One Rein Thoughts

By the time Shelly came into the arena for her lesson with me, her mare’s bay coat was almost black with sweat. When Shelly bought the mare, Jewel, the previous year, she hadn’t noticed anything alarming about her behavior other than the horse seemed a little more nervous than other horses Shelly had come across. In that year, Jewel had gone from nervous to an unpredictable runaway. Shelly was an older and experienced horse woman who had zero desire to come off a horse at a full gallop.

While Shelly and I talked, I ran my hands under the saddle, checking the blanket and fit. I checked the bridle and made sure the bit was the right diameter. Shelly had gone to great lengths to customize everything for Jewel, she’d had the vet out to check her over, and taken care of her teeth and feet. Jewel also received bodywork every month.

The support that Shelly had given Jewel was thorough and had, in some respects, helped. Jewel was quieter on the ground, she had gained some needed weight and muscle mass, and her runaway episodes had become infrequent. But she still began to sweat and move when Shelly saddled her, and Jewel usually had to canter in a round pen for fifteen to twenty minutes before Shelly would get on her.

Shelly felt more confident in the sandy arena, knowing that even though Jewel ran, she wasn’t ever uncontrollable. As Shelly found the mounting block and got on Jewel, I saw the mare tense her whole body and then try to shoot forward. Before Jewel could rush more than a couple of strides, Shelly had bent the mare’s head around to the stirrup and they were circling in the middle of the arena.

It was apparent to me that this was an established pattern by the way Jewel quickly gave up and braced to a stop. Shelly held the mare in this position for a few seconds more before releasing her and walking over to where I stood.

“So is that normal?” I asked.

“Sure,” Shelly said. “It doesn’t happen every time, but it does happen enough that I’m ready for her.”

I asked Shelly if Jewel had always felt the need to rush away when a rider was on her, and she said yes, but after learning the one rein stop at another clinic she’d attended, at least she and Jewel weren’t going too far.

“So when you got her, she did this? She would feel like she had to take off the moment her rider was on her?”

Shelly nodded. “I’ve had to use the one rein stop more often in the last six months because if we go from walk to trot to canter she goes faster than I’m asking. I’m not sure how to make her stop other than using one rein.”

I asked Shelly to walk down to the other end of the arena. As they turned, Jewel tightened up again but maintained a stiff walk. Shelly asked, “Do you wanna see me trot her?” I said yes, and watched as Jewel took two steps into her trot and then jumped into a lope that was more like a deer leaping in fright. Shelly grabbed one rein and pulled Jewels head around and this time it took several minutes for the mare to come to a halt.

Walking up to the pair of them, I noticed Jewel was wide eyed and her mouth was clamped shut. I suspected that there was a miscommunication between her and Shelly and mentioned that if we tried something different, maybe we could get the both of them speaking the same language.

“Oftentimes, the one rein stop is taught and used as a training tool that is supposed to solve the problem of a horse who is going too fast. Sometimes it’s used as a punishment because it’s an effective way to control movement. But,” I added, “the downside is that a one rein stop, if used often enough, can sometimes make a horse nervous about moving at all.”

Shelly asked why it was taught so much, and why other trainers swore by it. I could tell she felt confused about the fact that she may have been inadvertently adding to Jewel’s nervousness.

“Honestly? I don’t know why other trainers use it so much. When I first started training I used it a lot too. It’s an emergency brake of sorts, and it gives the rider a way to slow a horse down who’s unable to respond to any sort of pressure.”

“But here’s the thing: it’s quite often used as a bandaid. Meaning, a one rein stop is a poor substitute for taking the time to educate the horse about what stopping is. While it is good in an emergency, it’s not very good as an every day training strategy.”

I went on, explaining to Shelly that we were going to change what she was doing to help Jewel. Instead of pulling her head around to the stirrup, we would ask for a figure eight, one that was relatively small where Jewel wasn’t ever in a straight line from her nose to her tail.

“What we want to do with Jewel is give her a chance to release her energy, instead of bottling it up. A one rein stop is like boiling water in a kettle that doesn’t have a spout: you may have a tea kettle for a little bit but at some point the whole thing is going explode from too much unreleased pressure.”

I could see Shelly starting to put the pieces together so I continued.

“I’m not telling you to never use the one rein stop. What I am saying though is that there are other, more effective ways to help your horse than that. I personally haven’t used a one rein stop in over twenty years.”

As Shelly asked Jewel to walk again, I talked about thinking of the shape of her figure eight. I let her know that her timing was good, and she would now use this to catch Jewel before she got too far into speeding up.

“Once you ask her for the trot, let’s put her in a little figure eight and see what happens,” I said.

As Shelly asked for the trot and Jewel responded by a stiff leap into it, Shelly picked up her left rein and began riding Jewel into the figure eight. It was five minutes before Jewel could slow to a walk, but in that time she had started to move with her head lower and her body relaxed.

“Tell me again why that works,” Shelly smiled as she walked Jewel over to me.

“Well, it works not only because you’ve installed a spout on the kettle to let off the steam, but also because instead of saying to Jewel ‘Don’t do that!’ You’re giving her something positive to do.”

“Think of it this way: all she knows is that when she goes faster she ends up bent around and stopped. But she doesn’t know why, so this increases her nervousness which increases her need to speed up.”

“Her question to you has been, ‘Can I speed up now?’ The answer we’ve been giving doesn’t make sense to her, so she keeps repeating the question. By directing her into a figure eight, we are not only giving her something to do to help her release nervousness and energy, but we are answering her question.”

Shelly wondered what the answer was. I said, “The answer we are giving Jewel is ‘Yes, and if we need to go that fast, we will go in a figure eight.”

As Shelly and Jewel kept practicing, I could see the tightness melt from both of their bodies. Jewel was able to move into a trot without rushing and Shelly started to feel more confident about how we were answering Jewel’s question. By the end of our session, Shelly could ask Jewel for a trot and she would jog and then come back down with minimal pressure from the reins.

When it comes to horses, we often ask an ineffective question when unwanted behavior shows up. We ask, “How can I fix it?”

A more helpful question might be “Why is my horse doing this in the first place?” The first question will most often put us behind them, not only in timing but in finding an effective solution. The second question will lead us to explore our interactions and come up with ways to help and educate our horse. An educated horse is most often a calmer and more content horse.

You Already Have Timing and Feel

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As I was brushing our horses yesterday, I noticed that despite the rivulet of sweat running down my back, their short summer coats were falling out. In the shade of a day edging toward 90 degrees, while I was in a t-shirt and cropped jeans, our herd is preparing for snowmageddon.

The ability of horses to be ahead of us in so many ways is astonishing. Their timing goes beyond instinctual to almost psychic. Their innate talent at moving quickly before we know anything is happening is a quality I envy. And their desire to get along, no matter the circumstances is a constant reminder that despite what life throws me, I can try and get along too.

My husband always says horsemanship would be easy if it wasn’t for gravity and timing. The older I get and the longer the years that I live with horses, the more that statement gives me a bittersweet laugh.

Gravity, well, because. If you’re reading this and you’ve ridden for any amount of time (by “time” I mean minutes as well as years) you know that coming off a horse is a when proposition, not an if. I stopped counting the number of times I’ve come off horses after I hit the double digits.

Timing. The word “feel” is often paired with timing because in our horse-centric world it seems one cannot exist without the other.

I doubt that horses stand under a shade tree and contemplate how to improve on their timing and feel. Horses are the embodied definition of those two horsemanship holy grails; they already are what we strive to improve in ourselves.

When we think about improving our timing, about improving our relationship, about improving anything we think is lacking about ourselves—and isn’t that list woefully long— there’s a lot of thinking that goes on. And on. I’ll admit to years (ok, fine: decades) of thinking about horses and how much I wanted to be better at being with them. I’ll admit to reading mountains of books about horses because I thought that the more that I knew about them, the better my timing and feel would be. 

That was like preparing for three-day eventing at the Olympics by watching YouTube.

Thinking, as you probably guessed it, is the number one reason our timing is often behind. As riders, we are taught that in order to ride well we must think a lot. But horses are sensorimotor creatures, which means they feel and they move. That’s their job description, that is how they came into this world; one look at their brains will tell you that they are wired for movement and using their senses to discern if/when/how fast they need to go.

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One look at a human brain and you’ll see that we are, indeed, wired for thinking. Here’s something exciting though-we all have the capacity to develop the timing and the feel that informs it.

When a dressage instructor of many years ago told me in subtle ways that I couldn’t ride, in a fit of pique I chose to quit the lessons. I had been having my doubts already, so it wasn’t a far leap. Turns out, my timing on this issue was great; two weeks later my horse came up three-legged lame and I spent the next three years figuring out how to help him be sound and comfortable.

Timing is getting out of the way a millisecond before a kick could’ve landed in your face. Not that this has happened to me.

Timing is also knowing when to give a horse a break from a concentrated lesson.

It is knowing when to give yourself a break if you feel you’re just not getting it.

We are told that timing and feel cannot be taught.

Except wait – we all use feel and timing hundreds of times during our day. It’s how we can eat breakfast without spilling it down the front of our shirt. It’s how we drive and don’t get into accidents on a daily basis. It’s how we throw a ball for our dog or cook a meal for ourselves or hold a baby without dropping them.

By the time most of us reach adulthood, there are thousands of tiny skills we have mastered that once seemed like big skills. Walking, speaking, running, eating. We forget how at one time we were all toddling, drooling, gibberish speaking wide-eyed love nuggets who spent every day marveling at the wonder of everything.

As horse people, we grew up and discovered we were, in fact, part horse. That wonder at life then got transferred to these creatures of the wind and plains. At first, we toddled about them, unsure of where we fit in relation to them, thrown off balance by the swing of their barrel beneath us and the lift of each elegant leg.   

Our hearts got thrown off course by their breath and their eyes that seemed to see right through us.

So when someone says “Ya gotta have feel! Ya gotta have timing!”  I smile to myself because we already do.

All we gotta have is the awareness of how to best apply it to working with horses. This means the more time we put ourselves in the context of our horse, the better attuned we will be to using our inborn talent of timing and feel. 

Granted, they aren’t cars or a smooth sidewalk to run down. They are unlike anything else in our lives that we handle or are in a relationship with. You may be able to force things on horses, but most of us know and seek out the kind of relationship that cultivates space for mutual consent. It’s where the beauty is.

If we can have a little bit of confidence in our own innate abilities, and a little bit of a quieter mind, chances are we are going to get along with our horse just fine. Chances are those skills are inside of us the whole time, waiting to be grasped. 

Your Horse Isn’t Distracted

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After learning about the horse’s brain at a recent seminar and getting to hold a horse brain, I felt a thrill much like roller coasters must be thrilling for some people.  

The seminar, given by Dr. Steve Peters (author of “Evidence-Based Horsemanship”), covered a lot of ground. Here’s what I’m chewing on this month:

 

Your horse isn’t distracted and your horse doesn’t have ADD.

 

What your horse does have is a highly responsive and very fast system of answering his constant question, “Am I safe?”  You might say that horses have a built-in radar system that makes ours look like holding a wet finger up to the wind to hear if there’s a bear snoring in their sleep in a cave over on the next mountain range. 

 

When horses detect something that they think might endanger their lives, the response takes what is called the low road. For example, the sight of a wildly flapping flag goes from the environment through the eyes, to the thalamus in the brain and directly into the amygdala (the center for fight or flight). This process takes milliseconds. As horse people, we know a lot can happen in those milliseconds.

 

To put that in perspective, the average reaction time for a visual stimulus in humans is 250 milliseconds and 170 milliseconds for an auditory stimulus. Horse’s auditory reaction time is 140-160 milliseconds, and their visual reaction time is 180-200 milliseconds.

 

Whether you look at the numbers in seconds or thousands of seconds, horses respond more quickly to their environment than us.

 

Building an understanding with the horse then becomes a process of encouraging their curiosity instead of fear. Curiosity allows and fosters learning. Any time a horse fears for his life he not learning. Until their question of safety is answered our horse will continue to use every sense he has to figure out whether to stay or leave. Whether to relax or flee.

 

If we keep things relatively quiet and provide clear guidance about what we’re looking for, the horse will come back. When we do our best to answer the horse’s primary question, “Am I safe,” it leaves them able to switch over to their natural curiosity and learn more, and more efficiently. 

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Rocky and Crissi, 2008

 

Horses constantly monitor everything that is going on around them. They can’t turn it off and on like we do with our selective seeing. (Click here for a demo of inattentional blindness)

 

It has occurred to me that the only time they are fully “paying attention” is when they are on the verge of fleeing. We’ve all seen our horse zero in on something before deciding to quickly leave.  What we call “paying attention” may, in fact, be completely different (and troublesome) for our horses.

 

To me, so much of horse training appears narcissistic: we want both their eyes, we want their head turned in our direction, we want all of their attention, we want all of their bodies to be at our beck and call.

 

I’m discovering that being with horses gets a lot easier if we share, instead of hijacking and demanding. I also realize that I’ve never been comfortable insisting on all of a horse’s attention.

 

So when a horse looks off into the distance, or can’t seem to “focus,” it’s never bothered me. I never really understood what the ruckus of “having their attention” was about. Until I learned about their internal radar recently, I probably wasn’t bothered because I did the same thing myself: when overwhelmed and unable to escape, I looked away and went somewhere else.

 

Many of us who have been preyed upon by other humans have a particular set of experiences and ways of viewing the world that allow us to viscerally understand the horse’s primal need for safety. I’ve spent my life evaluating every situation I find myself in, where the exits are, who is around me, and how I would escape. Or fight. All of this is almost subconscious.

 

“Horses need safety to learn. We want our horses in a state of relaxed alertness.” Dr. Stephen Peters

For me, accepting the horse for who they are means we continue to learn about them instead of relying on hearsay. Accepting our horse, and his finely tuned sensory movement talented brain means we find ways of working with him that encourage that feeling of safety. 

 

This doesn’t mean we do nothing when we are with our horse, but what it does mean is that education/training with a horse goes a lot more smoothly if we are educated too. If we understand the basic mechanics of what makes a horse tick, we are far less likely to get frustrated or take it out on our horse.

 

Instead of saying our horse is “distracted” we could see what horses do as gathering information. Or seeking comfort. Or both. The best-case scenario is that our horse transfers that feeling of safety to include us and that the relationship we have with them meets their need for safety, most of the time. 

 

Because if we can help the horse feel safe, that means that we are all safer. If our horses feel safe with us the chances of accidents, misunderstandings and miscommunication get lower.

 

Beyond all this science though, I also think it feels pretty great to help a worried horse transform into a relaxed horse.

 

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Living In The Center

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As we stood at the gate to the horse’s paddock on a sunny afternoon, my nephew said: “Aunt Crissi, I want to pet every horse in the pen!”

“Let’s do that,” I said. “Before we go in, though, let’s breathe and feel our belly. Horses really like it when we are breathing and centered.” He took a fast breath and slapped his hand on his stomach.

Quinn is an energetic ten year old who is given to bursts of jumping, spontaneous song singing, and loud talking. I love his exuberance but wanted to give him another way to focus when we went in with the horses. Some of our horses like and understand children. A couple of them look sideways these little beings and their quick movements.

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I opened the gate and Quinn darted in. I reminded him about breathing and feeling his belly. I added, “It’s also called your center and it’s the place where you and the horses can meet.”

He waited for me as I walked in while still chatting quietly about breathing and feeling our centers.

The horses had just been fed and were stuffing hay into their mouths as quickly as they could chew.  They stood around the feeders, heads down, eyes half closed in gastronomic bliss. When we got part way into the paddock, all the horses picked up their heads, left their hay and walked over to us.

A rush of horses always thrills me, but this was an even bigger thrill. It was as if we had said “Hello friends,” and they were answering with a resounding hello back. It felt like that moment in the movie “Arrival,” (if I really want to age myself, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) when you realize you are actually communicating with an alien species.

I spoke to him about reaching for their shoulders or necks instead of their faces (despite the fact that all six horse faces were surrounding us) and brought him closer to me to keep him from being jostled.

Quinn and the herd exchanged their mutual admirations and one by one the horses returned to eating.

When we walked out, he gave an arm-flailing little hop and said, “That was so cool!”

As I walked over to my niece who was grooming Ally, I asked her to focus on the same things. She’s a quiet and kind girl who is very gentle with the horses. They, in turn, are quiet with her too.

Keyvnn has been riding since she started visiting us in Colorado. When she was small, I let her know that when we ride a horse,  we always groom before and after. Now that she is big enough to push a wheelbarrow, the list of rules has expanded to cleaning up the pen and stalls, as well as grooming. Just as I was at her age, she is happy to participate in all things horse, and I love seeing her growing confidence.

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This year we had Key focus on her belly (center) and breathing not only during riding but when she was grooming Ally as well. This gave Key time to acclimate to Ally, and it let Ally feel confident in Key’s presence.

Sharing our horses with my niece and nephew was a great way for me to explore how to phrase and teach concepts that I normally talk about with adult riders. It was also the chance for me to see just how powerful remaining in our center can be, and how it radiates out.

If we pay attention, life gives us just the right lessons at just the right time. Most of my life I haven’t paid attention, so these days I’m working on reversing that trend. I’ve been feeling a little threatened by world events the past couple of years, so this refresher on the power of our center was just what I needed. It’s been on my mind that with all the bad news that is available to us every day, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out how to remain centered.

And yet, I’ve found that for my own sanity and sense of peace I have to limit my news intake, increase time being in nature and being with horses, and generally choose to help as much as I can, where I can.

I’ve discovered that remaining in our center is anything but passive. It takes self-control, lots of breathing, and a fair helping of big-picture thinking especially when we feel drowned by details and out of control. I’d gotten distracted from being in my center, but Key and Quinn’s visit reminded me of the power of living there and how we can return anytime we choose.

Although it seems that sometimes our lives are everywhere but the center if we take a breath and change our focus, just for a moment, we can touch into our selves and the place where we feel most balanced. We can balance exuberance with calm, and gentleness with our breath. The beauty of horses is that they will meet us there, every time.

 

 

 

 

A Gratitude of Horses

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Thorny was an old cowboy my parents knew, and the first person who introduced me to horses. I was still in diapers, holding on to the lead rope of a gray speckled pony that wasn’t much taller than I was. I can still see the ghost of a smile on that toddler’s face.

Thorny seemed like he had a million horses. On another visit, not long after I was out of diapers, my parents remember putting me up on a big red horse, where I sat smiling and clutching his copper mane until they had to lift me down. That’s when the screaming started. Other kids cried when they were lifted up on the horse’s back.

This was a portent of things to come. That day with the pony I met magic that walks the earth on four hooves; it was my version of getting a letter to Hogwarts.  For years I did what many other “horse crazy” kids would do;  pretend my bike was a horse or gallop around our backyard neighing. Collecting Breyer models and making up pedigrees for them (and voices). Feeding grass to horses through a fence and trying not to get caught.

Really, who could have designed a more perfect animal? They smell good when they sweat, they smell good when they breathe, when their hooves strike the earth in three time it’s an invitation to heaven. They are fuzzy and soft and when they look at you with those eyes! When their ears flick back to catch your voice! A nicker makes my heart burst.

 

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I’m living with and teaching about the mystery that is the horse.   While I still enjoy riding, I am discovering that the gifts that horses offer us go beyond sitting on their backs. In my own evolution with horses, there are many things that have captured my interest and many horses who have given themselves so that I might, for a little while, enter their world. So that I might, for a moment, feel the twin freedom of speeding across the ground while being free from gravity.

I’m no longer that little girl in diapers. This year I hit a milestone birthday and though I’ve not usually been one to count years or label myself by them, I’ve also noticed that growing older is challenging. Our bodies change (I now revel in cold weather and dread the heat), grief finds us more frequently, we listen as our doctor tells us about the invasive health screenings we must endure. Health insurance goes up and our energy goes down.

But along with all of that, I also notice the frost on a horse’s whiskers in the winter. How on a chilly morning the wind catches the mist of their breath. How standing beside them allows me to calm down and experience a grounded sense of peace. The sound of horses chewing hay. Watching their muzzles gather hay into their mouths (I often wonder if horses saw elephants, would they have nose envy?). How their whuffing breath on my hands or face feels like the best self-care of all.

Is this obsession? If so, it’s one I’ll gladly claim. Is it the growing knowledge that my time is limited? Definitely.

All the times I’ve struggled, all the horrible things I’ve said to myself about my horsemanship, all the questions, agonizing, and striving and bringing horses into my life and letting them go again: all of it! And yet I can stand beside a horse and become mesmerized when the light shines through their manes. They’re deep oceans encased in soft coats. Whether I am riding or not, the feeling of being in a glorious nickering, neighing freefall around a horse has become downright mystical.

It all started with a dappled pony. Inside somewhere is that girl who still sneaks grass to horses through a fence. Though I don’t know how or when my journey will end, I do know I will always love and be thankful for horses.

 

 

 

 

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