Conversations with a HorseJun 30, 2021
These days when I teach Personal Power techniques, people often wonder how they can use them. I tell them to experiment and to trust them to work in the most unusual ways. Here's an example of how I used one of these techniques while playing polo.
The following is an extract from my book: "Seven and A Half Minutes".
The wind is blowing like a mad hurricane. The horses are nervous; I don’t think they like that wind at all. It’s the first game of the season, and they are fresh and scared. Our coach doesn’t make things any easier as he tells us right before the first chukka, “Guys, ride like you mean it! The horses might be a bit fresh today.”
This is an understatement. The horses are mad, not fresh. Already, in the first two minutes of the chukka, it becomes very clear that the dark brown mare and I are not seeing eye to eye today.
“Leeeft! Go to the left!” I hear the faraway cry of one of my teammates.
I know what he means. Another player in my team is ahead and he’s preparing to do a backhand. I know exactly where the ball is going to go, but there’s no way I can persuade my horse to go there.
“Leeeft! Left, I said!” I hear the shout again. “That was right!”
I know. My horse has decided to go right instead and there’s not much I can do. Whatever I want to do, she thinks differently. I ride on and pull the reins. She doesn’t stop. I pull harder. Harder. I pull until I feel my fingers squeezed and about to break. The only thing I achieve is that the mare now bounces nervously on both front legs. I start losing my balance. I really don’t like what’s going on.
The game has moved on at the other side of the field while I carry on my argument with the horse.
“Roxy, what the heck are you doing there?” the captain of my team shouts across the field.
I don’t answer. What can I say? That I suddenly lost all my riding skills?
One of my former coaches is the umpire in this game. I ride around him in circles, begging him to help me. The mare doesn’t want me on today, it’s clear.
“Roxy, move on, I can’t help you,” the coach says. “I need to umpire this game! I can’t do that with you riding in circles around me!”
“I’m gonna get thrown off!” I shout back in desperation as the mare gets more and more angry with me. I start to panic.
“Just give her some rein! Look, you’ve locked her head, and she can’t move! Just give her some rein and she’ll calm down!”
I’m too scared to give her rein. I don’t trust this horse to calm down. I’m afraid she’ll run wild with me, and I won’t be able to stop her. So I pull tighter, she bounces more strongly, and now I lose my stirrups. As if by magic my legs have become shorter, and I can no longer reach my stirrups. Much later on, I learn that fear makes the body contract, and the muscles get shorter; hence the stirrups get longer. I didn’t know it then, and even if I did, it wouldn’t have helped me. Nothing and no one could possibly have helped me at that moment.
The game goes on in the distance while I fight with my horse alone. From under my Oakley protective glasses, my tears start falling one by one, thankfully blown dry by the wind. I am now crying on a polo field.
As the chukka comes to an end and I jump off, I declare I never want to see that horse again. I’m shaking in my boots, but I dry my eyes, bite my lip, and with a trembling hand I pull the reins of my next horse. But guess what? My next horse turns out to be another devil. Another chukka clinging to its back like my life depends on it. Another argument with another horse. By now I am convinced there’s something irremediably wrong with my riding skills. Either that or all the horses have gone mad today. Things get worse. The third horse doesn’t listen either. By the time I get on the fourth one, I have absolutely no expectation that it will be any better. And I’m right.
I rode four devils that day and never touched the ball. When the game was over, I felt it was a miracle that I was still alive.
I needed a full week to recover after that game. I wasn’t sure what hurt the most. The grip of panic as I felt I was about to be thrown off? The desperation of fighting with an animal who’s a ton heavier than me? The jokes of my teammates about my rapidly deteriorating riding skills? Seeing the same horses, which were so out of control with me, being so docile when ridden by other people? No idea. Hurt and humiliated, I thought that maybe I had arrived at the limits of my polo.
Something had to change. Either that or I had to give up the game.
It was then I remembered the words of one of my early polo coaches: “Think like a horse! Always ask yourself, what does the horse want? What does he see? What does he feel? And remember, there’s one thing on his mind. He is a prey animal and he wants to stay alive. And he has to trust you and know that if he does what you say, he will survive...”
Think like a horse. The key was here. Think like a horse. The following weekend I started to experiment.
“I’ll keep you safe,” I told the horse as soon as I jumped into the saddle. “I promise I’ll keep you safe.”
And then I remembered a yoga grounding practice: I imagined I was sending roots from my bum in the saddle through the horse’s body and down his legs into the earth: long, strong roots binding us together, the horse and me. “I’ll keep you safe,” I whispered to him again, watching his ears nervously moving around. I was sure he had heard me.
The first chukka went well. The horse was docile and listened to all my commands. Encouraged, I tried the same approach with the second horse. Conscious of the presence of the other players around me and not really wanting to risk being overheard in my conversations with the horse, I didn’t whisper this time. I promised him I’d look after him in my own mind. His ears still moved just as I thought the words. In a weird kind of way, it felt as if he’d heard my thoughts.
That game was one of the most peaceful I’d ever had. I wasn’t sure if it was because of that little trick of growing roots and sending them into the earth through the horse’s legs, or if it was because of my promise to him. But the horse and I became one body. He obeyed me gently and naturally; he trusted me, and I trusted him. I grew more confident and more relaxed. I worried less about the horse and more about the ball. My game improved.
I have never fought with a horse since. I just talk to them in a whisper or sometimes in my own mind. It’s our thing, our ritual, our little conversation as we walk forwards to line up for the start of a new chukka. And the movement of their ears tells me they hear me, every time.
“I’ll keep you safe, I promise,” I tell them. “Just play with me.” The miracle happens again: they do. And we play. Together.
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