I think we learn and go through life much like a pendulum; we swing all the way to one side and then we swing the opposite way before realizing that the middle is where balance and skill lie.
When we begin learning about horses, we are at the apex of knowing nothing. The only time we are taught to release is when asking a horse to stop and he does, or after he turns.
Many of us know when we are teaching horses any new skill, we must provide a release of pressure to show them they got it right. I had been doing this to some small degree from the time I began riding as a child. Shortly after I began training horses, I encountered a way to be more conscious about it at clinic given by a well-known horseman.
When I started systematically applying the release, it worked really well. It wasn’t too long before I came to the realization that if a little release was good, more was better. This included completely letting go of my reins if the horse I was working with did whatever it was I was asking. I would stop all work immediately if they hit on the right answer. You name it, I released it. The pendulum had swung opposite of where I began when I learned to ride; instead of infrequent releases, I now released for everything.
For a couple of decades, I continued to practice and refine my skill of releasing. I was always searching for that middle space where the release was not too far one way or another, but right in the middle. I learned that horses are sensitive beyond our wildest imaginings, that big releases were (most of the time) not necessary and indeed could create an unintended message.
But it wasn’t until we spent some time recently with Dr. Steve Peters (neuropsychologist, horseman, and co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship) that he mentioned in passing that the horse must experience both release and relief for optimal learning.
If I were a horse, I would’ve pricked my ears forward and thrown my mane in the wind.
It turns out, that the more time a horse is given to process a new skill, the more time there is for the nervous system as a whole to move into a state of relief. The chemicals that were present during the pressure of learning or doing something new dissipate, and the feel-good chemicals, specifically Dopamine, get released. Simply put, the greater the relief (the more Dopamine), the greater the learning.
How do we achieve this hallowed state? By giving our horses time.
Time is exactly what I had to give my little Arab mare, Bree. She had come to us as a very green seven year old, whose majority of riding experiences had been people hopping on and making her run. On our first working day together, I had saddled her up with no intention of riding. I did, however, put my foot in the stirrup and prepare to get on.
She responded by, ever so slightly, rocking back on her hindquarters, not-so-slightly pinning her ears, and then trying to leave the ground like a rocket.
“Huh,” I thought. “That was informative.”
For the rest of that day, and the following weeks as we taught clinics, I would randomly put my foot in the stirrup on either side and prepare to get on. Because we were doing this work while I was teaching, sometimes we could practice a lot and sometimes not once during a whole hour.
I was surprised when each day she showed less anxiety and a need to run. Every day there was a monumental improvement. I thought, “Well, she’s an Arab and they are noted for their smarts.” I thought, “Well, the magnesium oxide we have her on is helping her to stay calmer.” I thought “Horses are amazing and brilliant.”
Now, all of these are true. And every thought I had about the “why” she was settling so quickly after five years of being inadvertently taught to run when the rider’s foot hit the stirrup, was only part of the picture.
It’s been almost ten years since Bree taught me all she did, but when Dr. Peters spoke about horses needing a release and relief, she was the first horse who popped into my mind.
Because during those weeks when she and I could only work together sporadically on this one skill, the circumstances had conspired to give her a lot of time.
By being given a lot of time, she was allowed to settle from a chronically stressed state to a more relaxed state, which allowed her learning to be more firmly cemented. Because horses learn best when pressure is low and not ongoing, she could integrate the information and start to have confidence in our interactions.
I often think of Bree and how far we got together, how close we became. After the initial weeks of struggle, she turned out to be a horse I could do anything with; working cattle, trail riding, teaching lessons with, switching from riding in a bit to a bosal, and all around trusting. She’s a little mare with a very big heart.
Horses seek comfort. Horses seek a quiet way of feeling and being and going. Despite our perception that we don’t have any time and our busy lives are too full, we could stop and consider that it is within all of our power (as riders and horse owners) to give the horse one of the most important things they need to feel confident and peaceful with us.
When Rusty arrived, his eyes were as hard as his muscles. He had rain rot from withers to tail and large old white scars on his back where someone had ridden in a saddle that didn’t fit. I chalked up his disinterest in his new surroundings to the long trailer ride from Texas.
A few days passed before he recovered and made it clear that it wasn’t the trailer ride. He had zero interest in all things people. He was adamant about how he meant to be handled, which was not at all.
He was difficult to catch, he didn’t stand still for grooming, and he was not going to have his feet worked on. He was disruptive in the herd; Rusty operated on a kick first, ask questions later philosophy. Oddly enough, he was quiet and reliable under saddle, which was exactly what we needed. We found him to be a safe horse for actors to ride, for our then upcoming movie, “Out of the Wild.”
During the filming of the movie four months later, he proved to be trustworthy and levelheaded. With time growing shorter to get the footage we needed, he chose to do several spur-of-the-moment jobs for us that we hadn’t prepared him for. For some reason, Rusty decided to work with us, when for months all he wanted was people as far away as possible. Preferably outer space.
We couldn’t look a horse like that in the eye and sell him. So he stayed with us.
It’s been four years since the movie, and Rusty is a changed horse. The rain rot is long gone. He’s soft and sweet with eyes like a clear mountain pond. He’s easy to clinic with; he stands tied quietly, drinks and sleeps well, and doesn’t threaten other horses if they get too close. He doesn’t worry if another horse is nervous. He’s become a quiet leader in the herd.
Those saddle scars have never softened or gone away, despite numerous treatments and consistent grooming. His stifles are a little creaky, and his right hip bone is sheared off; the result of an old injury which was probably hitting the metal enclosure fast and hard when he was a roping horse.
As time runs on like the river it is, we gather information and glean insights, much like the list above. This is the Rusty we know today.
Most horse owners are an enthusiastic bunch; since a sizeable chunk of our income goes toward our horse way of life, we focus on what is important. We know what our horses like and don’t like, where their strengths and weaknesses are, where we can excel and where we need work. We know when they are sore, or tired, or feeling great. I’m sure they know this (and much more) about us as well.
It’s part of being human that we sort that information and adapt to fit our conclusions about any given horse in any given situation. Getting more skilled and informed as a horse person comes with a good news/bad news scenario: the more you learn, the more you see. And sometimes, the more you don’t want to see.
This past summer, Rusty let me know everything I’ve learned about him over the years had changed.
It was the end of our clinic day and everyone had left the arena. Rusty and I’d been trotting but I asked him into his canter to find out how he felt.
We transitioned into an easy lope and after a lap, I thought “Ok buddy, it’s hot out and you’re getting to be an old man so let’s go ahead and stop.” I exhaled and touched the reins lightly, which usually is enough to help him slow down.
Nothing. Instead, he lengthened his lope, making the wind rush past my smiling face.
We cantered for three more rounds, then came down to a walk. And I laughed. “Old Man” indeed.
That day he showed me how having a story about him had shortchanged what he could actually do. He reminded me that just when we think we know something, we are in store for a surprise. We are shown a facet we weren’t expecting to see because we relied on our cruise control story to give us information, instead of being more present and open to seeing new things.
Stories are a form of insulation; if we think we know something or have all the information about anything, we don’t have to put much thought into how we are interacting or any effort into being aware. Stories and expectations are best buddies. Assumptions might be holding hands right along with them.
It’s a curious occurrence that with the whole kaleidoscope of life passing around us on any given day, that out of the bazillions of things to see, we choose the comfort zone of our story. I get comfort zones (you could say comfort zones and ruts are buddies too). You get in a groove, in a rhythm, and you can spend years dancing to the same beat.
There is a great chasm between having knowledge and creating a story. Knowledge stands on its own and can be shared among many. A story is singular, insular and needs knowledge to prop up its flimsy walls.
What I know about Rusty is knowledge – where he needs support physically and how reliable he is mentally. My thinking of him as an “old man?” That’s the story.
It’s a potent lesson for me every time I’m snapped out of my own rutted thinking: that by listening to what I thought was a familiar situation, I can actually learn and see new things. Seeing new things is what keeps horsemanship, and life, full of surprises.
“My horse is such a jerk,” I sputtered, the dirt flying out of my mouth as I brushed off my white shirt. I could still hear Caleb’s rapid staccato hoofbeats as he galloped away. He was thirteen years old, a flashy chestnut appendix Quarter Horse with three white socks. He’d had another surprise bucking fit and this time I had come off. Spectacularly. At a dressage schooling show, in the warm-up pen.
He was a skilled bucker too. He would plunge his head between his knees as all four feet left the ground. This time, I had sat the first four jumps, but just as I thought he was done, he added a twist to the left and off I went over his right shoulder.
After I recovered and remounted, we performed the best test we’d had all day. The judge made numerous comments about Caleb’s “nice impulsion at all gaits.” The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Often when I would talk with friends I would tell them what a jerk Caleb could be. How his bucking fits sucked, and how he was either lazy or airborne. The litany of things that I didn’t like about him became longer than what I appreciated.
About that time I started going to various horsemanship clinics and listened to what the pros had to say. It was an eye opening experience to sit for three days and not hear any badmouthing of the horses from these trainers. Up until that time, the only culture I had been exposed to was (I realized) based on a lot of fighting and negativity.
I began to search for the cause of Caleb’s bucking. I learned about saddle fit and equine chiropractic and bodywork, which at that time was just beginning to gain traction. I had both my horses worked on and I also worked on how I was talking and thinking about them. I practiced keeping my mouth shut when my old circle of friends started bashing their horses. Because of Caleb, I also learned about equine acupuncture, became an herbalist for horses, and learned how to keep him sound despite his numerous physical challenges.
That was over twenty years ago. Since that time, I can say that because of this change in perspective, because of many years of learning, and because of Caleb, I prefer to search for the good in a horse, instead of focusing on what is perceived to be wrong.
I had a flashback of this time with Caleb when I recently heard a rider talking about her horse with words that sounded like she was beyond frustrated.
“My horse is willful, stubborn, opinionated and lazy. He has ADD; he can’t pay attention to anything, especially not me.”
As we teach across the country, my husband and I hear these descriptives consistently. There is some form of name calling going on, a litany of all the ways the horse isn’t satisfying the owner. Most riders are actually eager to change their perspective, but I am also convinced that it is their horse who is waiting for the moment when their rider discovers that everything they wanted was within reach, all they had to do was drop the story. One of the many amazing things about horses is, after all, that when we change, they do too.
Name calling a horse, or anyone for that matter, may be borne of frustration or anger but I can guarantee you that the only result will be to perpetuate an adversarial relationship. Name calling is a lack of imagination, it shuts down our innate curiosity and it smothers learning. Wanting to have a partnership with your horse, and name calling are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Since when does seeing your horse as an enemy to be vanquished yield a harmonious and pleasing relationship?
I get the frustration, and anxiety, and ignorance. I’ve felt those things too (sometimes all at once) and will feel them again, I’m sure. If you have a horse, you have signed up for constant lessons in humility. As we go along through this horsemanship journey though, I think it’s important to remember that whenever we feel like calling our horse (or ourselves, or others) names, it’s also time to find another way to handle the situation.
Personally, I like curiosity. I also like the idea of pausing and breathing. Whatever your favorite strategy for dismantling frustration is, do it. You may walk away with nothing but positive things to say about your horse. And your horse will thank you for it.
The little paint mare stood trembling at the end of the longest lead rope I could find that day. The July morning had dawned hot and we were both sweating in the middle of her paddock, though the cause of her agitation was probably due more to the bottle of fly spray in my hand.
In chatting with her owner, she said that every summer the mare would tear off three fly sheets, ruin a half dozen fly masks and be covered in flies from her sunburned nose to her constantly swishing tail. Fly spray was out of the question, and trying to wipe it on wasn’t any better. After two summers of watching her mare suffer, and having run out of options, the owner wanted to see if we could help her little paint horse through the issue.
After seeing the mare’s response to the fly spray, we decided to change a couple of things; we let her run loose in a round pen, and we found an old spray bottle that we filled with water.
I stood in the middle of the pen and began spraying water to the side of me and toward the ground. Without a halter and lead rope to contain her, the mare took off at a run. At first, there was not much change; she kept running, I kept spraying. Anytime she put an ear or an eye toward me or thought about slowing down, I would stop spraying. As she started to understand that facing the sound caused it to stop, her frantic run slowed to a canter and then a trot.
By the end of our time together she would stand still without a halter as I sprayed water, starting at her hooves and moving up to her legs. Her neck and body took a few minutes more, but she was standing quietly not long after.
After all of us took a long drink of water, her owner and I went back into the pen, haltered her and reviewed what we had done. The mare needed to move again, so we let her. After a few minutes, she quieted down and let the spray cover her.
We took another break, and this time we brought out the fly spray, starting at her hooves, pausing and then moving to her legs, paused a few moments more, and then her body. Though she wasn’t willing to put this on her list of Things That Are Really Cool, she stood still and calm. We repeated the process a few more times in her paddock, then at the hitch rail where she was usually groomed (without tying her). Although she felt the need to move around, the level of fear that she initially felt was almost non-existent, and after moving she would then stand quietly.
The reason I share this story is that so often we think what we do with horses has to get done right dang now. It doesn’t. And though there are some things that do indeed have an immediacy to them, that doesn’t mean that we have to do them quickly or with a hard hand.
Granted, this mare was being tormented by flies and needed some relief but even then, we took our time, gave her breaks, and watched her closely so we could time our release (stopping the spraying sound) with the moment she was a tiny bit curious about it.
I have often heard that horses don’t wear watches. I would also add that horses don’t have deadlines; what they do have is a very clear sense of pressure. When we force them to stand still out of a misguided sense of having to get things done right this second, the result is a perfect storm of miscommunication.
Though our resolve is firm, our approach doesn’t always have to be. Erring on the side of gentleness and slowing things down often will make things exponentially easier with our horses. By remaining aware, calm and doing our best to work with the horse, we can often get things done in a manner that leaves them feeling better about the situation than when we started. As far as I’m concerned, that’s on my own list of Things That Are Really Cool.
I have a little puzzle for you:
How would you make this line shorter?
Erase it? Cut it in half? Scribble on it?
“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.” Marcus Aurelius
How would you make the first line shorter?
You could do something like this:
Instead of focusing on how we can deface the original line, we simply draw a longer line underneath it.
We often use this thought experiment when teaching our horsemanship courses because it illuminates a pretty common way of thinking. Sometimes we get so caught up in how someone else is doing something wrong or bad, we forget to put our time and energy into finding ways to increase the length of our own line.
If you look at the lines as representing skill sets, you can see that shortening someone else’s “line” is what happens when we choose to run people down. I’m not talking about giving up your opinions or beliefs. What I believe is that if we consistently turn our focus to lengthening our own line, we will not only more gain more skill, but feel happier as well. Because there’s nothing like a little comparison to make you feel anything but happy.
Shortening other people’s line doesn’t only pop up in horsemanship circles. It seems these days are especially fraught with commotion. It’s incredibly easy to get pulled off the focus of our life. There have been many times recently when I have forgotten my personal ideals and ignored them with something that felt very close to relief so I could indulge in negativity. It’s not a coincidence that the increased time I spent paying attention to the news decreased my drive to pay attention to my own internal workings.
Because developing our own skill set is challenging right? It’s much easier to forget basic manners and blast someone for all the ways they are wrong. Then celebrate all the ways we are right. Erase their line, and ours doesn’t have to grow a bit, does it?
“There’s a big difference between wanting your horse to be better, or wanting to be better for your horse.” Mark Rashid
Our ability to increase our skill is in direct relationship to our ability to keep our focus on what is truly important for us. A focus on being better for our horses is miles away from making our horses better. The first is in our control and the second? Well, it’s only the horse’s good nature that lets us believe the illusion that the latter is also within our control.
When we turn our attention outside of ourselves in a state of dissatisfaction, it seems we cannot help but try to erase, cut in half or scribble out other people’s lines. I am convinced that this gets translated to our horses as an increase in pressure for them to just get it right already.
Conversely, there is also the voice that tells us that our line will NEVER be as long as another person’s so what is the point in even trying (I feel your pain; I fall into this trap when I practice fiddle). So what if you and your horse can’t piaffe or passage like an Olympic medalist? So what if you can’t spin at Mach 1 like the horses at The Congress? Besides the cost to the horse to get to that level of skill, there is the plain truth that we are who we are, with the skills that we have, and the choices we make either bolster those skills or let them get rusty.
I have seen, in myself and others, that once we focus on being better for our horses (or better in our life, for that matter), there is a natural slowing down that happens. We become more thoughtful and more likely to experience the joy of the moment. We pay less attention to things that aren’t important and more attention to the depth and weight of our own lives, which is really all we’ve got anyway.
We can accept where we are and grow it, or we can fight. Either way, our horses are on the receiving end of our decisions. It seems if we want quieter and more peaceful horses it would be a good idea to make choices that support that same state of mind for ourselves.