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As I am driving to Freedom Ride to teach for the day my mind begins to race. “I hope I have enough volunteers for all my lessons today:”, with that first thought the flood gates of my mind open and I begin thinking….

I hope Zeus is feeling better because I really need him for John’s lesson.  John has made such great progress and I don’t  want to cancel his lesson.  Last week was a great accomplishment for John, I still can not believe I cried when I saw him walk around the arena with no side walkers, sitting up straight, completely independent.

Last week was the first time he has been able to have the taste of freedom and ride independently. John, has been in a wheel chair and depended on his caretakers since his accident seven years ago. I begin to smile as I drive and realize how far John has comes over the past two years at Freedom Ride.

My thoughts switch to Ashley,  I really hope she overcomes her fear of cantering off the lounge line, today. I’m a little confused as to where her fear is coming from, she was cantering by herself beautifully just a couple of weeks ago. I need to talk to her mom about it, maybe, there is something that happened outside of her riding lesson that I am not aware of. She was making so much progress and I really want her to show in the walk, trot, canter class at Special Olympics this year.

Then I remember,  I need to complete all the paperwork for Special Olympics and I have to get all my progress notes to the program director from the previous session.  This is the moment, when I start to feel overwhelmed about my day and I haven’t even started teaching.

Ethan pops into my mind, and I can’t wait to see that big smile again when he starts trotting. That is one of those moments when I realize why I love teach therapeutic riding. What an incredible feeling to see, this little y year old, laughing and smiling when just three weeks ago he was afraid to even get on Pete the pony.

I have to give Titan a strong leader in today’s lessons. He was nipping yesterday when we went into the trot. I have to find time today and work with him. He is getting bored with the lessons and I need take him out on a trial ride to break up his day and get him out of the arena, at that moment I begin to be consumed with thoughts about all the horses and their needs.

I start to realize that my day is becoming a lot longer than I first anticipated.  I also have to get on Argus and ride him at some point.  He was not exercised that much in the past week and I need to work with him if I want him to stay in our program. I see so much potential in him and think he would be a great addition. We only have six more weeks until the trial period is over and we need to make our decision whether not keep him for the program. He is so willing and level-headed, he just needs a little work since he is an 8-year-old warm blood and has not been worked in over a year.

 

I pull into the parking lot, and remember that Lou, my led volunteer is on vacation. I depend on him to keep things running while I am teaching and I can not do my job effectively without him. He keeps the barn going and the lessons on schedule. I really count on him to help with tacking up, bringing horses in from the pasture, feeding and managing the other volunteers. “What am I going to do without him, today?”

My day begins and as I am walking to the stable I see that Joan is there. I take a deep breath of relief.  Joan, our other lead volunteer, must have heard me say that Lou was going to be out today and decided to show up and help. Freedom Ride would not exist without the support and dedication of the wonderful volunteers and I am thankful for them everyday.

This is just a glimpse into my life as a therapeutic riding instructor.It has been the most challenging and rewards position I have ever held. I had the pleasure of being part of an amazing team of loyal horses, staff and volunteers at Freedom Ride Therapeutic Riding Center in downtown Orlando FL.  Freedom Ride is dedicated to enriching the lives and experiences of children and adults with mental and physical disabilities by engaging them in various equestrian activities designed to promote and improve physical, mental and social well-being. Freedom Ride is built on the conviction that we are not defined by our limitations. I am honored to have been part of the Freedom Ride team and working with amazing staff, students and horses. Freedom Ride truly exemplifies the meaning of Horsepower for the Spirit.

Learning to communicate with your horse is similar to learning a foreign language. Although, you cannot communicate in a language until you have learned the fundamentals of grammar, vocabulary and syntax, you need to hear the language spoken many times to get a feel for its cadence and flow. Likewise, in riding you need to learn how to use your hands and legs effectively to give the aids. You also need to learn the feel of the horse when he is straight, balanced, and rhythmical.  Relaxation enhances your ability to empathize with the horse, and strengthens your ability to feel what you are seeing. This makes the language easier to learn.

While we have learned how to communicate with our aids, practice our balanced seat and relax our body, we must make a commitment to take the risks involved with asking our horse to do exactly what we want, with the expectation that he will listen. The risk of a communication breakdown always exists, we must bravely declare our will despite the possible problems. No risk, no gain. Your horse will quickly let you know if he understands you or not. If not, you can continue to ask, as often as necessary, until he shows you that he understands through a correct response. This risk-taking with a horse is much safer than it is with people.

Miscommunication with a horse is immediately recognizable, because we do not get the outcome we expect. When this happens, we should pause for a moment and try again. If too many retries are necessary, we should walk and review what is happening. Somehow we are not getting the message through to our horse. Re-evaluate what and how you are asking making sure your horse understands what you want.

Misunderstandings, whether with a horse or man, are the root of most problems. Each of us has an obligation to try to avoid failures in communication. The first step is to believe that we do not want to cause harm or discomfort to another being. The second step is to be observant to the response of our communication: we must notice the reactions of our partner. If we notice any reaction other than the one we intended, we must change the way we phrase our question until we are certain that the other party understands what our statement or question means. We can never assume that the other party understands our meaning, we must always closely observe his reaction.  We do this automatically while on our horse. Horses demand an immediate response or they do not know what to do. People do not have this need.   It is important to remember that, whether you are dealing with a horse or human, unsatisfactory communications that remain unresolved do not go away.  The longer they remain, the more negative energy they accumulate. What began as simple misunderstanding can become a resentment, grudge, hostility, or even aggression. Therefore, it is important to resolve ill feelings as soon as possible.

Something I have learned over the years being in the saddle, as well as on the ground teaching,  is to communicated with my instructor. Especially when I was younger, I was afraid to express my concerns, frustrations and especially my fears. Once I started communicating with my instructor about my feelings, problems I was having outside of my lesson and as well as my fears we discovered (together) solutions easier and my problems were solved much more quickly.  Since, instructors are not mind readers, they make decisions based on what they see. Once I started teaching I realized that many hours of frustration could be avoided if students developed the confidence to express themselves to their instructor. Ideally, students should try to achieve a complete communication cycle with their instructor. The student asks a question, the instructor answers, and the student then acknowledges the answer. Effective communication is the essence of teaching, and it is also the fundamental process of learning.

Our conversation with horses is through body language and energy,  rather than through the words that dominate human interchange. Since body language and energy play a major role in our horse interaction, we must learn the art of a new type of communication. In order for our body to be a relaxed and supple communicator, it must be in balance with our mind. Only then can can it offer us the highly refined interaction necessary for the quick, effective conversation we need and desire with our horses.

Our philosophy sets the tone for all forms of communications.  The more we can believe in a positive attitude, unconditional love, and free flowing energy, the more likely it is that out interactions will have a positive outcome. Determining your personal philosophy and purpose in life paves the way for the most effective communication. 

Whether communicating with horse or man, all interactions have a three-part cycle. These three steps are clear and concise; question, answer and acknowledgement. For humans; ” How are you?” “I am doing well.” “That’s good to hear.”  And that’s the three-part cycle for human interactions.  For horses the three-part cycle is a little more subtle; close your legs, then close your hands (question), horse stops (answer), you soften (acknowledgement). Each of these is  a complete part of the communication cycle, and an incomplete cycle opens the door for confusion.

I still remember when I was learning to ride my corners with my young, very green thoroughbred, Chance, and the importance of this concept.  If I forgot to release my leg after Chance responded, he would speed up or pin his ears back. If I forgot to release my hand, he would get harder and harder against my hand. If I held in my seat, Chance would get more and more resistant. All these evasions were a result of Chance’s effort to do what he thought I was asking of him. It took several months to uncover all the different confusions that I was creating because I did not understand the communication formula.

Every aspect of our life is influenced by communication. Intimate disclosures, ones that require us to express what we really feel, are frightening. They frighten us because we are not certain if what we are feeling is acceptable or correct. Our feelings may not match what we think is expected. Riding requires intimate communication. I think it is easier to learn this type of conversation with a horse because a horse is non-threatening, responds without preconceived notions, and is non-judgmental. Intimate communications do not begin until we have learned the fundamental skills of riding. Position, control, and relaxation must become second nature to us, before we can begin to concentrate on communication. The first part of your riding journey encompasses learning position and basic control. While learning these skills you begin by using your hands, legs, and seat to control your horse safely.  Initially, your communication is limited to stop, go, and turn. Ultimately, however, control is through feel, so a rider must be comfortable, confident, and relaxed on the horse. A stiff rider inhibits his horse’s ability to respond, and is deaf to the responses of the horse. As a rider gains experience, these basic fundamental skills will become more refined, creating a solid foundation for more intimate communication.

The relaxation required for basic control of your horse, means that you are comfortable and balanced in your position. Once you decide to specialize in a particular riding discipline, your communication skills will be developed to meet the requirements of the discipline of your choice.  Whatever horse sport you choose, relaxation is a perquisite that allows balance, both with yourself and your horse. Becoming more deeply relaxed allows the muscles to supple, the energy to flow, and the body to move more freely. If you do not feel you are getting the results you want with your horses, you might want to look at your ability to relax both mentally and physically.