Sunday, May 24, 2009

Working on Myself - Lowering the Energy

I think that most of the time when I'm working with horses, on the ground or in the saddle, what I'm really mostly doing is working on myself - to find more effective ways to communicate with or influence the horse, or to pay more careful attention to what the horse is saying in the back and forth of our conversation.

I was thinking about this as I was leading horses out this morning.  It was a cool, almost foggy morning with a bit of a breeze.  As I walked Maisie up towards Lily's paddock, Lily called loudly and galloped to the gate, swishing her tail and snaking her head.  When she got to the gate she stood with her chest pressed to the gate and neck arched over, mouthing the latch on the outside - she understands that the snap opens the gate but hasn't figured out how to open it (yet).  She was very up, and very ready to move out.

Something that sometimes works for me when a horse is full of excess energy or is nervous, is to lower my energy, and use this to influence how the horse behaves.  If a horse is agitated, I find that sometimes matching the horse's energy level or behavior by getting big myself (raising my energy level) only escalates things, whereas if I can lower my energy, the horse will often respond by beginning to relax. 

So I worked on myself as I led Lily and Maisie out.  I have several mental images I use to lower my energy.  One is imagining that totally relaxed feeling just before you fall asleep - your body is calm and loose and your thoughts are quiet.  Another is the feeling of sitting under a shady tree on a hot day, enjoying a nice lemonade and just relaxing.  I'll bet each of us can come up with our own images of this type.  I think about consciously relaxing any areas of tension in my body - this tends for me to be my shoulders and neck.  I try to take deep, slow breaths and almost sigh on the exhale - think of when your horse gives a big, relaxing sigh.

Lily spooked once just as I led her out of the paddock, but settled right down - I didn't have to ask her to slow down once on the way out, her head moved lower (her head goes in the air when she's excited or tense and she suddenly becomes Very Big) and we were on a loose lead.  When I released her in the pasture, she walked off calmly.

Then I led out Dawn.  Yesterday, Dawn was very up and we had to work on our leading, gate behavior and releasing in the pasture.  She was up again today, but again I worked on lowering my energy.  We did have to pause a couple of times on the way to the pasture - Dawn does not easily relax and tends to carry a lot of tension in her body - but she did much better than yesterday.  She walked calmly through the gate, didn't fuss once inside the gate and didn't bolt immediately when I let her go - she took a few walk steps before cantering off.

I try to use this lowering energy exercise when I ride as well - both to relax myself and remove tension in my body so my horse can move more freely and with less tension itself, and also for such things as downwards transitions.  The behavior isn't fully automatic for me when a horse becomes agitated, but I'm beginning to use it more often and effectively.


  1. Yes, horses pick up immediately on our body language. It sounds like you're doing a pretty good job!

  2. I am trying to catch up as the week has been busy. Nice posts, Kate!
    And clinic with Mark Rashid? I am really envious!
    I have been reading his books lately, and they are really good.
    I like his non-confronting attitude towards the horses, and the mutual respect. Much food for thought there, and interesting examples on how he solves problems.
    Lucky you to have had the opportunity to attend a clinic with him.

  3. You're so right to make the walk from the barn to the gate really count. Actually, I think everything counts, and the more I can keep my energy smooth and my horses respectful, the happier we all are. I think you're doing a good job with your girls, especially when there's all that fresh green grass on the other side of the gate.

  4. It's always good to keep a calm attitude when working with horses or any animal for that matter. I find if I can keep my energy level down while working or riding we all have a much better time of it.

  5. We communicate far more than we realize with our bodies and general state of mind. Sounds as if you are succeeding really well with your "mental control" over the horses you handle.

    I like your techniques for turnout. It is just one more important element of the horses' overall training.

  6. So . . . I think the horses see in me this walking, simmering, 2-legged ball of emotion that can be kind & gentle, but watchout, maybe instead EXPLODE at any moment! (Hey fella, what’d I do to deserve that?) Truly, call me a typical rookie horse person and even worse . . . ummm, typical GUY with a temper too quick - shoot first ask second DO-AS-I-SAY-NOW - attitude. Not without a bit of chagrin, but that's an afterthought accompanied with self-admonished, self-serving, self-flaggelation I do to myself.
    My challenge, and I recognize it, is what you so fittingly described - lowering my energy. Thank you for reminding me.
    I have changed because of the herd, much different with them than I was eight years ago, but I have almost as often taken a step or two back for every two steps forward - you'd think I'd learn quicker, for not once have things gotten better if my energy 'escalated' in response to a situation - not with babies, not with young ones, not with mature horses. On the rare occasion I have actually kept my cool in the tempest of flying hooves, frantic galloping, screaming, frenzied mob mentality movements, things have de-escalated rather quickly and order reigned supreme, but sadly I more often than not reach for my ALL-RIGHT, THAT IS IT!! I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!!! And the train wreck perpetuates . . .
    I remember my mom told me when I first began kindergarten I was prescribed tranquilizers due to my ‘energy’ level (this is WAY BACK before ADHD) . . . some 45 years later and I think my wiring hasn't changed so much . . but my herd . . . they are a forgiving bunch and just might get me on the path yet.
    It’s kinda sad in a way. If I do actually get to the light at the end of the tunnel, a nifty move I’ve picked up at hitting a speeding horse’s butt dead on with a feed pail will be lost, but I doubt there’s any contests, anyway; on a positive note, aside from better communication with my horses, I might not go through as many broken pails - in response to my pail response the Haffie has developed a really neat trick of stomping the pail as it bounces off her hinnie . . . I truly admire her for that.

  7. Jon - to me, the horses are often a mirror that reflects back to us our emotional state and energy level - sometimes to me they're my best teachers. I've had to learn some of the things they've taught me because it was necessary - I have a number of horses that are often very alert, reactive and easy to detonate - it take some concentration and effort on my part to respond to them in a way that helps us effectively work together.

  8. Your title starts with “working on myself”. Everyone has to accept that they are working on themselves every day. Before you start, you should have a clear idea of who you are or “self”. I recommend that you read The Power of Self Separation. You will start to have a true understand of who you are.

  9. Thanks Kate for your encouragement and words of advice. Many times I have not been pleased with my reaction(s) to an action from an individual or the herd - they have become less frequent over time but I believe I am still too much of a livewire, emotions-on-a-sleeve person; dogs, cats, even goldfish don't seem to be affected nearly as much as horses . . . my steps are slight but I am moving forward.

    I like reading what you & Jean often discuss and your sage words are encouraging to me. Thank you.

  10. This was an interesting read for me, especially in light of the training session I just had this past weekend. One of the things that this trainer picked up on is that I tend to have "soft" body language. He said he could tell I had gotten used to handling highly reactive horses over the years and that my body language defaulted to the calming soothing mode. This contributed to the problems I was having with my new horse. This horse is somewhat unmotivated and needs me to get "bigger" and more driving than I am used to. I saw the difference (and my horse did too) as soon as this trainer began to work with him.

  11. Excellent post!
    I love the inspiration and insight you have opened up to my mind. I think, without knowing it,This lowered energy is occuring now in my new is so relaxed and I am not having to "prove myself". Calm and wonderful rides and times keep happening and I believe I was so consternated translated to fear and anxiety to my mare. She reads a soothing horsegirl she is the soothing Thoroughbred mare, I have always wanted lately!
    Thanks for the insight!

  12. SolitaireMare - you're right, we have to adjust our behavior and energy to each different horse - one of the boarders at our barn had a very reactive horse and had adjusted to him, and then she got another horse that was much more laid-back - she had to up her energy to work with him and it didn't come easily at first.

    allhorsestuff - glad everything is going well for you and your mare!


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