I remember my first real equine encounter as if it were yesterday…
I was in the middle of my first ever groundwork lesson. A birthday present from Jo to her then completely non-horsey husband in an effort to help me understand why she spent so much time at the stables while I was messing around with rowing boats down at the river.
After a short human-to-human exercise to establish the basics of body language and how to wave my arms around as ‘aids’, I was let loose with the real deal.
The real deal turned out to be Finn, a biscuit-nosed Exmoor pony who together with his owner Adam would be my teacher for the day. Fortunately for me, Finn had a kind heart as well as a quick brain.
Unfortunately for me, he’d been a pony all his life. So he already knew pretty much everything there was to know about being one.
And, since he’d also spent quite a lot of time around humans since he was brought in off the moor, there wasn’t much he didn’t know about how to run rings around them if he felt so inclined.
What amazed me most was the speed of the guy!
He’d been put in a stable with the door left open and I was tasked with keeping him there but without relying on any physical contact to do so.
I think it took him about 10 seconds to suss me out before a quick left-right of his neck and a deft dip of his shoulder wrong-footed me completely and he skipped past effortlessly with what looked to me like a cheeky grin on his face.
But in those few moments where we stood face to face, gazing into each other’s eyes as we sized each other up, I realised something that would change my life from that moment on.
“There’s someone ‘in there’ and that ‘someone’ wants to play!”
There was no going back. My love affair with horses had begun… The only problem was, my enthusiasm far exceeded my talent for the task in hand.
But thankfully, the secret to becoming a proficient horseman doesn’t actually lie in some elusive, inherent, magical ‘talent’.
Fortunately for all of us, it’s rooted in our willingness to learn, to cultivate skills, and to embrace the journey with patience and understanding.
We think of ‘talent’ as an inborn trait, a special knack that only some of us are blessed with. Sure, some people might display a natural ease with animals or a heightened sense of balance, but these are merely stepping stones on the path to equestrian mastery, not the path itself.
And though we don’t realise it, more often than not what looks like talent is really just the benefit of experiences we had earlier in life. More precisely, it’s the things we learned from those experiences or the decisions we made about what they ‘meant’ about us.
But talent alone doesn’t make a brilliant rider. Every experienced coach or teacher can tell you stories about the students we call the ‘heart-breakers’. Those who seemed to be gifted with all the talent in the world, but who never applied themselves enough to make anything out of it.
Skill, on the other hand, is a testament to a journey you choose to undertake. It’s your life story of learned experiences, of growth through trials, errors, and little victories.
Skills are the fruit of time, dedication and persistence. And when it comes to riding horses, as in any other endeavour, these learned skills are ultimately the real deciding factors of long-term success.
Now, as you probably know, it’s actually rather difficult to keep a determined pony in an open stable, especially when he’s just succeeded in escaping.
So my next step with Finn the Exmoor was a visit to the round pen where I learned how to use my ‘intention’ (my position relative to him on the ground coupled with my energy level) to get him to change direction, move forward faster or even stop dead in his tracks.
Then, to my amazement, when I turned away from him and made my body soft, he trundled up quietly behind me and gently nudged my back. I walked around a bit and Finn followed me. I did suspect he’d played this game once or twice before… but that didn’t matter. The sense of connection I felt was incredible!
We took him back to the open stable for my re-test and, after an obligatory escape attempt just to check I’d been paying attention, this time I was able to stop him with little more than a glance.
“Well done, lesson learned”, I’m sure I heard him say… as he turned and tucked contentedly into the haynet that had been hanging there all along.
I was hooked and straight away decided to arrange some riding lessons too. Despite a lifetime spent in sport I soon discovered that as an adult beginner I didn’t seem to have much natural talent in the saddle either.
So I sought out good teachers, took a _lot_ of lessons and practised diligently, playing in the arena several days each week after work.
Little by little, my skills improved. The moments where I felt completely at the mercy of the huge creature I was sitting on became more and more infrequent and we began to enjoy more meaningful conversations, conducted through a language of gentle touch.
Some years later, a spectator watching a teacher-training clinic I was riding on told Jo how lucky she is to be married to such a ‘talented’ horseman!
“If she only knew the truth!”, we both laughed…
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