Every horse person has a unique reason for riding. Some of us ride for the relaxation of a pleasurable trail ride, while others enjoy the exhilaration of good competition. There are no right or wrong reasons as long as you are enjoying yourself and your horse. Although somewhere along our journey with horses and riding, it is almost certain that we will encounter some challenges, frustrations, and obstacles. And when this happens, we lose sight of why we ride and why we love horses. Many times we end up abandoning our hopes and dreams. And yet something inside of us doesn't allow us to quit horses altogether, so we keep spinning our wheels in discontent and perhaps don’t ride or enjoy our horse as much as we long to.
And when this happens, we lose sight of why we ride and why we love horses. We abandon our hopes and dreams. And yet something inside of us doesn't allow us to quit horses all together. Horses allow us to participate in something much bigger than ourselves. We love to learn from horses and have experiences with our horses. But sometimes those experiences aren't the most positive. That longing that we aren't fulfilling are dreams with our horse ends up taking over and being worse than not doing something about it.
I was first introduced to the Four Square Model from Stacy Westfall. Stacy was the first woman to compete in and win the Road to the Horse competition. But many years before I even knew who Stacy was, I was shopping at the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show and found a book that talked to me by an author ahead of her time. Jill Hassler was writing about these components back in the early 1990s! And so, I began my journey exploring the interconnectedness of my mind-body connection with my horse’s mind-body connection. I say all the time, “If you want a better relationship with your horse, it starts within yourself!” The better understanding we have of our mind and body and our horse’s mind and body, the better we can communicate with each other.
Before I go any further, I want you to ask you, “Why do you ride?” To be honest, what exactly is your motivation? Why is it important to you? Understanding your motivation will give you the ability to withstand any of the challenges and frustrations along your journey with horses. Why you got involved with horses and your expectations play a major role in your lived experiences including the enjoyment and successes that come with horses.
Success can be a huge motivator. But what is success anyway? How do we define success for our individual pursuit? The Dictionary describes success as “the achievement of something desired or attempted or the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” To feel successful, we as riders must achieve something we desire to accomplish and attempt to do it. It may sound simple, but sometimes we aren’t always in alignment when it comes to this. For example, your desire might be to compete in reining but you have a 16 hand OTTB that is conformationally built uphill. We can teach the maneuvers but the horse probably won’t excel in reining. Or, perhaps you want to go for a 30-mile trail ride but your horse hasn’t been ridden all winter. Is what you are doing benefiting your horse’s mind, body, and spirit?
Many times we get caught up in the bigger picture and the dream but we don’t take the time to celebrate our small successes. You have to learn to walk before you can run! Successes are also very individualized—what might feel like a success to one person may feel like a disappointment for another. For example, someone might be upset they did not place in a class, whereas, another person might be elated that their horse made it through the class without spooking or missing a lead. This isn’t about right/wrong or good/bad. It is about having an awareness that ultimately will be for the highest good of the horse.
I hope this resonates with you and if one of your goals has to do with what is for the highest good of your horse—keep reading! I am including a brief overview of the four squares in this model of horsemanship and at the end, I have a very special invitation for you!
The Rider’s Mind
Many components go into the Four Square Model of Horsemanship. These components include what we are thinking; what our intentions are when working with our horses; the stories we tell ourselves about our relationship with the horse; and so much more. Exploring the Four Square Model of Horsemanship allows us to take a closer look at the Rider’s Mind/Rider’s Body and the Horse’s Mind/Horse’s Body.
I believe that we as horse owners have the responsibility to obtain mental equilibrium. We know that horses mirror our emotions and can sense when we don’t show up for them in the best state of mind. If one is going to work with horses, then one must learn to work with themselves too!
Jill Hassler wrote In Search of Your Image, “The better we understand our mind, develop it, discipline it, learn to give it freedom, and learn to use it, the more our body and spirit can be included in creating better total balance.” When it comes to the rider’s mind, there are five layers to it. These layers include our conscious mind; subconscious awareness; our mind’s mental awareness or pre-conscious memories; the nonconscious processes; and our unconscious. Freud compared personality to a horse and rider. The horse is like the unconscious—it has a mind of its own although the horse submits to the direction of the rider, the conscious. And then sometimes, the horse takes the bit and tries to go in the direction it wants. The rider may not be able to control this and might say something like, “I meant to do that.” Therefore, unconsciously altering his or her understanding of what really happened.
Horse and man perceive things very differently and this is one of the many reasons why it is so important to explore all four squares of this model of horsemanship. Humans tend to be power-hungry and want to be in control. But when it comes to horses, it isn’t about control—it is about leadership with kindness, compassion, balance, and humility. A devoted horse owner will make this their life’s work and create a practice around it. This model is a great first step in finding new awareness where we can improve our horsemanship practice.
The Horse’s Mind
Back in 1997, veterinary surgeon R. H. Smythe wrote about a horse's instincts, learning capabilities, and how to improve your horsemanship through a better understanding of equine mental processes. This took on a controversial and fresh look at the horse. It is about having awareness around things like What makes a horse panic? Does it want to be the boss? What does it look at when it jumps? What does a horse learn? Does a horse have an extra-sensory perception? These are just a few of the questions animal psychology addresses when it comes to the senses and mind of the horse. Learning and understanding the horse’s mental processes is essential to horsemanship. It is essential to know what the horse's instincts as a herd animal are, along with the adjustments we are required to make in carrying out patterns of behavior entirely opposed to its natural impulses. We also need to know that the horse's sensory advantage can sometimes be a disadvantage. Do you know what your horse is feeling and thinking and the emotions that accompany his or her motivations? Is your horse insecure? Confident? Curious? Horses react and respond—they don’t analyze and calculate. The mental characteristics of the horse include leadership, control, routine, social interaction, sensory perception, emotions, intelligence, patience, and expectations. A horse’s mind receives its primary stimulus from its senses, while a person’s mind processes the stimulus. This is why horses live in the present moment and humans have to practice being present.
We can’t expect our horse to understand our expectations, but it is our responsibility to learn how to understand our horse. When we don't, that is when a horse can develop behaviors that are connected to our imbalances that go undetected. These behaviors include boredom and nervousness which turn into vices such as pacing, weaving, cribbing or wind-sucking and more.
The Rider’s Body
Many times the rider’s body is the problem and we tend to blame the horse instead of asking ourselves, “Am I completely balanced?” “Am I giving my horse clear directives with my aids?” How you sit and use your hands, legs, heels, whips, spurs, weight distribution, etc., all affect your horse’s body.
It is essential we take care of our bodies to ride better. Exercise helps strengthen our core for the sitting trot. Stretching allows our legs to stay under our hips and our ankles to stretch down into the stirrups. Cardio workouts give us the endurance to stay in that standing position and half-point while doing an entire jump course. When we don’t take care of ourselves, it transfers to the saddle. Self-care, eating well, and managing our weight help us ride better. It is necessary for a stronger and more balanced ride. In addition, properly toned muscles aid in effective communication with your horse. And don’t forget about stress reduction, because we know our horses sense it when we are stressed out!
The Horse’s Body
The more conformationally correct a horse is will determine how easily he or she can balance him or herself. This balance is assessed by evaluating its conformation, which can vary depending on breed types. However, the correct structure is correct no matter what the horse is bred for or its type. The horse’s center of gravity is closely related to the horse’s physical build along with its gait and way of moving. One can’t love horses and not have an appreciation for a beautiful moving horse!
Is your horse physically capable of what you are asking him or her to do? Unfortunately, not all horses have perfect conformation. This affects balance which can affect physical stiffness and stiffness can turn into lameness. In addition, old age, improper riding, and training can also contribute to body issues. It is important to know why and where horses are having issues and it starts with awareness through educating yourself because the balance of a stiff horse is not the same as the balance of a supple horse.
Putting it all Together
Now that we have a clear understanding of each part of the Four Square Model of Horsemanship, it is time to put all of the parts together! Integrating each part includes all sources of information like your daily rides, taking part or watching lessons and clinics, reading, studying, watching videos, and even everyday activities outside of your horse world. A devoted horse owner is open to inner and outer discovery and will identify and integrate the parallels between life skills and riding skills. It starts by knowing yourself, your horse, and your dreams and goals.
First, determine if you have task goals or ego goals. Both types of goals are valid and legitimate ways to approach any achievement. What is important is that you know the difference and can decide which goal orientations are the most important for you and your horse.
Let your curiosity run free! Listen with an open mind and gather information from every experience you have with your horse. Don’t be afraid to get help and ask questions and expand your learning process. Evaluate new information and relate it to what you already know. And remember, nothing happens overnight.
Are you ready for a challenge? Do you want to take your horsemanship skills to the next level? The Four Square Model of Horsemanship applies to all levels of riders from trail to performance. Consider this your personal invitation to join me for a remote learning opportunity where we will dive into the Four Square Model of Horsemanship and learn how to apply it to your horsemanship practice. During these six live, ‘inside lessons’ (delivered via Zoom) you will:
I challenge you to look deep within yourself and your horse because being a horseman or horsewoman is more than just knowing how to ride. Evaluate what you find and compare it to what you know. And don’t be afraid to ask, “Why?” Practice makes perfect—practice until it becomes second nature to you. And more importantly, enjoy your horse!
Pamela L. Maynard, PhD is the "The Passion-Driven Equinologist." I have dedicated my life to the horse by teaching horse owners how to care for themselves and their horse! I wholeheartedly believe that our health is interconnected with the health of our horses. This is my personal invitation for you to join me in my private arena—let's go for a ride down an embodied path of soul-centered horsemanship practices! Sign up for the Four Square Model of Horsemanship Inside Lessons at: www.conscioushoofbeat.com Listen to the Four Square Model of Horsemanship Podcast Episode on: https://anchor.fm/conscioushoofbeat Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
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