Shhh, Don’t Scare the Cows…

I have a new riding plan.  It’s unorthodox, but it’s working.

I’ve watched lots of dressage videos, imprinting my memory, to emulate the good riding later.  Sort of a visual aid to my brain: see this footage?  Do that, K?

I know this works for many riders.

Frustrating. It doesn’t work for me.  I went back to concepts that I understand in my body.

  1. Whatever I am physically holding, the horse can’t use.
  2. Look for the places I brace my body.  Those will be the areas the horse can’t relax in, since I’m bracing against him.


it’s not always bad. Quiet holding with my body can be a powerful tool to keep a line straight or block a ribcage from drifting.  The concept also helps me stop unconscious holding: letting the horse have room to move forward within the outline, and not stop impulsion.


Oy.  Is there anywhere I don’t brace, at some point? (Gumby bracing.  Bend one part and another part stiffens!)  I discovered I brace my wrists (?!?!?), creating a counter brace in Hudson, making it very difficult for him to be soft.  He can be super light, but not soft. How do you soften wrists?  I’m still working on that one.

During the last few weeks, I’ve watched the video of Kathy cutting steers on Rhodie many times. She has something I want, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Stillness? Quiet? Relaxation? Yes, but the way she is doing it is different from what I do.

The next time I got on Hudson, I went through my checklist (it’s Hudson, there’s a little give and take):

Jane: Hmmm….what am I holding? [mentally going through body parts]

Hudson: Jane? I believe you are holding the reins.  Feel free to drop them.

He’s a humorous guy.

Jane: tension in body…where am I bracing myself? Good grief.  Who braces their ankles?!? I will my ankles to stop “bracing” against the stirrups.

Hudson: Don’t care if you brace.  Hellloooo, I’ll just brace back. Win-win. Can we GO already?

I picture Kathy on Rhodie: that quality of internal and external stillness  you need when approaching high flight animals. Why not try?  

Jane: Still.  Completly relaxed. I am one with my horse…I am one with the herd. Ohm.

Hudson: CATTLE?!? WHERE???? I’m on it.  Point me.

His head flew into the air, his ears swiveled wildly, and he became absolutely and totally silent.  He saw the cows in my head, he knew. My body was saying “get ready for cows”, and he was ready.

His reaction was the best possible positive feedback. I did it. I’m quiet enough for cows!

I warmed us up on the access road as if we were moving through a large herd of invisible steers.  He’d begin to amp up (seeing my imaginary cows) and I’d say, with my body “Shhh…don’t scare the cows.” He was instantly quiet. Our connection was electric, solid. For the first time, in his mind, we were partners. I finally hit teammate status with Hudson!

The change is profound.

In order to broadcast “safe”, I have to stay  emotionally and physically contained
in a way that is new for me on the back of a horse. It’s impossible to broadcast “unthreatening” if I’m not self-contained, relaxed, focused, and quiet.

When we went into other gaits, I imagined going through a herd of steers at the trot or canter. Whole new experience. I am GLUED like a pivot to the saddle: a very relaxed pivot. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great start. Finally, I can feel the dressage axiom that was too abstract for me to integrate: my seat belongs to the horse.

This is why I appreciate good horsemanship wherever it shows up.  Apparently I’m too concrete of a thinker to apply spoken dressage axioms.

But watching a good cutting team, I suddenly could visualize it in a way that made sense to me.

Give me an imaginary herd of steers, and I get it.  I GET IT! Whahooooooo!!!

(Shhhh…don’t scare the cattle…)

If you try invisible cattle, let me know if it worked for you or not, and how you felt it went!

What unorthodox things have you done to “get” things in  your disciplines?

12 thoughts on “Shhh, Don’t Scare the Cows…

  1. I had an ah-hah moment this week with my diva of a TB, with our canter work and accepting contact. I learned if I sit more centered and light with my inside seatbone, the canter is more foward and engaged rather than cranky and up and down and I don’t feel like I am pushing her around the arena. I was thrilled, and my mare was happy with me too–I’m sure she was thinking “it’s about time” 🙂

  2. Wow!!! I came here from Kate’s blog and so glad she put the link up! I am a very visual person and this sounds great, I must try it. I often wonder what my horse would do if ask to do some work with cows, he loves them since he lived and played with some for 4 years. I know he knows at times what I am thinking because he has done it with no cues from me….it’s just getting my mind (sigh) to be quiet and go there! ha

  3. I remember once (and it was only once) years ago during a bareback lesson when I had this moment of absolute stillness and balance, even though my horse was trotting (and turning) at the same time. It was a moment I never forgot, mainly because it was such an alien sensation I felt like I’d been slapped. How is it physically possible to experience stillness like that while you’re still MOVING…at a trot and turn no less..? It’s absolutely delightful, in part because it means you’re really “there” with the horse. And you’ve described that feeling perfectly here.

  4. I was having problems with “raise inside seatbone for canter departs.” My horse canters off a windshield-wiper-like movement with the outside leg (and only from that – anything else is too similar to cues for lateral work in his mind), but when I’d think about my inside seatbone I’d press it down instead of lifting it. Thinking “lift” didn’t work, but in fact guaranteed wrong lead. Turns out he’s actually more cueing off the seat than the leg! I never had problems cantering from a leg yield – so I figured out what happens is I have to “supprt” with my inside leg – and that gets my seatbone out of his back so he can do it.

    As for relaxation – I have a history showing Quarter Horses, and I think about getting my very first, fond of running away and bucking, lousy moving, brat of a horse to do a jog. To get a true jog, two-beat, nice carriage, jog on that horse I had to drop my weight as if it were melding into her body, and just move myself in the rhythm I wanted her to go. I think of that and my horse automatically shortens his stride 2′ and gets slow but energetic into this near-pirouette canter. I still haven’t managed it at the trot because it…ahem… bounces me out of the saddle if I try to sit in the same method. But it’s interesting finding out how the same thoughts/memories from 25+ years ago apply to a stubby, poor-moving QH and a 16.3 leggy OTTB.

  5. Ginger has been having trouble picking up the correct lead at the canter (as you’ve seen) going in one direction. We have been working diligently on this. Sometimes she’d get it more often she wouldn’t. We would both end up frustrated. During a lesson a couple a weeks ago, my trainer suggested I visualize her picking up the correct lead – it worked. Now we are incorporating that in collection, bending etc.

    The thought of cattle would send Ginger of the edge….get them away from me now! I just had a bath!

    1. I can picture Ginger planting at the very idea of going near a cow. 😉 She’d whip out your cell phone and make an appointment to get her mane done.

      Visualizing is so powerful. I’m doing a similar thing with my canter departs. My ‘always cue with the outside leg’ body memory was screwing up our collected departs. He cues off the inside. My brain couldn’t get there fast enough.

      I stopped physically cuing for leads at all. I sit, picture “canter on inside lead”. Off we go, correct! I’ve noticed she’s going beautifully on her leads, brilliant!

  6. Loved it! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental and physical “allowing” and your post is a great example of that – really like the cross-discipline aspect as well. Hope you don’t mind if I link.

    1. I’m flattered by a link, please do. There may be other stuck DQ’s out there, who can’t translate “Dressage Talk” into action, but might be able to find another picture that works for them. (Whether it’s cows, or something else!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s