Friday, November 18, 2011

The Importance of Nothing



Much of our attention when we ride is focused on What To Do to produce the desired result. It occurred to me the other day -- and it always seems like I get these revelations after riding in a clinic with Henrik Johansen -- that much of our time in the saddle should be spent doing nothing.

What? Slouch along like a sack of potatoes? Snooze in the saddle?

No, of course not. I don't mean you, the rider, shouldn't care about what the horse is or isn't doing. "Doing Nothing" means you let him do what he needs to do, give him the responsibility to carry out his part of the task without nagging -- or, as I sometimes think of it, "helping."

Henrik pointed out that when I used continual aids Fable (yes, that "Fable" -- Eddie isn't ready to go back to the work a clinic requires yet) became somewhat sullen and resistent. He also pointed out that when I simply rode in balance and with my plan in mind Fable relaxed and showed the true beauty of his gaits.

Now here's the important part.

At no time was I overtly, much less strongly, driving the horse forward. Of course I was trying to do the exercises Henrik was asking of us, and of course I wanted to be perfect. However, what I wasn't doing was the "Nothing" that not only gave Fable the opportunity to show me he could do his job, but also told him I approved of and trusted him.

I lacked the pure "Nothing" that allowed Fable to shine his brightest.

Think of it this way: Look at a painting of say, a horse. The horse is defined by the lines and brush strokes that depict its body, limbs, neck, etc. But it's also defined by the space around it -- the empty space. Empty space plays an important role, but it is space you don't notice because it doesn't intrude. If there's something wrong with the empty space, it muddies the painting.

Don't believe me? Take a look at some "camouflage" art. Bev Doolittle's paintings are a particular favorite of mine. She hides people and animals in the negative space of her paintings. I went to a talk she gave once, years and years ago, and remember clearly how impressed I was at the complex process, the layers and layers of planning she went through to create a single painting.

That "Empty Space" isn't ever as empty as it seems. It serves a purpose and takes training to get right.

I can't help but notice how much time I spend every day filling space with activity. Less frantic "doing" and more purposeful "quiet" to allow the important things to shine through might be a good life lesson. And likely as difficult to accomplish out of the saddle as in it.

24 comments:

  1. Having been micromanaged by well intentioned bosses, I know how Fable feels.

    You know the "doing nothing" thing is a very zen idea too. The zen masters talk about having a "mind like water."

    Water is still and calm, until disturbed -- and when disturbed it acts in exact balance to the disturbance, then then goes back to calm. The idea is only reacting as necessary, and letting things be until it matters.

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  2. Oooo, I like that! The Zen/water thing ... not the micromanaging. You know, the darn thing is that sometimes you don't even realizing you're doing it until you stop!

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  3. This post was well worth waiting for, Susan. You've summed up what this world needs, and if that sounds like a sweeping generalization, I spologize for not having better words.

    You and Fable sound like a good partnership.

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  4. This is reminding me of Zen, too, of freeing your mind. Sometimes the solutions to my plot knots come when I quit thinking about them, quit picking at them. Thanks for the post.

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  5. The monkeys that chatter and natter in my mind are laughing hysterically. You make it sound so simple - but it's not. At least, it looks simple, until I try to implement it. But maybe that's the point? It should just be. Not actively implemented.

    Uh oh, those mental monkeys are now laughing and pointing and hopping up and down. :( Still, great post. Very deep.

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  6. Fran, glad you're patient with me! Fable is a wonderful boy -- very different from Eddie, but a charmer just the same. And I agree with your world view!

    Kaye, isn't that the truth? The solutions often come when they aren't forced, when they're allowed to bob to the surface on their own.

    Rhonda, I'm familiar with those monkeys. "Nothing" is sooooo hard! I finally got a glimpse of the Nothing at the end of the second day of the clinic. It was like getting whacked with a hammer between the eyes! And....it was very hard to maintain -- just as you said, actively implementing it made it disappear. There is a lot of training required to make those monkeys sit down and shut up!

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  7. Hi Susan, I enjoyed your blog--found the link on FB. You should visit www.equestrianink.blogspot.com Like you we are riders and writers. We'd love to have you comment. Share the knowledge and fun! Best, Alison Hart

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  8. Hi Alison! So glad you stopped by. Thank you for the link to your blog. I stopped over to comment. How great to have a blog full of horse people! Wonderful posts!

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  9. Great way of thinking on how to ride your horse. Many people don't realize how important it is to let your horse take over once in a while with you not kicking and pulling him the whole time. Horses are very smart animals and I think we overlook them and take too much responsibility of the ride when we are on them. They can handle a lot on their own, and I think it's important for them to show us all that they can do once in a while.

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  10. The "Nothing" also lets a horse know he's doing what you've asked. It's the reward of a "safe place" where he can stay without getting picked on, or corrected. If we're consistent in what we ask and when we leave him alone, he learns -- and maintains that "safe place" without us having to nag. I agree, it's important for them to show us how cooperative they can be. They're social animals and cooperation means they stay in the herd where it's safe!

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  11. This gives me something to think about. I read Clinton Anderson the other day and he said to allow your horse "wiggle room" and let him think to correct himself sometimes (paraphrased by me) But then I went to a clinic with Buck and he said he is always guiding his horse as the horses legs are his legs. Even around an arena HE tells the horse when to turn - even though the fence curves.

    So, there must be a "happy medium" that I need to find.

    Great post.

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  12. I could be wrong, Margaret, but I think you're dealing with semantics -- and the difficulty of expressing something physical in verbal terms. My take is that both men actually mean the same thing (although I've never read anything by Mr. Anderson or seen him ride, I have listened to Buck and watched him ride). Consider how the horse views the rider. What would make sense to him? The rider does what she wants the horse to do, and when the horse does it they're in harmony -- like a couple dancing together. The horse can relax and "express" himself within that space defined by the riders subtle movements. If the rider backs off -- say, to leave the horse alone -- the horse will back off too because he is imitating the rider. The "neutral" position of influence -- I can't think of what else to call it -- is difficult to learn. We don't want to badger the horse with our aids, but we can't leave him unguided either. Trust your horse to tell you how you're doing, if you're being clear, giving him a chance, asking too much or not enough. Best of luck. As Henrick has said to me on more than one occasion -- the hardest thing is to know what exactly you want.

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  14. I just stumbled onto your blog (glad I did). An interesting blog post. I look forward to reading more.

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    1. Glad you happened by, Ashlie. There will be a new post soon -- horses are always teaching me something!

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  15. You should check out this new web-based animal reality show called Animal Movers. It is about a pet transportation company that moves animals all around the world. They move many different types of animals. The latest episode was about transporting horses to the Kentucky Derby. It was very interesting and family friendly. You can find it at www.animalmovers.tv

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  16. Very well written. Keep up the good work.

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  17. good post about

    The Importance of Nothing

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  18. Susan, I had to laugh as I read this post because I knew exactly what you were getting at, having experienced it with a guide dog. One of my partner's guide dogs was quite insulted if I ever took her arm or made a suggestion to her about traffic, people, crossings, or anything that smacked of my taking his place! It showed in his body language and the fact that, if it happened more than once or twice in a walk, he would deliberately poop on the sidewalk while we walked! I can see him now, looking up at me with his "take that" look when he'd done a sidewalk poop to put me in my place.

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    1. Now there's book material! Animals, whether horses, dogs, cat or what-have-you are very aware of what is going on around them and very aware of their role. Sounds like he trained you to respect his!

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