My mentor is a nightmare.
He will not answer your question if it’s the wrong question.
It is always the wrong question.
“How can I motivate my horse?” “How can I get my horse to perform better?” Wrong questions. “How can I get my horse to stop running away with me?” Wrong question.
I quit asking. I watched. For the next 3 years, I watched him work.
And finally I asked a better question…
“How do you get them all to… I don’t know… to come alive?”
“I remind them of their true nature. Of what it means to be a horse.”
An answer. But, seriously? “OK, awesome, and what does that even mean?”
“Think about it. It’s not complicated. It’s common sense.”
I thought about all I’d seen him do over these past years. I studied the hundreds of hours of video I shot of him working. Not talking, not narrating his work, just… working.
And he was right, of course. The answer was the simplest answer of all.
What does it mean to be a horse? What is the nature of a horse?
A horse in the treacherous terrain of wild Iceland must be strong, agile, and sensible. They must be alert and aware, but not tense. An Icelandic horse must be physically and mentally balanced to stay alive. And they must practice being alive.
This was the answer I’d been waiting for: reconnect the horse to its own nature.
And it begins with nature.
For the next year, I stopped riding in the dressage arena and rode my horses out. In nature. Steep hills, woods, midnight rides in the full moon. Chasing deer and bobcats. Racing the other horses.
And something amazing happened.
More than 2,000 years ago, Greek historian and soldier Xenophon wrote a book On Horsemanship with training principles still used today. He wanted a warrior horse to be encouraged to “hold his head high, arch his neck, and paw with his front legs, taking pleasure in being ridden.” He wanted a horse to “display itself proudly.”
If Xenophon were alive now, he’d probably be giving a Ted talk like Amy Cuddy’s on the “Power Pose”. Turns out what he said applies to humans, too.
Horses in Iceland today are still kept much as they were 1,000 years ago. Stimulated by the nature of Iceland, these same horses begin losing touch with their nature when imported to the U.S. Master horse trainers from Iceland are confused and disheartened by the loss of spirit in horses that were so vibrant before leaving Iceland.
My mentor is not confused by this. The son of one of the greatest horsemen Iceland has ever known, my mentor knows what our horses have lost with life in a comfortable, modern stable. And my mentor knows how to help our horses rediscover it.
To survive in Iceland, a horse must be aware. Not just aware of the environment and potential dangers, but aware of their own body. To a horse in Iceland, proprioception and balance are the senses on which their life depends.
To a horse in Iceland, aliveness = awareness, and awareness = aliveness.
The secret to rekindling aliveness in both horses and humans, he believes, is to build their awareness. Body awareness. Proprioception. Balance. They keep a horse alive but they also make the horse alive. And it is up to us to help them recover what a more comfortable life has cost them.
Finding the spirit of Valhöll in my horses has forced me to find it in myself. I cannot help my horses unless I, too, am working to be strong and balanced. As I work on helping develop their posture and proprioception, I must work on my own. As I work on sharpening their awareness, I must work on my own. And as the horses have transformed, the world itself has changed.