Zen and Horses… and all the rest of it


Horses and Zen

Riding my horse one day last week became a lot like riding my mountain bike. To clarify: it summoned the Zen state that arises from necessity when events get gnarly. In the case of mountain biking, this state of pure impenetrable focus comes when descending steep boulder-strewn trails beyond my skill level. My safety relies on monastic mind control and somehow there is a calm peacefulness that brackets the danger. In the case of riding Corazon, this state of mind arose unexpectedly, though quite necessarily, while working on flying changes.

Actually, to be accurate, we were not working on flying changes in that moment. The day before we had schooled a few, and evidently they were excitedly imprinted on Corazon’s mind. To that point, our ride had gone well. We enjoyed a long warm-up walking under skies filled with sunshine and puffy clouds. We both felt relaxed and ready to work. I gathered up my reins with just that plan.

As soon as Corazon felt the rein contact, he bounded from a casual saunter to an eruption of twisting leaps across the field. So certain that we were going to practice flying changes, he directed himself in airs above the ground that channeled his Spanish ancestors. Unprepared, I toppled sideways, lost both stirrups, and grabbed his mane to stay on. My chest clenched with adrenalin as I simultaneously tried to cue him to stop– the effect of which caused him to hump his back and leap higher–and prayed.

Right about then with my stirrups still flailing, my Zen state cultivated from the chaos. Everything inside me went quiet. I fixed my gaze on the horizon and regained my balance. My breathing came calm and centered. Blood kept pounding in my ears but it no longer felt fraught with disaster. I slung my feet back in the stirrups and piloted Corazon’s dance show towards a focal point. Somehow I kept my body loose, reeled him back to an appropriate version of trotting and immediately guided him through a sequence of trot-canter transitions to clarify that we were NOT schooling flying changes. What should have been quaky unsure aids fueled by self- survival came instead as clear and well timed, harmonious. In fact, I rode with a stillness and centeredness that, amusingly, sometimes eludes me on days when things go smoothly. But here in the face of pandemonium, I accessed it easily out of acute need.

In spite of my rambunctious horse underneath me, I felt almost rapturous in this state of pure focus. It’s the same state I feel on my mountain bike when I am teetering outside my skill and comfort levels down a scary section of trail. This feeling of calm responsiveness often passes as quickly as it arose, but it leaves an impression that lingers long afterwards. And it both keeps me committed to these risk-prone sports and reminds me what I’m capable of.

I won’t go as far as claiming these gnarly moments are desirable. But I do think direct interaction with these mind states reminds us that they can exist, lest we forget. They prove our own hyper minds can quell moments spiked with adrenalin and anxiety. To be clear, I’m not about to thank Corazon for this experiential opportunity last week, but I will concede that in comparison between my Andalusian and my mountain bike, I do feel more graceful aboard the horse where honestly the most negative outcome is excessive prancing.

Prime Your Horse’s Pump for Results


horse fitness exercises

Corrective exercises and bodywork combined lead to better results from gymnastic patterns.

Priming the Pump


It’s a glorious feeling, that moment when after uncoordinated attempts the exercise you’re struggling with happens without ungodly effort. Your muscles cooperate, your body figures out what you have been trying to make it do the past several minutes or maybe even days. Sometimes these little breakthroughs are fleeting and we end up flailing again after a few successes. Doubtless, you have probably observed your horse experience the same sequence, especially when trying to make him stronger for certain exercises. It’s these moments that demonstrate how dependent performance is on the nervous system.


Helping horses use their bodies better and gain strength does not often follow a straight path forward. Like us, horses need to recruit specific neural pathways consistently enough until a movement pattern gets habituated. Only then will he experience measurable gains in strength and balance. The good news is that this can happen pretty quickly. New movement patterns can be established within six weeks. Unfortunately, though, it ends up taking most riders a lot longer. These efforts could be accelerated by what I call priming the pump.


This involves showing his nervous system the pathways we want accessed prior to introducing the gymnastic exercises we plan to use. The nervous system, after all, is where patterns of movement get stored, where the force and reliability of muscle contractions originate. So, rather than go out and charge through a bunch of exercises every day in the hope of building a stronger athlete, begin by taking the time to generate the right signals in the nervous system first. Let me explain further.


For horses with weak stifles, well-intentioned riders head for the hills, having read or heard that riding on gradients strengthens the muscles that support the stifle. But any exercise is only as effective as the neural pathways behind it. In other words, riding good exercises doesn’t guarantee results. Like us, horses can perform all kinds of exercises without recruiting the targeted weak area and making it stronger. However, if you have first signaled that area by waking up the nervous system to input it, then you will get results.


In our example of weak stifles, this means using slow and controlled flexions of the stifle prior to engaging in the hill riding exercises. These could include hand-walking over poles, manually flexing the hind limb and holding it flexed for 20 seconds, backing up either in-hand or mounted, hind leg circles/stretches, butt tucks, and so on. The idea is that you coordinate some small movements of the horse’s posture around the area you’re targeting and by doing so, you wake up the nervous system to communicate with it. You prime the pump. Then, as you ride out to the hills, you will indeed receive the strengthening benefit you hoped for.


Simple bodywork techniques like butt tucks, tail pulls, whither wiggles, and Masterson Method in addition to calisthenics like ground work, pole patterns, and corrective exercises are beneficial for priming the pump. Remember to influence every day’s performance with the correct participation of the nervous system and you’ll find yourself steeped in that resulting glorious feeling more abundantly.