Friday, March 27, 2015

This week's word to the wise is rotate.

If you're familiar with Connected Riding, then right now you're picturing a rider, gently rotating her whole upper body, to encourage the horse to bend in that direction, thus releasing the spine. And yes, that's partly what I mean. But today I'd like to expand on that concept and apply it to other areas.

When we ride, it is important to rotate frequently. It releases tension in both the rider's and horse's spine, and encourages the horse to use the serratus muscles to gently lift and shift the ribcage, allowing room for the inside hind to come under the barrel and for the horse's weight to shift to the outside hind, creating engagement and balance. Rotating keeps us from getting stuck, especially if we remember to rotate in both directions. It's also a great way to evaluate your body; if you go to rotate and you can't, or your horse falls in instead of bending, chances are you're out of alignment, and have tensed up somewhere. It can help us remember to breathe, release our backs, and find a neutral pelvis, right when we need it most.

Likewise, it is important to rotate your focus frequently. When riding or training our horses, we often get narrowly focused on one aid, or one skill, or one outcome. We ask over and over again. First the horse gets it, or doesn't, but gradually he gets duller and duller. Maybe he responds beautifully at first, but then we keep asking, and the response weakens. If we're not careful, we get tense and frustrated, and then so does the horse.

Humans are capable of intense, long-lasting focus. This is partly because we evolved as carnivores, all of whom evolved to have their eyes and ears pointed forward to allow them to focus on their prey. But humans have also evolved an incredibly long attention span. We track prey for long distances, build elaborate structures, cook our food.... these activities have only come about because our brains evolved to be capable of seeing from the beginning of the task to the end. We can conceptualize of abstract ideas, of narratives, with an end result that results directly from our conscious action.

Horses, meanwhile, evolved to have an attention span of about three seconds. Sure, they might seem singularly focused on that pile of hay. But if you watch closely, you'll notice that their eyes and ears scan the horizon, or the barn, about every 3-5 seconds, if not more. They are constantly distracted. They have to be; they evolved to notice immediately if something in their environment changed, so that they could evaluate whether or not the change represented danger, and if so, react quickly.

I'm not saying we have to treat the horse as if we've just started a new conversation with him every three seconds. For one thing, many horses learn to focus a huge percentage of their attention on their rider/handler; they meet us more than halfway. But we can meet them there. We can learn to allow our own focus to be a little more open. Ask for something once, twice, maybe three times, then move on. Take a breath in-between each repetition. Allow some fresh air in to our awareness. In so doing, we might find we learn more quickly to be better riders, because we allow subtle cues from the horse to guide our second and third request. We can become more precise when we are more open to feedback.

The same can be said about our day to day existence. Many of us do something, and it seems to work, so we do it over and over and over again. Sometimes it continues to work, sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it never did, we just didn't take the time to test the theory. Try rotating your activities, your routines, the things you focus on. Try taking a breath in-between engagements, interactions, or tasks. Try subtly changing the aids you give yourself. You might find your life is giving you useful feedback.

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