“… connection is a dialogue. It is not just the rider saying, ‘Move away from my right leg.’ It is how the horse feels when you ask the question, are they paying attention or worried about the dog barking or a flag waving, or is their right hip sore from the hill work you did yesterday?”
For 480 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, has begun! Over the next eight months, four of those trainers will blog their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Horse Nation readers. This week, blogger Kate Coldren discusses developing feel and working with Luis as they head toward the Makeover.
The end of June is upon us and it is about a month away from submitting final entries for the Mega Makeover. I have not yet finalized what division we will be competing in, but the time is drawing near to when that decision will have to be made.
My professional job has been demanding most of my attention for the past month as supply chain issues with competitors’ products has put my helper nature in overdrive. Traveling has resumed with the roll out of vaccine. Yes, the world outside the “home bubble” still exists and trade shows can be executed safely and successfully. This has left me with less time to ride. So I am feeling behind, but I am hopeful that we are still on the right track to attend.
In April, I attended a weekend Robbie Potter clinic with Luis (JC New Prince). This was my second clinic with Robbie. Back in Fall of 2020 I completed a Working Cow Clinic with Makeover Graduate JC Somebody’s Beau. I knew I wanted to start Luis with the same type of exercises Robbie used to prepare us for working those cows. The exercises we performed allows the horse to find a new balance with their rider. When this happens, their demeanor changes, a quietness develops where there is acceptance. This allows their mind and body to listen to what the rider’s body and mind were asking, thereby creating connection.
For me connection is a dialogue. It is not just the rider saying, “Move away from my right leg.” It is how the horse feels when you ask the question, are they paying attention or worried about the dog barking or a flag waving, or is their right hip sore from the hill work you did yesterday? It’s acknowledging the feedback regarding how challenging it was for them physically and emotionally. Do they understand the aid or does it make them jump to attention or ignore it? And again (I can’t stress this enough), the context of time is critical because being a flight animal this feedback can change in an instant. It is an every changing experience where you have to be in the moment with emotional control. Warwick Schiller’s Journey On Podcast has made me engage many thoughts on the importance of awareness without judgment while working with horses. The relationship with equines change as they recognize the change in you.
Back to my April clinic with Robbie: Green horses are wiggly. They generally have a hard time following lines, straight or curved. One the exercises I wanted to work on with Luis was the path that we were to travel. I had to keep a relaxed tension in my body that kept Luis on a path between my legs. Hold your line. I worked towards Luis’ ability to stay between the leg aids. But gathering all the four corners of his body and moving forward in a balanced rhythmic way was a challenging task for him. But as the weekend progressed, it got better and better. We were able to do it for a few steps and then a few more. Thoroughbreds just try so hard and progress so quickly when they understand what is being asked of them.
With straightness comes balance. Always gift balance back to the horse. This comes from maintaining a slight, but correct bend for the direction of travel. It is allowing or influencing the horse to find a place where they are in an athletic posture, but also supporting them as if you were holding the hand of a child before crossing a road. By providing physical security with your dancer muscles (the core and stabilizer muscles), you can then begin working as a team. This is where feel is born.
“Everyone talks around feel,” Robbie would say. But it IS hard to talk about, because it makes us vulnerable. Something that has been helpful to me in overcoming this has been the work by Brené Brown. She has spent time researching the why behind the emotions many people want to avoid. She tells stories that illustrate the struggles we all encounter, and has developed an art of guiding people to acknowledge they are enough despite their imperfections. By allowing kindness for oneself it opens the door to accept coaching differently and know that you are trying your best even though each day that could change.
For me, with horses, it is so helpful for someone watching to say, “Yes! What you just did is it [feel].” Having an educated eye on the ground can be like a compass. It helps connect how it looks to how it feels connecting with a horse. The subtle ask and then a response, this becomes dialogue or a dance between the horse and rider.
I remember in college when J.T. Tallon would say, “Influence the horse.” Everything about his statement was about feel. I think a lot about the word “influence.” Merriam-Webster defines this as the ability to produce an effect without apparent exertion of force. And to me this is where feel begins. As to where it ends, I think that is why it gets talked around and not talked about, because the truth of the matter is feel can always get better, all the way to infinity.
The goal is to build a relationship with the horse like a dam with her foal. The dam gives the encouragement of a nicker, “stay with me.” There is a fondness and bond, and if you observe them in the field together you can see them mirroring one another. I am not a parent, but I can imagine any parent can relate to this intuitively. The feeling of whole-hearted joy that is experienced in this relationship. I think many horse owners want to grasp this, but only ever brush this with their fingertips. It is something that is not meant to be held, but to be allowed. The most magical moments are just allowed to unfold and cannot be forced. And again, I am reminded of the word, influence.
I guess you could say since my last Retired Racehorse Blog post, I have done a lot of introspection and self-work. But I do think it is a consent effort, daily, being aware and getting better at understanding feelings and accepting them without judgement. I will continue with my audiobooks and podcasts while I drive and clean the barn as their wisdom as given me much to apply to my own life. I am going to wrap up with a quote from Ray Hunt, “First you go with the horse. Then the horse goes with you. Then you go together.”
Until next time…
Kate grew up in rural New Hampshire where she rode Morgans competitively until the age of 14. She worked at a small private farm caring for Norwegian Fjords and Morgans through high school, while also enjoying her personal horses. She attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and continued her equestrian journey by taking hunter/jumper equitation classes every semester for four years. After college, she discovered her love for the OTTB in 2014 when she purchased JC Trickish, her first mount that started her on the path to become a member of the Retired Racehorse Project. In 2019 she was a first time competitor with JC Somebody’s Beau. They earned Best Conditioned in Competitive Trail while also competing in Show Hunter, placing in the middle of a huge class of over 100 horses. Kate is looking forward to sharing her experiences preparing for the 2021 Mega Makeover with Luis ( JC New Prince).