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Your horse, your teacher

March 2019 by Tanja Mitton
A riding coach and NLP master coach and mindset coach with over 25 years of coaching and competition experience, Tanja Mitton conducts clinics throughout Australia and recently published 'It Takes Two To Tango' to help people unlock their own and their horse's potential.

Is there something we can learn from our horses? Absolutely yes! Where do I begin?

Horses teach us so much about ourselves that I constantly refer to them as our ‘personal development coaches’.

Horses have the ability to teach us so much more than just ‘how to ride’, the real question is: ‘Are we ready to learn?’

Let’s start with a simple and common lesson. What do you do when your horse braces (gets heavy or resists)? Do you respond with corrections like flexing, bending, increasing the forwardness, do you decrease the tempo or something else to that extent?

What I am asking is, do you respond by correcting the brace, or do you consider the brace may be a consequence from something deeper?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend today. Jane Reid owns the amazing horse property and equine teaching facility Banyandah. She has come to understand a horse bracing as an ‘invitation to awareness.’

How beautiful is that? It really made me think and I reckon she is spot on.

So let’s explore this a bit further and look at this philosophy in more depth.

‘Brace’ shows up in many ways and can be in the mind or the body, but usually both – a horse becoming unbalanced, nervous and reactive, or being stubborn and uncooperative...

If we just responded to the brace in a mechanical way, we have probably used some kind of pressure-release technique.

But, what if the horse’s behaviour is its way of telling us we have asked for something inappropriately and/or without enough thought?

The horse is suggesting we need to look deeper and beyond the brace (because after all ‘brace’ is just information).

  • Could we make our first response a simple release, rather than add more pressure? A response of further pressure is naturally going to escalate the horse's need to brace.
  • Have we asked the question clearly enough for the horse to understand, and to respond correctly?

As a coach, I see two potential issues that can arise here:

  1. Firstly, many riders block the horse’s movement at exactly the same time as they ask the horse to go forward. This is so common, that riders tip forward onto their pubic bone and tense with the inner thighs, blocking the horse’s shoulders and ribcage at the same time as they use their calves to ask the horse to go forward. Alternatively, riders loose their balance in a transition and, unintentionally, give a little tug on the rein to regain their own balance. This is like driving your car with one foot on the accelerator and one hand on the hand break. We are asking for stop and go at the same time. Conflicting signals! No wonder the horse is bracing.
  2. The second common issue leading to the horse bracing is when we are asking something of the horse that the horse is either mentally or physically not able to perform. This happens a lot when we attempt to do certain exercises and the horse is not balanced and/or strong enough to perform the exercise, or the horse is simply in pain and his/her body is not able do the exercise.

Tension can also happen, for example, when we ask our horses to work in an environment that is totally unfamiliar to them and they are mentally not able to stay focused.

Brace shows up when there is a conflict between what we have asked and the outcome we expect.

So, if we as riders can become aware and make it our mission to identify what the conflict is, whenever the horse is alerting us, then wouldn’t that be a good thing? I am convinced that our horses would be very grateful.

The biggest hurdle most riders face in this situation is the ability to leave their own ego aside and to admit that they might have been at fault and therefore check themselves. 

It takes courage to look at yourself first and this often triggers our emotional issues; “I am not good enough”, “my horse doesn’t love me”, “everyone is judging me”...

Can you see now why I refer to our horses as ‘personal development coaches?’

To improve your riding you can’t avoid working at improving yourself physically as well as mentally.
Our horses are so kind, putting up with us while we are learning, forgiving us when we make mistakes, still loving us even when we occasionally do. Let’s start to repay our debt by giving them the benefit of the doubt when something doesn’t work on first go.

When you encounter ‘brace’, ask questions, seeing it from now on as ‘an invitation to awareness’.

Happy riding everyone!