Monthly Archives: April 2023

Making Space

Some of you might have noticed I haven’t posted anything in quite a while. It’s been a time of great change and reflection for me in which I’ve been focussing on my own “stuff”. I’ve enjoyed sharing my musings here and it’s always been my aim that in doing so it might help others in some small way. So after a break, here I am with this offering. It’s a pretty personal and a somewhat vulnerable account of the past couple of years. When it was finished I read it through and wondered whether to share it at all then I just hit Publish.

All my life I’ve chosen to ride with a trainer. On one level this is a good idea, which I advocate, there aren’t many people who would progress sufficiently without one, but like any idea it can stop serving us if it’s not revisited now and again?  So a couple of years ago for the first time, I made the decision to stop working with a trainer, which was a pretty big leap of faith for me. Instead of sticking to a relentless belief that more information from someone else might be the answer I decided to put my faith in creating some sort of invitational space with the trust that whatever was born in that space might hold what I was searching for. 

At the age of 50 with the aid of some wonderful teachers, I had accumulated many skills as a rider, trainer and teacher, yet my riding had begun to feel static, filled with frustration and most importantly, pretty joyless. I was also filled with a sense that my horses were telling me the same story. I realised also that despite my advanced years and experience I still viewed myself as the perpetual understudy and little more. I wondered when or even how it was that one gave oneself permission to graduate from that role? I also wondered if it all needed to be quite as difficult as it seemed? I realised I had reached a point of exhaustion where I just didn’t know and felt that the only way to turn for answers now was back to myself.

And so it was that I embarked on what became a year of riding alone with an idea of searching out some truth on the matter. The prospect of this felt pretty lonely and daunting a first. What would I find as the truth? Perhaps my truth would be that I just shouldn’t be doing this any more. Although this was a difficult time, It was also a time when I found myself blessed with two wonderful horse’s who were made available to me for this journey of discovery by their two wonderful and generous humans. They put a great deal of trust in me with their precious horses allowing me free rein so to speak, which was invaluable to me and for it I am eternally grateful. 

In my early rides it became apparent that it was going to take some time for my usual mind patterns to quieten down. It felt a little like letting go of old friends at first. What would happen to me if I stopped “trying” so hard? Would I lose all the perceived ground I had gained. If I just let it all go, what would I discover in it’s place? What I began to see as I looked past the voices of these old friends who were quite sure they knew all about how I should be achieving success, was that they were the ones who had got me here so they probably weren’t going to be the ones to get me out of here so it’s then I realised that something really was going to have to change in that department. As I observed myself and came to know and understand these voices better who seemed to be mostly rooted in judgment fear of failure and end-gaining I was pretty amazed to see that these were often my motivational companions. I wondered if there was an easier way, a kinder way. ‘Another’ way. It seemed like the only chance would be to just let it all go and see… After all I could have it all back any time I wanted right? So I just started again and breathed my first sigh of relief. 

I began allowing my rides to be more exploratory in nature, initially I made space to just notice myself and my habits of mind and as soon as I noticed myself grasping at an idea or a concept, I just let it go and did my best not to replace it with anything particularly. Pretty challenging when you have a mind like mine. But as I persevered some things began to change. The space I made began to allow other types of thoughts in. (There’s only room for one thought at a time by the way) One being that I saw I had been focussing on being better at something, but what had I been trying to be better at? What did I primarily see riding as? I also began to see that in some odd way I had become attached to the idea of struggle, believing that struggle was a necessity and the absence of it meant I wasn’t doing enough. Was this really true? Why did success often appear as something to be viewed for the future? I just let all these questions and observations come and go, often leaving my questions unanswered for the mean time and I just rode. As time went on I began to notice lots of subtle changes in both my riding and the horses I was riding. I seemed to be ‘trying’ less at all the usual stuff and yet, it seems that both my riding and the horses felt as if they were improving but more importantly I began to feel more natural, and this is a word that I will return to in another post.

As I began to understand more about the kind of rider I really was I reflected that the rider I’d been “trying” to be had often not been congruent with that. This was a great discovery for me, releasing a lot of tension both mental and physical. Of course there was still plenty to work on, some things more challenging than others but as I began to bring some more structure back into the work I kept a vigilant eye on the ‘old friends’ and questioned their validity whenever they turned up. I started to question what I knew to be true for myself and what was a belief or something I’d heard from someone else.

António Borba Monteiro
António Borba Monteiro

After a time I began to feel vaguely ready to receive input again partly because I wondered what it would be like now. I wondered if I would be able to learn in a different way but I felt nervous about how this might work having been so free for all this time so it was with more than a little trepidation that when the opportunity was offered, I went with it. I’d visited Portugal to train a number of times over the years and although enjoyable, by the end I often found myself not much the wiser and quite a bit poorer, so expectations of my first visit to António in Portugal weren’t particularly high by default. I imagined it would be more of a ‘jolly’ with a few lessons thrown in and so on the first day I settled in the gallery for what I thought would be a leisurely afternoon of casual observing, and some nice wine. Instead after the first couple of António’s training rides, I found myself not only captivated but holding back tears. This time, finally it was to be different. 

What I experienced that first day was an atmosphere of quietness, and ease, which felt very fresh to me! Horse after horse came in from young gangly babies without much talent to the more impressive and advanced and were all ridden in the same cheerful, open hearted manner.  It so profoundly touched me. ‘What was this?’ António’s credentials will attest to his skills and accomplishments as a horseman that’s for sure, but this was something else. Something in addition. Something about it resonated so deeply with me, and I knew this was something important. This element had nothing to do with technical skill or the gymnastic correctness of the horse’s way of going in any given moment. Often what I saw was far from my idea of what it “should” look like in a theoretical sense. I recognised that old “friend”. I then began to experience what this ‘something’ might be. This element about riding, to which I had not previously been oriented. The thing I had been searching for in my own experience but not practicing in my daily activity. Ease.

What I continued to experience during my stay was a sense of freedom, ease, understanding and acceptance, with horse’s blossoming despite all that was still yet “missing” I saw a rider who welcomed every effort from the horse preferring freedom of mind and movement in all instances over gymnastic perfection. Yet I saw the horses progressing, often to the highest level. At last here it was right in front of me. Proof of what I had hoped existed but had almost convinced myself didn’t. Not if you were doing your “best job” So this is what came into the space I’d created.

Revisiting the basics

As I began having lessons again I noticed my mind seemed more relaxed and open. Everything in these first lessons stripped me back to the most basic concepts. Stuff you might say I should already know and had perhaps already been taught. Potentially a disaster for the old ego, but my mind seemed to remain soft open and pliable. What seemed to have changed was my orientation, or the way in which I was viewing this whole thing called riding.

Despite the inevitable mind and body challenges throughout, I had a sense of viewing them afresh. Almost from a new vantage point and from here non of them seemed to matter so much any more.

As for the lessons themselves, although I was challenged it was always at the most basic level of ease with regard to the exercise and I began to experience that same feeling of ease even when it was difficult. I realised I was being trained the same way as the horse’s with a quiet accepting manner that created the space I needed to grow into whatever ‘I’ might be… I felt very grateful in these first lessons to be in an atmosphere where it felt possible to learn again from another yet at the same time for myself. I’d never felt like I knew less, yet never felt like there’d been more possibility.

What I experience more and more these days is that the less I “know”, the more seems to become available and possible. The more I open my heart to the vulnerability that things might not be how I think they are the more things are revealed to me as they really are, which enables me to make better more intuitive choices in the moment. This might sound odd, but ‘not knowing’ is really just about keeping your monkey mind quiet no matter what. We are conditioned from the youngest age to believe that ‘not knowing’ or lack of “knowledge” equates to ignorance and ignorance signifies weakness and failure. This so often leads us to guard against it’s possibility so strongly that we can feel and behave as if our very life depended on it. This is not a place in which we can learn or flourish as it blocks any potential chance we have to discover something new. But if we dare to question this fear and begin to look a little closer we will see that the state in which we ‘Don’t know’ always precedes the state of discovering something new.

I have never enjoyed my riding and teaching more than I am right now. The horses are blossoming and riding has returned to the joyful experienced it was for me as a child when it was all so carefree and possible. When I look back I really can’t remember what all the fuss was about now? No matter what the potential training challenges are of which there will always be plenty of course, the ‘problem’ aspect of it has all but faded away for me. What a joy and a relief it is to be able to finally inhabit that space. It was always my dream before I die and I am filled with gratitude for the tough journey that’s lead me here.

So when all the hard work seems to lead to more hard work. When everything looks like the next problem to be solved, then it can be time to make some space. Space is just the gap between things. It’s a place in the moment where if we quieten down, the answer can reveal itself. It’s been my experience of late that it’s not so much about searching for the “right” answers but in learning how to ask better questions. Not seeking to be a better person (or rider) but rather seeking to understand and accept more about the person we currently are. Self-discovery, in a safe space is key in training for both the rider and the horse otherwise it can become just another form of confinement.

So create a kind and safe space both internally and externally, in which you and your horse can show up as you are. Then check for limitations and you’ll see there are non. 🙂