I often tell the story of the moment when I knew I wanted to commit to becoming a Masterson Method® Certified Practitioner. When I heard Jim Masterson say, in the context of working with a horse to help them release tension, “If you’re not sure what to do, do less”, I knew I’d found the right equine bodywork modality for me to pursue. It was the same sensation I’d felt in 2001 when I heard Mark Rashid say, “softness is joy”. Twenty years later, I’m still swimming with that comment, and still passionate about learning more about the feeling of joy, not only with horses and clients, but also within my life.
In our work with horses, my husband Mark and I are consistent in our message about softness. This is a quality that has more to do with us as riders, than it does with a specific technique that will yield a specific feel from the horse. One of the many key components to living in a softer way, as opposed to using softness as another technique, is the ability to recognise when we can do less. Spoiler alert: doing less with horses is the answer most of the time.
In a society and culture that values and celebrates always striving and always achieving more (fill in the blank – money, power, fame, etc.), sectors of the horse world have grasped this striving with both hands. It’s one of the multiple reasons why we have horses being started as yearlings and competing at two years of age. That’s the equivalent of asking a five-year-old child to run a marathon. However, there are a growing number of us who want to be with horses in kinder ways that aren’t based on dominance practices, and here are a couple of ideas to consider when switching from a ‘more is more’ mindset to ‘less is more’.
I would first add that there’s nothing wrong with less. There’s nothing intrinsically less valuable in helping a horse feel better for five seconds, than there is for five hours. However, as humans, we take those five seconds and want more. Now granted, our reasons are benevolent, but because the ‘more is more’ mindset can run us, well mindlessly, we skip over the fact that for a worried or troubled horse, those five seconds mean a lot. We could, in fact, leave them alone and see if those five seconds lead to something else. We could trust that our horses know themselves best. We could give our doubt a break and trust that we know ourselves best too, which creates a mindset where mistakes aren’t so devastating.
Since I’ve been working with horses in the context of a trainer longer than I have as an equine bodyworker, I’ve had a lot of time to dance with my personal ‘more is more’ devil. If I had a penny for every horse I’ve pushed out of a misguided sense of wanting more, well, I’d have a lot of pennies. However, as with anything else, the longer we do something and the more committed we are to learning about that something, the better we get.
After enough horses tell us that what we told them to do didn’t work, and to try another way, we start to tone ourselves down a little. After enough times of being scared for our own lives when our horses are also scared for theirs, we start to ask this important question: “I wonder if there’s another way?” This question is the doorway for modifying and quieting ourselves down when we are in the company of our horse.
There is also the sobering reality that, no matter our intentions, skill levels, or achievements, all of us are aging. The kind of work I did with horses in my twenties, which mostly consisted of me starting colts, riding other people’s horses, and throwing a rope at a galloping horse in a round pen, is not work I wish to keep doing now that I’m in my fifties. I look at that time in my life, and my horse training skill set, and recognise that I was learning. I don’t do any of those things with horses anymore, preferring to focus on how clear and subtle I can be, and still have the horse hear it. Notice I didn’t say ‘respond’. Horses must be in a state of relaxed alertness to hear us and then respond.
Horses who are trained in flight or fight (survival mode) aren’t learning anything. They are reacting to preserve their lives. I believe they stop listening and only react physically because they haven’t any other choice in the matter. Give a horse half a chance to calm down and let things settle to the part of them that will remain unclaimed by any training or human, and you have a horse who is well on her way to including us in a world that is rich and fascinating.
When we do less and give our horses the space to also do less, big things happen. I’ve seen this, both as someone who works with horses for a living, and a lifelong horse lover. It is those moments of quiet recognition that while horses and people may seem quite different on the outside, we are very much alike on the inside. Our brains are different, and we process the world around us differently, but we feel many of the same things: ‘ease’ when we are safe, ‘upset’ when we perceive danger. Trust with consistency. Distrust without it.
It’s not as though, as humans, we have the inability to be soft and subtle. We are born with it, as is the rest of nature. A slight wind on a hot day feels like a caress on our sweaty skin, but add some speed to that wind, and now it’s a hurricane or a tornado. Our own human nature has this spectrum within it as well, but where do we choose to reside? Do we go through our life like a breeze or a tornado? We can choose to do less, just as easily as we choose to do more.
It all begins with awareness and self-control. Can we tell when our leg is working too hard, or we’re pushing with our seat the whole time we ride our horse? Can we see that a spin of the rope was one too many, and that in fact, our horse was on her way to moving and we added unnecessary fuel to that fire? Can we become aware of how we shut a door or how we brush our teeth? What is our mindset when we drive a car in the company of a lot of other drivers? The list is as varied as the life you live each day.
There are hundreds of opportunities to practise doing less before we even lay eyes on our horses. Once we can make this state of mind as easily accessible as doing more, we begin to see with clearer eyes when our horses need less, and how by doing less, we create more ease both in them and ourselves.
Article first published in the August edition of Western Horse UK, 2021.