on words

The words won’t be forgotten, thought Granny. There’s a power to them. They’re damn good woods, as words go.

– Granny Weatherwax
in Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

I still have a few things to write up about what I learned from this year’s Mary Wanless workshop, but I’ve realized through my explorations of the internet that Mary’s methods aren’t the most popular out there. Different people have different objections, but one of the ones I’ve seen is that people don’t seem to understand what she’s saying. That Mary’s words don’t always make sense. And I had some thoughts on that.

Some people might object to Mary because the words she says to higher-level-Mary riders can be pretty inaccessible. During the workshop Mary talked to Tanya about making a board from her 2-pack to the horse’s neck, passing over some cervical vertebrae and then into the neck and through to the poll, pushing the board longer to encourage the horse’s neck to move down and out. Weird, right? I’m happy to admit it. But Tanya is a super high level rider who clearly has abilities well beyond my own. But even to the mid-level demo riders, Mary said some things that might come across as strange if you haven’t been working in her world for a while. “Imagine strings connecting your hip flexors to your horse’s hocks, and draw his legs further under him with every rise as you post.”

What you aren’t seeing, when you just read or hear those words, is all of the reinforcement and awareness that Mary has developed with that rider. One of the parts of Mary’s program that she has emphasized at her workshops is developing greater bodily awareness within each rider. Sometimes it comes in the form of questions: can you feel your frontline all the way up your thighs? How about all the way up to your collarbone? Can you take a deep breath with your left lung? How about your right?

By connecting exercises about body awareness to words about body parts, Mary is creating riders who have a strong understanding of how what specific, discrete parts of their body are doing. Tanya’s awareness of her body is so high that when she thinks of that board from her 2-pack board she turns on a whole suite of muscles, a suite of muscles that are doing things that change the way the horse goes. She’s not just imagining this board. She is doing through imagery.

So yes. Those words are Martian.

When Murray had his amazing session with the cowboy, the cowboy said “I’m going to move his left hind foot by looking at it.” And I looked at the cowboy like he was stupid. But he looked at Murray, and Murray moved his damn left hind foot. And then he moved his right hind when the cowboy looked at that one too.

How. What the fuck?

Pressure, said the cowboy. Energy.

Those words were meaningless to me. About as meaningless as “imagine a board that goes from your 2-pack line into his cervical vertebrae”.

I also watched Kate’s cowboy work with one of her horses. It’s remarkable how all those highly effective cowboys are almost the same. He waved a flag at a horse and the horse did nothing, then he waved it a little differently and the horse yielded to the flag. “So,” said Kate, “you’re practicing changing intention.” “Exactly,” said the cowboy.


refractory to intention

“How do you change your intention?” I asked Kate.

“Well,” she stared at me, “I guess I change what I intend.”

The cowboy gave me the gift of elaborating a bit. It’s about the energy, he said. The energy with which the flag approached the horse, and the energy the flag had when he “released” it from the horse. So we were back to energy.

But what is energy? And how do I change it? When a cowboy hands me a rope, the only other tool I have is flapping my body around and metaphorically, or literally, yelling what I want at the horse. But working with my cowboy, and Kate’s cowboy, you can hone your skills until they are closer to those cowboy tools. Closer to “energy”.

People — including me, it should be noted — also think that natural horsemanship cowboys are speaking nonsense at first.

Think about what you hear some upper level dressage clinicians say.

Ride almost in a shoulder-fore.

Rounder. Flex him.

More. Less.

Half halt.

These words are all just as much Martian as “imagine you have a board from your 2-pack line” or “change your energy”. But they have a meaning in Dressage, a meaning that the people listening to that clinician might even have 1/3 of an understanding or comprehension of. I have maybe 4% the understanding of what “rounder” means to Charlotte Dujardin. I know that a half halt is a thing, even if I can’t execute one to save my life. More? Less? Those words have total mastery over me.

But that’s the thing. Lots of people watching that clinician won’t really know what those words mean, know their full meaning. If they are just a passing rider or auditor, they certainly won’t understand what those words mean to that clinician. But they think they know. They think they understand how to apply “rounder” and “more” to their own riding, and suddenly that clinician’s words become so much more “accessible” to the rider. And the clinician is therefore deemed worthwhile or a good teacher because the listener’s language comprehension skills approximated 1/12th of what they were saying.

Make no mistake. These high-level instructors are all speaking Martian. Some people think they understand Martian. The best of us are just working hard to understand their words.

Image result for wyrd sistersthis book is 100% worth reading btw

11 thoughts on “on words

  1. Thanks you for addressing this, I’ve definitely had those thoughts, although I do think Mary is insanely smart and talented at teaching from what I’ve read. I’ll be honest that while I love reading about the Mary stuff and I think I would enjoy that type of riding and learning, I have not been brave enough to enter that arena. I don’t have any access to a trainer with that kind of knowledge and trying to learn on my own seems overwhelming.

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    • Totally get you. I struggled to put the right feelings to the words I was reading, and sometimes it’s not until getting it and losing it many times that I have figured out I was wrong or right. There are other avenues to join really similar cults I mean paths. Centered Riding and many other rider biomechanics work on the same principles (with some different words) and concepts, and will get you to start feeling the feelings!

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  2. The thing about Mary (much like Terry Prachett) is she needs re-reads as you further understand. Like the whole edges thing last year I didn’t get until one day I was riding this year and BAM I got it! It’s definitely not a 1 and done kinda thing with her, but what in riding is one and done?

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  3. the thing with words as they relate to riding is that…. until you can connect a word with a feeling, it’s…. just a word lol. what makes some coaches really special is how adept they are at making those connections – sounds like MW falls into that category for many riders.

    from my outside perspective tho…. to be perfectly honest reading the people who are writing about MW makes it sound just a litttttttle bit like a cult ;P

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    • But honestly, the words connecting with feelings is the key here. And so many riders — including me for a LONG TIME and still now, depending on the day and who is talking to me — think that they have a feeling connected with a word, but it’s not a well-formed feeling, or a reliable/replicable feeling, or worse still, not the correct feeling. Which is a huge impediment to learning. Yet many riders, fortunately this time not really including me, still shell out hundreds and hundreds of dollars to be told those words over and over and over again, even though it’s not resulting in any new feeling, change in feeling, or more-right feeling.

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  4. I have lots of feelings about MW. One one hand, I absolutely adore and worship at the altar of biomechanics. They are important to me. I’m not a natural rider, but studying the body and its effect on the horse makes me seem more like one. It’s amazing. I’m utterly addicted. On the other hand, I don’t love going to clinics where everyone speaks in code and very few are progressing. That smacks of inaccessibility in some form. I also was really turned off my Mary herself and her way of approaching people and things. I was left with the feeling that you think her way with her words and experience things in the way she is discussing, or you’re right out and wrong. I’m not about that. I also was very turned off by the pyramid scheme feeling of her regular clinic. If I want to buy someone’s book, I will. I do not appreciate being constantly sold on someone’s products. If I did, I’d watch a hell of a lot more late night infomercials.

    In taking with Megan and Kate, I think there is a big difference between the upper level instructor clinics you guys have gone to and the more run of the mill clinic I watched. That might be part of the difference I’ve experienced. It’s overall pretty sad that MW seems to offer such life changing instruction and theory but can’t overcome a communication barrier. I don’t think it is 100% the words used, though.

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    • This was the first year I had the chance to attend any of the regular clinic days with Mary, and it was a very different experience from the workshop. I only got to attend one day, but I did see each rider making progress. Actually, one rider didn’t, but she spent almost the entire lesson explaining to Mary why she was riding a certain way because she was concerned about her horse spooking in one place or another, and not really applying the changes Mary suggested. I also haven’t experienced the “pyramid scheme” feeling of it at all, and I haven’t seen Mary discard a rider because they weren’t working in her words. But again — only one day of regular clinic attendance.

      However, I’ve been to plenty of other clinics where I haven’t seen riders making *any* progress. And in many of those clinics either the rider or the clinician or both were like “Wow, what progress!” Maybe I wasn’t advanced enough in my understanding to see the progress. Maybe it’s the emperor’s new clothes.

      The other thing about riders making massive progress at clinics is that I think many of those fixes may be band-aids. Sure, I watched Jan Ebeling help a rider working with him for the first time to straighten out her tempis, but he didn’t get the chance to address the underlying issue that caused lack of straightness in the first place. And when I watch Jan clinic with riders who see him much more often (my MIL rides with him so I’ve seen quite a few clinics/lessons), the changes are much more subtle as he tackles the day-in-day-out habits that his riders need to have to make their horses more excellent.

      You should come out to the workshop. It’s very fun, and we’re even funner!

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      • For sure, I’m definitely not suggesting Mary clinics are any better or worse than other clinics. Lol. Like, I’d audit Jeremy Steinberg in a minute, but I’m not sure a one off lesson with him would do anything for me. Mary is probably more effective than most in the one off clinic environment. I wonder how much of my feeling is borne out of the group in the clinic.

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