Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rebuilding Feel During a Meltdown, with a Note on Confusion or Pushiness

In addition to reading Ray Hunt's lovely little book (see review a few days ago), I've also been reading, and pondering, Bill Dorrence's book True Horsemanship Through Feel (with Leslie Drummond).  It's truely a marvelous book, with a lot of very good teaching.  The book is about developing an approach to horses that results in mutual "feel", where the rider/handler can present an idea to the horse and the the horse adopts the idea as its own and executes the requested task with softness.  You feel of the horse, and the horse feels of you, and there's where the connection comes in.  Bill's approach is designed to develop respect in the horse - but this isn't respect in the sense of dominance/submission, fear, force (including the use of gadgets that force the horse's body into a particular posture or frame), or punishment, which he believes diminish trust and the formation of a true connection - but respect in the sense of trust and confidence in the human handling or riding them.  Horses with a feel of you won't be pushy or "disrespectful" in the normal sense of the word - this is inconsistent with mutual feel.

There are occasions when working with a horse when the feel is going to be lost.  If a horse is "overexposed" in Bill's sense - from being startled to being serious frightened, or presented with something where the horse's foundation and training don't allow him to understand what it is you're asking of him - feel will be lost and the horse may well take over and do what he thinks is necessary at that point in time.  Another time feel will be lost or absent is when a horse's prior foundation and training have been done in such a way that the horse never developed the feel of a person through having feel offered to him - such a horse is likely to be worried, braced, pushy/resistant or prone to take over.

When a horse is offered softness/feel (which, by the way, is not inconsistent with firmness - but that's a whole 'nother concept), and a proper foundation has been built, the horse may experience moments of confusion when asked to do something new - and it's important to let the horse work through that and try wrong answers on the road to finding the right answer, as you continue to present the idea mentally and offer the softness/feel you're looking for.  This, by the way, isn't the same thing at all as forcing a horse through something or getting mad at or into a fight with the horse, neither of which do anything to develop feel or mutual respect.  Confusion also isn't the same thing as a horse whose foundation is deficient and who is put into a situation of mental pressure where the foundation that exists isn't sufficient to allow the horse to answer the question with feel/softness - you might be able to force your way through to compliance, but that also doesn't build feel or softness.

When I got him, Red was that second kind of horse - his foundation was deficient and he didn't understand feel/softness.  We've made a lot of progress there, and he's much less braced and pushy.  But at certain times, the old behavior patterns will recur if he's stressed or presented with a new challenge.  These days, we can mostly work through things without too much of a problem, by my continuing to offer softness to him.  On occasion, we have to back up a step or two to a place where he's comfortable and can be soft with me before we try to move forwards again.  He's taught me a lot about working with the horse where the horse is rather than where you think the horse should be (in my experience, any time the word "should" appears in connection with horses, trouble is close by).  I've learned not to be impatient or frustrated, but to be calmer and persistent while taking him back to a safe place for him mentally and then working forward again.

And then there's the serious meltdown - Dawn and I experienced one of those today.  There is a new horse at the barn - a young Clydesdale gelding - who arrived last night and is in the large paddock that is visible from the end of Dawn's barn aisle.  This young horse is currently separated from the other horses, and he's not happy about it - screaming and running.  Dawn took one look at this commotion and her only thought was to leave - she wanted the security of her mare herd - the feel was gone.  There was enough feel left that she was able to listen to me enough so she didn't just bolt off.  She was seriously worried, though, and unable to stand safely tied or in crossties in the barn aisle.  So I did what I've learned to try to do in situations like this - take her back to a place where she could start responding again to my feel and do something - anything - with me in a way that allowed her to feel more safe and comfortable and let us begin to get the feel back.  I took her back into the arena, away from the noise and stress, and we worked on our leading, and then on just standing around at different spots in the arena.  (During this, Red appeared at the gate of his pasture and began calling to the distressed horse - he apparently had heard the screaming all the way off in the back pastures and had galloped in to check on things.)

I then took her back into the barn aisle but put her in her stall to groom and tack.  We were able to do this safely and calmly.  Then I went back into the arena and mounted up.  Dawn was trying very hard to be good and even stood at the mounting block for me, but it quickly became apparent that she was having a very hard time holding things together for me, as the distressed horse kept screaming and galloping.  She really wanted to leave, and although we tried some circling to help her calm down, even small circles weren't helping and the pull of the pasture was very strong - she was showing signs that she might even rear - she used to have a real problem with rearing and when she's severely stressed it can reappear, although I headed that off by keeping her turning.  But we weren't accomplishing anything, so I jumped off.

By chance, another mare was coming in to get tacked for a lesson, so we stood quietly in the arena watching down the aisle as the other mare was tacked - Dawn was able to do this.  (If the other mare hadn't come along, Dawn and I would have probably done some work on the lunge.) Once the other mare came into the arena and her rider got on, I remounted and Dawn and I went back to work.  Having the other horse nearby was a great comfort to her.  By the end of our session, Dawn was able to walk and trot in all parts of the arena.  At the beginning, she was still plenty tense, but got calmer, although not fully relaxed, by the end of our session - the feel was starting to come back and she was trying very hard.  I took her back into the barn aisle, and took off her saddle but without restraining her on crossties - I let her move in circles around me, stopping her for a few seconds from time to time - this is what she could do today - and then completed untacking in her stall.  I let her chill there for a few minutes until she started eating hay, and then turned her back out - I was pleased that she walked off, rather than galloping away.

While that wasn't what I set out to do with Dawn today, it was a very good session.


  1. Those two books are the foundation of good horsemanship. I have a long way to go.... I like what you said about learning not to be impatient or frustrated, but to be calm and persistent. I'm a bit of a hot-head and this is one of the hardest things for me to do. Wonderful post Kate, and as you showed in your work with Dawn, it's not always about what we want, but what works best for the horse in the given circumstances.

  2. Another good book, but a challenge to read given Bil's manner of speaking.

    Good attitude on your part to find positives out of your work with Dawn.


  3. Good work with Dawn. So many times we start out with one goal in mind, only to have our horses make us change course along the way. Your session with Dawn was a good example. Glad to hear both you and she managed to end on a good note.

    As for the "Pieshy" below, hopefully you will get the hang of letting your seat flex and move with him, now that you know the pattern of his spooks. But even more hopefully, he will not spend too much time shying at things to give you the practice. *G*

  4. Well done with Dawn - she told you just what she could manage
    and you listened.

    I know it's not funny when it happens, but "pieshy" cracks me up. It's nice that he's consistent... ;)

    1. I wish Pie would apply his ability to be consistent to something else . . .

  5. I like the detailed description of your session with Dawn. Here's what she did, here's what I think was going through her mind/feelings, here is how I kept her with me, here is how it went...what I see is you modeling for us putting the principles we believe in into practice in a real situation. My horse is pretty bombproof by training and temperament, so I don't have the same kinds of dramas, but the principles still work. You are trying to find the "why" of the horse's actions, to tune into and respond to the horse with patience but also not giving up. In my case I am working on not getting irritated at my horse for being so-called "lazy", not moving forward. Now I don't say to him "stop being lazy, would you just GO." I try to find things that he enjoys, I check my own riding and messages and aids, etc. I just read a wonderful memoir called "Wesley the Owl" by Stacey O'Brien, and she talks about communicating with telepathy and mental images. I'm going to try it this afternoon on my ride with Tundra.

  6. Reading Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance years ago gave me the insight that I needed to really understand and connect with Silk. Here's my favorite Tom Dorrance quote:

    "I didn't use to elaborate on the third factor, Spirit: I only just mentioned it. But I've begun to wonder about it in the last few years. Maybe if people got to realizing the importance of that part of the horse, they could be more understanding from right in the horse's innards. Then, they could try to figure out the mental and physical parts.

    I've felt this in horses all my life, but I don't think I realized how important it was to try to claim that inward part down. I was always working on the surface, both mentally and physically - not getting down to the inside of the horse. No one is going to get this without coming right out of the inside of themselves. The rest of it has to come from inside the horse. Mind, Body and Spirit is what we are talking about here."

  7. I enjoyed this post a lot. Sounds like everything was done positively, and you adjusted to fit the situation, which is what these men teach in order to get true feel. Your ability to write about your experiences and lessons with your horses are very helpful. I almost felt like I was there watching. I guess a good lesson is getting through a troubled situation, with a relaxed and positive outcome, regardless of what you had in mind at the onset. I think you've accomplished or reinforced your position of "reliable leader" in your horse's mind and that is going to build on your relationship/partnership with your horse. Good job Kate. It's so much fun, isn't it? Sure wish you were closer, I'd enjoy riding with you. With my horse Eagle, I have fear issues. I have fear issues period anymore, if I'm honest. I get so nervous, and have to work really hard on my mindset and just relaxing. That's no good for a horse who came to me with fear issues. We've made really good progress on the ground, but I think he's ready to move on to riding, just not sure that I'm ready yet. I don't want to create a stressful situation because of my fears. Progress, not perfection, I guess...

    1. I'd love to ride with you too - maybe, someday . . .

      It is a lot of fun, both exciting and challenging.

      I certainly have my own fear issues which sometimes impair my ability to give my horses the calm leadership they need to be confident, and sometimes I spend too much time thinking about the thing that might happen as opposed to what is happening right then. So I can certainly understand what you are talking about.

  8. I love your reader's comments as well...there's some nice thinking going on here. I think you'd enjoy reading Tom Dorrance's book "True Unity" too. Simple, straightforward stuff that just works. Sometimes it's almost spiritual reading these men's thoughts. You've got a gift of telling your story Kate. Well versed and I can "see" what you were going through. Love it!

    1. I've ordered that one too - directly from Margaret Dorrance (she sells through Amazon)! One thing I love about this blogging adventure is having the opportunity to have readers who are knowledgeable and supportive - wish there was as much of that in the "real" horse world.


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