Sunday, April 8, 2012

Giving Direction and Creating Openings . . .

I've been thinking about what Heather and I have been working on with Drifter - or rather, what Heather is working on having me be able to do with Drifter.  I've also been reading Mark Rashid's latest book - Nature in Horsemanship - and some of these thoughts are related to or come out of my reading of that book.

To summarize briefly, what Heather is having me work on is being in a place with Drifter where I can give him direction, not after he does something we don't want - like bracing his head upwards and hopping into trot (he's not being disobedient when he does this - it's the only way he knows how to get the job done and the bracing/resistance comes from that) - but as the thought of doing that is starting to form but before he takes action on the thought.  Once he's done the hop, he's both reinforced in his own mind and body that this is the correct way to transition to trot, and the corrective action (telling him what not to do) has to be much bigger that the directive action (telling him what to do) would be. This involves being attentive, and feeling his movement and how that reflects what he's thinking from moment to moment, and being in a position to do something about it before the forming thought turns into action.  It also involves giving him positive direction by having a very specific feel in mind - of gait, posture, direction and softness - and then providing him the leadership to get there.  Some horses give you space to react before things go too far, but not Drifter - if a thought forms, he's going to take action on it in an instant.  It's really necessary with him to get not only ahead of the action, but ahead of the thought, so both can be directed - if the thought fully forms, the action is close behind and that's too late to effectively give him direction.  So this is a lot about timing, and avoiding delay in giving direction.  I have to ride every step, and if I do, he's able to do some pretty amazing things already, and the hop is starting to do away as he discovers it's actually more comfortable to use his body softly.

And part of this also involves creating a soft space - an opening - for him to move into, with intention, hands, legs, posture and seat, so that his action is directed towards the softness.  This is a project I've been working on for a number of years, but Drifter requires more of me since he's both sensitive and very likely to form thoughts that will lead to actions, right away.  It's a little bit like directing the flow of a river - if you make small adjustments, the flow adapts and moves in the way you'd like; if you attempt to dam the energy or block the movement, the flow is interrupted and you lose the softness.  With Drifter, we're trying to make some major changes in how he moves and carries himself, and while it's still very much a work in progress, he's already learning to look for the soft opening and move into it.

Now, some of this is physical - having the reins the correct length, and not pulling, so I can create a soft space where he can find almost zero pressure, keeping my posture up and open so I don't drive the energy down, and feeling the movement of the horse, and not blocking his movement with any part of my body, but a lot of it is thought - or rather thought expressed in terms of intent, and direction of time, space and energy within the space shared by me and the horse as we move together.

Heather has me work with - leading, grooming, lungeing and riding - both Pie and Drifter with very clear, declarative (not aggressive) intent - I need to have a clear idea in my own mind of exactly what I want them to do.  When riding or lungeing, I need to know exactly what I want in terms of speed, quality of gait, direction, destination, and most importantly, the feel I want.  I create that feel in myself - in my own mind and body - before asking them to.  Then I make sure that I'm creating a soft place that they can consistently find so that they can produce the feel I'm intending, and so that when they offer me softness I can offer softness in return.  And I need to direct their thought - lead them with my thought - so that there are not gaps they find they have to fill with their own decisions.

Here are a couple of examples that may show what I mean. With Pie, he tends to spook more readily if he's standing still or just blopping along without softness or quality of gaits.  When he's in that mode, he's pretty checked out so things can take him by surprise.  If I'm riding him with intention, and giving him consistent direction, he'll be awake and alert and less likely to be surprised, and I'll be in a much better position to provide him with some help.  Since he's still green, it's very important at all times - even if we're just in a familiar arena - to ride him with very clear intent and direction, and I have to set him up for success - for example, don't ask him for a downwards transition from trot to walk until I've shortened his trot and made sure he's soft.  If he does spook, just keep right on directing him and ignore the spook - don't change the focus to the thing that's spooky because that interrupts what you do want and makes the spooky object much more of a big deal than it should be (so no forcing the horse to approach the object, or look at the object, or punishing the horse for spooking (I've actually seen people do that - "let's make this thing you're scared of something to be really scared of"), and no stopping the motion - just keep on riding - if the horse keeps spooking at a particular place or object, don't avoid it but just gradually work your way closer but otherwise ignore it and don't force the horse to get closer than is comfortable - the problem will go away on its own if you're not focused on it).

With Drifter, here's an example from our walk/trot transition work.  If I don't direct him, he's going to invert his body, brace with his head and neck and hop into trot - that's how he learned to do it and it's pretty baked in as a habit.  Now that he's learning to carry himself more effectively with softness, and to keep his whole body connected rather than having his head and neck disconnected from the rest of his body, there's an easier and softer way to transition to trot, but it's my job to show him how by positively directing him and providing a soft place for him to move into.  So, Heather has me ride with intent and focus, and keep my reins short enough - even though I'm encouraging him to stretch down - that I can interrupt his thought of bracing upwards before it even turns into action by making sure that the soft spot is when he stretches down and never when he braces up.  I have to be very quiet but also somewhat dynamic with my hands - they're not fixed in one position - but I also have to never pull, just provide increasing resistance as he moves farther away from the soft spot and increasing softness as he moves towards it.  And I have to keep my posture open and my mind clear of "trot" as we're big walking (otherwise he anticipates) and only mentally ask for "forward" and "trot", changing the rhythm in my mind and exhaling, at the exact moment that he's soft through his whole body and in a position to easily do what I'm asking.  Then I reinforce the concept of forward and whole-body softness by directing him to maintain a soft, big (not rushed or quick) trot.  In downwards transitions, I ask for a shorter, but still energetic trot, and when he's soft and in a position to be able to do it easily, I keep my energy and thought "up" so he uses his hindquarters, and I think the change of rhythm, feel the change in my own body and exhale to get the transition, and direct him through the transition into big walk.

Hope no one minds my blathering on about this stuff - I'm pretty exciting about all of this!

5 comments:

  1. Doesn't it seem like (in horsemanship + life in general) everything comes back to being here now?

    When we are in the moment, we can intercept our horses' undesirable thoughts before they become undesirable actions.

    If we can be in the moment and keep our horses on task... mentally/physically engaged by riding every step with them, they won't have the attention or energy to devote to spooking, because we're both in the moment.

    "Blather" away - your posts are always helpful!

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  2. Kate - I really enjoyed these descriptions of how you are working with the horses because it reminds me that everything that we do with them must be done in awareness. Very Buddhist and similar, I'm sure you're noticing to what you are doing in Tai Chi. It always amazes me how easy it is to drift into "auto pilot" and I think that Mark and Heather have an understanding of how to be present with the horse that is definitely worth exploring further.

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  3. Excellent. Everything you say makes perfect sense. The idea is to fix the little things before they become big things. Tiny corrections and adjustments made along the way pay off big time in the end.

    Well done.

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  4. Good stuff. I think we all struggle with helping our horses stay soft / not brace, at least people with young or green horses. You've given us some good ideas to use in doing this.

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  5. I agree that if we are in tune with our horses we can anticipate and help them before an incident escalates. When we focus on their movements and attitudes and stay soft ourselves it helps relieve their tensions.

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