The Hidden River - Finding Flow Through Synchronization with Horses
It feels like there's a river of energy, ebbing and flowing it's way through the Universe, drawing Nature along its most ideal path. It's always there. Hidden away from us. And we only find it once in a while, when we're close enough to be swept in by its current.
This is what I imagine when I think of "flow state", the cognitive state of mind we're in when effortlessly immersed in a task. In flow state, our heads are clear. We're motivated. Our minds and bodies are in alignment, and there's a free flowing energy that we seem to melt right into. I feel like the closer we get to it, the more aligned we are with Nature. And the more often we find it, the more momentum we build towards living our best lives.
Flow state is found through mindfulness. When we focus on somatic experiences, we clear mind chatter and bridge the mind-body barrier. For many of us, flow can be difficult to achieve because the chaos of daily life has us constantly rushing around, and our minds are often so far ahead of our bodies that we have trouble coordinating the two. We're stressed out and resistant. And we can't seem to slow down enough for flow state to pull us in because we've acquired too much momentum in opposition of it.
Animals lead simpler lives than we do, so it only makes sense that they would live closer to this river than us. We always think we know what's best when it comes to the education of our horses. We think we need to change them. We think we need to MAKE them more connected, easier to handle, and more fluid to our aids. But if these are the things that we're looking for, they'd be found within flow state, and if this is easier for animals to access, then why not let THEM guide US there? We need to stop resisting, stop forcing, and allow our horses to be a part of the partnership. Essentially we're the ones who need to change. Not them.
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the concept of resistance. During one of my lessons the other day, a student was having a beautifully fluid liberty session until she went to change direction and her horse continued to stay left. She tried to reset him to Position 1 to reconnect but he continued to resist her request to turn off to the right.
In Position 1, the horse stands quietly facing us from a few feet away as we stand square to him. It's a point of stillness. I call it a Sanctuary Position because it's a baseline reset point that we bring our horses back to if they become anxious, confused, or reactive. Essentially it means, "Look at me. Eyes right here. I've got you. Now let's try again." Once they become familiar with this position, the horses begin to use it as a tool to show us when they need our support. In true Position 1, the horse is calm and attentive to the handler, with no momentum in his body.
We teach our horses sign language, and when we push our hand out away from our bodies, it indicates that they should walk off in that direction. They learn to follow the hand as it moves outward. We have to learn to attach energy to cues like this, and keep our movements fluid enough for the horses to be able to follow. Along with teaching them the cognitive understanding of where it's guiding them, there's a feel we need to put into the cue so that the horses can follow energetically. When executed correctly, it feels as if our hands are one with their muzzles, and in perfect union with their awareness.
My student was having trouble getting her horse to follow her hand. Instead he was resisting the cue, and turning his head in the opposite direction. She kept repositioning herself and re-cuing, trying to get him to respond the way she wanted him to. Nothing worked, and you could feel an energetic wall going up between them. She was getting frustrated. Her horse is very good at this kind of work, but the more she insisted, the more he resisted.
What was happening here?
Well, when she went for the initial change of direction, instead of slowing down and feeling her way through it, she sped up sporadically, and her horse couldn't follow without losing HIS rhythm. She pulled herself out of flow but he kept going. When she went to reset, her inner momentum was still in opposition to his, so when she tried to cue him to the right, his momentum was pulling him to stay left. At that point there was too much resistance, and the little nuances of the communicative process were being blocked out. They were out of sync.
I asked her to stop all movement, turn her intention towards stillness, and stand quietly until her horse began releasing tension by licking and chewing (mobilizing his jaw). They needed to let go of one another for a minute to reset the connection. They needed a true Position 1.
Once I felt that they were grounded, with no momentum in either body, I asked her to pick up her hand, move it around softly, and release it back down the instant her horse focused on it. She needed to scan for the energetic connection, and allow him to bind his nose to the motion of her hand.
We repeated that action until her horse was following her hand around with his nose and she was being fluid enough for him to maintain his feel for her. I then asked her to send him off to the right, slow enough for him to stay connected, with a feel as if she were pushing through water. She drew his nose to the right as if he were one with her hand, then instantly released the cue, passing the sending energy off to her pelvis as he moved out onto the liberty circle around her.
A perfect send off. They were back in sync, and on their way back to flow state.
Good liberty work is when the horse and human are in flow state together. It feels magical. Everything is in alignment and the horse feels soft, fluid, and free in his movement. There is harmony between us and them. If we want to achieve and preserve this soft, fluid, and free movement, we too, have to be soft, fluid, and free. We have to let go.
OK ... well ... what exactly does it mean to let go? Let go of what?
We have to let go of our resistance. We have to surrender our compulsive desire to control and let what is, be.
There are two main reasons for this. First, Nature follows the path of least resistance, so it's how we remain in harmony with our horses. Second, resistance causes more resistance. Resistance to anything reality puts before us will take us further from our ideal state. It's like trying to put out a fire with more fire.
So how do we minimize resistance, both in ourselves and in our horses?
... We synchronize with them.
It's natural for energy to seek harmony. This phenomenon is demonstrated regularly in science through studies of spontaneous synchronization. When pendulums on the same plain, moving at different rates of speed in opposing directions, eventually sync up with one another. We also see this phenomenon throughout Nature when birds take flight together in perfect formation, or when fireflies blink in unison when their swarms reach certain densities.
Our horses can guide us back to our ideal state because their default way of being is to live in balance with Nature. Humanity can't seem to find this baseline because we have been living in opposition to it for too long. Horses don't live in their heads and hold onto complex thought patterns the way we do. If they encounter an aversive, they look for ways back to a peaceful, congruent state, following the path of least resistance along the way. If we stop trying to control everything and follow their lead, they will not only relax back an optimal state, they'll help draw us there as well.
One of the simplest ways to synchronize with our horses is to fall into rhythm with them. Rhythm is both an internal and external experience. It helps draw our inner and outer worlds towards one another. As we zen out to the rhythm of the horse's hoof beats, we begin to establish an inner peace which helps regulate our heartbeat frequency. The horse and our regular (coherent) heart rate, co-regulate one another, which helps us find and maintain flow state.
There are many ways to incorporate this into our work with horses, but let's look at it from a groundwork perspective.
As the horse walks around us in the paddock or round pen - as long as he is calm - we mirror him. We match our footsteps with his foot falls. We draw away as he turns towards us to change direction, and then bounce back into rhythm with him as he walks off. Sometimes I'll match his front legs, sometimes his hinds, depending on where I'd like to bring his awareness. Maybe I'll take one step for every two of his. It doesn't matter whether we're up or down an octave from one another. The calm, steady beat that we create together is what's important. We need to remain in this rhythm long enough to establish it as a new baseline. That baseline is our new still point - our blank canvas that we can then begin to affect.
When we harmonize with our horses before asking anything of them, we establish peace and equilibrium. The horses become drawn into preserving the flow we're establishing with them. They then begin to follow our lead because it feels natural to stay in sync with us. This makes it easier for us to then influence their behavior, direction, and movement with suggestion rather than force. If they begin to resist our lead, WE LET THEM GO. We let them relax back to their baseline, and then fall back in sync with where they need to be. This is our most efficient route back to flow state because we are minimizing resistance.
When we use flow state as an objective for our horsemanship, there's a mutually beneficial outcome for both horse and human. There's a sharing of responsibility towards the achievement of the same goal There is balance in the relationship and joy on both sides. This is the definition of partnership. When there is no resistance, there is flow. This is what liberty work is about. It's what all horsemanship should be about. It's how we should approach our relationships with each other. It's how we should view our relationship with the planet.
That's not to say occasional rocks along our route won't divide our paths here and there. Being perfectly coordinated with our horses all the time requires lots of concentration and training for both us and them. What's important is how we navigate the obstacles that hinder our flow. Rather than resist, we must adapt. To regain our optimal state as efficiently as possible after any disruption in life, it's best to accept the circumstances and move forward, back along the path of least resistance, so we can use our momentum to help push us through the challenge at hand. If we maintain our rhythm, the rock that split our path will pass on by, and the current will pull us back together on the other side.
In Buddhist teachings, it's said that aches and pains are an inevitable part of life, but it's our resistance to those aches and pains that actually causes our suffering. If we can accustom ourselves to accept what needs to happen in the moment, whether it be pain, frustration, or just a momentary bleep in our rhythm, we can establish a resilience that allows us to quickly adapt and move back into harmony with the world around us.
It's important to recognize that although we might seek smooth paths in all journeys, bumps in the road must exist or we would have no concept of what is smooth. Every force has an opposing force, so our ideal path must be thought of as well-balanced ... not perfect. Contrast is what makes life meaningful. We can respond to aversive moments with either resistance or acceptance. There is a choice. When it comes to our horses, we will inevitably come upon moments where they will resist what we would like them to do. In these moments, we can create more resistance resulting in division, defensiveness, tension, or anxiety, which takes us further from flow state, - or we can find ways to compromise and adapt, which will bring us back to flow state quicker.
One of the most amazing things about relationship-based horsemanship is that it offers us a chance to practice finding peace and balance in life. In our work with the horses, we have to constantly monitor the quality of the relationship. We need to create learning scenarios that keep the horse soft in the mind and light in the body. He needs to be calm but attentive. He needs to minimize tension in his body. All of these things require us to be resistance-free and mindful. If a situation come up that causes him to become anxious, emotional, or reactive, we need to allow him to diffuse rather than resist his need to do so. He needs to revert back to his most ideal state, and we need to let him take us with him.