Last week, we executed a perfect weave pattern, at the sitting jog-trot. We did serpentines at a relaxed posting trot that was as balanced as we’ve been in recent memory. We performed walk-halt-back-trot transitions a few times. We were engaged, connected, responsive, and we caught some of it on video. Proof it happened!
And also great feedback for how I push my feet forward in the stirrups and don’t hug with my thighs and my hands are all over the place and I do all sorts of other bad stuff, such that my next lesson (yesterday) really felt like a riding lesson, in which made a whole bunch of changes and got all kinds of better in just the one session.
But! Before that, this was our best Freestyle riding to date. In fact, it was good enough that I will post 15 seconds of our video, our BEFORE benchmark for 3 months from now. This is where I am on my journey as I start the riding phase of Parelli level 2. [[Note: Some have said they can't see the embedded video, so here's the link.]]
What changed? Everything, of course, based on our mini-clinic. (A mini-clinic in purposeful engagement) I kept the phrase “purposeful engagement” in mind and tried to check in with myself periodically. Am I purposeful? Am I engaged? Where is my focus? If I set the example, Rocky can follow my lead.
I put this into practice yesterday after I mounted up. Instead of standing at the mounting block for a few minutes, breathing and deepening and stretching, I spent about 30 seconds doing that and then brought up some excitement and said “C’mon Rocky let’s go let’s go!” and asked for forward. He walked slowly forward, then turned his nose toward the rail and started to head back toward the gate, where our friend Seth stood with a camera. And instead of resisting this turn, I went with it until we were facing Seth, and then asked for a back-up.
Rocky stepped back willingly enough for a stride or two and then stopped, so I asked again, and kept a little pressure on, and backed all the way to the middle of the arena — trying at the same time to keep my left leg on as he wanted to swing his hindquarters to the left. I continued to insist on straightness even if it took us a while to get there, and on backing up steadily if not swiftly, and I felt the click when his attention left Seth and locked on to me.
We halted for a few seconds and then I asked him to trot forward, and I think he was so surprised that he did so without any brace or question at all. We followed the rail for a circuit and then cut across the arena to change directions and follow the rail another 3/4 circuit and then started serpentines…the weave…walk-halt-back-walk and walk-halt-back-trot transitions…and after about ten minutes of this, walked cheerfully up to Seth and halted for quite a long lick-and-chew and a smooth dismount. Somewhere in there we had a nice extended walk and I did my stretching and deepening. Rocky put effort into his responsibilities of maintaining gait and direction and he felt happy and willing.
I was elated and exhausted. Partly from the semi-bronchitis I’d experiencing for the previous three days (that did indeed turn into a week of sickness, bleh), but also from the focus and concentration of 100 percent purposeful engagement. I was using every muscle and continually checking in — asking myself: eyes up? shoulders level? core engaged? legs wrapping? heels elongating? energy and body lifting? lifting to turn, lifting to back, lifting to stop? and hell why not lifting to go forward too? — and coming up with patterns and keeping signals clear and not getting distracted by our audience or the other animals on the ranch.
Those times that I do manage to “engage the natural power of focus” per the Parelli Four Responsibilities of the Human, I rediscover just how much attention and engagement that takes.
Probably the only other place in my life where I manage that is when becoming completely absorbed in a book, where I no longer hear environmental noises or have any awareness of my own life separate from the life I’m living in the book. But that is almost entirely mental and emotional; the physical part is merely in laughing, crying, startling, heart pounding, and other small motions. Reading does not take the physical fitness as horsemanship does, nor is one generally managing one’s body through time-and-space, so there are fewer factors to keep within the sphere of focus. (I considered other activities — eating, sex, swimming in the ocean — and I still think the closest analogy for me is reading.)
Yet the more I stumble into the sweet spot by accident, whether it’s two strides of perfect harmony while riding or one arena length of total, absolute focus, the more I know what it feels like and the more able I am to seek it, and then even to find it.