Chris Cox presented “Rebuilding Rider Confidence” at the Western States Horse Expo on Saturday. He took two nervous riders and helped them find their mental and emotional balance by finding their physical balance.
NOTE Reading the horses (and humans!) while listening to Chris Cox and Lynn Palm describe what was happening proved instructive. We heard a lot of familiar words — approach, retreat, pressure, release, partner, responsibility. Our Parelli studies empowered us to see and learn not just from what the clinicians said, but from what they did not say, and from what they did and did not do.
I am grateful for and proud of the students who were willing to share their fears with us and expose their process in front of a thousand people. I learned a lot from auditing their lessons, and saw myself in each of them! (Here’s my highlight from Lynn Palm’s session.)
Chris Cox was funny, matter-of-fact, gentle but persistent. For both of his students, the only way out was through. One of his techniques was to ask the student what she did for a living. When she answered, she had confidence and balance in her voice and body. He said to keep that confidence and balance when she was with her horse. That many unconfident riders are confident in other areas of their lives. “Climb that panel and get in here and look at this horse’s teeth,” he said to the dental hygienist.
He also pointed out that the rope between the horse’s ears was not a mistake. It put it over the horse’s poll and ensured that the horse did not choke.
Both of his students habitually leaned forward when they rode. They increased their lean when they rose to higher gaits or when they got scared at the walk, curling tight and grabbing with their hands, the way humans do when we feel threatened. Thus, both were afraid to canter. (When Chris asked the second student “have you ever cantered before?” she said “once, but not intentionally.”)
He played with their horses on the ground first, doing pre-flight checks in all zones and establishing a relationship with the horse. The second horse had a big reaction to the rope getting under his tail, bucking with his legs impressively high in the air.
Chris pointed out that in trail riding a horse could get a branch or leaves or other things brushing its butt and stuck in and under its tail, and that playing on the ground is not about “tiring the horse out before you ride” but rather about testing and teaching. “It’s there, so why not bring it out and fix it?” Chris asked, rhetorically.
Then he had the student get into the saddle and coached them on their seat. They didn’t have reins to grab onto and he taught them how to push on the saddle horn instead of pull it.
What you don’t know, you don’t know. ~ Chris Cox
One of the women especially didn’t want to go forward, not really, and the horse that had been gleefully cantering around on-line was now barely able to step forward himself. I’m not sure I have ever seen so clearly the connection between a rider’s walk-on-but-not-really body language and a horse’s hesitant steps. But Chris didn’t let either woman get stuck at a threshold by allowing a lot of walking time. Both women had to post without reins to lean on, and then both reached their peak fear when he told them to cue for the canter.
I noticed that I was tense in my belly and was not breathing either, and took some deep breaths and shook my arms and legs a little bit, up on the stands. And he kept the pressure on the student, at a phase 2, not increasing but not backing off, until each one reached the “fuck you it serves you right if I die and mess up your stupid demo” stage and signaled, firmly, with leadership, for the canter. Chris said calmly “good girl” and “shoulders back” and “sit down” and “very good” and both women very soon relaxed and the fear gave way to euphoria. The second direction was harder physically but easier emotionally and neither one took as long to get into the canter the second time.
The only way to replace fear is through knowledge. Find a program. Don’t let your dreams die. When your dreams die, you die. Being overweight and old is not an excuse. ~ Chris Cox (from my notes, possibly paraphrased)
During the session, I realized in a way I never have before that every time I have come off a horse, my shoulders were inappropriately in front of my hips. “Inappropriately” because I wasn’t jumping or roping or riding a race horse. The times I have ridden through a buck, shy, or spook, my shoulders were not in front of my hips.
Lately in my riding with Rocky I have experimented with body position, exaggerating in all kinds of ways, not just leaning forward or back but also wiggling to one side and the other, as if he were an exercise ball I wanted to bounce on and then find my balance. I also try to lie on him and pet his butt with my feet, like colt-starters do. He tolerates this and has become more relaxed about it every time. And now I have a better seat than I’ve had in years.