Movement is for Everyone

I love to watch life in motion!

“Nothing is more revealing than movement.” Martha Graham

 

Movement fascinates me.

It always has.

“Movement practice gets all your creative juices flowing. It doesn’t just release your body, but it opens up your heart and empties out your mind as well.”  Gabrielle Roth

My fascination runs deepest when it comes to how movement is shared. How do flocks of birds, herds of horses and schools of fish seamlessly flow together with such harmony? How do we recreate such harmony when we make a conscious choice to share movement with another person or a horse?

 

Where does shared movement come from?

Sometimes we move together randomly: pushing, shoving, wrestling, in conflict or play.

 

 

Sometimes we move together in harmony, sharing movement that is fluid, graceful, consensual and healing. When we really connect and flow with another being it drops us into present moment awareness. The kind of deeply meditative state we enter into when we move consciously heals mind, body and Spirit.

 

Efficient, sustainable movement is key to our health and well being. The more a body moves the better it feels. The better a body feels the more freedom we have to explore and live a full life!

“Healing is movement. Disease is inertia. If you put the body in motion, you will change.” Gabrielle Roth

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My fascination with movement has sent me down many paths. First with BioSomatic Movement Education which pulled me out of pain and dysfunction, making me more flexible and pain free in my 30’s than my 20’s!

“Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, mental and emotional states.”  Carol Welch more about BioSomatic Movement Education

Some years later I found dance, Tango in particular, and discovered whole worlds of movement possibilities I had never considered. Not least, what it meant to move in partnership with someone else. That changed my life!

“Dance is unspoken communication and can be even more profound than language. The simple act of standing shares a glimpse of what we have to give, what we exude to define our presence, what we let go of to be receptive. The tango embrace is a representation of who we are and what we communicate in every moment.”

Faith Green

spring showcase tango

Most recently I found Parkour.

What is Parkour, you might ask? Most people who know about Parkour have images in their minds of crazy young people leaping off of buildings and doing back flips off park railings. And if you go looking for Parkour that is likely what you’ll find. But at its heart, Parkour is about building community and supporting people of all ages and all levels to get out and move. Movement is for everyone. Healthy, sustainable, efficient movement that is relevant to life. Parkour fundamentals focus on balance, coordination and strength in an environment that encourages you to think creatively.

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I’ve only been training for a few months now. Steve and I walked into a gym full of teen and preteen boys, the only nearly 50 year olds in the place! I expected to feel uncomfortable or get some sideways glances but down to every single person in the gym we got nothing but support and enthusiasm. From the first lesson, I learned things about myself and my body that nothing I’ve done to date could have prepared me for. I walked away on rubbery legs thinking my knees are never going to be able to do this!

To my great delight and surprise, my knees are stronger than they’ve ever been and pain free. I climbed a ladder to the top of my haystack last week. Something I used to dread doing because it hurt my knees so much. Pain free! I went hiking in rugged terrain that would normally bother my knees. Pain free! And I found my mind and body were keen, making use of momentum and planning my route without any conscious thought. Everything in my life from dancing to trimming horse’s feet to riding to ground work has become easier as a result of the skills I’m developing in Parkour. I still can’t do half of what we’re being trained to do but I’m encouraged to do what I can and cheered on by some amazing people!

“The mind, when housed within a healthful body, possess a glorius sense of power.”  Joseph Pilates

 

My passion for movement continues to grow as the possibilities for creativity and joyful self-expression expand! The possibilities for how this philosophy impacts my interactions with the horses seem limitless. One thing I know for certain is that horses love interacting with calm, confident people. The more I know my own body and mind, the more physically sound and balanced I am the more I can project that calm confidence for my horse to play off of.

I’m so excited about what Parkour and the wonderfully talented, passionate folks at Move to Inspire have to contribute that I have decided to enter into collaboration with them to create a program designed to support the specific needs of horse enthusiasts.

“Movement is the song of the body.”  Varda Scaravelli

Allow me to introduce Vinnie Coryell and his lovely wife Cameron Cunningham Coryell:

Vinnie Coryell:

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I have been very blessed in my movement abilities and the path it has taken me. I started training Parkour 9 years ago. Within the 9 years of training opportunities presented for me to become a professional Parkour athlete and travel the US and world teaching workshops, performing, and competing. All of this experience led me to open a Parkour training facility of my own with Trevor Rittenhouse, the first official Parkour facility on the Western Slope of Colorado, Move to Inspire. I continue pushing my personal abilities while sharing my passion for movement with people of all ages and abilities. I want to inspire and reach as many individuals as I can to help them achieve their goals, build confidence, and learn as much as possible about themselves and helping others . Parkour can create a safer environment for you and your horse, enabling you to protect your body while working with your horse. I look forward to helping you achieve your goals!

Cameron Cunningham Coryell:

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I am an instructor at Absolute Dance and at Move to Inspire Parkour facility. I am an athlete, artistic dancer and lover of horses. I am very passionate about functional movement and how it relates to dance technique and horse back riding. Everyday I am discovering new ways to preserve our bodies as we explore traditional techniques and new ways of moving. I have just recently taken on the challenge, with Andrea Datz, to use dance improvisation exercises to help horse back riders and their horses. Creativity and problem solving are two things that can easily be addressed with dance improvisation, and are well needed in the equestrian world.

Cameron, Vinnie, the horses and I are brimming over with enthusiasm and ideas to help you and your horse develop together:

  • Functional, sustainable, practical movement and strength
  • Increased capacity to listen to your body and your horse
  • Creativity, problem solving and interacting with your environment
  • Unique approaches to Partnering skills and Collaboration
  • Becoming aware of the endless movement variety available to keep things engaging for you and your horse

We will be offering workshops beginning in August 2017!

Connecting with Horses and all of Life

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For years, I asked the horses in my care what they most wanted from people.  Their answer, consistently, has been connection.  The more deeply I explore with them I realize that the word connection was simply the only word that I could relate to at the time, but it’s really inadequate to describe what they are sharing with me.  As I explore with them and ask them to teach me about this ‘connection’ of which they speak, I find the word communion comes much closer to describing the depth and richness of these interactions.

The horses wish us to step outside the traditional notions of the human as leader and the horse as follower.  To embrace a vision of dancing with horses that encompasses the uniquely dynamic interaction between horses and humans.  It’s important for us to realize that when two beings are in true harmony it’s impossible to tell who is leading and who is following.  It is a collaboration.

“Primary authors… speak of “mutual becomings”. They make statements such as “to ride a horse well, in the sense of creating a harmonious partnership, we must ‘become horse”, and “I have come to appreciate just how important a forgetting of our separate human self is if we are to ride well”. What emerges is a general trend describing human-horse interactions as seemingly both extrasensory and transcendent.”   – Gala Argent ‘Toward a Privileging of the Non-Verbal’

It is these magical encounters with horses, where we transcend the boundaries between us that keep me seeking.  Seeking ways to bring whatever it is that creates those transcendent experiences into my conscious awareness.  If I can capture whatever it is I’m doing in those moments I can recreate them instead of having them be elusive, random occurrences that slip through my fingers until the next momentary glimpse…

The horses are guiding me toward a life built on oneness, not as a philosophical ideal, but as a deep inner knowing that we are all connected.  Moving through the world while feeling myself a part of it rather than separate from it as a “Way” rather than a novelty to try now and again.  Fortunately, the horses are the best guides for us on this journey and so we must learn to listen, to speak a language that is energetic and physical and visual rather than verbal.

When we collaborate, and treat every encounter as an interesting, exciting, shared exploration, when we step into their world, then we ‘forget our separate human self’ and experience the truth that there is no separation other than what we create for ourselves.  Just believing ourselves separate or higher than any other being creates barriers that impede our capacity for genuine connection, our capacity to commune.

Fully Committed Connection

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I’ve been thinking a lot about connection as I gear up for the second session of my online class. One of the reasons I latched onto Argentine Tango as a source of inspiration is that you can’t dance Tango well unless you fully commit to your partner. It’s a heart to heart, soul to soul kind of dance. I’m remembering back to one of my very first Tango social dances.

I was still so new to dancing and danced mostly with my husband and our dance instructor. Dancing with other folks was alternately awkward, terrifying and exhilarating. One night a young woman asked me to dance with her. It’s not uncommon for women to lead in Tango but it was new to me and I felt awkward. And she is a really experienced, fully committed dancer! I was a bit out of my element!

At a Milonga you dance 3 songs with each partner. Our first dance felt like a hot mess to me, stumbling and tripping and missing her lead left and right. I felt guarded and like I was literally holding myself back, trying not to get too close. At the beginning of the second dance we came into the ’embrace’ and she stopped, stepped back and said something to the effect of: ‘It feels as though you are leaning back, trying to drift away from me, in Tango you have to commit to your partner, you have to connect. It feels as though you’re worrying about making mistakes. The only mistake you can make in Tango is not being fully committed to your partner.’

That two second conversation rocked my world. I committed to the next two songs – to the best of my ability – and had one of those terrifyingly exhilarating experiences of connection that I have once in a great while while dancing with humans or horses that keeps me coming back for more. In Tango some die hard aficionados refer to it as ‘the sickness’ – this desire that infects us to have more of these experiences!

Recently I’ve become more aware of all the various places we humans tend to hold back and not fully commit to our connection with others. I’m noticing that my horses open up and commit fully when I open up and commit fully. If I am holding back, hesitant, unsure of myself, feeling conflicted about what I’m doing with them and so on – they will be guarded and hold back in kind.

I’m learning what it feels like when I fully commit to a connection – whether it be a hand shake, a hug or a dance – and when I hold back and protect myself. It’s subtle stuff but it makes a powerful difference in how we are perceived and received. It seems to have something to do with giving and receiving in equal measure. I trust I’ll figure it out. Meanwhile, wondering if any of you have noticed where you hold back and where you give and receive freely? Have you noticed how your horses respond to you when you are guarded and when you are open?

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Dance Lessons and Horses

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Explorations in Shared Movement

We stand facing each other with a foot of space between us.

‘Look Ma! No hands!’

Touchless Tango.

I follow, Steve leads. To my great surprise, where I look matters. I can’t look into his eyes because he has to watch where we’re going. I may be misled by his eyes – my body responding to the direction of his gaze, sending me off course. His core leads the movement. If I gaze center mass, just below his collar bones, assuming his movement has integrity, that area will indicate what the rest of his body is doing with a fair degree of accuracy. I cannot waver in my focus for even a split second or I’ll miss his lead and/or misinterpret it. When we aren’t touching, it’s subtle stuff. As a follower, I have to pay utmost attention on a moment-to-moment basis.

It ain’t easy.

This exploration makes me realize just how much focused attention our horses have to maintain to accurately follow our lead, especially at liberty. It makes me realize how much integrity, clarity and consistency I have to have to make it easier for my horse to understand my body language.

When I’m dancing, I realize that if I carry any excess tension I am unable to follow Steve accurately. If I am not breathing I cannot follow accurately. If I am unable to maintain my own balance, I can’t follow accurately or efficiently. We are just walking and adding a simple maneuver called a back ocho. Every time he switches from walking to the first ocho step, I miss the lead and find myself no longer in alignment with him. It’s maddening. Now I understand why he holds me firmly when we are dancing together, he feels the need to bodily move me to keep me in position in front of him. I’m just not feeling the change quickly enough to respond before I’m out of position. I cannot keep up.

Now I see why we so often resort to escalating pressure with our horses. We made our request, they are responsible for keeping up, for responding in a timely fashion. It’s easy to feel like you need to add energy to compel them to catch up with our request. Now, however, I realize there are so many factors at play.

For the tenth time, we stand facing each other. This time I pause, shake out the tension, breathe deeply, center myself, softly but with laser focus gaze at his upper chest and wait. Breath in, breath out, wait, allow my body to mirror his without thinking about what he’s asking. Laser focus on staying present, intent. And we do it! I can easily follow his lead as he changes to ochos. Phew. But now I am aware wobbly my balance is, how much I rely on holding onto him to help me navigate these movements and it has a huge impact on my capacity to keep up. Lesly reminds me to keep my shoulders and pelvis parallel to each other and parallel to the floor as I pivot. Keep my core, no wobbling from side to side. Breath in breath out, listen, wait, collect, pivot, wait, step with Steve so our feet land together softly on the floor. I can’t skip any phase of this sequence or it becomes sloppy, off balance. And it works!

This is what it feels like to engage in a conversation through shared movement. Each time I lost it, we’d stop, regroup, start again. We’d both investigate our part in the dance and make small adjustments. We kept stopping and starting again until we both got it. No one was right or wrong, we were both genuinely doing our best.

I realize, this is what I do with the horses, I ask, they respond and we regroup if it isn’t working. Sometimes the horse loses focus and misses my suggestion. Sometimes I lose focus and miss that they caught it and I don’t go with them (accidentally stopping them). Sometimes we both lose it. One or the other of us may have an issue keeping our balance or initiating movement properly. It’s an exploration we engage in together.

With each new sequence Lesly adds, we have to engage in this conversation all over again, trying and failing a dozen times before we synchronize our movement. When it’s time to add a sequence in which Steve is pivoting while I do a series of grapevine steps around him it all falls apart yet again. I can’t keep up. I’m out of position when we finish the sequence, falling through my steps, out of balance. Steve’s goal is to get me to move where and how he wants me to move. He knows what he’s supposed to do to make that happen and he’s doing it. The problem is that he’s doing it too quickly, he’s going through the motions, so to speak – stop forward motion, close door in this direction followed by open door in that direction, pivot, complete, walk forward.   He’s doing all of those things mentally and his body is following suit, accurately. The problem is that he’s not connecting with me while he does it. He’s thinking only of moving himself, getting the step done in time with the music. He is not inviting me to come with him and sharing the movement with me, not noticing if I’m keeping up or not and so he leaves me behind, scrambling to catch up.

How many times does this happen with our horses? I see it all too often when someone on the ground is asking their horse for a change of direction. They turn make a tight turn, similar to what Steve does to initiate this pattern in Tango.   What Steve forgot to take into account is that I have to take many more steps to get around him while he just pivots. We do the same thing with our horses, we forget that we can easily pivot on two legs, while they have to coordinate to turn on four legs. Try it sometime: stand on your two legs and pivot, then get down on all fours and try to pivot in a tight turn. How’d that go for you?

Think about what it takes to really lead well?

In this example, Steve has to not only decide what steps he wants to initiate, but in what order, time it to go with the music, know how to coordinate his body to achieve the steps desired and then, even if he gets all that right, if he didn’t include me in the conversation we’re not going to be dancing. He has to be as focused on me as I am on him. He has to be able to feel – am I with him? Where am I in the sequence? What foot do I have weight on? But the key thing he has to do is feel from moment to moment when each and every transfer of weight is complete before he initiates the next step. He has to determine momentum within each sequence and sustain it, not start out slow and then speed up or start out fast and then slow down. All the while noticing and adjusting to whether or not I’m keeping up, maintaining my balance, and if I caught his lead or missed it. A really good leader will adjust his plan to adapt to his follower when she misses a lead. And she will miss his lead, it’s so easy to do. If he does his job right I won’t even know I missed a lead – he’ll just regroup and ask again at some point when he feels I’m with him again.

Really think about that. How often do you initiate movement with your horses with this degree of focused intention from moment to moment, literally choreographing every step?

Steve and I had several conversations about how it felt when he just went through the motions of the sequence without really connecting with me. Once he became as focused on the connection as he was on the steps, magic happened. We flowed seamlessly across the floor. Working together without touching really highlighted for us how much focus, energy and intention is required to maintain connection and move together. It showed us how much we rely on each other to help us balance. How much we rely on our arms and hands to reinforce what we’re doing. As the night went on we began adding in connection with our hands and arms without using them to help us. Then we danced chest to chest with no hands and arms and worked on the connection from there and then we ended with close embrace and found we could dance so much better now we were genuinely connected.

Dancing Tango has been a huge source of inspiration for my work with the horses since the very first day. There are so many thoughts running through my mind about how this one lesson applies to what we do with our horses (part two coming soon!). The most important reminder is that dancing is a conversation and conversations are far more pleasant when we are fully present with each other, with open hearts and compassion for how challenging it is to share movement gracefully.

A big thank you to the awesome Lesly Adams for teaching us so much about dancing well!

To learn more about my 2017 online coaching program click here and to read more about my explorations with horses check out my blog at Andrea Datz Integrative Horsemanship 

The Origin of Tango with Horses

How one mare taught me to let go of control

A few days ago I posted a blog on my Integrative Horsemanship page, it’s a blog devoted more to bodywork, training and rehab stories.  I find I regret this attempt at categorizing the things I do.  Ah well, all part of the growth and learning process.

Back to my post from a few days ago.  You can read it by clicking here: Let Your Light Shine: Horses Love All of You!  I wrote about this ongoing evolution in my understanding of what it is in us horses love to engage with, the quality we carry that allows us to accomplish amazing things with horses without the need for force.  Someone asked me if I could share an example of when that approach, of giving a horse a voice, allowing them to say no, worked.

Yes, I can.

I wrote about my first experience with this idea  back in 2014, when I first started to toy with the idea of inviting a horse to participate instead of forcing them.  An invitation to dance, instead of a required training session.  When someone asks me to dance I do have the option to say no – I wondered what would happen if I gave my horses the same option.

I still struggle to let go of all the years of programming that tell me a horse should do what I say when I say or they don’t respect me, I’m letting them get away with something, I’ll end up getting hurt and so forth.  It’s been several years now and I have yet to get into trouble with a horse because I let them say no.  In fact it’s quite the opposite.  And the further I go down this particular rabbit hole the more I learn about myself, the qualities in me that are attractive to horses.  The more I focus on developing those qualities in myself the more doors open with the horses.  It’s truly magical.

So for those of you curious about how this process started, meet Mystic!

Four years ago Mystic came to spend time at my house.  I was excited.  She was one of the first horses I’d been asked to work with that was not a rehabilitation project.  Mystic was a sound, athletic young mare. Elisa, her person, wanted her to have a good start.  She didn’t care how long it took as long as it was done in a way that was harmonious with Mystic’s personality.

When both horse and rider are ‘green’ it’s tempting to focus on making the horse ‘safe’ at any cost. I had resolved to take a different path.  Elisa, Mystic, and I had to enter into this relationship with our eyes wide open as we explored new territory.  My goal was to create a partnership that maintained and nourished Mystic’s sense of herself rather than asking her to diminish her spirit so that we could feel ‘safe’.  This would prove to be no small feat with such a powerful soul.

Mystic is a powerhouse, strong in mind, body and will.  When she lets loose, she is something to behold.  I feel exhilarated watching her.  Her passion and raw power are the epitome of what it is to be horse.  Mystic knows who she is, she has strong opinions, strong likes and dislikes.   She demands that you get to know her on her terms.  She resists being pigeonholed into an arbitrary training system.  I love interacting with horses like Mystic that still have that spirit intact – getting to know them, who they are and what makes them tick.  I relished getting to know Mystic.

It was intimidating to lead her from her pen to the arena that first month.  Her busy mind was easily distracted.  When something caught her attention, which happened frequently, she might freeze and stare off into the distance or she might startle and bolt.  When she froze and I tried to get her attention back to me her reactions were defensive.  Rearing and striking or nipping, thankfully rare, her favorite thing to do was body-check me with her shoulder as she pushed past.  She was unpredictable and difficult to handle – a classic ‘dominant mare’ – one of those horses that could become dangerous if I approached her with the wrong attitude.

It was her willingness to engage in a literal battle of wills, to perceive a request as a challenge that got me thinking.  I wondered how much of this behavior was her true nature and how much of it was something she had learned from humans during her early training that incorporated dominance based theories?  What if I approached her the way I expect someone to approach me on the dance floor?   What if I allowed her to choose?  What if she said no and I let that be okay instead of forcing the issue?

Elisa working with Mystic on bridling at a Mark Rashid clinic a few years ago.  She was very difficult to bridle in the beginning.

Everything I’d been taught implied that if she refused and I didn’t do anything about it I was letting her get away with something.  If I let her have her way she would take advantage of me and maybe even hurt me.  Given the training methods we had used to date seemed to be triggering defensive, bordering on aggressive, behavior I had nothing to lose by trying something different.  She forced me to be creative and intuitive, to challenge my own beliefs.

For the next six weeks my mission was to apply what I had learned about leading and following while dancing with my husband to my interactions with Mystic.  As a starting point I made a commitment never to pull on her head or drive her from behind.  If she came with me she would do it because she wanted to, not because I insisted or tricked her in some way.  She would choose to participate or not of her own free will and I would see what happened.

Any concerns I had about going against traditional training methods quickly vanished as Mystic showed me things about herself that I had missed before.  She was communicating her feelings very clearly, and I realized how easy it would be to blow through her in an effort to achieve a timely response to my requests.  This common practice of pushing our agenda had been robbing her of the opportunity to express herself, to think about what I was asking. It had taken away her ability to process and learn from the interaction. It had taken away my ability to accurately assess her reactions and formulate an appropriate response.  Allowing her feedback and working with her in this way seemed to encourage a sense of cooperation in her rather than inclining her to challenge me or take advantage of my kindness.

The first thing that became apparent was that Mystic had only done what we had asked because she felt she had no choice, not out of a sincere desire to participate.  Her defensive reactions, her lack of ability to focus, dissolved as she realized she had no reason to escape or protect herself from me.  She forced me to slow down, to tune in, to connect deeply to hear her point of view and to the quality of connection between us.  I had to open my mind and my heart to allow myself to trust her, to allow myself to connect that deeply.  We needed that much intimacy for me to understand where she was coming from so that I could offer her a way out of the stress and disconnection that were becoming her default mode of interacting with humans.

What shocked me the most in the first week was how much time she needed to release all the stress and trauma from her past handling.   We spent days standing in one spot with the halter and lead providing a physical connection between us.  Days of offering a soft touch by way of invitation, meeting a brick wall of resistance, releasing, offering again and feeling her begin to melt, watching her drop into what appeared to be a deep sleep, removing the halter and walking away, and repeating the whole interaction again the next day.  This deep sleep state seemed like she was processing something big – it reminded me of how the horses were after a really good bodywork session – it felt important not to interrupt this process which meant that for six weeks we never left her pen.

I’m not going to lie, this was not an easy path for me to take. I have such ingrained beliefs about what a relationship with a horse should be, about what my job is when a horse comes in for ‘training’, and that got in the way of my ability to genuinely connect.  It felt agonizingly slow, like nothing was happening and that filled me with doubt on more than one occasion.  I had to do as much work on myself during this process as Mystic was doing, maybe more!  In the end, Mystic was teaching me how to have a conversation that worked for her, that worked for both of us.

Mystic snuggling with me at a Jean Luc Cornille clinic last summer while she waited her turn.  She was so quiet and patient, perfectly happy to just spend time with me.

I began to see that to become a dance partner that a horse is willing to follow requires a degree of focus, active listening and ongoing participation that is like nothing I’ve experienced outside of dancing the very best Tango’s.   When I approached Mystic in the way that I like to be approached on the dance floor, when I interacted with her the way I like to be led on the dance floor, that’s when everything changed. She taught me what it feels like to genuinely connect with a horse, to invite them to dance, have them accept that invitation and then dance with me of their own free will.   The day she met my invitation with softness and moved with me is a day I will never forget.

Ultimately, Mystic showed me that there is no need for force, coercion or dominance. She showed me that her true nature is not focused on who’s in charge.  Her true nature is focused on harmony.  She thrives on it and seeks it.  Her true nature also has a very well developed sense of self-preservation and fairness, something that is true of all beings, but in horses is often thought of as undesirable and potentially dangerous ‘prey animal’ behavior that should not be tolerated.  This perspective fails to take into account that she is giving honest feedback – and this was huge for me – their feedback is ALWAYS honest.  Ask Steve, as a leader, it’s not easy to get feedback that your lead wasn’t great.  But the only way to become a better leader is to take that feedback on board and remain open. Mystic taught me to let go of seeing her as a prey animal and start seeing her as a unique individual with unique needs.

Thanks to Mystic and her strong opinions I’ve since adopted what she taught me as my primary way to create a dialogue with a horse.  I’ve had many more opportunities over the last 3 years to test this approach and find that time and again it works.  It is often a challenge to get through the layers upon layers of defenses the horses have built up, the self protection mechanisms that prevent them from truly connecting with a human.  It takes a lot of patience to consistently reassure them that nothing they do will be punished or considered wrong, they are allowed to connect on their terms and on their timeframe.   We have to get to know each other, to learn to trust each other and that takes time.

Mystic and Elisa riding out last summer.  The beginning of a long and happy life learning from each other!

Mystic went home to Elisa last summer.  She is and always will be a strong willed and sensitive horse but she is now also capable of engaging in a dialogue with people that is not based on defensiveness.  Her spirit is intact and as Elisa says:  ‘Despite the strength, energy and power I feel underneath me, Mystic connects with the slightest breath or body movement.  Once she trusts she will give 100% of her attention.  She craves a partnership and moving together in harmony. The connection she offers under these circumstances is beyond amazing.  It’s truly a high, as if we are one.’

Mystic and Elisa gave me a valuable opportunity to define for myself a way of working with horses that feels ethically sound.  It is an ongoing journey to always seek and prioritize the quality of connection between us.  It’s not easy in the face of riding goals to keep that sense of ‘we’re doing this together’.  We live in a culture that expects quick results, short-term successes, and when those ghosts kick in it seems easier to resort to demanding rather than requesting.  But to maintain the spirit and sense of self of a horse like Mystic there is no other way.  As long as the connection is the priority everything else that comes out of that is indescribably, gorgeously intimate and mutually enjoyable.  To dance with another in this way is intoxicating and addictive.

To read more about Mystic and the other horses who are teaching me how to be a better a person please check out my other blogs. http://integrativehorsemanship.blogspot.com/ 

I’d sure love to hear about your own explorations into this way of interacting with horses!  I’m finding more and more people who are quietly exploring this on their own.  It is nice to know I’m not alone!

When it feels like our horses are saying ‘no’

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Last night I went to a dance class with a new instructor. We took our first Hustle lesson and it was SO much fun. It’s been a long time since I danced just to have fun and move my body. Movement and interaction on this level is exciting, it engages of all of our senses and is such a great way to relieve stress and pent up energy. It’s deeply healing.

The best thing about dancing with Michael is that he knows how to lead so that I feel like I have a choice to follow, that I’m following under my own steam, not because he pushes me or pulls me where he wants me to go. He presents his ideas with joy, enthusiasm, confidence, and a genuine sense of engagement with me. I feel like he cares about the quality of my experience and wants me to succeed.

It is this quality of leading, that I want to bring to the horses.

A lead is always a request never a demand.

If a lead is always a request never a demand, what do we do when our horses say no? This is one of the topics that came up recently in my online training.  We might get our feelings hurt when our horse appears to refuse our request, as though they are saying they don’t want to spend time with us. We may fall back on years of horse training background and assume they are being disobedient and escalate the pressure. But what if we accepted our horse’s feedback instead?

I could easily write a book about the subtle differences between ‘no’, ‘I can’t, ‘I won’t’, ‘I don’t want to’, ‘I don’t understand’, and so on.

One of our biggest fears may be that if our horse says ‘no’ today they are saying ‘no’ forever.  The reality is they are most often saying ‘no’ to a particular suggestion in a particular moment for a specific reason.  It rarely means they never want to be ridden again or they don’t like us.

I have had horses refuse a suggestion for many reasons: they wanted me to pause and connect more deeply with them before we engaged in ‘doing’ something together, they felt some inner conflict or hesitation, that I was distracted or stressed and wanted me to calm myself and get grounded first.  Sometimes they simply need to loosen up a bit before they are physically or mentally able to do what I ask and quite frequently, given my line of work, they have a physical or emotional challenge that prevents them from comfortably executing the request.

As I watch folks interact with their horses and listen to people share their stories I see a common pattern.  A pattern I see on the dance floor as well.  It’s easy, as a leader, to think we are responsible for moving our partner’s feet.  The truth is that a follower is quite capable of reading extremely subtle body language, that following body language taps into something intuitive and instinctive.  No force or coercion required.  In fact, when we resort to something more overt we interfere with their natural ability to follow, their natural desire to follow clear body language, their innate enjoyment of flowing together and moving our bodies consciously.

Something amazing happens when we trust our horse wants to follow us.

Once one of my horses makes the choice to participate they are willing to explore a dialogue with me, they enjoy the physical, mental and even the emotional challenges of dancing with humans.  It doesn’t mean we always see eye to eye, it doesn’t mean there is never conflict between the two of us.  However, the more we build trust in the idea of mutual exploration the more forgiving they are when conflict arises.

I believe it is critical for our horses to have a voice in our interactions with them. To present our ideas with joy and enthusiasm and willingness to seek a place of mutual learning, mutual enjoyment. Learning to listen more deeply to their feedback is profoundly rewarding on a multitude of levels. Simply by learning to adapt to our horse’s responses rather than push through them we can often prevent accidents, injury or the development of behavior problems, to name a few.

The moment we take ‘no’ personally  and stop listening to our horse we miss what they actually need from us.   This was a big one for me last year as all of my horses seemed to be saying ‘no’ to doing anything more than standing around with me.  When I finally accepted that they had things they wanted to share with me the impact on my life was profoundly healing.  I’m still working on assimilating everything they taught me last summer when we seemingly stood around doing nothing!

And by the way, nothing bad happened by taking this time with them.  They didn’t lose their ‘work ethic’ or stop wanting to participate.  In fact, they seem more willingly engaged and our conversations are endlessly fascinating with so much more depth as they realize I am capable of hearing them, capable of receiving what they have to offer me!

How do we interpret what our horse is trying to tell us?  To see the shades of grey rather than the black and white of either a yes or no answer?

A month ago I was playing with Kastani. We were videotaping some ideas for the online class with the intention of showing one way to break down a simple task (like longing) in a way that is biomechanically supportive and helps us learn how to communicate with each other.    Right off the bat I found that Kastani said ‘no’ to moving out away from me when I stood on his left side.  I went to his right side and asked for the same movement. He was quite well coordinated and willing.

What does that tell me?

His ‘no’ was more of an ‘I can’t’ than an ‘I won’t’.

So let’s look at what happens if I go ahead and escalate pressure, insisting that he move his shoulder away anyway because – for example – if I don’t make sure he does what I ask when I ask I’m letting him get away with something and he’ll be more resistant in future. Or, another common theory, if I let him get away with not going he’ll become dangerous.

What if we look at this scenario another way? Kastani is saying ‘I can’t’ because there is a physical restriction that makes executing the movement I asked for difficult.  Does asking him to move through anyway seem fair in that light? Can you see how pushing him through in this instance would make him question our relationship, question how trustworthy I am as a leader?

In this case I know that all the reflexes to stand, walk and turn originate in the first 3 cervical vertebrae.  If there are any restrictions in the upper neck it will affect his ability to coordinate movement.  I also know that moving forward and sideways in the way that I asked requires lift in the thoracic sling.  By assessing his neck and shoulders and doing a few simple movements I can pin point what is creating his difficulty and change my approach to asking the question to support his area of weakness.

In the case of Kastani, once I figured out what support was necessary he moved over beautifully without an ounce of resistance and I could see his neck and head and entire posture change from one moment to the next.

Now he has no problem physically moving left or right and we have had many lovely sessions where he willingly moves off in both directions.  Yesterday he said ‘no’ again.  This time moving from right to left.  Now it’s my job to figure out why he is saying ‘no’ to that suggestion.  My sense is that it is not a physical restriction this time but rather him letting me know he’s ready to move on to some other kind of activity with me, he’s become bored with this lunging thing and is ready for a new dialogue.  I sense this from him based on his entire demeanor when I made the request and look forward to discovering what he has in mind for our next adventure.

So remember, when your horse resists your suggestion, it’s hardly ever simply that they are saying no. Refusal or resistance on your horse’s part is nothing more than information, feedback that you can adapt to and use to guide you to the best possible solution for your dance partner and friend.

Listening more deeply to what our horses tell us is incredibly rewarding. Not only for us but for our horses and for our partnership. The more we listen the more they are willing to share with us. It’s nothing short of miraculous to be around horses that know you can hear them.

Next time your horse appears to say no, look deeper, find the shades of gray, honor that a lead is always a request never a demand.

 

 

Communication and Connection

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Communication is a dance in that it is characterized by an exchange. An exchange of ideas, information, feelings and impressions where someone leads by opening a dialogue and someone follows by hearing what is said and responding.   When communication happens at it’s highest levels we connect with one another in ways that feel really good, that support growth, healing, understanding, learning, that sense that you have been both seen and heard in more than a superficial way.

The most obvious form of communication is to speak to one another. We humans have devoted enormous amounts of brainpower to language so we tend to think of communication as primarily a verbal or written activity. It’s easy to forget that communication is a multi-sensory experience. That we are connecting with others on many levels all the time. Our presence or absence can be felt. Ever talked with someone who is multi-tasking? You can tell they aren’t fully present, that they are distracted, and it is never as fulfilling as talking with someone who is fully present and engaged completely in the dialogue. Same holds true when dancing with someone.

Horses are non-verbal so they have devoted a lot more brainpower to developing all of their other senses. They engage in sophisticated dialogues with us and with each other that are based on what they see, hear, feel and sense. Their sensitivity to touch, movement, posture, intention and emotion is incredibly well developed. A really good connection with a horse can feel like telepathic communication. We can develop our sensitivity to match theirs when it comes to this non-verbal, extra-sensory awareness.

The thing to remember is that we are connecting and communicating well beyond what we say and how we say it. The more we bring unconscious, subtle forms of communication to conscious awareness the more efficiently we convey our ideas and intentions accurately and the more aware we will be of the effect we are having on others. Communication can foster connection or separation, open doors or close them. Like dancing, communication works best when both partners are fully present and committed to the dialogue. Whether the communication is happening verbally, via written word, telepathy or shared movement, the same principals apply.

The quality of our communication is heavily impacted by the quality of our presence. The quality of our presence is heavily impacted by how well we take care of ourselves (hydrated, well rested, eating enough of the right things, getting enough exercise, not over committing, having a good balance in our activities and so on). Prioritizing good self-care gives us a serious leg up in having a quality of presence that fosters high levels of communication and connection as well as giving us conscious access to the more subtle aspects of communicating.

(an excerpt from the Integrative Horsemanship Online Series part 1)

‘….and Some Days we’ll Dance’

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The horses are on a mission. To heal me.  They are doing a fine job.

Willing dance partners are emotionally healthy, sound dance partners.  In hind sight this seems obvious.  Partner’s dancing is intimate stuff, it requires a great deal of trust an ability to respond appropriately to input.  Followers who resist the lead are not fun to dance with, as anyone who has led me can attest to.  It’s impossible to surrender yourself or commit fully when you don’t trust anyone.  This proved true for both the horses and for me.

And so the horses are guiding us through the process of helping them heal from any physical and emotional wounds they carry and at the same time they are helping me heal from my physical and emotional wounds.  As that emotional baggage clears out I find I am more and more capable of the kind of trust needed to be a good follower, but also the kind of non-judgmental receptivity needed to be a good leader.

Of course inherent in all of this interaction is the notion that the horses have a voice in their interactions with me.  Much easier said than done when it’s a horse I’m being paid to do something with, as I discovered this last month.  He has had a lot to say on the subject of how we conduct our ‘business’ together and in the process I continue to learn and to heal.

Last week I did quite a bit of bodywork on him and we worked on some big stuff for him related to following, exploring his bravery out in the world, using his body in more advanced ways and releasing some old patterns of holding.  It culminated in a session I wrote about here: Listening to our Horses.  We had the most amazing session, so connected.  One of those sessions where my human ego kicks in and thinks it can only get better from here!

The next day I went out fully expecting a repeat of the day before.  Instead he wanted absolutely nothing to do with me, refusing to accept my invitation to dance.  He ended up accepting a halter but I didn’t listen and tried doing what I did the day before in a halter.  He was less than thrilled with my lack of willingness to listen. Day after day, for nearly a week, he refused to dance.

Boy, the internal dialogue had a field day!  ‘I’m a complete fraud’.  ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m letting him get away with murder’. ‘He hates me’. ‘He just doesn’t like the work I’m doing with him’.  I could go on, but you get the idea…. ‘

When I watched him and let those negative thoughts go, I could see that he looked great.  He seemed happy and he was galloping around the pasture multiple times a day.  When he arrived here and through last week he has never offered more than a stride or two of canter and that was stilted at best.  To see him out there playing with his body and exploring was pretty cool.

I checked in every day to see if he wanted to do anything.  Most days he was happy to interact or be groomed but was uninterested in the halter.  In a fit of insecurity I tuned in and asked for some insight about what was going on here.  What I heard was this:

“Just meet us each day and let it unfold.  Some days we will simply want to support you. Some days we will need you to support us.  And some days we’ll dance.”

Today he happily accepted the bridle and we danced.  It was the most connected and soft he’s ever been.

Tango in Real Life

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Meet Hercules, the little horse with the giant heart who certainly earns his name! He faces his challenges with such bravery and fortitude, we love this guy and are so happy he’s healing from his surgery last week.

It’s funny how all things end up connected in the end.

Everything I learn, every experience I have, forms a spiral linking one event to another so that it all relates seamlessly to shape who I am, who I am becoming and how consciously I relate to what’s happening to me and around me. Diversity of experience makes me more capable of navigating life’s challenges – life becomes Tango.

In the last month I’ve been kicked in the arm by a horse, spent a week talking to a group of remarkable women about PTSD in horses while navigating my personal trauma from being kicked, spent an amazing 2 days off the grid in the desert during the full moon lunar eclipse with my artist husband, came home to find little Hercules (pictured above) in a fight for his life, spent a week intensively nursing the little guy, watching the wind shred my hay tarp and feeling quite persecuted, and then heading off to Boulder Tango Festival for two days, where we got our butts kicked, again.

This month of extremes pushed me to my limits in every way.  Physically, emotionally, mentally, Spiritually, financially – you name it – I’ve been challenged.  By the time we left Boulder, to say I was drained would be an understatement.  I’ve pushed myself outside my comfort zone a lot in the last 3 years.  In doing so I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself. The strength gained allowed me to stay awake these last weeks, through the discomfort and the awe, and changed me in ways that continue to unfold.

While waiting for Steve to check us out of the Hotel in Boulder I noticed a table top book in the reception area so I started randomly flipping through in an attempt to distract myself from my crappy internal dialogue about the things that didn’t go well for us at the Tango Festival..  It was a book of photos of famous people with stories or quotes – things that were important to them or made a difference in their lives.  I landed on Maggie Gyllenhaal.  The highlighted words on the page read:

“We squander our pain.”

She was quoting a 75 year old friend who believes that it’s our pain that lets us know we’re alive. Between my still aching arm, swollen feet and battered ego I guess it’s safe to say I’ve really lived the last 3 weeks!

I couldn’t stop thinking about this notion that we squander our pain as we loaded ourselves in the car to go home.  I thought about my Dad and all of his aches and pains and old injuries and I’d bet a lot that he wouldn’t trade a pain free existence for all the adventures he’s had.

Dad on the haystack

At 79 Dad still has his sense of adventure in tact as he climbs to the top of the haystack to try to cover what’s left with what’s left of the shredded tarp.

When I showed my Dad my kicked arm he looked at it and said ‘yea, that’s going take some time to heal’.  And then he rolled up his sleeve and showed me a long scar snaking along the inside of his forearm.  There was a certain pride and nostalgia in his voice as he recounted the tale of his injury – mountain climbing in Germany as a teenager.  How they stitched him up and he healed.

My swollen, sore feet and aching legs are symbols of challenging my body, pushing outside my comfort zone and learning something about myself in the process. My battered sense of worth, emotional drain, mental fatigue and frustration are all part of the challenge to keep growing and experiencing LIFE!  It would be so easy to feel persecuted. To feel a victim of all this ‘bad luck’.  To me, that would be an example of squandering my pain.  Every single thing I experienced in the last weeks happened for a reason.  There was a lesson in each and every event – and the most powerful lessons were the ones that felt like a crucible, they are the ones that are pushing me to change and grow.

My injured arm, in an odd way, feels like a badge of honor because it means that I was at least boldly choosing a path instead of holding back. I realize I’ve spent a good chunk of my life holding back, sitting on the side lines, not fully participating in life out of fear or embarrassment.  When I walked out onto the banks of the river in the light of the full moon in the desert, I was fully alive – when I slapped my hand over my mouth in awe and literally staggered to the nearest rock so that I could sit before I fell – that feeling of being so amazed that I could have fallen on the ground in worship of the beauty around me – I want to feel that alive all the time!

When I am dancing Tango and not holding back it is a fully committed, all encompassing life altering experience.  ALL of my senses are engaged at the same time.  I touch, I feel, I smell, I taste, I move, I hear everything, all at once, firing on all cylinders. That’s what it feels like to be fully engaged in anything in life.  I think we  often mistakenly assume if we are fully engaged it will always be bliss but it isn’t.  Sometimes being fully engaged is darned uncomfortable.

When I got kicked I wasn’t holding back. I followed through.  As a result the horse in question  was able to break through to other side of a very difficult place and is now making good forward progress, he’s able to move again instead of being stuck and angry. That’s worth taking a hit for. I’m not aiming for a repeat, mind you, but I do believe that things happen for a reason and that kick knocked me on my butt and woke me up in a way that nothing else in my life has.

I am reminded, again, of a friend of ours in the Tango community asking us a few years back how our Tango was coming.  We laughed and told him of our struggles.  He smiled in his quiet way and said he thought we were doing really well, that it’s said that Tango rips everything out of you and many couples don’t survive learning this dance.  The fact we were still together said a lot.  And so it is in the rest of life – when lived fully – it rips everything out of me and I am better for it.

Lot’s more to come.  But that’s enough words for now.  I can safely say I am not squandering my pain and so much life is unfolding as a consequence.

Lessons learned while letting the horses take the lead…..

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This journey, this place of starting over with my horses is clearly guided by them. For now, they lead and I follow.

I’m interested in where they are taking me. I understand why they have me slowing down so much. It’s easier to take stock, to see deeply, when everything is happening in slow motion. From this place where there is no pushing or pulling there can be clarity.

Each week themes arise in the lessons I teach, as though the horses are in collusion, deciding ahead of time what they want to show me. It’s not always easy to put into words. It all feeds off of this overarching theme that involves slowing down, being still. Seeing clearly.

From this place of clarity it becomes obvious that horses seek ease, harmony, efficiency and comfort. They rarely, if ever, seek conflict. Healthy horses are guided by their biology, by their natural instincts.  It’s humbling to realize that the bulk of the conflict that arises stems from human needs subverting those natural instincts. In the process we damage ourselves as much as we damage our horses.

And so there are no clean slates here. I am as wounded as the horses. Each and every one of us has been put through trainings that denied our natural instincts. Attempting to be something other than what you are creates stress and tension, the building blocks of conflict. We cannot find ease or comfort in motion unless we heal the wounds caused by denying ourselves for so long.

For horses and humans these wounds often show up as a lack of confidence or fear both stemming from a lack of ability to trust our instincts. Horse and human, we are mammals with a shared ability to read body language, to feel emotions, to sense with our whole bodies. Our bodies are hardwired to respond instinctively to what we perceive.

We are trained to ignore that in ourselves and to punish it in our horses.

My herd and I are in process. Learning from square one to trust our own instincts and out of that to trust each other. As we shed the layers of guardedness we are able to perceive more clearly, to be more aware, more receptive. We are beginning to move together towards a shared language that comes naturally to both of us.

As the horses lead this phase of our dance they teach me that it is only through the ability to feel safe, to be openhearted with each other that we can take this ease and comfort into motion, becoming receptive and aware enough to hear each other.  Being true to ourselves, honoring our natural instincts means we don’t have to change each other to dance together.