Riding the labyrinth

English: The labyrinth at the island of Blå Ju...

I started trotting Dragon under saddle last week after all our balance work in the walk. I did it just as a “data gathering” exercise to see where he was both emotionally and physically in the work. While he remained round and engaged with me, I was disappointed that he still fell in on his inside shoulder and took giant Standardbred type strides that covered the arena in about six strides. He needed more guidance than I thought he would. The softer, slower trot I have in-hand was not yet available to me under saddle. On my end, I didn’t offer him a lot of help with his balance and my rein mechanics were far from perfect and mostly absent. I was just waiting for his other, more desirable trot to appear. If he could blog about me he would probably write about how surprised he was by my lack of support and information.

But the real issue is, deep down, I wanted Dragon balanced in his trot  so we could progress forward in a facile and linear fashion. I became so frozen in my disappointment about having “something to work on” that I was unable to ride him well for the rest our session. Oops.

Triple spiral labyrinth

Labyrinths, used by humanity for the last 4000 years, are a form of walking meditation. They often describe spirals and as you walk the labyrinth you find yourself revisiting your old footsteps and describing soft, curved lines. It’s not a maze to be solved but geometry designed to help you let go of your mind’s chatter and be present. There is one way in and one way out. There is no real goal, except the process itself. It’s soul work. Labyrinths have rocks to mark your path or are carved into stone so you don’t have to think too hard about where you are going. You are free to let go of your thoughts while you meditate on following the path set out for you. Feeling each foot as it touches the earth. Breathing as you move. It’s a place to inhabit your body and allow yourself to be fully present. Body prayer.

Arena work is  based on geometry too, circles, diagonal lines and different tracks but these are conceptual rather than physical. When we school our horses it can happen that we lose our geometry as we think about balance or we forget our balance as we think about our geometry. We can forget to be present with our horse when we get stuck in judging our performance or theirs. It’s a lot to think about, especially when we are teaching something new or learning something new. We all learn better without multiple points of focus. So how to make it easier?

I am building a labyrinth for Dragon and I – not a permanent structure but a visible, physical labryinth made of colored plastic cones and mats placed at different intervals. It will describe circles and straight lines in different configurations and offer us the opportunity to reflect on tempo, shoulder balance and the “balance beam” beneath us. A physical reminder for our trotting meditation. I’ll teach the labyrinth in-hand a few times first so it feels familiar and offers both of us information. And then we will ride it.

I am continually surprised by the parallels between mindfulness and good, transformative animal work. It’s not even metaphor, it’s direct correlation. It’s not a pretend labyrinth I will be building, but real structure, designed to provide deep meditation on physical balance. Designed to remind me to be present in every step of our work because the process IS the goal. Each new exercise Dragon and I encounter can have it’s own labyrinth built for it: one for canter, one for shoulder-in, one for haunches-in, piaffe and passage. Labyrinths for collected trot work and transitions. They’re not something you have to use permanently, but they help you to focus on balance through geography until the balance work is effortless. Eventually, of course it’s all just competencies in your body – knowing your geometry, riding every stride of your horse and helping him balance, moving between both awarenesses easily and changing the labyrinth in your mind to suit the geography that will best fine-tune your horses balance. Dragon and I are far from that kind of competency though, so for now, I’ll be building labyrinths.

5 thoughts on “Riding the labyrinth

  1. What a good point! Back in my riding days I used to get so frustrated when I was working on one thing in my mind and my trainer would yell at me a question about something else and then when I didn’t get the answer right, she would treat me like I was an idiot, lol. It used to make me so mad, because then I wasn’t thinking about riding at all, I was thinking about how to justify my mistake and it threw everything off. Honestly, my favorite rides with my horse were the ones when it was just him and I and his paddock, no arena, no trainer, just him and I. He got to pick the pace, he got to pick where we were going, I was just along for the ride. I think I made the most progress in my riding in those moments. I love reading about how you’re training your horses, it’s what I always reached for but could never figure out how to get to🙂 Of course, this was long before I knew anything about clicker training…

  2. Love your narratives! I’m a KPA CTP specializing in horses (I teach people with dogs, too), used to teach competitive dressage for many years. I host Alex clinics twice a year.
    What would your labyrinth look like for haunches in and shoulder in?
    I’ve played around with this using cones and poles. Worked quite well for a student’s horse, but I’ve been rearranging for my own horses!

  3. I use to make what I called paths and obsticals when I trained my horses. I got so bored just doing arena work and they were not ready for trails. Cones and tarps made up my mazes. Love the photo of the rocks making a maze but I don’t think I have that much time on my hands to make something like that.

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