On Sunday morning, we went out onto the lawn for a T’ai Chi session. Alex took us through several exercises that help to find balance within your own body and exercises that help to extend the range of movement in your joints. We did hip rotations, shoulder rotations, located the four balance points in our feet, and learned an exercise that extends the range of movement in your neck. Everything is done by bone rotations, muscle doesn’t come into and as a consequence you can’t overdo these exercises as there is no force. It all felt very good and gentle, but the effects were powerful. We did the T’ai Chi walk, and focused on what the body needs to do when you want to walk a circle, which leg initiates a turn, what happens in your body when you halt and then walk backwards. All of this we can take back to our horses, because how we hold our own bodies and when we ask a horse to do something all affects the horse, both in groundwork and in the saddle.
Then we paired off to practise rope handling again, with the experienced participants helping the beginners. It was enlightening to be both handler and horse, to experience how much it matters how the rope is handled. I had already been the horse on Saturday when Alex wanted to demonstrate what a difference it makes whether you’re tense or relaxed. She asked me to hold the end of the rope between my hands, stretch my arms forward as the horse’s neck and close my eyes. I had to tense up and tell her when I could feel her sliding down the rope towards me. I closed my eyes and when I thought I felt something, I said “now”. Alex had her hand right under my hands. We repeated it, but this time I had to relax all my muscles. This time I could clearly feel her coming. I opened my eyes and saw that Alex had barely started to slide down the rope, and the belly of the rope was actually on the floor. This is why it is so important to always slide down the rope slowly, so that the horse can feel us coming and won’t get startled, especially if the horse is tense. I really like this way of rope handling, the slow sliding makes it feel polite and safe, whereas when someone just takes hold of the rope it feels abrupt and rude.
After lunch, we went back to the horses. This time Alex let us work on our own, and she gave us her feed back afterwards. All three beginner horses (and handlers) were showing how far they had come over the course of the weekend. Unfortunately, Máire and I had a long drive ahead, so we couldn’t stay to watch the advanced horses. Before we left, Alex asked us what was the most important thing we had learned that weekend. I had to think about that for a moment. It was impossible to pick a single thing. The whole weekend was a constant stream of information and experiences, and the amount of learning was incredible. I really came to understand not only the importance of the Foundation Lessons, but also the depth of them; there are many layers to the lessons. And although I wasn’t able to bring Cassie this weekend, I came away from the clinic with a much better idea of how to proceed with her.
Looking back, I realise that the clinic with Alex was a real paradigm shift for me. Clicker training is not something you can switch on and off; you can’t just take your horse out of the field, do a clicker training session and then put her back. It is not about how far you can take your horse in a traditional sense, it is about how you build your training plan. It is a mental attitude. What you think affects your body, which affects your horse. You have to be balanced yourself, in body and mind, before your horse can be balanced. As Alex says, everything is connected to everything else. All I have to remember now is to take those treats out of my pockets before I throw my clothes in the washing machine!