Over the Easter holiday a good friend of mine came to visit me with her 9 year old daughter. Molly has just started riding lessons and was keen to meet my two horses and two miniature Shetland ponies for the first time. It turned out to be a magical day and, surprisingly for me, one filled with important lessons for not only leadership but adulthood in general.
I had anticipated that Molly would spend some time learning how to groom the mini ponies and perhaps, daringly, pick up their feet or lead the larger horses. But this fresh-faced, tiny girl arrived in her jodphurs, jodhpur boots and riding gloves and it was clear that her heart’s desire was to ride while she was with me. As my old ponies are long since retired I decided that if all went well and it seemed safe to do so, Molly would ride my horse Ruby. Although the more sensitive and responsive of my two horses Ruby is by far the smaller and I would be better able to support the child once she was in the saddle, than with my much larger gelding. I would, of course, retain control of Ruby while Molly was on board by keeping her on a lead rein!
Molly started by learning how to let Ruby come to her and then how to say hello once the horse had made contact. We progressed to grooming and by this time it was clear that something special was developing between the child and the very much larger chestnut horse. As Molly drew the grooming brush across the smooth glossy flank she gasped in awe, “I’ve never seen such a beautiful horse!” Ruby’s eyes softened, her head dropped and bottom lip wobbled in genuine relaxation.
After Molly had mastered some basic manoeuvres on the ground with Ruby such as leading her, and causing the horse to halt by simply relaxing her body and breathing out I asked her how she was feeling about the possibility of climbing onto Ruby’s back.
“Very, very excited!” she exclaimed.
“So it’s important that you are calm at the same time as excited Molly, before you climb into the saddle. Do you think that is possible?” I responded.
“Oh yes!” she cried. “I’d do _anything_** to be able to sit on Ruby!” So I spent some time teaching Molly how to relax her breath and her muscles, so that the excitement stayed in her heart, but did not cause her body to tense up. I could see from the relaxed state of my horse that my young student had mastered the lesson in next to no time.
Following my instructions to the letter Molly gently and respectfully climbed onto the mounting block and then into the saddle. An hour or so dissolved around us as the tiny girl rode my gentle mare, walking, halting, walking again, turning circles and even going backwards. My mare’s ears flicked backwards and forwards, paying attention to my instructions at the end of the lead rope initially, but very soon tuning into the diminutive girl on her back. Soon I did not need to give any guidance to the horse about what was expected of her – the requests from Molly were clear and effective. So much so, that just before we finished I suggested that Molly try the same manoeuvres with Ruby, but without touching the reins at all.
In complete trust, of me and my horse, Molly immediately let go of the reins and held onto the front of the saddle, and then guided Ruby around the paddock simply by subtle shifts of her body and breath. Now – my horse is trained to respond to this subtle level of “cue” when I am riding her, that is true – but it was Molly’s ability to harness and moderate her own natural energy and use her body fluidly, not to mention her ability to listen to instructions, and absorb and execute accurately the essence of what I was teaching, which helped her to achieve this phenomenal level of communication with her new equine friend.
Her experience drew to a close and Molly dismounted and led Ruby up the field where I untacked the horse and we all prepared to leave. My friend asked her daughter how it had been; and she replied with absolute joy and wonder,
“This is just the BEST day of my entire life!”
And then Molly reached her gloved hand out to Ruby to say goodbye. The horse extended her soft velvety muzzle and pressed it firmly against the child’s hand, and they stood there for many minutes, motionless in their silent communion. I was deeply moved and humbled to witness such a profound connection.
And it set me wondering – what was it about the way Molly was which enabled this kind of connection, which so many of us strive for as adults in our professional and personal lives, to occur with my horse? What was it that led Ruby to listen for and willingly follow her youthful leadership?
Was it Molly’s ability to have a heart full of wonder and to be fully present in the moment? Was it that her trust of me and my horse was so absolute that she simply believed she would be able to do whatever I asked her to try and that Ruby would follow? Or was it that she knew how to allow her desire and wishes to flow through her body into clear and authentic communication with the horse? Or was it the power of her gratitude for the gift of her day, and her very existence, which was expressed when she exclaimed “This is just the BEST day of my entire life!”
Or perhaps it was all of these things which led to something quite remarkable happening on that day between a child and a horse – something which reminds me of the power of being present, of believing in myself, of trusting, and of allowing a sense of gratitude and wonder to fill my heart so that every day becomes the best day of my life.