2018 Series 5

Taking Body Language into Motion

Tango with Horses!

November 26 - December 30, 2018

course content

Welcome!  Here you will find all of the content for the Taking Body Language into Motion course in the order in which it is presented in class.

Rio ride.jpg

introduction to session 5

The interactions we have with our horses should feel like a dance. Whether you have danced or not my guess is you have had at least one experience with your horse that was so connected, soft and flowing it felt like magic! This is what it feels like to dance well. Dancing is the closest experience I can find to compare to working with a horse. Of course, most horse people I know, when I bring up this analogy of dancing, are quick to quip: ‘ Oh, I don’t dance!’ I would argue that you do each time you ask your horse to ‘follow your lead’. So why not just say we are going to talk about dancing with horses? Why Tango? Because Argentine Tango (which differs greatly from ballroom or American Tango) is a social dance, it is improvisational, and danced in close embrace where everything we do strongly impacts our partner. Much like the dynamic between horse and human.

When I started dancing Argentine Tango I was shocked by the parallels to horsemanship. But the most shocking aspect of learning to dance was being in the position of follower – the position I would equate our horse’s role to in their dance with us. In the very early days of learning, my first dances with people other than Steve and my instructor were a revelation. Dancing with another instructor, who happens to be a veteran horseman, I found myself gliding around the dance floor, grinning from ear to ear with the sheer joy of it all. I could dance! When we rotated partners I landed in the arms of a fellow student, vibrating with tension, serious, he verbally criticized everything about me.

‘Your arms are like noodles, I can’t lead you when your arms like noodles.’

He had long legs and constantly stepped on my toes.

‘What is wrong with you? All we’re doing is walking?’

Flustered and embarrassed I stopped breathing, went into survival mode walking backwards in high heels, wanting nothing more than for this nightmare to end.

‘What’s wrong? Is your skirt too tight?’

The next time we rotated partners I made a beeline for Steve and refused to change partners for the rest of the class. This experience was a huge eye opener for me. It was the first time I experienced following someone’s lead as an emotionally charged, even traumatic event. I realized I had been that leader for my horse. That wound tight, type A, nothing is ever good enough, critical, micro-managing nightmare. And thus began my exploration to discover how to lead like my horse-trainer friend.

He has a way about him. He picks you up in the embrace with a soft feel. He is the embodiment of lightness, inside and out. And yet, he carries himself and is solid as a rock if I lose my balance. He breathes into the music and into his partner and only takes a step when he feels me breath and respond, with him. I never have to guess what he wants and yet I never feel forced or that I have not choice. If I make a mistake or miss a lead he never lets me know it. He simply asks again when it feels right. This is the same guy who took his rehab project horse to horse shows, rode in and halted in the middle of the arena when it was his turn to run a pattern and simply let his horse hang out there and be okay. When they rang the bell his time was up he patted his horse – ‘good boy’ – and rode him out of the arena and took him home. And yes, he is one of the old guys.

These days we get fed this myth that all the old cowboys used harsh training methods and broke horses down. Sure, they existed. But, much like today, I suspect they were the exception, not the rule. When I first moved to Grand Junction I did a lot of talks for local riding clubs. My favorite group was the ‘Back Country Horseman’. I did a talk called, Beyond Body Language, speaking about how our horses communicate. All the older cowboys would be lined up, standing, at the back of the room, leaning against the wall with arms folded, looking skeptically at me as I marched in with my laptop. The front few rows were filled with eager faces. I figured those crusty cowboys were hanging near the door so they could make a polite exit if my talk proved to be BS. Usually they ended up back there telling stories to back up what I was saying, nodding their heads in agreement. The younger generation in front rows sat with mouths hanging open having never thought about these things before.

Between those experiences and my experiences rehabilitating horses from injury and from the effects of training stress, I started thinking there is something missing in how we are taught in this modern era of horse training. About ten years ago I read about a study showing the number and severity of horse related accidents and injuries had increased dramatically in the – then – last ten years. That included injuries to both horse and human. This increase, interestingly to me, corresponded with the increasing popularity of various ‘Natural Horsemanship’ techniques. Based on my visits with the old cowboys in my area I felt this was not a coincidence. We are missing some vital and necessary things that those, now old guys, knew and practiced. Something is getting lost in the translation from generation to generation. How do we regain those essential things that might make life better for both horse and human? How could I work myself out of the rehab job and instead help people prevent accidents and injuries?

The answer started with bringing the philosophy and attitude of a Tango dancer into my personal training practice. The deeper I got into my understanding of what makes a dance transformational, empowering and joyous, the more I realized it was all about body language. Body language that encompasses communicating clearly with our emotions, the tone we set, and how we move. Literally using our body as an instrument of communication. Having conversations with horses through shared movement.

The horses helped me clarify, teaching me that if I could be clear enough they almost instinctively follow my lead. Moving well, leading with clarity, so they do not have to guess what I want, seems to give the horses a similar experience to the one I had dancing with my horse trainer friend. They actually do enjoy moving. If you think about it most domesticated horses spend a lot of time not moving. Much like humans, horses are designed to be in motion on varied terrain kind of all the time. They benefit from moving just as much as we do. And they like to move. Assuming they are not being nit picked and criticized the entire time!

So session 5 is all about this idea of dancing with our horses. How do we take the notion of having a conversation with our horse into motion? How do we share movement with a horse in a way that firmly puts them in control of their own experience, allows them to feel free even when they have tack on, and empowers them? Can we work with horses in a way that makes them stronger, happier and better movers, not just when they are being ridden, but when they are out with other horses or moving on their own? I can tell you, there is nothing that makes me happier than working together with a horse and watching them then take the movements they are developing in their work with me and go explore it on their own out in the pasture, just for the fun of experiencing the power and coordination of their strengthening bodies!