It was October, and Top stood quietly at the trailer while being groomed and saddled. When Mark bridled him and then gathered up the reins to see how Top would respond to pressure, it was clear that what Top knew was how to push. He raised his head really well too. Since these aren’t the responses we look for, Mark decided to work with Top from the ground until Top could begin to get the idea of how to let go.
Horses are already soft. They are born that way; receptive, aware, sensitive and willing. It is through our interactions with them that we either cover that up or keep it alive. We could see that Top was a nice horse who had learned to protect himself against the bit, the rider, or both. He wasn’t so defensive that he was acting out, but his defensiveness manifested itself as a constant and complete body tension. We also felt that he had learned to not say much when it came to interactions with people. Some might call this stoic. I often wonder, though, if a component of this is that he learned through consistent feedback that people are deaf so he kept how he felt to himself.
Shortly after he arrived, we had the chance to haul him down to Happy Dog Ranch where he got his teeth balanced and a thorough session of chiropractic. Since the weather was nice, we decided to stay an extra day and work with him, to see what he thought about these new changes.
After groundwork on the first day, Mark took him back to the round pen and worked with him on the ground first before getting on. Top was more relaxed and looked more comfortable. It was all going really well until Mark asked Top to back up. Top put all of his weight on the right side of his body, moved his left foot back, threw his head to the left and almost fell over.
We see this from time to time, not only in some of the ranch horses we buy, but also with horses at clinics. They’ve been tense and imbalanced for so long that imbalance becomes their balance. Add to this that Top was ridden in a curb bit, and it became apparent pretty quickly that he knew how to do something in the context of equipment, not because he knew how to do that particular skill with a rider.
What does that mean? That as long as Top could lean on or rely on the mechanics of the curb bit, the bit would help him do the job. It’s like the training wheels got left on the bike, and once we took them off, the bike toppled over.
This isn’t to say that curb bits are bad or all horses who are ridden in curbs don’t know their job. But I do know that in Top’s case, without the curb bit he didn’t know how to move his body in a relaxed and balanced way. As it turns out, he had some trouble with forward, turning, and stopping as well.
It sheds a whole new light on how our horses learn, and what they learn. While outwardly Top could perform his job, when asked about the how, Top couldn’t answer. All he knew was which responses to the bit and the cues from the rider would get a release, but he couldn’t perform basic movements with any kind of balance in his own body. He had been trained so the outside of his body did certain tasks, but the rest of the horse wasn’t included.
These are also horses we sometimes see at clinics; outwardly skilled, but inwardly not involved in the movements. Most of the time these horses carry not only physical tension, but emotional and mental tension as well. Once we begin to show them how to balance themselves and involve them in the movement, as opposed to putting them into the movement, they begin to calm down.
Top is unlike other horses in that he is emotionally pretty balanced. We don’t often see or sense an “oh no” from him. When it does come up, if we stay quiet and give him time, he starts to reengage with us and get curious. I’ve come to see that how he feels most of the time, and how his body performs are split. It’s not a common occurrence with horses; most of the time how they feel is how they act.
Over the months that we traveled with Top to Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas, Mark worked on the same set of skills with him. Stop softly, turn softly, go forward softly, and back up softly. What all this meant was that Mark was looking for a certain feel through the reins from Top. He didn’t want a lot of pressure in his hands, nor did he want Top putting his nose to his chest. When we talk about self-carriage, what we would like to see is that a horse is able to engage their abdominals and balance themselves through any movement.
At a recent clinic here in Colorado, I watched as Mark asked Top to turn on his haunches, side pass, back up and stop. Everything was done with ease. As they walked around the arena helping a horse and rider beginning to go through the same process they’d been through for the past six months, I could see, in this snapshot, where Top used to be, and where he is now.
We are all somewhere along the continuum of learning. Our horses too. We can help them, and ourselves, by taking manageable steps to help fill our days with as much ease as possible. I’m looking forward to getting to know Mr. Top more, and watch as he settles into a softer way of going.