Staying Grounded

I laughed when I saw this photo on my phone. I took it during my first at-home ride of 2023. The camera was pointing downwards, over Shiloh’s left shoulder, while I rode bareback.

The resulting image gave the illusion that my left foot was touching the ground while I sat on my horse. But I promise you that Shiloh is not that short, and my legs are not that long!

The photo’s optical illusion is funny all on its own. But there is another reason that I find the picture particularly interesting. It has to do with what I was thinking about during that ride. Let me explain.

If you have read my previous posts, you may recall that I’ve been concerned about my curtailed prospects for riding this year due to Piper’s continuing issues with separation anxiety.

Instead of riding on decent weather days, I’ve been taking Shiloh and Piper out for walks-in-hand along our barn driveway. I keep hoping that the more I separate them and then bring them back together that Piper’s anxiety will subside.

As for Shiloh, he is comparatively much less anxious than Piper. But because Piper makes such a fuss, Piper’s behavior can sometimes catch Shiloh’s attention and worry him. This whole dynamic does not bode well for my riding safety.

By the end of February, though, I felt that Shiloh was tuning into me well enough during our driveway walks in hand that I could chance a ride. Then March 1st happened to dawn reasonably warm and clear with almost no wind. I decided to attempt a short bareback ride with Shiloh in my round pen.

I actually would have preferred to put on the saddle for extra security, but this time of year, my horses are awash in shedding hair. Shedding hair that is layered with mud in various stages of drying. It is not a great time to put on the tack, even for a quick ride. Trying to find room on Shiloh’s head for the bridle amidst all that hair and mud was bad enough!

In leading Shiloh from my barn driveway to the round pen for our ride, I noticed that Piper was particularly upset back in their paddock. Piper ran the fence line. I could hear his hoofbeats. I noticed the loud “splat-splat” of the pea gravel and ag lime footing getting dislodged and slung up against the fence as Piper skidded around.

Once in the round pen, Shiloh and I just milled about at the walk. I asked him for lots of changes of direction, trying to encourage a relaxed riding rhythm while Piper cavorted.

Despite Piper’s racket, Shiloh was overall pretty calm for me. He seemed a bit quick and distracted at times, periodically glancing in Piper’s direction. Fortunately, Shiloh’s worry didn’t escalate. He didn’t do anything to unseat me.

During the ride, I was aware that I felt nervous about Piper’s behavior and what it might mean for Shiloh at any given moment. When I get nervous on horseback, I have bad habits of shortening and tightening my body.

Neither action contributes to my own balance or the horse’s comfort. Those habits can definitely make the ride go worse for me and the horse. I realize that mentally waiting for disaster to occur is also not a helpful riding habit, but it’s something I battle in varying degrees on a regular basis. It’s all one ball of sticky wax that can be difficult to untangle.

To counteract all those tendencies during this bareback ride, I kept reminding myself to breathe, focus on the walk rhythm and use the visual imagery of lengthening my feet toward the ground. THAT’S why the photo struck me as so funny! It’s not very often that a riding photo captures the essence of what I was working on in such a picture-perfect way.

For his part, Shiloh responded really well to my efforts. Whenever I felt him get worried and then quick with his movements, I’d try to “reach the ground” with my feet. He would soon slow down and lower his head and neck. It was good bio-feedback for me.

I realize in a comparative sense that the photo is nothing remarkable. It’s not going to win any photography contests. Going forward, though, I plan to use it as a visual reminder of an important concept. Namely, the idea that I have the ability to affect my horse’s state of relaxation IF I remain grounded. Staying grounded even as I am hovering six feet off the ground on my horse’s back.

*If you are not familiar with this “grounding” concept as it relates to riding, you might like to check out this article link at https://equisearch.com/articles/centered_riding_revisited_051909-8334/. Grounding is part of Sally Swift’s Centered Riding concept. The article is an excerpt from her 2002 book Centered Riding 2: Further Exploration.

6 thoughts on “Staying Grounded

  1. so glad you were able to get on for a relatively peaceful ride!! hopefully when the grass comes up, Piper will be too consumed with eating to be as much of a nuisance?

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  2. Sometimes the smallest things help us move forward, and I think that’s great that this picture can remind you of your successful ride! Whisper got into the habit of pacing whenever I would take Amber out to ride, despite the fact that she could clearly see Amber no matter what. She is more susceptible to hurting herself in her older age (she’ll be 20 this year) so while I ride if I notice her starting to pace I’ll call out to her “Hey Whisp!” and sometimes move an arm or have Amber move so that she can see where we are. This has actually helped her a lot I’ve found. She’ll calm down a lot and realize that we are not super far away but where we normally are. I don’t know if this will help Piper at all, but I figured I’d mention it just in case! It does help that Amber absolutely does not care one bit if Whisper is worried haha! Hopefully tho you can get Piper and Shiloh more used to being separated so that you can have more summer adventures!

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    1. Well I am not sure either, but it’s certainly worth a try. Piper is a difficult horse for me to understand and connect with in many ways. He has strong preferences and reactions to lots of different things, and I’m just not sure how to help him be happier. He seemed fairly happy with my ponying experimentations last year so we may be doing more of that this year . . .

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  3. ugh i know how it feels to be anxious at times esp with another horse causing the horse I am on to tense up and then I tense up and it is just a bit old tense party going on šŸ™‚ I hope you figure it out but good for you on getting on and doing the thing. Also I like that optical illusion photo. Be a good screensaver on a computer or your phone šŸ˜‰

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