The next piece in the continuing saga of figuring out How To Live My Life came in the reading of Mark Rashid’s latest book, A Journey To Softness. I had pre-ordered it long before, and it arrived shortly after my fall in November. Just in time. It’s not about “tips and tricks” to ride better or how to get your horse to behave. It’s about how – whether we want to or not – we bring everything that we are to our horse when we show up at the barn. We may not know that, but the horse does.
Mark writes about how softness is a way of life, not something we turn on and off depending on what we’re doing. How hard to you grip the steering wheel? Is it necessary to grip it that hard, or can you hold it more softly? He writes:
If a person were only trying to be soft with a horse but not when driving a car; setting down a glass; shoveling manure; sitting in a chair; talking with [others]… it seems to me that the art is not being practiced in an overall mindful way. For those folks, softness is something they do but not who they are.
He tells the story of when, as a kid, he worked for an old horseman. The Old Man (as Mark calls him) kept after him to quit pulling on a horse’s mouth. But Mark didn’t know any other way to turn the horse. As he was leaving for the day, the Old Man asked him to ride his bike in a circle, a few laps this way, a few laps the other way, larger and smaller circles. Then he said, “The way you steer your bike, that’s how you ride a horse without pulling on ‘im.” With softness you can hear what your horse is trying to tell you. You can steer him without annoying him.
It is my belief that becoming aware of how we participate in the world on a daily basis and how we perform our everyday, mundane, or not-so-mundane tasks adds to our ability, or inability, to develop the kind of awareness and sensitivity it takes to be really good at working with horses. Developing the kind of awareness and “feel” it takes to realize when we are working against our horse doesn’t begin with working with our horse. It begins by doing all of those everyday things with as much feel and awareness as we possibly can, and then bringing that awareness to our horse.
I wrote Mark a letter, which explains pretty well how this “journey to softness” is helping me. Most of it is below:
You write, “Becoming aware of how we participate in the world on a daily basis and how we perform our everyday … tasks adds to our ability, or inability, to develop the kind of awareness and sensitivity it takes to be really good at working with horses.” That hit me where I live.
The past 18 months have been difficult. In July 2012 I twisted my foot on uneven pavement and broke a bone. In both denial and an ortho boot, I didn’t take proper care of it and it didn’t heal. Then surgery to wire the break, cast, and one of those knee walkers for 8 weeks and, of course, no riding. Out of the cast and back in the ortho boot for another month. Damaged my Achilles tendon. Later, got the hardware out of my foot and was back in an ortho shoe. Tripped in the ortho shoe and landed hard enough on the pavement to crack a rib. Icing on the cake: a hard spill off of Angel that injured my back.
As you write, “Our body and our emotions operate as a unit, not as separate entities.” Even before the fall off of Angel, I’d been questioning why I keep hurting myself and what the universe might be trying to tell me. But it was that fall that broke my heart.
I was back to riding regularly and felt that we were doing well. Angel has never been an unusually spooky horse and takes most new things in stride. But for some time he’d been getting more and more unsure of things that caught his eye. That day we were in the arena, and there was the usual pile of stuff in the middle. For some reason this bothered him. He hesitated, and I asked him to go on by – not even very close, just by it. The next thing I knew I was on the ground. He’d spun 180 and I went flying like batter off of mixing blades, landing flat on the small of my back. He didn’t run away though, and when I was finally able to get up and we looked at each other, he had the saddest look in his eyes.
When I was physically able, I got back in the saddle and felt a kind of fear that I haven’t experienced in a long, long time. Every time Angel perked his ears at something I freaked inside. Kept working at it and was getting better – but not 100% – when your book arrived.
I realize now that my own inner turmoil has disconnected me from Angel, and it started long before the spook, long before I broke my foot, and probably long before that. There was no softness there, just panic, fear and frustration. What has been the hardest to acknowledge is that when he spun away from the scary thing, in that exact moment, he didn’t trust me enough to follow me.
Reading your book was one big “Aha” moment. The first time I rode after finishing your book, I concentrated on making my own insides as soft as I could be. No fuss, no impatience, no fear. I didn’t rush Angel along, tacked up quietly, mounted up quietly, and softly asked for a walk. I was blown away by the difference. He was calm, and during the entire ride he kept his ears tilted back to me. I know I have a long way to go to achieve consistent softness, but at least now I know what I’m looking for.