The two young school girls persisted in drawing the horse’s ears like an upside down W. They were then shown how to look at the picture they were trying to draw rather than looking inside their own mind at how they thought those ears should be.
“See the angles of the horse’s ears?” I encouraged.
After listening to myself trying to teach grade school kids how to draw, I suddenly realized what we were trying to accomplish with these children in this one-room school in the mountains of Idaho. It had to do with improving their skills of observation. The children in all six grades could physically control a pencil well enough to write legibly. Drawing was not the obstacle. Seeing visual information and interpreting it correctly was the matter at hand.
Improving observation skills…well that sounds simple enough, but it proves to be an elusive target even if we have a high level of interest in the subject. We all move through life with a single point of reference and a predisposition to make mistakes. But the answers to the questions of life lie outside of us. Looking inward for answers and help will only perpetuate the problem. It is in seeing information outside of ourselves that we can move forward. The first observation we need to make is an honest assessment of our limitations. Most of us would like a finished drawing, a finished horse, or a finished saddle as quickly as possible, and the temptation is great to try to reach beyond our grasp, for we are an impatient, destination-oriented people. But if we begin to focus on the present and that which is within our reach, incremental improvement will help us move forward. It is a process of regarding information honestly rather than through the filter of preconceived notions. The focus then shifts from that which would massage the ego, to tangible clues that can guide us to where we need to be.
The late Bud Williams made this case very effectively when teaching low stress livestock handling in order learn the dynamics of pressure and release, one needs to develop (you guessed it!) observation skills. If we are constantly studying the cattle and their response to our relative position, they will tell us where we need to be. The cow will tell us the precise moment we step within her flight zone, but we will not see it unless we are watching for it. Likewise, when regarding a colt in the round corral, there is a steady flow of visual information that needs to be observed and then interpreted correctly. Ray Hunt’s advice to “observe, remember, and compare” entreats us to first develop this skill. When we see the relationship of pressure and release, then we can begin to experiment with finding the least amount of pressure it takes to achieve a desired result. Life suddenly gets easier for horse, rider, and cattle.
Albert Einstein once said “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.” Undoubtedly, Einstein’s attention was directed toward the objective world around him, a world full of fascinating detail and design. The postmodern mantra “the magic is within you” collapses when we instead consider what may lie outside of ourselves. The discoveries that help us along this journey are out there to be embraced and drawn into each of our respective life experiences. Truly seeing the ordinary for the first time opens our experience to many possibilities.
Whether studying a photograph of a horse in order to draw it, or moving pairs to another allotment, or starting a young horse, cultivating this skill will serve us well. Life is then seen through the lens of discovery. We begin to see that rich gifts lie within our grasp on a daily basis. This entails slowing down enough to notice details that have been overlooked or previously taken for granted. With this mode of operation, there will never be a sense of arrival, rather a sense of journey. Ordinary things become transformed into wonderful opportunities for learning and growth. The more discoveries made and ever higher levels of observation achieved, there also lurks the honest reminder of our limitations. We are then set free to be a perpetual student, free to pursue quality and refinement with our horses, our leather…and with our life.