Thursday, September 3, 2009

Horses as our reflections

An important part of working with horses - whether training or simply riding, is keeping in mind that our horses are a reflection of us - both in an emotional sense as well as physically and in general.

We have the power to create either a calm, thinking partner, or an emotional wreck of a horse. To create a calm and thinking horse, you teach the horse to think through situations, to solve puzzles and think for themselves (to be responsible for themselves), and to therefore remain calm. You develop what is already there in the horse to mold a rounded, balanced horse. It requires a lot of forethought on your part as well as self-awareness - your body language, how you hold yourself and how you interact with your horse. Creating an emotional wreck is easy in a lot of cases. It involves acting unfairly and unpredictably - acting like a predator around a prey animal, which comes easy to us. It involves lacking self-awareness and consideration.

Our horses' mental and emotional states also reflects physically. We've already discussed this topic in a previous blog (muscling), but suffice it to say that a horse who is very developed as a prey animal is going to have the associated muscling: strong underline from a tensed, raised neck, a "banana" shaped back, etc. A horse who is more developed as a partner will have a stronger topline. The horse who is not fully developed emotionally but has been taught to carry himself correctly may exhibit physical traits in both aforementioned areas.

In general, our horses will reflect us as well. An independent seat is vital to encouraging our horses to carry themselves the way we desire; if our horses reflect us and we wish them to carry themselves in a particular fashion, then we must also do so ourselves. Some examples:

- Maintain a straight seat on corners, without leaning into the corner. When you want to go, say, right, you put weight on your left foot to push off to the right, correct? So if we want our horses to balance themselves efficiently as they corner on the right rein, we need to balance ourselves even slightly to the left so that they may do the same. Leaning into the corner going right will cause your horse to also lean to the right, which creates an unbalanced corner.

- If you want your horse to bend his ribs on a circle bend your own on the circle.

- Turning say, for example, off the wall, lift the weight ever so slightly off your inside thigh so that your horse can push off his outside. If I fail to do so when riding one of my more advanced horses at liberty, they likely will not turn, even, because I am blocking them. Open that door. Still applying weight to your inside thigh while asking your horse to turn to the inside is contradictory and can be confusing to the developed horse. I find a lot of times I catch myself (usually on green horses) actually stiffening up my inside leg when applying leg pressure with my outside leg for a turn. Once I consciously catch and correct myself, the horse relaxes with my leg and bends as well, rather than keeping their barrel as stiff as my leg. The weight shift is infinitesimal, imperceptible - it should not be anything major or noticeable - but it still has to exist.

- Many might disagree with me on this one, but if you want your horse to round his back, do so yourself! For both back-up and collection, I ask my horses to round their backs by rounding my own and tipping my pelvis - just very imperceptibly (else it becomes a bad habit). As I further develop a horse and we work our way up through refinement, the physical changes I make become less and less observable to the spectator's eye - they become minute, refined, quieter, as the communication becomes more intimate with the horse. It only makes sense to me, just as a reiner rounds their back to ask for a sliding stop, because they are asking their horse to round their back and slide!

- Keep your hands, elbows, and shoulders soft for a soft mouth. A horse's mouth can become calloused and physically hard, but not as often as people seem to think, and those callouses can wear off! In my opinion, there is no such thing as a horse doomed to a wrecked mouth forever. That damage can be undone. Hard mouths develop into soft ones with soft work. It's just that easy. Horses doesn't respond lightly to soft work? Keep going further back into the basics until they do respond and you have something to build off of (one of the most important things I ever learned from John Lyons). I start all my horses from the ground up, so we establish a strong foundation where they are taught to be light and responsive to begin with. With that strong foundation, any horse with a previously hard mouth can be ridden in a gentle snaffle, in a rope hackamore, at liberty - whatever you so please. Some horses have the tendency to lean on your hands (get back to the basics and take away contact - no contact and they have nothing to lean on, then work them back up), or to just be heavy and grow increasingly dull. We own one Warmblood who is such and I am currently working with another who is the same way. A couple weeks ago I was working with her and was becoming increasingly frustrated because she was so heavy! She stopped backing up softly and even just stopped backing for me period and was the furthest thing from soft I could imagine - very tense and brace-y. Finally, I relaxed my hands. BOOM, she relaxed her jaw. Our back-ups returned to being soft, her collection was soft - everything became soft. With some horses I find you can have the tendency to play off each other - the horse is a little hard, so your hands become hard, so they become harder, and your hands become harder. The vicious cycle continues until you are both frustrated and the horse (as in my case) maybe even stops working. I find the horse being hard to begin with depends largely on respect - build that back up (even within that session) and the horse becomes softer and more responsive. Then keep your hands soft, and the horse stays soft!

Another "reflection" of you you will often encounter in a horse, is in your (in)ability to catch them. "You find out what your horse thought of your last session the next day when you go to catch him" - Jonathan Field. You also find out what your horse thinks of you or people in general! A partnership can take awhile to build up - from days to years, so sometimes it is a work-in-progress. In the mean time, the horse might be difficult to catch but steadily improves as your relationship with him improves. However if you've been working with a particular horse for a number of years and he is still hard to catch, you might want to re-evaluate what you are doing with him or how you are working with him that causes him to re-think being with you. I was riding with a pair of individuals the other day who were lamenting on how hard their one horse had been to catch, how this particular mare was just being a b****. She was also a b**** when it came to bridling (long-shanked curb), which resulted in a fight between horse and human, with said horse being injured somehow in the process. It's not the horse! Things such as the aforementioned events have more to do with us than we realise. In this case, the mare was sending out clear signals she didn't like being ridden by refusing to be caught and by being difficult to bridle. If your horse is hard to catch (regardless of its past), ask yourself why. Oftentimes it has to do with us.

Keeping in mind that our horses are our mirrors is vital to our work with them - it can mean the difference between a successful partnership and a great one, or an unsuccessful one and a successful one.

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