Sunday, June 14, 2009

On Undoing the Brace

The topic of today's post came to me as I was making up feed this morning. I was leaning over one of the feed bins with my left arm out straight, elbow locked, braced against the adjacent feed bin. I thought to myself: "brace"! I'm trying hard to think about bracing, both when I work with horses and at all other times. I try to notice when I brace, and to undo the brace if I am able. I firmly believe that many of the stiff, bracey horses out there become that way, not because it is a natural thing for horses to brace, but because we teach them to brace by offering them our own stiffness and braciness. Both anxious and dull horses are showing us braciness. If we can undo our braces, I believe our communications with our horses and interactions with the world at large can become significantly more effective. Horses that brace can be taught to undo the brace, but in my opinion that can't be done by offering them a brace in return.

I'm not sure I can clearly communicate what I mean, but I thought I'd try. Braces can be many things:

Forcing your heels down
Clenching your hand on a lead rope
Pulling back when riding against a horse that is leaning on your hands with a stiff arm, locked elbow and shoulder
Pulling along a horse that doesn't want to move along on the lead
Pulling back on a horse that's rushing ahead as we lead

Not allowing our back, hips or legs to move with a horse's motion at different gaits under saddle

Standing at the kitchen counter cutting up vegetables with legs stiff and knees locked

Clenching one's jaw in anger or frustration

Carrying tension in one's neck or back due to posture, anxiety or anger

Having a mental brace - not being fully present, not really looking, carrying metal rigidity, or beating oneself up when things don't go right - this is perhaps the hardest type of brace to undo. It can involve not listening to the horse or person we are in dialog with, being impatient, having thoughts rushing around inside our heads that block our ability to truly see and interact, acting out of emotion, etc.

Those are just examples - I could think of many, many more. I believe that when we brace, we block the energy from moving as it should and also eliminate the opportunity to communicate with our bodies effectively, using softness. Braces are also uncomfortable - they lead to muscle pain and joint soreness and stiffness, both for us and for horses. When I manage to undo a brace, however, it does not mean that I stop using my muscles, become limp and floppy or fail to engage with my surroundings or a horse. When a brace is undone, all of a sudden we can use our minds and our bodies more effectively, and if we're riding or leading, there is an opportunity to interact with softness using the most minimal of cues - sometimes thoughts are enough. My goal is to interact with my horses so that our energies blend and we can move together to do whatever it is that we want to do.

Some examples that come to mind, where I try to consciously offer softness instead of bracing:

When I ride, allowing my leg to drape in a relaxed way along the horse's sides, and gently pulling my toes up (instead of pushing my heels down). I carry some muscle tone in my legs - but I try to keep them flexible, alive and aware and not stiff and braced. I try to consciously allow the horse to move by not blocking the motion with my seat, hips, back or legs - this allows me to effectively give the most minimal cues, since the horse and I are no longer "shouting" at each other by bracing - no wonder so many horses are unresponsive to our cues - even strong cues - they really can't hear us over the "shouting" of the brace.

When I hold a lead rope, have my hand closed but relaxed, so I can move my hand immediately from or along the rope as needed. I try to feel the horse through the rope as if the rope were a live thing.

When I ride, whether I'm riding with contact or on a loose rein, I try to keep my hand (or hands) closed but relaxed, shoulders and elbows relaxed and free to move, and to feel the reins as a living connection between my whole body and the whole horse, with my hands and the horse's mouth (or face if bitless) being points of connection.

When riding or leading, figure out ways to undo my brace, and a horse's corresponding brace, by offering an alternative to pull-against-pull. One thing I don't use to undo a brace between my hands and the horse's mouth is a stronger bit. If I feel a horse starting to pull, I try to have a repertoire of movements or actions to employ that can help the horse learn to undo the brace. This whole idea warrants a post (or several posts) of its own for me to try to fully explain what I mean, and what I try to do. The central concept is one of redirecting the energy.

When standing or moving, or even sitting or lying down, try to notice any muscular tension or braces, and consciously undo them - this practice has done wonders for my back and neck pain. Try to avoid postures (like my example from the feed room this morning) that result in braces.

Try to act and speak with intention, but not with rigidity of thought or emotion. Offering softness, whether to a person or a horse, also involves being fully present - not being distracted by an interior monologue - and learning to listen, without preconceptions or immediate reactions. Undoing these mental braces is hard for me - I do better with horses than people on this one, perhaps because that's where I started learning about these concepts.

Does any of this make any sense? It's hard to articulate, but it's really the center of how I try to interact with my horses. Do I always succeed? No, certainly not, but when I don't, I try to push the reset button, without beating myself up, and start again to do what I know I need to do. For me this is about all of life - not just horses - and I don't think it's possible to separate how we interact with horses from how we interact in our life at large.


  1. I was a jaw clencher...sometimes forgot to breathe...but the past year I have really worked on it. It helps to have the radio on and sing along..or count your tempo. It makes a huge difference in my riding to lose that "brace." Great post!

  2. Just wanted to say that it totally makes sense to me. My biggest "bracing" issues were when I was showing. I can't say for sure, but sometimes I thought I held my breath over the course of 8 fences... lol. At least my trainer told me so, and I certainly felt tired afterwards. :) As I'm getting wiser (hehe not older, noooo, that can't happen. :) ), I feel I am relaxing more, especially around the horses. That is, if you don't count the schooling show I rode in last summer. :)

  3. It all makes perfect sense to me. I'm a naturally tense person but I've learned to soften and relax and not let things bother me so much anymore. I am also a jaw clencher and usually have tense neck and back muscle issues to deal with. I find if you can identify these things you can work on fixing them.

    We've all got to learn to un-brace and soften if we want to ride our horses and have them respond in kind.

  4. Kate - This post makes sense to me. My husband calls this "pushing vs. pulling". I know that sounds completely opposite of what you are talking about, but really I think it is right. He always uses setting the table as an example: some people push the plates down, slamming them loudly. Or you can "pull" the plates up as you are putting them down. The same with shutting a door - you can pull it shut loudly or push it back as you pull it toward you. It is this balance that I use when riding or leading. I lead Pie in and he is hot. I try to equally push and pull in a perfect balance so it seems like I am not even holding the lead - it is like he is walking in beside me without being restrained. If he jumps at something, I try to go with it in a push/pull movement so there is no tension. I try to do the same when I ride. You can watch people all day doing the wrong thing - pushing when they should pull - and vice versa. Great post - sorry I was so wordy!

  5. Thanks for all the comments - and Juliette - as far as I'm concerned you can write as much in your comments as you like - I'm always interested!

  6. This is an excellent post and very timely for me! I've been really working on not bracing shoulders, neck, jaw while riding Gabe especially. He feels ALL of it and responds in kind.

    As long as I am conscious of the bracing I can relax, but when I'm not thinking about it, up come the shoulders and the back of my neck tightens. Sometimes the neck bracing transfers to my jaw. This happens ALL the time, not just in the saddle. And I wonder why I have headaches and upper back soreness frequently! I just need to learn to relax.

  7. Kate, This is a good post, very insiteful! I know I've suffered with this and I think we all do at certain points, but this serves as a good reminder that they can feel us and how we behave makes a difference on their attitudes as well!

  8. Hi Kate! I try to do the same as some of the things you say. Sometimes at work I slump over my desk. So I write SPINE on a little post-it note to encourage me to straighten my spine--kind of like Sally Swift writes about that string coming out of the top of your head and going up to the sky. So nice to take all that weight off the spine!
    Also, I love the idea of acting with purpose and integrity!
    Yoga more! Brace less!!!

  9. Interesting post once again, Kate.
    I also find the balance between relaxation and muscle tone interesting. As you said, if you relax too much when you ride, you get floppy. So you need muscle tone, but without bracing.

  10. Excellent post! Absolutely agree! Our horses braces often start with us!!


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