“If you can get to the instructor clinic tomorrow, I’ll let you ride my horse. I want you to feel something.”
Roma and I had just spent three days at Pat Parelli’s Masterclass in Lincolnshire and my goodness, had stuff happened! The highlight being the twenty minutes we had spent being chased at a full pelt gallop by Pat on Vision, drilling home that ‘go’ means ‘GO’. Not to mention the reverse of that – ‘stop’ means ‘STOP’. Who knew we couldn’t stop either?! We’ve spent so long not really going anywhere, that stopping had never come up as an issue…
“Your problem is that your horse is in charge of stop and go”
Yes, I thought. She is in charge of most things actually. I’m not really sure how to turn that around.
Well, now Pat Parelli was going to let me ride his horse. And I was going to feel the responsiveness that I should feel from my horse, if only she wasn’t so obstinate. And then I was going to go back to her with the expectation that she should respond the same way. Because once I’ve felt it on a properly trained horse, I would know what to expect and everything would fall into place.
What an idiot…
Me, not Pat!
Far too self-assuredly, I said to Pat “Can I be honest with you? I’ve felt it already. Buck Brannaman rode my horse last year and she felt amazing when I rode her afterwards, so I know what it feels like, I just didn’t know how to keep it.”
He looked at me and smiled. “Ok”. And he went back into the café to finish his drink.
SHIT… I should never have mentioned Buck to Pat. I mean there’s bound to be a war there, right? They probably HATE each other. Now he hates me. He is NEVER going to speak to me again. I’ve blown it.
Me, not Pat…
The next day, I drove two hours to the Instructor Clinic, arriving just before lunch, hoping to rebuild the bridge I may have just burned and reminding myself not to mention any other notable horsemen whilst I was there. I tiptoed in softly during the lesson that Pat was giving and perched quietly on a seat at the end of the row in the viewing gallery. The instructors who were seated were concentrating, some of them furiously writing notes, others preferring to soak up every word. There were also about twelve instructors in the arena with horses. Pat spotted me. I smiled and waved nervously, hoping he would still give me some time at the end of the day, but in any case, pleased that I had shown my face and therefore my dedication to progressing my horsemanship.
The session ended.
“Thank you everybody. After lunch, we’re going to start with a lesson. Nicole is going to ride Vision and we’re going to do a little demo for you.”
Oh My God. WHAT?
You idiot, Nicole! Of course you weren’t going to get a private lesson at the end of the day! Why would Pat do that? He wants to use you to illustrate something!
I ordered the lightest thing on the menu at lunch. I was worried I might throw up otherwise. Why, oh why, did I not realise that this was going to be a demo situation?
You would have thought that at this stage I may have had an inkling as to what the objective of the exercise was... I’m an intelligent girl. I have a degree. I run companies. I work stuff out all the time. But to be honest, by the time I’d finished my lunch and had a few laughs with Pat, Neil and Sam, who kindly invited me to join them, I was feeling ok and looking forward to how good this horse was going to make me look. I know Vision. She’s a sweetie. Liz and Sean look great when they ride her. She’s a push button pony, so easy to ride. After all, she came out of Pat’s Dream Horse programme. I couldn’t wait.
Yes, I really am an idiot…
And so, we left the pub and made our way back to the arena.
Western Saddle. Hmmm. Not quite what I’m used to, but I’ve ridden in one before and you could argue that they’re much more comfortable. Hold you in. Great.
On I get. Gentle squeeze. Whoa! Wait! Where are you going? In which direction? What? Where? Why? Oh god what do you mean? I don’t know how to stop! Or how to sit. Or how to move.
Vision and I are both in a panic, blasting about the place, trying to work each other out. I am also trying to hang on to my dignity in front of the thirty professionals who are watching me and in the haze of what is left of my pride, the emotion that starts to well up inside me, and the lack of control I am experiencing, it suddenly becomes clear...
I can’t ride.
I mean, I can stay on, sure. I’ve had a lot of practice at that! I can make it look like I can ride. But I have no idea how to push the buttons on this ‘push button pony’ and turn it into a dance - and really, in the true sense of the meaning of the word, as Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance, Pat Parelli, Buck Brannaman and any other notable horsemen I am now quite happy to mention would understand it… I can’t actually ride!
I am devastated.
Once the frenzy has subsided and we have found our feet a little, Pat sends us off around the arena. But now I am frightened to even touch Vision and I think she may be terrified that I will! I can see the look in her eye. She’s watching me. She doesn’t feel safe. Neither do I.
We get braver. She blows out, so I know she is starting to feel better. That makes me feel better too.
We trot off and change direction and Pat orchestrates some situations in which we start to turn and spin until finally we do end up in a dance of sorts. It’s fun.
Except… Now I can’t get her to go forward.
But she’s so responsive and that’s why we took off before.
I don’t understand.
She has zoned me out. It feels more like riding Roma now…
Oh My God.
And there it was.
I understand now Pat. I understand what you wanted me to feel. I made your horse look like my horse in exactly five minutes. Even she, with such a solid foundation, became so overloaded with sensation that she began to ignore me.
What a harsh, humbling, lesson.
I cried at the end. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help it. It was an emotional beating. I realised that Roma’s ‘issues’ were no longer holding her back from being the horse she was bred to be - those were dealt with a long time ago. It was me. I was doing too much all the time. Even when I thought I was doing nothing, I was doing something. But I wasn’t connected to my horse at all. And it shut her down. There was no partnership.
Wow, that hurt.
So, for the last eight months, I have been teaching myself to do less. This is no mean feat. I’m a ‘doer’. I feel lazy if I’m not doing something. Anything. I can’t even sit at a set of traffic lights without checking my email. Dedication to me means extreme displays of effort. That’s why I have never been good at the ‘undemanding time’ concept – to me it just feels like wasting time. So, I am trying to learn to take this journey moment by moment and really be present in it. I am painstakingly teaching myself to feel for my horse, to ask politely and to really give her a chance to respond. I have also learned then, that when I am truly committed to fairness, who knew “the attitude of justice is effective”?! Guess what? Roma has started to take me seriously!
I have also been lucky enough, since ‘Visiongate’, to have had Pat on the end of the phone if I need to cry or laugh or vent my frustration. And he always brings me back to how to become the horseman my horse needs me to be. In the last eight months, I have learned that I have an incredible horse. Can I be an incredible horseman? That remains to be seen.
Incidentally, I should probably state the obvious and add that it turns out there is no war between Pat and Buck...much like the rest of me, my imagination is overactive! They are friends as well as peers, having both dedicated their lives to the same goal. They do, after all, come from the same ‘family’ of wonderful horsemen, united in “making the world a better place for horses and humans”.
We’re riding with you again next weekend Pat. I hope you see the difference in us. It has been hard for me to find the heart and desire that you talked about, without the physical chaos, but I really believe I am doing it. And of course, the less I do, the more I realise I need to do less. Roma has started to respond to me in a way that she never has before. We are finally having a conversation and it turns out we love talking to each other. I am no longer afraid of her because she is no longer explosive. She believes me when I say so, but she doesn’t take offence these days, because she knows I am listening.
There is still a long way to go, but I think we might be on our way…!
See you on 17th… not least to celebrate your birthday!!!!
Nicole and Roma, Autumn 2016
It’s taken several weeks of stop starting to write this entry. It’s a mammoth subject for most people and one I want to do justice to, whilst I indulge myself in an exploration of my own experiences.
Fear is an interesting thing. A response from the brain to potential danger, it keeps us safe. We need it to survive. It can also, more often than not, be irrational and debilitating. The brain works overtime and creates dangers that may not even exist. We see this in our horses every day. The ones that spook at the shadows…the falling leaves… the goblins in the bushes.
Fear has had many faces in my life. From the terrifying thought of falling over as a child (and actually, off my horse as an adult… but we’ll get to that…!), to the dreaded walk across the darkened car park, keys strategically placed between each finger - knuckle duster style - ready to fight off male predators. I am frightened of being out of balance and out of control. I worry about all the things that could go wrong in every situation. I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone and I like to be close to home. I understand the goblins in the bushes, because I see them too! They are SCARY. That I have a fairly decent level of emotional fitness and a relatively positive outlook on life is both my balance and also my shield to the rest of the world. Nobody has a clue!!
I feel I ought to note at this point, on the theme of my last blog ‘Your horse is the mirror to your soul’, that Roma also has an identical ‘front’. A highly sensitive, hyper-alert and often spooky horse away from home, that shows the world only strength and fight. How interesting…
So, back to topic… What does a person like me do when they have ambitions that frankly scare the crap out of them?! Ponder that for a while as you read on.
We know about Roma… she is argumentative and challenging and also it transpires, incredibly athletic and talented. Who knew?! So when we combine all these elements, it takes one hell of a rider to channel all that energy in the right direction.
This is most definitely our year. We are in such a great place. She is more rideable than ever – willing (this is relative, you understand!!), stronger, fitter, softer. I am more in tune – listening (again, relative – let’s not ask too much too soon!), slower, stronger, fitter, softer. I notice how much I improve each time I ride. She notices too. We have great plans for this year. We have already ridden with Mikey Wazenried and Silke Valentin. Both excellent clinics, where we were challenged and I think, stepped up to the mark. Naturally, Roma continues to make herself the centre of attention at every clinic… I sigh here in mild exasperation. I don’t think this will ever change, but then of course, she is my horse!!
The rest of the year will see us riding with Melanie Smith Taylor, Pat Parelli, Tik Maynard, Wally Gegenschatz and Jean Luc Cornille. And most importantly…cue trumpets…we have made a commitment: To ride our very first one day event.
Oh good god, bring me an inhaler. My airways have literally closed up, simply writing that down!
Because everyone, that is, believe it or not, what I actually want to do. Deep inside this frightened, repressed, over-thinker, is an adrenaline junkie. I know! It’s a conundrum!! I don’t like water slides or roller coasters, but I really want to gallop across several grassy miles and hurl myself over permanent, unforgiving wooden fences. Possibly into water. On a horse that has opinions about everything. Yes, that makes a lot of sense.
There is a philosophy that all fear, regardless of the area of one’s life in which it shows up, amounts to one simple thing – the fear of death. I don’t need this philosophy to explain anything, because it is very simple for me. When I ride Roma, I am occasionally frightened I might die!
What I’ve been exploring recently, is that my fear is rooted in trust. Or the lack of. Is this the same for everyone? I don’t trust that there aren’t any goblins in the bushes! I don’t trust that she won’t freak out at said goblins (as we know, Roma does drama in a big way and it does not feel good!). I don’t trust that she won’t gallop off in fear, leaving me powerless to stop. She is strong when she sets her neck. I don’t trust that I won’t break my bones if I come off over a jump. I don’t trust that I can manage the energy that I feel in her when you combine her steely determination with speed. And whilst I’m so busy keeping myself anxious about all the things that could go wrong, I forget to be in right now. I am paralysed and I can’t go forward.
This originally flagged up for me several months ago when I was taking a riding lesson from my boyfriend. As usual, I was arguing and panicking and arguing some more as he was trying to push me out of my comfort zone and get me to do something – I forget what. I’m not a fun student for him! He maintains that as the instructor, he can see what I’m capable of and would never ask me to do something I cannot do. That I should trust him. I maintain that as the ACTUAL PERSON, I am very aware of what I can and cannot do and that he is putting me under pressure and that I am going to EXPLODE. Of course I don’t trust him – he’s not me, he can’t feel what I feel, so he can’t possibly know! I often fight back tears in these sessions. And I feel a bizarre mix of anxiety and anger which makes me brace in every joint of my body and determine that once I’ve dismounted and am safely on the ground I shall promptly end this relationship, because we are clearly completely wrong for each other! Good. That will solve the problem. I feel better now.
But when we’re finished and I haven’t completed the task because I’ve had such a meltdown, I feel deflated. You see, I want to do the stuff. To jump the jumps, to canter smaller circles faster, etc. But fear paralyses me and then makes me fight. Because in that moment I feel like I am fighting for my life and that I am the only one that can save myself.
Aha! Now I understand my horse...
And so I don’t do any of the stuff and I come away feeling, well, a bit pants really. And then, when my emotions settle, I wish I’d have just gone for it.
So fast forward…. I decide to start pushing my own boundaries. I mean, if I am serious about doing a one day event at the end of this season (get me the inhaler…) then I really ought to try and jump something before we go there. Maybe even a few times!
My monologue concludes – for the moment – with a session with Julia Fairfax. Julia is a practitioner of Vibrational Medicine and has been working with Roma and I for a little while on energy anatomy. Our sessions are always mind blowing, in various ways. She is teaching me to release my fear and she is pushing me hard, knowing my goal. This time (apparently) we were ready for the jumps to come out. Now, we’re only talking a few trot and canter poles and two small jumps, two strides apart, but my heart started to pound hard. It’s been a long time since we jumped and there has never been any consistency, because as we are all well aware by this stage in the piece, I’m scared! Roma’s jump is BIG. It’s what she’s bred for. Whenever I think about it, I find excuses for everything else to take priority. But you can’t go out on a cross country course, having only worked on a nice shoulder in! So, I did it. I took a deep breath and went for it, muttering several expletives and atoning myself of all the sins I could possibly remember committing as I approached the first jump.
WELL!! I could not believe how much she came alive. And it felt so good. BIG. But amazing. My ordinarily indifferent, argumentative horse, suddenly got excited and willing and fun! And FAST! She saw every stride and carried me over every jump. Catching me on the other side, I might add - I am not quite as talented as her! It was literally a point and go situation. I did nothing. What a girl! And I didn’t fall and nothing bad happened and actually by the end, I had relaxed enough that we were in it together.
So I learned some things. Firstly, the problem is me and the fear is irrational. I could have come off several times but she didn’t let me. When I say she caught me, I mean it. I was mostly behind the movement and she waited for me to catch up each time. Secondly, trust myself that I can do it, because I did. Thirdly, trust her that she will deliver, because she will. And so there is nothing to fear and it all just comes together, naturally. Zero brace.
To leave you with a summation of all of this… the first year I met Tik Maynard, I remember asking him about his training techniques. I am a big fan of Tik’s horsemanship. I love watching him work with a horse. He just looks like he’s having a great time all the time and his horses do too. They’re all surf dudes! As relaxed and easy going as he is. Anyhow, when I asked him to dissect his methods for me to study in detail, he looked at me and said “I just expect it”. That was all.
Fear is a feeling, but so is the opposite of fear, whatever that is. Confidence, maybe. You just expect it and then it happens. You see it in your mind and it manifests as your reality, just like the goblins! Simple.
Until next time, Nicole
Nicole and Roma at the Silke Valentin clinic, February 2016.
Part 1 – Your Horse is the Mirror to your Soul…
So I’ve been pondering how to start writing this first entry for quite a while, since we decided that blogging on the OE website was a great idea. In that time I’ve had a few (quite a few!) profound moments with Roma and thought “This is it. This is most definitely the point at which I should begin my ‘Roma blog’”, but somehow I never quite get to it. How do I even begin to write about this incredible, frustrating and by default painfully self-reflecting journey?! So tonight (at thirty seven minutes past midnight), I decided to just do it and see what happens.
The truth is, I’m glad for the opportunity. I feel like this journey should be documented, even if only for myself, to mark the milestones, remind myself of where we’ve come from and maybe reminisce when one day she leaves me, as is the fate of every horse owner. But if I have the opportunity to share it, then not only may it make entertaining reading at times, but perhaps it will also encourage those of you who are also struggling with the psychology of these amazing creatures and your training philosophy, because Roma has been and continues to be the biggest challenge of my life to date. More so than marriage. More so than divorce! Harder than being a parent, if you can believe that. The thing is, this horse and I are so fundamentally linked, that I can’t even begin to understand it myself. We were meant to be, there’s no question. No other horses interest me and no other humans interest her (well, except my six year old daughter, whom she adores). And yet, I just don’t get her. Or do I…?
I decided on the title of this first entry several weeks ago when Roma and I hit deadlock and suddenly something massive shifted…
We entered the arena as usual, on a long line, with lots of creative ideas about what we were going to achieve today (think Pignon brothers – I’m ever the dreamer and always overly ambitious!). The ideas of course, were mine and I was full of enthusiasm, as usual. Roma looked pretty uncommitted. As usual. I did some hind and front end yields. As usual. Because this is of course what you do at the beginning of a session. And then I asked her to start trotting. As usual. Because that is of course the next thing to do. (I do find I have a problem getting stuck in patterns. There’s a safety in them that attracts me). Roma throughout this process is looking less than excited…. As usual. Then, because she wasn’t responding as I had intended (very un-Pignon like), I increased the pressure, as usual, and as usual, she squealed and bucked and went forward for…..a bit… And then of course we repeated the pattern several times until, as usual, she seized her opportunity, pulled away and galloped to the other side of the arena. (Amazing how fast she can move when the idea is hers!)
And so, I reached into my bag of horsemanship tools to use in this situation, pulled out a different one from the last time, although still relatively usual (let’s not shake it up too much) and we chased each other around for far too long in this bizarre and frustrating game of catch, every now and again resuming positons and playing out the same scene until, quite unusually, we both stopped dead at once. Both of us out of breath and out of ideas, we stood facing each other around thirty feet apart and locked eyes. Neither of us dared move a muscle because something happened in that moment that I can’t explain, but I was suddenly so overwhelmed with emotion that I began to cry. And although I’m sure that exasperation played its part in this eruption, what in fact really got me was that in that fraction of a second, we finally connected and I understood everything. This horse is me. I am her. We are the same.
Oh God. Now, this is a tough pill for me to swallow because Roma is really quite angry. I adore this animal, but people, she’s not fun to ride and she’s not fun to play with. She questions everything I ask of her. Not in a good way either. I mean, we’re talking really argumentative. And when she does do as I ask, she’s usually trying to bite me simultaneously, or tossing her head – just to let me know she’s not really into it, or throwing in the occasional defiant buck! Those of you who saw her with Buck Brannaman, or have seen her with me at other clinics will know what I’m talking about. And believe me; what you’ve seen is nothing. It’s taken me years of patience, gentle coercion and the occasional surge of assertiveness, to get her to a place where she doesn’t just want to kick or throw me into oblivion. The fact that I can actually ride her and that she will actually go somewhere is, as anyone who knew Roma once upon a time will tell you, quite frankly a gobstopper of an achievement. These days, by comparison, she’s simply writing a sensibly worded complaint letter to ‘Points of View’.
I did ask Buck, back in June what he meant when he famously said “your horse is the mirror to your soul”, and he wouldn’t give me an answer. I think he knew that I needed to find it for myself. Because he rode her for three days straight and during that time he probably understood me better than I did myself just then, because in my horse he had a window to my soul. And he knew, from looking through that window, that you can’t tell me - just like you can’t tell my horse. Because not only am I really quite defiant, but I’m also extremely sensitive. And that’s a tricky combination! It’s probably best to let me just work it out in my own time and then we’ll still be friends… Wow.
So Roma and I stood there for nearly twenty minutes, not moving, breathing getting steadier, eyes still locked, letting it really sink in. And when it did, she dropped her head and blew out in a giant release. Thank the lord, she said. That only took you eight years.
Where do we go from here...? I’m not sure yet, but I’m working on it and I promise to keep sharing…
Roma and Buck, Merrist Wood College, June 2015