"To do well we need knowledge, to teach well we need understanding” Philippe Karl
Priorities To be effective, to get the best from our horses, and respect them at the same time, we need to establish three fundamental qualities: relaxation, balance, impulsion.
Naturally there are other qualities to develop, but they all rely on one or all of these three basics. These are the foundations to build from, and take with us, all the way.
I talked about the importance of impulsion in the article “More Forward”. Here I talk about another priority for all our work with horses: and that is, relaxation. Next time I want to talk about balance, its relationship with relaxation and impulsion, and how we can develop these qualities.
I refer to these as qualities for the horse – having relaxation in mind and body, being balanced both longitudinally and laterally, and having impulsion forward or upward, relative to the level of education and collection.
Anxiety can of course result from other issues - physical pain, weakness, illness, injury etc., these are not the subjects here, yet they will also certainly impact on the horse's ability to keep relaxed, balanced or forward.
Being effective in managing these three qualities is the big challenge of dressage. We need to stay curious but confident in adopting a logical way to train the horse, and to know when is the best time to introduce the next level of difficulty.
Every horse has different needs and the path for many is like an entangled track in a mysterious forest, with contradictory signposts, pointing in all different directions, to the same destinations. It’s a huge learning curve that can be overwhelming, confusing and wasteful on many levels. For us and the horses. Sadly, its often the case that the most sensitive or ‘difficult’ horses are paying the price as they get passed on from one owner to another, yet these problematic horses have the most to teach us about ourselves.
Principles in practice Riding is not the easiest pastime to choose, especially given that it relies on a team mate of a different species who speaks a different language. While we are privileged to access a massive body of information available, its not all good. Fortunately though, if we dig deep we can find some trustworthy principles, passed on from old masters, new scientists, and others who tactfully combine these two with the art of ‘feel’.
Principles - unlike practices - give us a broader process from which to learn. Fundamental propositions provide foundations for a chain of reasoning, one principle may have numerous applications and give answers to a range of questions. If we can find credible principles that respect the nature of horses, we are off to a good start.
One of the first principles that all the ‘classics’ seem to agree on is that relaxation in a horse is THE most important quality to safeguard in schooling, as nothing productive or joyful happens without it.
Relaxation with Impulsion
Relaxation and impulsion are an interesting combination. If there is too much impulsion and energy, the horse is clearly not relaxed. They may rush and ignore our aids, or bolt in fear. On the other hand, if there is too much relaxation, the horse may resist the aids to go forward, lacking impulsion and responsiveness. We need both - a balance between these two states. That in itself is interesting, because when we have equilibrium between relaxation and impulsion, this also creates a better balance for the horse, and we can never have too much balance!
Tension mounts and rides away... if you let it. A relaxed horse is our start point, end point, and everything between. We can’t overlook this. It’s evidence that a horse is able to listen and learn. If the horse is tense and anxious, we need to prove to our horse that we acknowledge their anxiety. We need to address it, as it’s happening. The principle here is: the longer we ignore tension in training – the more it escalates. Horses are creatures of habit, and tension under saddle can become one of these habits.
Making the right thing easy... means ease off when it feels right So, when the wheels fall off we can ask ourselves; what was my priority, and when did I lose it? When did tension start? Did I address it early enough, before it escalated into conflict. Maybe my priority was rhythm – but I lost relaxation on the way. Was there too much impulsion, and not enough balance? Did I just ask too much and overwhelm my horse with complicated demands? Did I ease off and praise when it was good?
Sometimes horses become tense because they just can't work out what we want. They may trial several attempts at anticipating our needs, but fail each time to get it right. If we are not noticing when the little things improve, we are a burden to ourselves and the horse. Notice, reward and praise for every little try if you want to fast track your training. Show the horse how to find ease and relaxation, how to find a softer rein and a looser leg. And if you get two circles free of tension and on your line, this day, it might be a good place to stop, praise and hop off.
Relaxation doesn’t come from drilling the same thing of kilimetres of circles in one position, on one rein, keeping the same boring tempo, or wrestling with the horse in tension and resistance. It comes from you giving the horse the best conditions to help it find a solution in a range of different situations - allowing the horse to express its natural paces in a natural way, and shaping this over time. Change the tempo often – make it adjustable: faster, slower, longer, shorter, higher, lower, left or right. Let the horse find balance in relaxation, in different gaits, and different positions of the neck.
Subtle and not so subtle signs I may know signs of tension in my horse; muscular contraction, the position of the head, neck, ears, tail and shoulders. The look in the eyes, the brace in the jaw, the tightness of the lips and mouth, tilting the head, grinding the bit, holding the breath and so on. Then there are the not so subtle signs that escalate into more expressive ways to release tension: kicking, biting, pushing, leaning, pulling, bucking, rearing, chasing, bolting etc. We can't say horses don't try to communicate their displeasure.
We may be familiar with these signs, but not always be alert enough to catch them before they become problematic or dangerous. Knowing a horse, reading gestures, and being attentive to slightest changes in body language are important in managing relaxation. But we also need to work on our relaxation, our tension, our leadership.
How much of the problem is me? Am I breathing? Where can I let go of tension? Am I tipping and gripping? Can I soften the contact? Are my hands following the movement or interfering with it? Am I riding like a leader, a passenger or a predator? If a horse feels forced into a position of having to take over leadership, and ensure the place is safe - this is going to escalate the tension and energy. Think about that for a moment – what leadership means for a horse is different to what it means for us. The horse doesn’t take over leadership by thinking... “Ok, are you with me? Pay attention up there, we’re doing a 10m half circle at the end of the long side, then a half pass back to the track at B, then a change of rein with a simple change across the diagonal into collected trot up the centreline to stop in halt at X”!
Though, yes, we know they have a good sense of direction and easily learn the routine of a test pattern, but that is more about their astonishing memory than leadership. Leadership for a horse is about survival and protection – fight or flight, resist or run. Leadership means being on high alert, at times extremely adrenalized, constantly scanning their environment, on watch for danger. Horses in conflict about leadership are more tense, anxious or ‘looky’ and may shy suddenly at things we don’t see, or understand. Especially with young inexperienced horses. A nervous, gripping or grabbing 'predator-like' rider on a green horse is an accident waiting to happen.
Have you been paying attention? I can’t ignore, or dismiss tension in the moment it happens. To be a good leader, and keep the peace, I have to be alert to each little sign of stress. This empathy, and sense of what my horse is feeling, is what helps her trust me. It motivates her to keep trying to understand my persistent demands. It’s incredible the way a horse tries to please us even though we are constantly demanding senseless things - going around and around the same ground without going anywhere. If I were a horse, I would be far less tolerant.
On the bright side, there is an up-side to tension. Each moment of tension or fear is an opportunity for us to teach something. When they learn something new, they feel their body in different ways, and over time (if done well) they grow stronger and more supple. When we relax them, they feel more safe than afraid of us and become brave and willing. We can help them feel understood, rather than over-faced. Humans generally use too much pressure. More than horses can cope with – hence so many ‘behaviourial’ problems.
As an analogy; If I tell my husband I’m worried about something, I want him to take me seriously, to pay attention and listen. I want his opinion, his reassurance and positive attitude, to give me confidence to go ahead or change plans. I trust him and know he wants the best for me, and to keep me safe. I might need him to say: ‘You can do this, try it, see how you feel’. Or otherwise to say... “It’s ok, you’re right, I agree, maybe you’re not ready for this, can I help you prepare for it?” I see no reason why it wouldn’t be the same for a horse.
Being constantly 100% attentive is hard. I feel this responsibility as a rider, a leader, and a teacher. As an observant and sensitive person, I get more distracted than I like. But I have to share with you that it is in those moments of blissful mindful riding - when everything else drifts away – and nothing exists but the feeling of being deeply connected in body, mind and spirit – these are the best times with my horses. Like this, I can sense the horse and feel what is right for each moment. What they give in return, is so great, I know it’s right. The more I seek this focus and these feelings the easier it gets, and the more incredible it feels.
To me, taking leadership from the saddle has nothing to with getting tough or rough. It has much to do with being fair, sensitive and attentive, being clear and decisive about the next step, and trusting the process. It gets easier with practice, and when I can keep a positive voice in my head and my heart it always works out. You have to know the right thing for you - at this time, in this place, on this horse, with the knowledge and skills you have at this time.
Otherwise, sometimes the bravest thing to do is to ask for help.
TRUST - do it right the first time. If I feel someone tries to manipulate me, I feel uneasy, vulnerable. I probably put up an emotional barrier - like wearing a protective sign that says: “Wrong way - go back”. In other words, I don’t let them 'in’. It’s like an automatic learned response based on previous experiences of being hurt, tricked or ‘taken for a ride’ on an empty promise.
A horse can connect with us in a deep and beautiful way, with the right conditions, they can be incredibly forgiving and willing to try to understand and please. But when they are misunderstood, let down, hurt, manipulated, ignored, mistreated, again and again, they start to protect themselves - and switch off to our efforts, just as we would. They won't be open to 'let us in’ or engage with us, or even be curious. We will not see their true courage or spirit as they won't be confident enough to relax with us. Beyond ‘fight or flight’ they find a darker place of helplessness: they shut down. They can become emotionally unwell and lose physical condition as well. We miss out on something that could be amazing, and the road out of this place, is a much longer and harder one than the road in.
Typically, most horse training requires some re-training - undoing stuff that shouldn't be there, deleting distrust, to reinstall trust and faith in humans. Because much of the undesirable stuff was put there by human error, accident, or lack of action.
My husband told me a good saying a long time ago, that I am learning to master: "We can always make time to fix up a stuff up, but we seldom have time to do it right the first time."
One of the greatest things classical schooling has taught me is this: to take the time it takes to understand the problem for the horse, learn how to read and correct each mistake as it happens, and don't ignore it and go on with the request or something harder until the basic issue is fixed or at least improving. This way I can safeguard my priority - relaxation.
Empathise, educate and praise: making it easy for the horse, is easy for yourself.
Develop relaxation in different environments. Try to make it interesting; vary the training between ground work, liberty, bush rides, work in hand, obstacles, outings and arena work.