner strength to ride out the waves, laugh, and be gentle, and to pass these on to others, horse or human.
9 Devotion: This does not mean lavishing human expressions of affection on the horse, or buying mountains of tack. Devotion is not hiring professionals to care for and prepare a horse for you to win on. But neither does devotion mean being selfless, and letting the horse control your life. Devotion goes both ways, as horse and rider nourish each other unpretentiously and unconditionally. No debt is incurred. There is no concern over ‘what’s in it for me?’ Horses ‘bond’ as radically as this! Could we? If the conditions for devotion are not met, then the horse will withdraw and become unresponsive, and in time, even become ‘get off my back’ aggressive.
10 Resoluteness: Here, as for courage, it is not only the quality ‘resolute’ that is important; it is what you are resolute about! The special rider is resolute about working towards achieving the previous nine personal qualities! Such a rider feels more ‘at one’ with the horse and is inspired to go back to the beginning, and continue around and around the personal quality loop.
This circular process lasts a lifetime. In the process, you gain not only horse skills, but also life skills and many loyal friends of both species.
I propose a round of applause for all special riders and their special connection with horses! These are special people. Carol Miller, Therapeutic Riding Instructor, Willowbank Equestrian Center
* From ”On the Path to Knighthood” in ‘What Horses Reveal: From First Meeting to Friend for Life’ by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling. Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2004.
Dressage is the French word for ‘training’. However, ‘training’ may be interpreted in two ways. The first is ‘equipping the horse with the skills needed for a specific purpose’ (e.g. pleasure riding, hunting, jumping, driving, plowing, logging, military/police mounts). The second is ‘developing the full potential of the horse.’ Incorporated in this second goal may be the intent ‘to achieve the same quality of movement under a rider, as demonstrated by the horse while completely free’. Dressage fits in the second, more general category. In practice, the two perspectives link together.
The benefits of dressage, or ‘flat work’, are recognized and used in disciplines that are more specific. (Ian Miller warms up his show jumpers with dressage!)
At Willowbank, we attempt to apply a time-tested ‘dressage’ methodology for developing the potential of the horse, faithful to the principles of gentle, light communication between horse and rider. There is always room for adjustments, our programs are developed in response to the horse or the horse-rider combination. The overall system can easily accommodate groundwork from equine agility training, techniques from Centered Riding TM and current ‘natural’ horsemanship, and techniques from mental health practitioners to promote healthy horse/human relationship.
Willowbank uses the Para equestrian development system of video and professionally judged dressage tests, from time to time. But the goal of dressage should not be winning, but helping both self and horse to express their potential in body, mind, and spirit. This documents progress and motivates further effort. A rider ‘competes’ only with him/herself.
Willowbank is concerned simply with the well-being of horses and riders, and the contribution horses make to human well-being.
This is Willowbank’s most unique contribution to horse/human therapy. It draws on Carol’s combination of training in medical molecular biology, dressage, and therapeutic riding, as well as life experiences.
Stress is currently a major issue in human health. The increasingly fast pace of society challenges our natural energy systems, although we are often not even aware of what is going on. This is because energy is managed by the midbrain and autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the system we have in common with horses. Reasoning and conscious awareness (human forebrain activities) are not required.
Basis body functions like breathing, heartbeat, digestion and movement all require energy, but they cannot all go full tilt all the time. Our bodies are equipped with two independent autonomic (ANS or spontaneous) energy systems. The first, a lower energy (parasympathetic or ‘routine’) system manages production of energy, and organ distribution of energy, as needed to support basic organ functions and the routine activities of life. This lower- energy system also feeds the body’s maintenance systems for growth, repair, and restoration of energy reserves.
The second autonomic (ANS) energy system (sympathetic or ‘emergency’) kicks in when stressful situations stimulate adrenaline production (and related hormonal etc. responses). The ‘routine’ energy system is shut down, but overall energy production is pumped up. This new energy is directed mostly to the specific organs, muscles and emotions involved in dealing with the stress. This emergency high energy ‘state of being’ takes over until the stress is somehow significantly reduced.
This worked fairly well when we humans were hunter/gatherers. The hunt only lasted an hour or two, until dinner was captured or the prey escaped, or the tables were reversed and we were the unlucky prey. However, the stressors of modern society are prolonged and often repeated. Our bodies are not equipped to keep on producing energy at this high level. Bits of our bodies begin to burn out.
How do we intentionally shut down the emergency response, so our ‘routine’ energy system can check back in, restore emotional balance, and get our body humming along happily again?
Biologically, the essential change is to regain control of the adrenaline production that triggered the high-energy response. This is exactly what happens while just sitting, relaxed and centered, on the back of a happy, healthy horse. As the horse walks (with a leader), waves of energy from the powerful hind legs of the horse, nudge the horse’s vertebrae forward and upward, in sequence. After a nudge , the vertebra springs back due to the elastic connections between vertebrae, and is ready for the next wave of energy.
You, the rider, are sitting on these waves of movement. Actually, you are sitting on two bumps (seat bones) on your pelvic girdle, which press gently around the horse’s spine. (Sit up straight on a hard chair and you will feel your seat bones!) Your seat bones, one after the other, get repeatedly pushed forward and up by the horse’s vertebral column. However, your pelvic girdle is tied to your spine at the sacroiliac . As each pulse of energy comes from the horse’s spine into yours, your vertebrae wobble, one after the other, all the way up to the top of your neck. This wave of wobbles moves all the ANS nerve centers (spinal ganglia) located on both right and left sides of each vertebra. Your entire autonomic system is stimulated, but YOU are not doing it –the horse is! YOU are just sitting, relaxed and passive. Your body is almost adrenaline free . Your high-energy emergency system gets the ‘Adrenaline? All clear’ signal, and your ‘routine’ energy system is able to check back in.
As the energy shift takes place, a few people have experienced a short (20-60 second) period when tears appear, or you become flushed, or feel vulnerable. These are body language for past experience of sorrow, anger, or fear respectively, and represent release from emotional stress. You will be rewarded with a wonderful sense of well-being. It may take several sessions for the results to become palpable. In time, your emotional state will start to shift – from anxiety to confidence, from frustration to contentment, from isolated to connected. Knots in muscles will loosen, and you will become more comfortable and relaxed. Your energy reserves will be restored and your body will begin to repair itself.
For centuries, people have noticed that riding a horse makes you feel good.
There are other examples with similar biology. A child in a papoose, swinging from a branch in a breeze, is happy. The child does nothing, and therefore produces very little adrenaline, releasing the high energy stress response, and rhythmic swinging stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in the child’s back and restores serenity. A child, close to mother, being rhythmically patted on the back, belches, and feels better as the ANS is stimulated and reaches the digestive system. Rhythmic walking is a well-known relaxant. Walking makes waves of motion travel up the vertebrae, again stimulating the ANS and restoring routine energy management.
Two things are necessary for the stress release effect. First, the stressed person must be relatively passive – doing as little as possible. Second, the vertebrae must be subjected to waves of rhythmically repeated movement, started at the base of the spine. While walking, the stress conscious person is doing something – walking. Some adrenaline, some neurological signals to walk, are still present and the stress release is less powerful. Sitting passively on a horse, you are subjected to relaxing waves of rhythmically repeated movements , resulting in a relaxing, stress releasing experience.