Joy is an exceedingly powerful emotion and has a great effect on our horses. Horses love to feel the joy inside of us; they love our laughter, our delight, our exclamation of the sense of happiness in a movement or conversation. Children are often a little over-enthusiastic or unskilled in their ways of being with horses, and yet the horses respond to them with patience and kindness. The horses take care of these little bundles of joy that delight in the horses being. There is a lesson to understand, that the horse seeks love, an open heart, a humble soul and above all a joyous dancer. So how do we become a ‘joyous dancer?’ How do we express ourselves in ways our horse understands? And what to do when joy is not accessible?
We become a joyous dancer when we are thankful for the little things, when we delight in the small improvements and when we let our heart be moved by the connection to such a majestic powerful creature as a horse. To express ourselves in ways our horse understands is to let the power of our emotions to flow our without reserve, to laugh, to cry out or to throw our arms around them and hug them from our heart. If we cannot access joy, then peace can be a stepping stone or giving praise from our head but not our heart will honour our horses’ efforts if we are not open-hearted enough to excite their delight.
For me there is an attitude that supports joy, it requires us to be honest, open-hearted, present, engaged and connected with the goals of our session. To be seeking experience with our horse and searching for opportunities to be surprised and delighted. When you are considering emotions in connection with your horse, music can often help to build a bridge. Riding to songs that elicit joy can bring a smile on your lips and in your heart, as your horse feels your engagement in the emotion he can join you in your joy and add his own. I find it fascinating to ride with a playlist or mix up of different music and as I associate emotionally to each piece, my horse will shift in their way of going to join with me. The thought of dancing and flowing to the music in our bodies is also of benefit to our riding or groundwork; it can bring us to a place of looseness and freedom that dancing initiates. Sometimes I sing if I am feeling in the mood, love songs, happy songs, worship, movie soundtracks and anything else I can remember the words to. Each form of music can transport my horse and me into new emotions and ways of sharing our work time.
When I reward my horse with joy it creates a response, an effort from the horse to repeat the action and seek to give me more joy. With each horse, the joy bringing movement or action will change and differ over time with the stage of training but once they find something to please us, the horse will offer it again and again in an attempt to gratify and delight.
My warmblood gelding, Sellie, in particular, found that his attempts at extended strides or big trot as I call it never fail to bring a smile to me. The feel of power and energy from a horse who was once stuffy and sticky is a delight. He learnt to unlock the energy into forward motion and the feeling of joy followed for us both. These days I love his attempts at passage or a silly standstill canter pirouette, perhaps the most useless thing I ever taught him, but his try to understand my idea delighted me so he continues to offer a step of canter on a turn just because he can. So be careful what you praise with joy for the motive will bring more effort and with consistent joy a more expressive offer of the movement to bring a bigger smile or more delight.
If for some reason I am not present in the moment with my horse but distracted by my thoughts and the things in the world. Then the best way to honour this is to say today is not the day. I ask my horse something easy or just have a short ride so that the next time we can find our happy spot and flow with joy again.
Joy can also have different flavours, each horse might find a smile inside you in a different way.
I bought a young Icelandic mare, Saedis, and very soon she was my bundle of joy, she delighted me with her energy, her eagerness, her love of adventures, her bravery and her expression. Those two little black ears over a stable door were irresistible that even when she escaped and disappeared round the farm she still brought a smile to my face. She was cheeky, confident and took the world in her stride, accepted me on her back and in her heart. I named her the Hooligan and that was fine with both of us. She was not the most obedient but with her character is never bother me since she loved to include me in her ideas and that was its own level of joy.
Then I had a New Forest gelding, he came as a project to restart. He was called Popcorn but soon became Popsy. He had the sweetest nature, he loved to please and his willingness to try even when he felt fear, he drew tenderness from my heart that brought joy to me. Whereas Saedis was a bubbly, happy joy, Popsy was a sweet mellow joy, to watch him grow in trust, to try new things to find that people were suitable friends became a source of joy for me. He leant to come to the tack room to ask for a treat – I called it his ‘snack shop’. Then in time, he would stand in the field without being caught to have me check a cut or give him a scratch. In the beginning, he would leave me worried by my intention but soon I could call, ‘where are you going?’ and he would come back, amazed that he had a choice and delighted in my delight that he chose me. This pony plucked the chords of my heart and truly transformed into a partner because for everything he accepted and learnt he got rewarded with my joy.
Dotty has been on my journey to understanding the mind and heart of a horse with me and joy between us comes from many things. The most significant to me would perhaps be meaningless to anyone else but that is of no concern. A long time ago when I began learning, I mixed a few techniques and had the notion that when the horse was loose in the round pen, if they quit engaging in my idea I should pressure them until they wanted to connect again. Sadly I created the worst pattern you could wish for, soon Dotty came into the round pen, I would take off her halter and she was head for the nearest fence and jump out and gallop around the field. I soon noted my error but it took many teachers and many years to remedy, so now I find a deep peaceful joy in having her with me, at liberty, just walking together, while we can do many things, the most joyful to me is just to walk, to relax to feel that anywhere I go she is coming along with me, not because I ask or I call but because my delight in her company and willingness to be next to me is all it takes for her to want to stay. Only once would I say we have played with true dancing joy together at liberty and these experiences are impossible to re-create when they come from a spontaneous of emotions in the moment. For us it was a moment of total relaxation and liberation of feelings combined with a wish in me to play without expectations or agenda. Any comparison we make with a previous experience always hinders our current experience as it prevents us from fully focusing on the moment we are in. When we are in the moment with a joyful heart, magic can flow from deep within.
The last horse I must mention is the newest addition to my family. Smushy as I called him, is a Lusitano gelding who I went to ride as a teacher and schoolmaster. I played around on him trying to figure out what he knew and how to ask things. Soon he came up with moments I had only dreamt of that brought delight to me and a giggle and happiness to be riding such a horse. On that first ride, I renamed him, Mr Awesome, Wonderful, Amazing and Incredible, or Mr Incredible for short. I could feel the pride I had in him and the way in which he responded to my joy and love for him. Sometimes a horse comes along who touches your spirit and speaks to your soul – he is one for me. Power, lightness and emotional responsiveness all gave me the feeling of excitement and want to explore more and more of his capacity and capabilities. I could describe his canter like riding on a pillow and while I am over that first experience of giddy delight, each time I learn more or teach him something I can help him with, we grow together in our appreciation of each other.
If I can encourage one thing, allow your horse to excite you, to delight you, to satisfy your desires and to sing with your soul. Explore joy in all its forms; seek laughter, happiness, bliss and bubble over with expressions of enchantment.
May your heart take flight on the wings of your horse.