How Much Does Energy Affect Your Ride?

Photo Credit: Buck Brannaman Website

Photo Credit: Buck Brannaman Website

Recently, I had the pleasure of auditing a Buck Brannaman clinic while on a trip to Montana.  While trying not to get confused by the different tack (why do they all have a rope attached to their saddle if there are no cows around?  Why are there so many dangly things hanging down from the saddle, and could I get away with wearing those super awesome chaps with the fringy things to a dressage lesson?!?), I was amazed by the many similarities in Buck’s approach to my own.   While this felt GREAT, I also didn’t get too stuck on my laurels, knowing that there was true information to be ferreted out of this opportunity, if I just paid attention!

In the morning, I watched the colt starting clinic (“colt starting” is a generic term for young horses; there was actually only one intact colt there).  I was taken by the huge variance in the skill levels of the various riders, from flailing-and-God-love-that-good-little-horse to quiet, calm, sure movements designed to guide the horse toward the right decisions while giving them a sense of accomplishment.  There were a few young men who were great hands, and who brought their young horses along well and were a pleasure to watch.  There was one young lady who I really liked, on a smallish roan horse (roan is the new paint out West!) who was quiet, calm, and never looked frazzled.  During our lunch time, I took it upon myself to chat with the people sitting around me, and got to meet some new friends (and show that not all dressage trainers were elitist snobs).  In our conversation, I mentioned how much I liked the young woman’s riding, and how well I thought she helped the young horse.  One of the long-time Buck acolytes spoke up and said “Yeah, but sometimes she needs to bring her energy UP a little more – she keeps it too low too long.”

It’s almost a week from that conversation, and I still can’t stop thinking about that.  As a frequent rider of snarky, nervous, difficult and sometimes dangerous horses (you know who you are, horses!), I have long trained myself to keep my energy steady, deep and low in myself, so as to not add fuel to the fire.  I have been affectionately called a “feather-smoother”, one who stills the horse’s nerves instead of ruffling them.  I have even been warned that this tool, which I have taken years to develop, might not be as effective in the FEI ring, where we like to see a “bit more life” in our horses, as Buck would put it.

Another comment that intrigued me along the same lines was in the afternoon Horsemanship clinic.  (Now, for you greenhorns, Horsemanship is kind of like a combination of equitation and dressage, where they work to teach the horses to be supple, sharp, and perform various movements of increasing difficulty. )  Buck was talking about moving the horse out into a bigger gait and then bringing them back to a smaller step within the same gait.  He said “Vary your energy to vary the speed of the horse…{both on and off the horse}…Its another way to adjust the horse’s speed through your body.”  WOW. I thought…although I have heard this before, I put it into much greater context when combined with the conversation about the quiet rider from the morning.  How much CAN we affect the horse from simply our energy?

I have two new horses in my life, and they are both young.  One is 3, just starting under saddle, and the other, who is 4, has time in the saddle but is having some issues adjusting to being ridden.  The 3 year old is very calm and easy going.  The 4 year old is big, and has less defined lines between your space and his.  Upon my return from Montana, I have worked both of them from the ground with a flag, moving their hindquarters, their shoulders, and generally using the flag to help guide them.  The 3 year old was a bit frozen at first when the flag moved, then loosened up and began to respond with ease.  All calm, all good, good boy.  The 4 year old was a bit bullish, and I really had to step into him with the flag to make my point.  At a critical moment when he was pushing and I was flagging, I looked inside myself, and realized the energy of the flag did NOT go all the way through my body – it stopped in my arm!  Deep down, I wasn’t really ramping up to make my point; I was still staying in that calm, unruffled state.  Now, I’m sure Buck would have told me at this time that I was looking to get myself killed, so I tried to pull it up from deep down in my sodden shoes.  It was like a bolt of lightning came out of my arm, the 4 year old moved away from me so well!  I worked to keep that level of energy in me for the rest of the work, and again the next day when I brought to my barn for the first time.  It was a matter of life or death; not really, but I wanted to think that way, so I stayed alert.

I’ve really been thinking about this, and how I can use this free, inexhaustible tool better.  I think back on a story that Heather Blitz told me about a breakthrough with Paragon, where she was frustrated and stumped in their training.  Paragon is a pretty chill dude, and, as it was related to me, Heather could not get the brilliance to come out.  Frustrated, she was walking away to get the long lines to try a different approach; when she turned around, Paragon was standing there piaffing, vibrating from her mad, frustrated energy.  She learned from that day that she needed to bring her energy up in order to bring out the best in her horse, but to do it without anger.   Personally, I realize that it is hard for me to separate out energy and aggression, which I try to avoid in most situations, personal and professional.  But in stamping down any aggression, have I removed my ability to energize in any way at all?  I feel that I need to find a way to redefine my energies, and have different ones available for different situations.  Maybe I’ll give them some names, like BIG TROT energy, or SCARY BRIDGE energy, so that I have a host of different levels to pull from.  Maybe I’ll associate colors with them, so that they go from a soft pastel to a vibrant, screaming orange (that’s the “you better get gone now” energy, I believe!)

And what of my students?  How will I explain, teach, and help people delve into this subterranean world of their own energies?  I have some students that I frequently feel their energy doesn’t match the situation, or the horse they are riding, and have struggled to address this with them.  How do you tell someone their energy is bad, and who am I to define what they are feeling?  As an instructor AND a lover of horses, I can see the result of both positive energy and negative energy from the rider, high energy and low energy that is put into the horse.  I cry for the horses that are beaten down with negative energy, and try to infuse them with some positive, loving vibes while I’m there, but I fear it doesn’t last.  I try to invigorate the sluggish riders, using big visions and loud reinforcements, so that they too may find that moment of brilliance that they would strive to recreate.

In the end, I think that it is a study of ourselves.  What do we really want, and how much of ourselves are we willing to stretch, whisper, or cymbal-bang to reach it?  For my future, I see my energy development as a new aid, a tool that I can carry without additional weight, clothing, or cost.  How I use it may be a little scattered from time to time, but I think I will develop a good working relationship with my various energy levels.  I’m excited, and that’s a good place to start.

How’s your energy?

Stephany Fish