Embodying YES and NO, a Practice to Start Young

It is my belief that basic horsemanship skills are inextricably linked to taking responsibility for what we do and how we show up in every moment with every horse. Basic “humanship” depends on that same self-awareness and self-responsibility. Learning to successfully communicate with a horse translates into the experiential learning of life skills. Social skills, authenticity, clarity, confidence… students can’t learn these things from books, but they can learn them from horses.

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One particularly shy young girl of about 11 or 12 was struggling with how to ask the horse with clarity and authority to move forward and to stop. Because she had come to us in Montebelli stables for riding sessions, we had done our best to help her use her body and her breath to relax and center herself, and to understand how to give direction to the horse with her energy, not with her muscle…

After two sessions, it was apparent that the 500-kilo former racehorse was still calling the shots most of the time while she was riding. For the third session, we decided to do something different. Her mother obliged, as we explained that sometimes a totally different interaction with a horse can help people have breakthroughs in their riding. (It can also help them have breakthroughs in all kinds of areas of their lives.) One interesting fact to note: The girl spoke no Italian and very little English, so her mother had been translating at the stables the whole time. In today’s session, I explained that we wouldn’t need translation, as it was going to be all about body language.

The basic idea was to walk into a paddock with three horses at liberty, and to make ourselves open and inviting enough for them to come to us. At first, she was unsure of the instructions, of herself, of pretty much the whole activity. We spent some very long minutes trying to relax into the unknowingness and the uncertainty she was feeling. When she finally stopped looking back at me to see if she was doing everything right, she began to focus on the horses in the middle of the paddock. Her strides began to take on more weight and conviction. I could see her chest rise and fall with deep breaths, and her arms were slightly raised away from her hips, palms forward.

The horses one by one took notice, at first just pausing between bites of hay. Then they raised their heads. Two horses turned their heads toward her. She stopped and stood, continuing to look to them, holding herself as if she was welcoming them to come to her for a hug. I stood a short distance behind her, allowing her energy to be the focal point as much as possible. In only a few seconds, two horses started walking towards her. The joy on her face was beaming. As they arrived, she began stroking their heads and necks, and they eagerly moved in even closer for more attention. She started to giggle a bit as one horse nudged her torso with his head. In that moment, however, she was taken off balance. Though there was no immediate danger, I reminded her about the practice of staying balanced and centered. She got her feet back evenly and squarely beneath her shoulders, and faced into the horses again.

She continued to say,”Yes, come in!” The horses kept pushing on her. Though she was not distressed, she was concerned, realizing how easily she might be overpowered, and it was time for the lesson to shift. Without any words, I showed her how to make her body like a mountain, and to send her energy from her center, supported by her arms coming up and forward to say “No more!” and the horses immediately backed off. As I backed away, the horses began to turn towards her, and when one horse’s head started to come close in to her body, she practiced one of the strongest “No!” stances I’ve seen. In fact, she continued to back them further away, and they seemed visibly surprised at this radical change. We practiced being inviting, accepting and then setting limits.

We thanked all the horses for their work, and as we walked back toward her mother, I could see that witnessing this experience had brought up some emotion in her. I, too, felt the emotion stirring around the tremendous importance of young girls safely, quickly and obviously learning to embody their boundaries, and learning the power of their own bodies’ energy.

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