Whenever we get on a horse, whether it’s the first ride or one of many hundreds of rides, we have to put some degree of faith and trust into the fact that the horse won’t cause us harm. After all, so many things could go wrong when mounted on a 1000-pound animal that could take a misstep and fall, stop and duck out of a jump, throw a bucking fit, bolt, or any number of potential scenarios that might end with us and/or the horse injured.
So what is it about the brain and mind of a rider that allows us to place our faith in an animal, trust that it will help keep us safe from danger, and in fact, have a truly pleasurable time throughout our interactions with it?
In the world of show jumpers and three-day eventing horses, the “danger” factor increases exponentially and so many elements have to work together to produce the best performances. In the beginning of a jumper’s career, the trainer has to have faith that the horse wants to jump, can jump, and will stay sound long enough to make it to the pinnacle of its jumping potential. It doesn’t take much of a set-back for that faith to be shaken. One needs a tremendous amount of fortitude, skill, and faith to start with an untrained horse and make it into an athlete willing to go airborne while packing a human on its back. I suppose the horse has to learn to have a considerable amount of trust in its rider as well.
It’s always been amazing to me that a horse will jump obstacles for a human at all, as I wouldn’t say it’s something they’d “naturally” want to do. There’s an absolute heart-pounding thrill whenever a jumper takes hold of the reins and actually pulls you to a big fence, as all of the good ones will. They genuinely want to get there and then get to the next one. A seasoned show rider will tell you a great jumper feels “bigger” as they enter the arena. They pump themselves up and are looking for where that first fence is going to be. It’s certainly easier to place your trust in a horse that is willing and ready to take you around the course than one who isn’t. Everything else comes down to your faith that the training and preparations have been sufficient to support the horse’s – and the rider’s – desire to complete the jumper or cross-country course without incident.
A lot of mental preparation goes into every athlete’s performances, but I believe the uniqueness of competing with a partner who isn’t human adds an extraordinary element and a level of faith and trust that non-horsemen would have difficulty comprehending. There’s just nothing to compare to sitting on the back of a living being galloping full speed to a large, solid obstacle, and trusting that it will leap cleanly, land safely, and carry on galloping to the next fence.
Many years ago when I was riding a lot of horses every day and training for bigger jumping competitions, one of my thoroughbreds tripped and fell over a small 2-foot, 6-inch single-rail vertical fence that we’d trotted into. Had I not rolled out of the way when he came down he would have fallen right on top of me. We were both uninjured, but I was definitely shaken. It took a long time to get over the incident and regain my confidence over low, slow-approach jumps, not just on this horse, but any horse. I could gallop down to the big fences but remained apprehensive every time I had to begin trotting warm-up jumps.
This is why we believe it’s so critically important to approach the horse and its training from a foundation of compassion, and treating the horse as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If the horse is stressed, overworked, and resentful of the pressure put on it, how could we not expect a mishap or refusal at some point? Horses can be pushed both mentally and physically to the point of a complete breakdown and become distrusting of their humans to lead and guide them through a course of dangerous obstacles. Then what do you do with those horses? We feel it’s best to be as compassionate as your abilities and skill levels allow and always trust yourself to recognize when your faith in a particular horse may also be misguided.
Not all horses have the training background, conformation, movement, or mental prowess to perform the activity or level of activity the rider and trainer is hoping for. If they do have all the qualities, and errors are made in the training process or trauma of some type occurs along the way, trust may be lost and the horse may or not allow itself to be re-schooled for the same activity or might not be able to reach the levels originally intended.
The thoroughbred who fell with me, Dusty, was a former racehorse. His second career was that of a field-hunter, where both his good nature and athleticism were useful, and I thought the combination would also make him a successful show jumper which is what I’d purchased him for. He could sail over huge fences with ease but there was something I just couldn’t trust about his form and the feeling I got over bigger jumps. It may have even stemmed from an undisclosed injury or previous accident on the track or hunt field. The fall took away the remainder of my faith in him to make it as a jumper so we re-evaluated and leased him to a junior rider who was quite successful with him in the 3-foot hunter classes.
There’s always a convergence point in the training of the horse where a compassionate trainer will either say “this horse is done”, “this horse needs a rest”, or “this horse is coming back beautifully from its set-back and we can move forwards”. Trust is a fragile thing when the minds and hearts of two species must work together to understand each other and find a common language that allows the two to have faith in their abilities to keep one another safe and happy.
Dr. Schoen’s methods for quieting the mind and taking a slow, mindful approach to the care and training of horses is a wonderful practice to make a habit of each time we work with a horse. If all trainers would also take a few moments of quiet contemplation when working with students and their horses, they might be quite pleasantly surprised at the level of trust those students will then exhibit towards their horses and the instruction they are receiving. A calm mind and open heart create an atmosphere highly conducive to receptivity and learning, as scientific studies are now proving.
We love the “Just One Thing” newsletter by neuroscientist Rick Hanson. We can apply his insights to the equestrian world and our horses in so many ways. Below is his current post with a couple of valuable exercises you can do as suggested or alter a few words to reflect having faith in your horse, your ability as a rider and trainer. Consider the most positive qualities of your heart and how having faith in yourself can translate to wonderful experiences with your horse and your riding as well as everybody you encounter and inspire as you go about your daily activities outside of the world of your horses.
In what do you trust?
Try a little experiment: in your mind or out loud, complete this sentence a few times: “I have faith in _________.” Then complete another sentence a few times: “I have no faith in ________.” What do faith – and no faith – feel like?
In your experience of faith, there’s probably a sense of trusting in something – which makes sense since the word comes from the Latin root, “to trust.” (“Faith” can also mean a religion, but my meaning here is more general.) Faith feels good. To have confidence is to have faith; “con+fide” means “with+faith.”
Faith comes from direct experience, reason, trusted sources, and sometimes from something that just feels deeply right and that’s all you can say about it. You could have faith in both biological evolution and heaven. Sometimes faith seems obvious, like expecting water to yield each time you prepare to dive in; other times, faith is more of a conscious choice – an act of faith – such as choosing to believe that your child will be all right as he or she leaves home for college.
What do you have faith in – out there in the world or inside yourself?
For example, I have faith in the sun coming up tomorrow, my partner while rock climbing, science and scholarship, the kindness of strangers, the deliciousness of peaches, the love of my wife, God, and the desire of most people to live in peace. And faith in my determination, coffee-making skills, and generally good intentions.
In your brain, faith (broadly defined to include assumptions and expectations) is an efficient way to conserve neural resources by not figuring things out each time from scratch. The visceral sense of conviction in faith integrates prefrontal logic, limbic emotion, and brainstem arousal.
Without faith in the world and in yourself, life feels shaky and scary. Faith grounds you in what’s reliable and supportive; it’s the antidote to doubt and fear. It strengthens you and supports you in weathering hard times. It helps you stay on your chosen paths, with confidence they will lead to good places. Faith fuels the hope and optimism that encourage the actions that lead to the results that confirm your faith, in a lovely positive cycle. Faith lifts your eyes to the far horizons, toward what’s sacred, even Divine.
Sure, some skepticism is good. But going overboard with it leads to an endless loop of mistrusting the world and doubting yourself. You need to have faith that you’ll make good choices about where to have faith! Which means avoiding two pitfalls:
Putting too much trust in the wrong places, such as in people who won’t come through for you, in a business or job that’s unlikely to turn out well, in dogmas and prejudices, or in a habit of mind that harms you – like a guardedness with others that may have worked okay when you were young but is now like walking around in a suit of armor that’s three sizes too small.
Putting too little trust in the right places, such as in the willingness of most people to hear what you really have to say, in the results that will come if you keep plugging away, or in the goodness inside your own heart.
So, first make a list of what you do have faith in – both in the world and in yourself. You can do this in your mind, on paper, or by talking with someone.
Next, ask yourself where your faith might be misplaced – in dry wells or in dogs that won’t hunt. Be sure to consider too much faith in certain aspects of your own mind, such as in beliefs that you are weak or tainted, that others don’t care about you, or that somehow you’re going to get different results by doing pretty much the same old things.
Then pick one instance of misguided faith, and consciously step away from it: reflect on how you came to develop it and what it has cost you; imagine the benefits of a life without it; and develop a different resource to replace it. Repeat these steps for other cases of misplaced faith.
Second, make another list, this one of what you could reasonably have faith in – in the world and in yourself. These are missed opportunities for confidence – such as in people who could be trusted more (including children), in the basic safety of most days for most people, and in your own strengths and virtues.
Then pick one and see if you can have more faith in it. Remember the good reasons for relying upon it. Imagine how more trust in it will help you and others. Consciously choose to believe in it.
Third, consider some of the good qualities and aspirations in your innermost heart. Give yourself over to them for a moment – or longer. What’s that like
Try to have more faith in the best parts of yourself. They’ve always been faithful to you.
|Just One Thing (JOT) is the free newsletter that suggests a simple practice each week for more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind.A small thing repeated routinely adds up over time to produce big results.
Just one thing that could change your life.
(© Rick Hanson, 2014)