“Things would work a lot better with this gelding,” said the Old Man quietly, “if you’d stop pulling on him.” I was 11 and having trouble getting a little gelding I was riding, Spark, to turn and stop. If I pulled to the right, he would pull to the left; if I pulled to the left, he would pull to the right. The Old Man, a wise and experienced trainer, was helping me.
“I don’t know how to do that,” I said in frustration.
“How to do what?”
The Old Man stood quietly for a few seconds. Then he said, “Why don’t you put him up for now? We’ll try again tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I said. I put Spark away and finished a few chores. Just as I was getting ready to ride my bike down the driveway, the Old Man came out of the tack room door.
“Hold on,” he said, stepping over to where I was sitting on my bike. He looked down at my hands on the handlebars. “Go ahead and ride your bike around in a little circle here.” He pointed at the dirt-covered yard we were standing in and drew a circle in the air. I did what he asked. He watched me ride the circle a couple of times.
“Now the other way,” he said. I coasted into a nice little half-circle that looped me back in the other direction. I made two more circles before he directed me back the other way. Finally, he motioned for me to stop.
“The way you steer your bike,” he said, “that’s how you ride a horse without pulling on ’im.” He walked past me back toward the tack room. “See you tomorrow.”
I turned my bike for home and began my daily ritual—swerving in a big serpentine line from one bar ditch, across the gravel road to the bar ditch on the opposite side, then back again. I repeated the pattern all the way to where the pavement started, a distance of about a half-mile.
The Old Man’s comparison between steering my bike and turning a horse without pulling had meant little to me when he’d said it. But as I swerved my bike back and forth, I slowly became aware of what it actually took to steer my little Schwinn Stingray. I noticed that turning to the right, for instance, I used just slightly more draw with my right hand than push with my left. The same went for a left-hand turn. Both hands felt as though they had close to an equal amount of contact.
The more I paid attention, the more I noticed I was barely even holding the grips as I eased the handlebars in one direction or the other. With such a negligible grip on the bars, it was sometimes difficult to know if I was pushing or pulling the bike into a turn.
I had no way of knowing at the time that what I’d felt during that ride was at the heart of the very kind of softness that not only created those smooth turns with my bike, but can also create positive responses in horses, people, dogs, cats, and myriad other animals.
Today I can’t begin to count how many times that particular day has popped into my consciousness. All those years ago, when the Old Man had me take a look at how I was steering my bicycle, what he was really showing me was how to become aware. He was showing me that I was already directing my bike through softness and feel, not forcing it with strength and muscle as I had been when working with Spark. He was showing me that what I needed to do to work with Spark successfully, I was already doing in at least one other aspect of my life. I just didn’t know it at the time.
It would take years for me to understand the brilliance and simplicity of what he shared with me that day. It would take me even longer to find ways to implement it.
Mark Rashid, Estes Park, Colorado, is a trainer, clinician, and author. This story is adapted from his latest book, Journey to Softness, published by Trafalgar Square Books and available to buy at www.EquineNetworkStore.com.