Monday, June 1, 2009

On Balancing the Energy, With a Digression on Dogs

Something one of our boarders said yesterday, combined with something I read in the book, Whole Heart, Whole Horse, that I wrote about a few days ago, got me to thinking.

I was talking to one of the boarders who had brought her new dog along to the barn.  She had gotten the dog as an adult - the dog had previously been a hunting field trial dog.  She said it was interesting that the dog reacted the same way as her horse, Sugar - if the dog (or Sugar) were agitated, the worst thing you could do was to get agitated, or big, yourself - you had to be calm and confident at the same time.

One of the topics in the book is the concept of an energy balance, with the ideal being that you bring to the party a 5 (on a scale of 1 to 10) in energy and your horse brings a 5.  All too often, though, one party or the other is bringing something other than a 5 to the conversation.

If a horse is losing its mind - bucking, bolting or whatever, its energy may spike to an 8 - if we then meet that 8 with an 8 of our own, say by yelling or getting upset (or afraid - not that we necessarily have control over all of this) - then all the fuses/circuit breakers can blow and you have a real mess on your hands.  If a horse offers an 8 - because of its distress at the time - if we can offer the horse a soft 2 in energy - by staying calm and offering the horse direction - it may allow the horse to come back to us by beginning to reduce its energy.

A digression on dogs.  I have a German Shepherd, Brega, who is 4 years old.  She comes from performance bloodlines, and is very intelligent.  She would be more active, or could have a serious job, like agility, but she has a heart defect, aortic stenosis, that limits her ability to exercise and causes her to become tired in hot weather.  Due to this birth defect, she was not able to play with other dogs when she was a puppy - at that age she was likely to suffer sudden heart failure if she ran too much, so she was inadequately socialized with other dogs. Despite the fact that she lived with our Golden Retriever, Sunny, until his death last year, she perceives all other dogs as enemies, to the point of barking and growling ferociously.  She also has always been very reactive in the house, doing lots of barking at passerby, animal or person.  After working with a trainer and attending classes, nothing really changed.

Something our boarder said rang a bell for me - our response to Brega's acting out when around other dogs, or barking in the house, was more often than not to yell at her to stop, which only had a momentary effect, at best, or to physically restrain her.  This often would only increase her agitation and cause her to become more reactive.  This made me think that we were offering her an 8 in energy in response to her 8, which was getting us nowhere fast.

So I decided to see if I could meet her 8 with a 2, and see if that allowed her to calm down and reduce her energy.  There is a technique that is used by the monks of New Skete, who raise and train German Shepherds, particularly with young dogs who are just starting training.  (Come to think of it, a lot of Brega's behaviors are puppy-like - just doing whatever she wants without regard to what the person requests.)  The monks take their dogs (each is partnered with one dog) and attach them by a longish lead to their belts.  The dog then has to stay with its person, while he gardens, cooks, does housework, or whatever.  At meals the dogs lie under the table.  This helps the puppies learn to pay attention to their human - they have to follow or be pulled along, they have to be patient and wait while their human is still and they have to move with their human as he moves.

So I tried this out with Brega.  This exercise is actually very similar to something I do sometimes with a horse, where I keep them on a loose lead and have them come with me while I do some job, like dragging poles around the arena.  I took her leash and tied it to my waist.  We cooked, we washed dishes, we folded laundry, we sat and read, we ate meals.  When Brega would begin to think about barking at something, I would just get up and she would have to follow, and then we would walk around the house until she settled down again.  No fuss, no muss.

When we were out for walks, if she started to get distracted, or saw a dog in the distance that she wanted to bark at, we would do a "crazy walk".  I would join my hands behind my back, holding the leash so that if she stayed next to me, the leash would be loose, and would stop, turn, turn again, take steps to the side, etc.  In order to keep the leash loose, she had to pay close attention to what I was doing and follow my actions.  By the end, she was veering and easily making all sorts of patterns with me, and got a lot of praise for that.

We'll see how it goes, but so far it feels good.

Another problem many horses face is the rider who overcues - who uses an 8 when a 2 would do.  A lot of horses appear dull and unresponsive - hence the crops and spurs - but I think what the horse is saying is:  "I offered my rider a 5, but they just kept on using an 8, why should I bother?  I guess I'll just keep doing the 2 since my rider isn't listening to me."  No wonder so many horses are dull and unhappy!


  1. Interesting perceptions. I know when my horses get over excited, I find that if I can just step back and not overreact, they settle down much more quickly. It's a bit harder to do from the saddle when their acting up can be very intimidating.

    Love your technique with Brega--very "Dog Whisperer."

  2. What an excellent post. I think energy balancing makes a lot of sense, things often escalate very quickly when a rider/handler overreacts to a horse. I will have to keep this in mind next time I am out on the roads, and my horse is nervous!

  3. This is very interesting. Parelli teaches that you match the horse's energy, or else it will never "hear" your cue over its own excitemnt.

    On the other hand- I have had birds for years, and an effective technique for getting a squawking bird to quiet down is to whisper- they have to stop making noise in order to hear you.

    I have been trying to combine the two with my mare- being strong enough to be effectinve, but trying to do it calmly. It is hard not to yell "hey!" when the horse bucks though.

  4. Excellent. Food for thought indeed.

  5. Your post really hit home - thank you! I had a terrible lesson and Sam scared me at one stage in the lesson. I didn't pull, kick, yell just stood still and then continued to walk around while I calmed down. Yes I think I do sometimes ask with an 8 when maybe a two or three would do but I guess this comes with practice and learning. I try and ask softer and when nothing happens I try to ask a bit stronger and a bit stronger etc. Sometimes I forget this but I try !!!!!!

    One thing is interesting with what you said about if the horse is giving you an 8 come back with a 2 - I have started to study Parelli and during the ground work if the horse is giving you an 8 (looking everywhere but at you and not concentrating on you) you need to come back with a 9. They say make yourself bigger and so the horse looks and focuses on you instead. When it does what you ask - eg stand still then you lower to a 2 but if the horse moves you go straight back to a 9!

    I haven't really had a chance to try this as Sam even though looking around and tense still listens to me to a degree. If I ask for him to stop he will stop etc. He will stand next to me, tense and watching everything but at least he stands still. When leading he doesn't walk all over me he still listens and moves away etc it is the tensness I think I want to get rid of.

    Great post really got me thinking - Thank you!

  6. I read a book or an article or something about the monks and their dog training techniques, it was really fascinating!

  7. Kate, I laughed to myself when I read this. Dash barks like a fiend whenever someone is at the door, we used to yell at him to stop. Now I sush him and ask him to sit at least 5feet from the door before I open it. He sits and talks, low gurgling/growl sounds,not threatning, but better than barking! If he starts barking, my younger son barks back at him and Dash will usually stop barking at the door and look at Drew like "what's all the fuss? I'm just telling ya someone's at the door." Obviousily at some point we've trained him it's okay to bark like to yell at him now is probably confusing to him.

  8. Amy and Nina - to me, there's a difference between a horse that's unable to focus - whose mind is wandering - and one that's in distress. I also believe that it's possible to momentarily get big with a cue and then immediately revert to a 2 as soon as the big cue is done. It's also possible to be soft when getting big - to act big but without projecting emotion (which for us is really what an 8 often is). I think it also depends a lot on the personality of the horse - some horses are more sensitive than others, and these horses may really blow a fuse if you go to an 8 with them if they are at an 8 already. It's a little hard to describe, at least for me. Mark's book has some really good examples and anecdotes that do it better than I do.

  9. Just as a point of interest: the "energy-matching" thing works with children as well as horses and dogs. I do a weekly storytime at my library and sometimes have kids in the group who are completely *wired* for whatever reason--too much sugar, not enough nap, a new baby in the house, just had an innoculation--the ONLY way to refocus their "8" energy is to offer a "2". Whisper the words of the story...they will lean in to hear it.

    It works with adults, too, but they are more subtle.

    Very cool stuff--I want to read that book now!

  10. This is a cool idea! I think I am going to try it out on my 6-year-old son. Generally, I expect to be bringing a .5 to the table. He's got alot of energy.

  11. Interesting post again, Kate.
    What I like in Mark Rashids books is that he describes situations and put words on things I believe many of us have experienced, and kind of sort them out.
    I have had two spooky horses.
    Both of them were a bit anxious and if you get upset or angry with such a horse when he spooks, you only make the situation worse. So I have found out (through intensive training from my horses) that staying calm and relaxed and being the "safe" place to be gives much better results. And I believe that goes for much of our work with horses.
    And that is much of the basic line in Mark Rashid's books too, isn't it Kate?
    But then again, spooking horses is maybe easier to solve the soft way - compared to bucking or other more violent behaviours.

  12. HorseOfCourse - I find the most effective way to deal with bigger things like bucking, etc., is to keep your mind on what your positive goal is and just keep riding, basically acting as if the buck, or whatever, didn't happen. And then, of course, try to find out what physical issues or training holes caused the problem in the first place.

  13. Thanks Kate - I love it how you make me think! I do understand what you are saying about being big and then small straight away - I think that is what I try to do sometimes. I will have a look around for those books as well!

  14. Kate - what a great post! We have discovered this zero sum game with energy level at our barn over the years with horses and dogs. Currently, Eby (dog) and Sovereign (horse) both bring high numbers to the table and neither need our added input. Calmness is the only thing that gets us out of a sticky situation. Sovereign often requires only one person to be present because two people add too much. (This is only on the ground - he is a perfect angel undersaddle!)

  15. Great idea! I think you're onto something here. I'll give it a go too. It's sort of similar to my thinking about Harley, who can be a dull horse at times. If you ever hit him, he gives you a look like - "didn't hurt!". You know, like the tough kid in grade school who gets a spanking and turns beligerant and swears it didn't hurt him. So, I "whisper" to Harley - keep my cues soft and my voice quiet. This seems to force him to pay attention to me, thereby not getting sensory overload and shutting down. Seems like a very similar theory to me. However, you are exceptional at putting your ideas into words and they are easily understood. Bravo!! Keep it up girlfriend - you're very helpful to a lot of us, I think!! Keep us posted. And, thank you.


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