There is nothing quite like talking about horses and being around horse accessories all day long for days in a row to grow the yearning to actually be with a horse towards a raging storm within. I cope with this in different ways, including sitting in saddles interspersed with jumping up and down and luckily over a four day show I don't end up shutting down. What becomes more apparent to me is the future vision that we will be demonstrating Bitless riding at expos and that doesn't seem far away at all.
This show has been successful in sales and connections as well as education. I had read about the presenters and since we are limited in how much time we can be away from our stand I had decided to focus on watching Chris Irwin. The first presentation I got to see was on Friday and it brought me to tears. Granted it is very easy to bring me to tears, both of happiness and grief. These were happy tears as I heard a clinician speaking to a huge audience about the biomechanics and nervous system of the horse. He confirmed that when we turn a horse's neck against the bend of the spine, we are breaking the nervous system and consequently the back, in half. He talked about the kind of stress this induces in an already maxed out system. Then we as an audience watched horses transform as the riders changed their bodies and diagonals to match the horse's counterbend around the outside of the arena. Their rhythm slowed, their heads leveled out, their rider's began to relax and slowly here and there the horse would offer true bend, sometimes for a stride sometimes for a whole corner. The idea was presented that we as riders can fascilitate trust and relaxation through riding the horse where they are in the bend they present. A corner becomes a leg yield in counterbend. The leg on the rail becomes the inside leg in counterbend. The correct diagonal is whatever diagonal follows the bend from moment to moment. Here was someone reiterating one of the most profound understandings in my career. Beautiful confirmation and synchronicity.
As I review my riding career I realize that I have worked in counterbend quite a bit. These exercises are not new to me but the understanding of why and when is what has changed for me. I see now that the exercises do not necessarily make a better athlete, in fact forcing those exercises is actually damaging. Instead it is our leadership that fascilitates the movement from moment to moment that best aligns the horse's spine under our seat. From there the horse trusts and surrenders their fear. They become a partner. Whew! That is moving enough to bring me to tears.
Later I watched Chris Irwin again, this time in a small demo ring, simultaneously lecturing about emotional intelligence and leadership skills in humans while working with a horse he had not met. This was a long informative lecture and I came away with many things. One highlight was the idea that controlling a horse from the head is inherently predatory, while working with their body is shepherding. What this looked like: the horse would look away towards the audience or out the door and instead of bringing the horse back to him with the lead rope he instead yielded the shoulders and the ribs (which had come towards Chris as the head went away) consequently bringing the head back. This was pretty interesting to me. He pointed out that correcting the passive movement of the horse's head looking away with an aggressive pulling, while simultaneously ignoring the horse's body coming into your space which is aggressive, you are compounding your leadership problems, while becoming more and more aggressive. Wow! I do that, especially with my own horses. Even as I watched the horse settle, becoming ever softer and ever more connected I could see the incongruencies that my horses had been responding to in me. And why there is a missing trust.
The next day I watched another session where Chris worked with a Lusitano gelding and charmed an entire audience. I laugh because he sounds like a new age speaker, relating lofty ideas and cliches while grounding them in practical application. His application is horses but he is reaching deeper into the psyche of humanity, showing how we can make fundamental changes in our own way of thinking. Meanwhile he says things like, I don't want a natural horse, I want a supernatural horse. And everyone in the audience breathes as one. They get it and the energy is electric. In that session he talked about how he had finally realized in his 40's that he as a trainer had been fixing the things that he was inadvertently causing with his own body language. Then he demonstrated the body language that caused the problems and the body language that doesn't cause problems to begin with. And the horse would bow to him. It was profound and I still smile because he knew it. I remember wishing that he had spoken even for just a moment about the women who had brought that gelding in the ring to begin with. It was obvious that the horse was bonded to her and calm in her presence. It wasn't until Chris demonstrated aggressive body language that I realized how sensitive that horse was. I later got to speak with her and express my appreciation for her prior work with the horse. She had bred him and said that he was born with spirit through the roof. His name is Helix and her name is Laurie Burnley of Wildwood Farm.
I look forward so much to applying these new insights at home and have been practicing them with people here at the show. It is such a gift to be here. Thank you universe!