We all know horses are great teachers. But they’re also great “discovery partners.” Not just for exploring new places, but for tapping into our mutual potential.
One of my favorite such discovery partners was a 14.2-hand palomino Paint lesson pony named Sissy.
At first blush, Sissy might have seemed an unlikely candidate for potential-building—unless you wanted to discover how high you could bounce at a trot. For one thing, her high rump, flat withers and muscular physique seem to be optimized for trotting speed and little else. For another, she possessed an independent mind and the determination to match. She once walked out of dressage practice by climbing over the dressage arena’s cavaletti border, pausing only when she knocked a pole. Many times, the only discoveries she seemed interested in making were where her best buddy was, or whether you seriously meant to turn at Point A instead of Point B.
But once you connected with Sissy, only the firmest laws of nature limited what you could do together. Riding became a dance—a downhill, sometimes bouncy one, but fun and free.
A year or so into our relationship, my instructor began teaching me about Sally Swift’s concept of riding from one’s core, or “center.” Sissy responded noticeably, turning from my seat and moving with the movement of my hips. She still conveyed (and sometimes followed through on) her own opinions and ideas. But our improved communication brought us closer together and opened the door for exploring new skills.
We developed some of those skills directly through my instructor’s coach-ing. But others we picked up on our own while going about our assigned patterns or wandering around the arena during downtimes.
A memorable discovery
One day when I was about 15, while walking the rail during a lull in the lesson, we made one of the most memorable of those discoveries.
We rounded a corner onto the arena’s long side and approached a line of cones. We’d already weaved through them on previous laps, bending around each in turn until we were both relieved to resume the straightaway.
My heart sank a bit at the idea of maneuvering through yet more repeated curves. Maybe, I thought, we could cut time and effort with an extra-shallow serpentine. I decided to see how little turning we could get away with.
Now, to understand the significance of what happened next, you must understand this: At that point in my equestrian career, I’d never performed any lateral movements (a few clumsy turns on the forehand and haunches notwithstanding). I dreamed of doing upper-level dressage but was still perfecting 20-meter circles and straight lines. I possessed only vague, complicated notions of how to execute diagonal movements—but nothing about how they should feel and look from the saddle. And at the moment Sissy and I entered the cone weave, I had no thoughts of trying.
We passed a cone to our left. I kept my hands still, waiting. Sissy’s shaggy crest extended in a straight line in front of me, on track to pass the next cone. I watched her left ear draw closer and closer to that bright orange marker.
Just before we reached it, I moved both hands to the left. At the same time, I kept my body facing more or less squarely ahead. I imagined moving Sissy’s withers sideways, out of the cone’s way. My goal was to shift us both left, just enough to avoid the obstacle and put it on our right as we moved forward.
It worked. Sissy stepped cleanly around the cone, her body mirroring mine, and resumed a straight path forward along the rail. Delighted, I repeated the move at the next few cones. We zigzagged our way through the weave until we were clear.
Later, as we wound down the ranch’s gravel drive on our way home, my mom observed, “Chris said Sissy doesn’t leg-yield for everybody.”
My jaw dropped. “That was a leg yield?”
Apparently, my humble lesson pony and I could perform a recognizable leg yield, on little more than a thought, repeatedly. My heart swelled with gratitude for my pony and with pride at what we’d accomplished together—accidentally.
I’ve treasured that memory for many years since. It inspires me to work harder to uncover whatever potential lies within horses and me. And it reminds me that connection and (reasonable) playfulness are just as important to that quest as is formal education.
I’m not the only one who’s had such an experience. Recently, a horse trainer I follow on social media described stumbling upon horsemanship practices that “worked,” but for which she had no name or formal explanation … and that she later discovered were being practiced by other equestrians as well.
For me, such moments offer doses of humility and wonder. And joy—the joy of realizing what we humans and equines can do and learn together.
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