So this can be a probing question, none of us would like to think that we aren't fully present when dealing with our favourite animals, we'd love to say yes, I'm totally and utterly present whenever I'm around or on board.
The thing is for most of us this isn't fully true. There are times when handling or riding that our attention is taken off the horse and placed somewhere else.
I've observed this time and time again, not only in others but when I look truthfully at myself in my own riding, infact I dare to say the more advanced you are at riding, the more it comes easily to you or is part of your daily routine the more chance you have of becoming distracted.
Take for example when I used to teach at my training centre, we would mount at the yard and ride to the arena, in this short space of time the riders would tell me about their week, discuss how I am and generally get the pleasantries out of the way, it was a subconscious thing that riding only really started when they got into the arena.
The difficulty with this is that horses are switched on from the moment you step into their space, before you even get on board or tack them up (if that's your job) they are already assessing what kind of human you are, what mood you're in, and if you're going to keep them safe and listen to their concerns. As horses are prey animals their prime thought process is "how do I stay alive" and so as part of their life they will constantly be analysing you to see if you are going to aid in them staying alive or inhibit this. Horses also think 10x faster than humans, so that short ride to the arena that takes possibly 2 mins at most effectively lasts 20mins in their own minds, that's 20 minutes of not paying attention. Think of the amount of conversation you could have in 20 minutes, that's double the length of an average Drs appointment, that's a lot of information that can be passed across and a lot of information that can be missed.
So if you don't become fully conscious of your actions right from the start you can be giving a lot of signals to your horse without really knowing it, this places you not only on the back foot in building that days relationship but also leaves you potentially missing out on the signals your horse is giving you.
Another time I've observed this lack of conscious awareness is whilst riders are out on a hack, going for an after work ride with your best friend is such a delight, especially on a summers evening, but so often the rider turns into a catch up of the latest gossip and less about the ride at all, you're basically using the horse as a mode of transport but can you truly say you're really riding them?
I've witnessed many accidents and potential accidents that could have been avoided if the rider had been fully aware of what was really going on underneath them, if the rider had read the subtle signals the horse was giving them rather than only realising something was wrong when the horse was careering off down the road. And unfortunately so often after a spook, the rider will often say "it just came out of knowwhere", this is rarely the case, even if the signs are super subtle there will always be some there, you just have to pay attention.
Yes you may say that's being consciously aware of the horse but what about conscious movement, where does that fit in?
This is why this subject is so huge and so fascinating to me as we can look at it with so many angles, all relating back to the relationship between horse and rider.
When we're not fully conscious of our own bodies, when were busy chatting to friends, the trainer or watching other riders to their thing our bodies can get up to an amazing amount without us even knowing, tightening of the reins to help with balance, thighs gripping the saddle, a leg bounce as the horse moves gently tapping the horses sides every stride, short breath as we struggle to comprehend the next jump or canter transition, tense shoulders from a day at the desk passing down the reins to make a tense contact, the list goes on and on. All of this is our way we communicate with our horses, they communicate with body language and read every movement we make, so when we make movements without realising it we're telling them something but we have no idea we've just done it.
This generally results in two responses, initially the horse tries to answer these "questions" that were not realising were asking, but without a reward for the answer and worst still maybe even being told not to do that we send them into a spiral of confusion, this confusion can lead to either what I call "shut down" when the horse gives up trying as it doesn't make any sense, they become numb to the signals and switch off to the riders movement as its the only way they can cope with this constant bombardment of information. You can relate to this with a trip to the city, there's so much information thrown at your senses you have to start to filter to be able to stay sane, so you stop noticing the noise of the traffic, the flashing lights of the billboards and eventually you get tunnel vision, focussing only on what is necessary and missing the rest. This is what happens to horses when the rider is moving unconsciously.
The other response is the horse becomes flighty, aggravated and expresses itself in a nervous way, its still confused but demonstrating this with a feeling of discomfort, trying to run from the confusion or do everything in its power to answer the riders questions that make no sense.
Eventually if you ride this horse regularly they work out that most of what you're saying is nonsense, and learn to try to differentiate between the mistaken movements and the actual ones that mean something, but through doing this we make everything so hard for them that reactions become slower and aids have to become bigger. Its like me handing you a sheet of paper covered in words and asking you to pick one word from it, or handing you a blank sheet of paper with the same word, which one are you going to spot the word quicker on. You'll get the result in the end, but in order to make that word noticeable you may have to write it in bold, circle it a few times and just make it so much more obvious, this is why your aids have to become bigger, so the horse can pick the meaningful ones from the rest of the garbage.
So conscious movement is key not only to extracting the information you need from the horse to stay safe, to build a relationship and not leave you on the back foot, but to also more than anything allow your horse a chance to really understand what you mean, to make it easier for your horse to hear you and make it much more enjoyable for them to have you in their space.