Dance Lessons and Horses


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 


One thought on “Dance Lessons and Horses

  1. Pingback: Learn to Listen with Your Whole Body | Integrative Horsemanship

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