True Mutuality: Choosing to Ride

I stopped regularly riding my gelding, Spero, a couple years ago. I was using a bitless, treeless set-up with, I thought, pretty good results. We’d spent years riding trails together, and then spent some time in arenas trying to find that elusive connection – or, at least, I was trying. There were always moments when we connected as one, surging up embankments or curving beautifully around corners, or moments where he, not I, set the speed, and I found my rhythm and just let him rip.  There were those shots of energy that seemed to flow up his feet, through his body and mine and out our heads, and plenty of times when I could lay down the reins and we’d move off thought and body alone.

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Riding along the Pitt River, back in the day.

But these moments were few and far between, punctuating a persistent, pervasive hum of discontent that I tried to ignore. Because if I let it grow louder, where would I be? What would I have to admit to? What would I have to change?

When I was honest with myself, I knew he didn’t actually enjoy our rides, at least 80% of the time. And when I was really honest with myself, I knew that I didn’t, either.

For me, being with horses was never supposed to be about control. I had never wanted to just sit there and be obeyed, I had always glorified the fantasy of a horse that truly communicated, one that would be my best friend, that wanted to explore the world with me with courage and curiosity.  But as Spero matured and I fumbled my way along with this green-broke, highly sensitive Arab/Andalusian, I simply couldn’t love our time together if he wasn’t happy.

It took a lot of courage, process, permission, and time to let go of riding. I found myself a structure, a program called Friendship Training, that had the horse owner commit to not riding (in fact, not using any form of coersion or restraint) until the relationship was strong enough that the horse could feel safe. I needed that assurance that I would ride again to truly let go.

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Turns out there’s plenty more to horses than sitting on top of them!

Of course, once I let go of the agenda I’d developed around my horses, nothing would ever be the same again. I was free to question whether horses actually should be ridden at all, biologically speaking, let alone forced to. I came around to believing that, in the right circumstances, riding could be fun for both parties, but that it couldn’t be the basis of my relationship with horses if I wanted them to have any choice in the matter.

Since that time, I’ve done a whole lot of what looks like nothing. I have sat with my horses, taken them for walks on foot, tried some positive-reinforcement training and read and watched everything I could, trying to figure out how I want to be with horses. Once I let go of how I thought it should be, the infinite possibilities were completely overwhelming. I knew I wanted mutuality and choice for my horses. I wanted to have them want to ride, or I decided I wouldn’t ride at all.

I’m not going to talk about the details of what we’ve done, because it’s been a veritable mishmash of technique, feel, intuition, and total f*ckups, with a general curve trending towards closeness and mutual communication. I felt my way through restarting Spero, hoping to redefine riding as a game, a thing he could choose to do or not to do. And while he was receptive to this, I felt the real impetus was still coming from me.

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New digs – 27 acres of pasture and woods!

Yesterday, I was in the enchanted forest with my little herd of 3, in their super-cool new pasture. Since they’ve moved there, I’ve done nothing in terms of “doing”, just explored with them, doled out scratches and cuddles, and worked on my insides – meditating, letting go, and just being.

 Spero can only take so much stillness before something needs to happen, but I was still surprised when he picked up the halter I’d left on the ground and shook it at me. “You want this on?” I asked incredulously.

He dropped it at my feet and stared at me. I obliged, wondering at this horse who, short months ago, would speed-walk away when he saw me approaching with any kind of gear. Suited up, he yawned and looked at me again. He was standing next to a stump, on his preferred side for mounting (the right – too much discomfort associated with the left!). “You want me to…get on?”

Uh huh. Like it was so obvious and I was wasting his time asking all these questions. If horses could roll their eyes…

I stood on the stump, left him on a loose line, and swung up. He didn’t move, protest, or inform me in any way that I was being delusional. Holding the lead rope bunched over his mane, no contact on his face, I said, “Okay, let’s go.”

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Spero earlier that day, exploring with Firefly – can you spot the baby bum?

He eagerly took me around the forest clearing, winding around stumps and trees with simple requests from me, intuitive vocal or body cues. When he got bored of that, he went and poked Amalia, who turned and poked her foal, Firefly, who obliged by taking off into the bush, her mother in hot pursuit. I took a deep breath and let Spero follow, reminding him that I was taller than him up there so could he please not clothesline me under any branches! Touchingly enough, he didn’t, and instead found routes through the brush that left room for me. The three of them showed me their path through the woods, over logs and under cedars, til we emerged in another clearing and stopped for a grass snack.

This was on their time. This was their choice. I wasn’t riding Spero, I was along for a moment in three horses’ day.

When baby Firefly and Mama took off for the usual gallop around the bottom end of the field, I felt my nervousness flare up and slid of Spero before he joined them – his energy had ramped up at the prospect of a run, and I was not feeling ready to ride this out. I unclipped the line, expecting him to explode away from me, but instead he turned to stare at me again. I felt him ask, “aren’t you coming with us?”

“I’ll follow behind. Go ahead!” I assured him, and at that he leaped away to catch up to the others. They rounded the field and slowed at their favourite grazing spot, and turned to watch me making my slow, human way toward them. Spero walked up to greet me in his lovely, affable way, and then he and Amalia grazed while Fly and I flopped down for a nap.

I felt like I’d just been invited to hang with the cool kids, after years of wishing they wanted me with them. Better than that, I felt like I was actually considered a cool kid now, so long as I didn’t do anything, you know, dumb.

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Freestyle equitation! Experimenting with having no control (always ready to hop off if asked to!)

So this is what mutuality feels like, I’m thinking. The word means nothing if you try to make it so. You can fake choice, by teaching or forcing a horse to do the thing you want them to do without protest. It can look good, and it can even be pretty good, but for someone like me the question mark still hovers. Did he really want to do this? Or is he just humoring me?

Rather than my request to ride being granted, I was offered this pleasure out of the blue. It was truly Spero’s choice – and mine, too. And that is a whole new feeling, and a whole new standard to strive for…and believe me – five minutes of riding like that produced more fun, joy, sharing, and communication, than hours of riding on my terms ever has. I have no idea if I’ll ever experience this again, but man. What a trip.

True Mutuality: Choosing to Ride

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20 thoughts on “True Mutuality: Choosing to Ride

  • August 13, 2015 at 7:02 am
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    o-m-g love love love love love. Pure fabulousness. You described so many things perfectly. And gave language to so many nebulous tendrils. AND loved the photos!

    Reply
  • April 4, 2016 at 12:53 pm
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    This is an enlightening description of an ideal partnership. My 8 year old, Rocky, has never been formally ridden. We have had a ground based, liberty relationship for the past 6-1/2 years.
    But the last time my trimmer came, he asked to see if Rocky would accept him on his back. He was certain, with his familiarity with Rocky, and his disposition, that Rocky would not mind. Sure enough, after a mild surprise at the new feeling, Rocky walked around with his passenger with no sign of discomfort, physical or mental.
    I don’t have riding as a goal with Rocky, but maybe it could be a short activity we might agree on at some time in harmony with our ongoing trust based friendship.
    I am very happy to hear that Spero chose this for you and him.

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    • April 5, 2016 at 1:06 am
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      Hey Debbie,

      I love what you describe here with Rocky – sounds like you’ve always known what kind of relationship you want with him, and that he has tons of trust and confidence not just in you but in the people you choose to help you. I also love that riding is not YOUR goal, but that you are considering it because HE might like it! It is beautifully and refreshingly backwards 🙂

      It’s also very cool that he hasn’t ever been coerced into carrying someone and so has no negative connotations with it. While Spero and Amalia still have visceral reaction to triggers that remind them of pain or discomfort around riding, baby Firefly would tack up and haul me to the hills if she had her way about it – because, like Rocky, she has no reason to be afraid.

      Trust-based friendship… I am so glad you and Rocky are out there rocking that together!

      Reply
  • July 9, 2016 at 2:55 pm
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    This story was AMAZING! This is exactly how I want to be with horses, and I’ve been getting closer and closer to it for a while now, but I’m still not quite “there.” I am teaching some other people what I’ve learned so far… but I know I can still get a lot better.

    Thanks so much for sharing! This was so encouraging.

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    • July 14, 2016 at 12:48 pm
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      Thanks for your beautiful comment Stephanie! It’s exactly how I want to be with horses too…and 95% of the time, I’m not quite there. Because it’s circumstantial, momentary, voluntary, spontaneous, and we all have to be there and noticing and willing for it to happen. Really freaking hard to choreograph or plan on…but so long as we all keep remembering what’s possible, I think we can change lives, ours and our horses’ and anyone else willing to be open…

      Reply
  • December 26, 2016 at 2:00 pm
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    Yes, yes, yes! I love this so much. Those moments are such a gift when they are offered freely. I started my mare using positive reinforcement but in that process, although she offered me to mount at liberty and riding her was amazing, I felt the food was a motivating factor and in that we lost the beauty of true connection. I haven’t ridden for sometime and am happy never to again. Thank you for this beautiful reminder of what can come from such a mutual, loving friendship. So beautiful <3

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    • December 28, 2016 at 8:08 pm
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      This is so interesting, Kirsty! I often think that I “should” do more positive reinforcement training with my horses…but for some reason I always lose interest and am never consistent and it turns into a game and then I forget what I’m doing and I never do it the same way again…which doesn’t really work as far as teaching them what I want. I think the treat being the motivator lacks that true spontaneity and connection for me, like you’re talking about here. I have to say, I’ve never heard of someone creating that relationship through treat training, getting to the riding part, having it go well – and then giving it up! That speaks to me of incredible commitment to the feeling, to your own guiding motivators, and your personal connection to your own horse. So thank you right back for THIS beautiful reminder!

      Reply
      • December 26, 2017 at 10:20 am
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        As always you hit home. Thanks.

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  • December 27, 2016 at 6:50 am
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    I remember the soft sand spot in the corner of the arena. It is still a favourite, tell me all your problems, while I sleep in the sun! Profoundness comes from simplicity, not from complexity.

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    • December 28, 2016 at 8:03 pm
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      I was just looking at that picture and reminiscing! So many cuddles were had on that sand pillow… And the harem snooze, with Spero in the captain’s seat and all the mares fanned out in front of him.

      Reply
  • December 29, 2016 at 7:12 am
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    Yes I wants had a mare that used to wait for me to get home and then push on her stall door and rattle the door to get my attention and then look at me like let’s go. We used to take a favorite trail, stop by few friends house see if they wanted to join us and then off to her favorite field of alfalfa to have a little lunch and then back home it was usually a one hour route bareback and she’s the one that initiated it.

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    • December 29, 2016 at 10:10 am
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      That’s a fabulous story, Sharon! Jini has a similar one from childhood, where her Arab mare would interrupt playtime with other kids to insist they go riding. Right. Now. 🙂

      Reply
  • December 6, 2017 at 10:42 am
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    I love your story! Love the idea of real connection without any force.
    But sometimes people and horses dont have the space to do this. My horses, for exemple, live on a 1000 qm paddock. Definitely not enough movement for a horse – but thats the space I have. If I dont ride them they simply cant move enough – what is very unhealthy. I ride treeless and bitless and always the speed the horses ask for. But I ride.
    I have to admit my horses dont really ask to be ridden but they also dont dislike it. On the contrary. They move openly and happy and i can feel how their bodies enjoy the exercise.
    ……maybe one say I will have enough space to keep them the way you keep your horses….

    Reply
    • December 6, 2017 at 1:28 pm
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      Hi Corinna!

      Context is everything! I live with my guys and we have lots of room, they don’t cost much to keep this way and I can go out to them whenever I or they feel like it, so of course this affords us a huge amount of flexibility and takes virtually all of the pressure off me to do anything specific with them.

      I rode treeless and bitless for years, and while riding was a huge part of my life then, it just isn’t that important to me (or the horses) anymore. Now, more often than not, they clearly state “NO!” when I offer them riding opportunities. I also had limited space for them for years and years, so it isn’t lost on me that most horses do not have the daily movement they need.

      So I hear you that it’s important for your horses to move (and get out, and see new things, explore, expand their awareness, learn, etc), and I think it’s great that you can acknowledge that maybe it isn’t their #1 choice, but you are doing your best to make it pleasant for them and noticing that they do get a lot out of it.

      That’s really what it’s all about. Doing the best you can with what you’ve got and what you know, being honest with yourself and your horses, and being open to change if/when it presents itself. So rock on, Corinna! It’s great to have you here.

      Oh, I have also learned to love going on walks with my horses – it’s such a different experience of them and really has taught me so much about our relationships and their preferences. Plus the bonus is, I get that much needed exercise too!

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      • December 7, 2017 at 9:09 am
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        I love your story! Love the idea of real connection without any force.
        But sometimes people and horses dont have the space to do this. My horses, for exemple, live on a 1000 qm paddock. Definitely not enough movement for a horse – but thats the space I have. If I dont ride them they simply cant move enough – what is very unhealthy. I ride treeless and bitless and always the speed the horses ask for. But I ride.
        I have to admit my horses dont really ask to be ridden but they also dont dislike it. On the contrary. They move openly and happy and i can feel how their bodies enjoy the exercise.
        ……maybe one say I will have enough space to keep them the way you keep your horses….

        Reply
  • December 26, 2017 at 1:01 pm
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    I love this piece and it echoes my own journey with my horses. What I found in the midst of what looked like a ‘whole lot of nothing’
    (And yes the **** ups too lol) was that after 20 years of keeping horses I have finally found my own way of being with them and no longer get ‘triggered’ by looking at what friends are doing and feeling inadequate. Now I can look at the relationship I have with my horses and value the authenticity of that above everything. It’s a very peaceful place to be and I was able last night to tell a friend who asked me to go hacking that we would when my horse invited me onto his back ….and that might take a while. But we have all the time in the world?

    Reply
    • December 26, 2017 at 11:24 pm
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      This makes my heart grow a couple sizes. It truly can’t be faked, that shift. I know, I tried to fake it for ages! ? or rather, I am even now still teasing out the strands of dominance conditoning that I find in myself. But I find it more and more peaceful the further I get from all that expectation, don’t you?

      Reply

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