Recently Dr. Schoen and I were discussing the concepts of “giving” and “letting go” and how they metaphorically apply to both our lives and the aspect of equitation that allows a horse to move more freely forwards. This is the time of year we transition from a season of gift-giving to that of self-reflection and New Year’s resolutions, making decisions we hope will allow us to move forwards in our own lives, perhaps letting go of old habits or thought patterns that have held us back in the past.
So often we think of “giving” as meaning something we have to pay for, wrap up, order online, transport, mail or otherwise involve ourselves in a complex set of activities in order to complete the giving of the gift. For some people the act of giving comes with the expectations of getting something in return. Such an attitude can create disharmony and stress for both the giver and the receiver.
When we give with compassion it is to be given from the heart for the benefit of the recipient, and without the plotting of what might be given back in exchange. Ultimately, as we practice compassion, we soon realize there is so much joy in giving it’s an instant return to us in the feeling we personally receive from a genuine sense of contributing to the benefit of another being.
One of the hardest things for me to teach a rider was the “giving rein”. As with the letting go of aspects of our lives we want to stay in control of, most riders have a difficult time giving the hand forwards, releasing contact with the rein even if only for a moment.
Of what benefit is this to the horse? As an instructor, when I’m watching from the ground and I see the precise moment the horse is ready to reach a little further into contact, lift his back and shoulders, lengthen his neck, relax the poll, and open up the stride without increasing tempo, I will tell the student “give the inside hand forwards”. I want them to learn to feel this moment for themselves and respond at first consciously and then subconsciously as a conditioned response that instantly rewards the horse for his willingness to move forwards.
This concept is fundamental to the traditional training of horses that develops their ability to carry a rider through all gaits and all activities, building a stronger muscle-bridge across the topline, allowing the horse to remain as sound as possible for its entire working life.
So why would giving a rein forwards, gifting the horse with freedom and relaxation, be so difficult?
Dr. Schoen and I related this to the personal filters people maintain as they interact with their horses. There is such a connection between the hand and the horse’s head and we often don’t realize how much of our emotional “stuff” we are relaying to the horse via rein tension and how it may be affected not only by the level of skill of the rider, but the degree of mindfulness in applying the various rein aids. After all, the only thing the horse has to go by in reading the mood and instincts of the rider is the feel they are receiving through the rider’s body. The horse is an instantaneous biofeedback mechanism and even more so when we are attached to it with a set of reins.
“Letting go”, when combined with the concept of “giving” is a very personal thing. To be compassionate to yourself and “let go” of the parts of your life that need to be released can be considered a gift to yourself with no attachments or expectations of the outcome. Simply observing the results will tell you what you need to know as a response to that exercise of “letting go”.
There may be many old imprints and programs in your psyche afffecting both you and your horse in a controlling kind of way that creates continued stress in both your life and your riding. Dr. Schoen treats many horses who are so tight in the neck and poll from being held rigidly and not allowed to reach forwards and downwards into the rider’s hand. I see the same thing in almost every horse I’ve worked with as well.
When a student finally softens their hand forward in just the right moment and just the right amount, and I see two beautiful beings working in instant joy and harmony, I see the true meaning of “giving”. It is a very subtle, almost imperceptible moment of awareness that occurs between horse and rider, rider and themselves, and then extends back to other horses and riders at the barn and inevitably, everyone who encounters that rider and that horse in the other aspects of their lives.
As those special “letting go” and “giving” moments are increased and become part of the subconscious practice, first with the self, with the horse, and then recognized by others, they become the personality and identity of that person and compassion becomes central to their lives. Everyone, everywhere benefits from that very fundamental, simple concept.
Giving does not have to involve a credit card, rushing around through a shopping mall, stressing over what to buy for whom or elaborate trinkets. Sometimes it’s ourselves we need to give to, which could mean reflecting on concepts that are keeping us on a tight rein and preventing us from moving forward in life. Give a smile to someone who needs it, give a bit of your time to help an elderly person with their groceries, and give your horse a pat on the neck. What you actually receive in return may be the greatest gift, ever.