Remember riding when you were a kid? We climbed on top from a gate or a truck bumper. No bridle, no saddle, no worries. Remember the way the sun felt on our shoulders? If it was hot enough, there was a thin layer of sweat between our horse and our cut-offs–intermingled sweat. We didn’t take lessons, we were free. In our mind’s eye, when we look down, we see our tan legs against his flank and sometimes our colors ran together. We were chestnut tan from the sun; we were dirty bay at the end of the day. It was fun and wild and we didn’t always make it back for lunch. We were fearless.

May I break in on this idyllic memory for a moment? There are a few reasons it went so well; first off, we didn’t fight. Most of us had no steering and didn’t care; if our horse didn’t go where we wanted, we went where he wanted. The plan was to ride; that was good enough. If we were still on an hour or two later, it was a great ride. If we had to get off and lead our horse, that was good, too. It was summer. We had very low expectations and no thought of controlling anything.

As adults, we get to the mounting block carrying a mental load that weighs four times what we do. And those are just the day-to-day stresses: time, money, relationships. We bring a list of things to do, but we don’t exactly remember what’s on the list. Still we hold on. Most of all, we are on a time schedule. Maybe there is a show coming, or we have another appointment, but usually it’s because we are in a hurry all the time and it’s a habit now. All of this, and we aren’t in the saddle yet.

The biggest killer of the long-lost kid-ride? We worry about how we ride, how we look, how our horse looks; even if we don’t compete we judge it all–usually harsher than a trainer or judge would. We have self-doubt. Sometimes it’s just a feeling; a sticky green nonspecific frustration with a red ric-rak fringe of impatience. It doesn’t look good on anyone.

In truth, I don’t know if our childhood rides were actually all that blissful. I doubt it. I do know that we’re more self-conscious now, and thoughts, worries, and anxieties get in our way. Maybe if we heard our thoughts in someone else’s voice, they’d sound silly, but inside our heads, they seem sacred and true, and a bit more so each time we repeat them. Our favorite jab–we wish we rode like we did as kids. Even if we didn’t actually ride as kids, we still have that fantasy.

So, we grew up and got self-conscious–feeling an over-sized awareness that included uncomfortable emotions like embarrassment and nervousness. Self-consciousness comes with judgement. Humility is good, but if our confidence suffers, so does our leadership. Then we sit on our horse’s back talking to ourselves about our horse and his problems. We leave him out of the conversation entirely. Meanwhile our horse is out there in the real world looking for some help.

We can’t become childlike again. Our hormones see to that. And frankly, riding like we did when we were kids was dangerous and if we keep doing that indefinitely, our guardian angels will give up on us.

Maybe the closest we could get to being childlike again is to replace self-conscious thought with self-aware thought. Less judgement and more openness. It means experiencing the world through our senses instead of our intellect. It’s closer to how kids and horses do it.

Here is where your riding instructor should sound like a yoga teacher. The first step is the hardest: to let our brain rest and open our senses to listen and feel. Breathe. Then be aware of your breath. Count an inhale, 1-2-3. Feel your body soften. Exhale, 1-2-3. Feel his strides under you lifting your sit-bones one at a time.
“Is he forward enough? Why is he fighting my contact?”
Yes, that’s the voice of the self-conscious judging part of your brain. This is important: be kind with yourself. If you judge yourself for having a thought; if you feel like you need a whip and spurs to push those thoughts out of your mind, then start over. Be gentle with yourself, excuse those thoughts with a breeze of a breath. When they come back again in a few seconds–no problem. Breathe them away again and replace those thoughts with the feel of his barrel relaxing. 1-2-3, soften your jaw. Feel your horse follow suit.
(Yes, I am aware that this is my two millionth post on breathing, cleverly disguised. But I mean it, there is nothing more important.)
Every time you breeze-away a thought, know that you’re being lifted and held in a sacred place. Be grateful. You can keep your adult insecurities; be critical and doubting out of the saddle if you need to, but for these few mounted moments, let go. Let your ribs expand, soften your belly, be aware but thought-less.
It’s about then, in a connected moment, that you feel his stiff shoulder. All horses have them, but this time you feel it small and without judgement. You let your leg warm that shoulder while you count your breath 1-2-3, and give him time. He isn’t pretending and this is an opportunity for hear him with physical kindness. The same kindness that you’ve shown yourself.
And with a breath, you excuse this good thought as well. 1-2-3, and in this discipline of breath and mind, there is freedom from reaction and judgement.
There you are, riding like a kid. Easy as 1-2-3.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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