Friday, May 3, 2013

Building Connection: Direction, Softness and "Going With"

If you haven't read it already, you might want to read my earlier post on building connection before you read this one.  I'm going to try in this post to describe some of the things I'm trying to do with my horses to build our connection, so connection can become a part of everything we do.  I've "known" about some of these things for a while, but I'm only just now starting to "get" them, and I expect there will be more about them to learn and experience than I realize even now.

To start us out, here is a recent quote from Mark Rashid's Facebook page - the italics are mine:
Offering a horse productive guidance before or during times when a horse becomes distracted (or worried) can be a fairly easy way to not only get a troubled situation under control, but also build trust and confidence in both horse and rider. It is a matter of the rider staying focused on what they would like to achieve and helping the horse get there, instead of focusing on the horse's worried or distracted behavior and trying to stop it.
More about that in a moment . . .

For me, connection is both physical and not physical.  It's an attitude, an approach, that then comes through in the physical way I try to interact with the horse, and the way I want the horse to interact with me.

It starts with my presenting the horse with intentional softness in every interaction we have - grooming, picking feet, asking the horse to move over in the stall, leading, mounting, riding, you name it - the feel I offer to the horse should always be the same.  (This, by the way, does not preclude being "big" in the very rare cases where it's called for - it's possible to be big while still offering the horse a soft place to find and be.) Calm, quiet and effective - if I can offer this to the horse, the horse pretty reliably will offer it right back to me.  I've found that it's pretty important to practice this "feel" in every aspect of my life - even such mundane things as how you open and close a door, or move - otherwise that feel and way of being won't be automatic when I need it to be. I've found it takes a lot of practice, but that pays off when your horse needs your help and you can offer that.

Mark's quote above is a powerful description of focussing on what you do want and ignoring everything else.  If we can think of ourselves as helping the horse out in a way that makes it possible for them to do what we want, it puts us on their side, not in opposition, and short-circuits the frustration and even anger than can occur in us when the horse doesn't do what we want and (think we) have clearly communicated.  I'm learning to ignore anything that isn't what I want and just keep trying to help the horse do what I do want, and I've found that things I don't want just fall away over time.  It's not about making the horse do what you want - that can work in a way, since it's sometimes possible to force/intimidate some horses into doing things - it's not about wearing the horse down so they just give up - it's about assuring the horse that you really do care about the thing you want them to do and nothing else really matters.  It's about building mutual trust and connection, which then has spill-over effects in lots of other areas.

A couple of examples . . .

When I first got Red, he had a number of bad habits, including nipping, taking away his feet during hoof picking and even striking or trying to kick, pushing his body into you, bracing in lots of ways, including when leading, etc.  Not so great.  The nipping, pushing and leading issues started to resolve as he began to learn that I had personal space that wasn't to be intruded into.  He would still occasionally try to nip when nervous as I would be leading him into the ring or getting ready to mount - when my hand was near his face.  An "accidental" sharp finger getting in the way of his muzzle - he did it to himself, all I did was provide a boundary - and just asking him to keep his mouth elsewhere while keeping on doing whatever it was I was doing - and the occasions of nipping got rarer and rarer.  The behavior is now completely gone.

Similarly with hoof picking.  I actually used clicker at the beginning so he clearly understood what behavior I wanted, and did it very slowly and step by step - first, simply picking a foot off the ground briefly, then holding it up longer, then longer, then moving the foot and leg around, then tapping the foot, then partially picking it, etc., etc.   It took daily work for an extended period to get him to change over completely to the new desired behavior, but he's now absolutely perfect for hoof-picking and for the farrier, and very relaxed about the whole thing.  I think patience - no deadlines or time limits - and calm persistence make all the difference for these sorts of things.

Spooking is something many (probably all) horse people experience - horses are prey animals and naturally get concerned about anything that changes in their environment (even if we think it's silly or stupid, it isn't silly or stupid at all if you're a horse).  Not wanting to approach a certain area of the ring or moving suddenly sideways away from something startling, or even a leap and jump or a bolt or partial bolt at a noise or sudden scary thing appearing - I just keep on riding.

Now what does that mean - "just keep on riding"?  It means a bunch of things to me.  First, and I think this powerfully communicates to the horse, I tell the horse that I don't care about whatever it is - I'm not worried about it so they don't need to be.  This means I don't tense up, or clutch, or grab or pull - or at least I try not to - this is a work in process for me, particularly in the case of a big leap or a true bolt.  I don't look at or focus on the object, and I don't stop the horse and force them to face it or move closer.  We just keep on moving - I'm trying to communicate "yeah, that was scary for a second but we don't have to be concerned any more".  Tensing, grabbing, clutching and pulling, or focussing on the object, all tell the horse that they were darned right to be scared of whatever it was, since you clearly are too - these are forms of bracing, and when you're bracing, the horse will generally brace against you and all connection is gone.  So I try to "go with" the horse, keeping the feel soft while asking the horse to keep right on doing whatever it was we were doing together.  If there's extra energy in the horse, I try to allow the horse to move and just redirect the horse as softly as I'm capable - those of you who've seen the video of Red bolting at the clinic will remember that Mark just instructed me to direct him in a circle, which I did once I stopped pulling - my first automatic response was to pull but in a full bolt that generally isn't effective since the horse can pull harder than we can.  As soon as I softened and redirected the energy, we went right on cantering just fine.  A powerful lesson that I'm still trying to make automatic.

If, while I'm working, the horse is shying away from a particular place in the ring or a specific object, I just keep asking the horse to work, first within their comfort zone - which might start a long way from the object - then gradually expanding it closer and closer to the scary spot, but without forcing - just asking and staying soft.  I've found that this works like a charm - pretty soon the scary place is just ignored by both of us - I've brought the horse with me into a calmer place.  In a case where a horse is really terrified of something, I try to make use of the horse's natural curiosity and see if they'll approach, together with me, either leading or ridden - again, no forcing.  (Be aware that horses tend to approach and retreat repeatedly to get familiar with something - I allow the horse to select the distance and to move its feet if the horse needs to.) With Dawn, I used clicker to help build her confidence about certain classes of objects, like plastic garbage bags or tarps flapping in the wind.  The goal was not desensitization, it was trust and confidence building.

Mark's quote above is also very relevant to horses who get distracted, or who are anxious or nervous.  Calmness and softness have to start with us and if we can offer them to the horse, this can help enormously.  Also the phrase "productive guidance before or during" should be highlighted.  If the horse is already anxious or nervous, or you're about to encounter a situation where this might be the case, get in there and give the horse some direction before things get dicey - this isn't a matter of mechanically "moving the feet", it's a matter of having a live connection with the horse that is actively asking the horse to follow your thought and accomplish some task together with you.  (This is where I went wrong back in June 2011 with Pie, when I had my bad fall - I had him standing still on a loose rein waiting for him to notice a very scary thing - a bike with a tag-along cart and a big flag.  I wasn't actively riding, or asking him to do anything, I was just sitting there like a bump on a log, and I was focussed on the scary thing, to boot.  Good combination of circumstances for a big spook, which is what we got.  That's not to say he wouldn't have spooked if I'd been actively riding, but I would have been in a better position to help him not be so alarmed and I also would have been in a better physical position to stay on.)

When I started to work with them, I would have said that both Dawn and Red were nervous, easily distracted horses.  They are both on the higher strung end of things, so they notice things.  Red also feels responsible for everything, so he's always paying attention to everything in his environment, particularly other horses and what they're doing.  All horses get distracted - but here's the real truth - if someone tells you "my horse is easily distracted", the person saying this is easily distracted. Distraction by the horse occurs either because the rider is distracted and not really paying attention or connected to the horse, so the horse is left to make its own decisions and choices, or because a second of distraction by the horse isn't instantly redirected back into whatever task they're doing together.  If I can stay connected and soft, I've found that distraction is usually very momentary - don't allow yourself to be distracted by distraction - keep the focus on the task you're doing and softly redirect the horse.

Something I've been working on a lot lately has been not using an aid, or redirecting a horse that has spooked or become distracted by something, in a way that introduces a brace.  A push, or a pull, with leg, hand or seat, introduces a brace and interrupts connection.  Redirecting energy and regaining the horse's attention and the connection without bracing - staying soft and offering the horse a soft place to be - maintains and builds connection.  The ideal would be to maintain that softness and connection through a spook or distraction - it that case I expect the spook or distraction might become vanishingly short or disappear altogether.  I'm not there yet, and still have to use aids sometimes as a backstop to connection, although I'm finding that the spooks and distractions are less common and also much shorter now.  This is actually very much the same as developing a consistent, soft, allowing feel in hand and body as you're riding in general, so the horse can choose to put itself into the place of softness that you are consistently offering.  When a horse is going into and out of softness, the challenge is to stay soft yourself so the horse can find "home" with you - this builds trust and confidence.  (This is one of the main reasons I don't use gadgets - a horse can't build trust and confidence with a gadget and their operation is purely mechanical even when they're used correctly and not misused as they often are.)

A note on giving the horse choices.  Instead of making or constraining the horse to make the choice you want, if you can guide the horse into making the choice itself - not because there is no other option but because you are connected and it is what you're asking for - is incredibly powerful.  Allowing the horse to move its body and not holding/constraining/boxing in are very important.  I do a lot of leading and "just standing around" work (both on the ground and mounted) with my horses, at least initially.  When I'm standing around with the horse, I let the horse move around - while staying outside my personal space at all times - until the horse chooses to stand still since that's the easiest and softest option.  They figure it out pretty quickly and it then becomes something we enjoy doing together.  Same thing for standing still while mounted - I redirect the energy of wanting to move until the horse decides that standing still is pretty darn pleasant.  Allowing the horse to move, and not blocking or constraining, just guiding and shaping, is also important to me in my ridden work - those who've seen my video from Mark's clinic about "professional neglect" will remember how important letting the horse move is.

You could probably think of lots of other cases of offering a soft spot to the horse that they will want to find and stay it.  One of the most powerful things about this work is that it isn't about doing a particular task - although particular tasks can be very useful to developing it - it's about maintaining mutual softness, connection and feel - all the same thing really.  And work done this way on one thing or task bleeds over into everything else and other things become easier, since the foundation is the same.

I'm still just scratching the surface on this stuff, but it's pretty darn exciting.


  1. Of course I love this post, since I am actively working on this myself. I still get terribly stuck when my 'goal' was to ride down the long side and two strides in she stops and refuses to go. It's hard to ignore the 'behavior' when the behavior is in direct conflict with my 'goal'. much to think about and chew on!

    1. I read Mark's Facebook from time to time, but picked up the quote from your reference - should have referenced you.

    2. See comment I added below.

  2. What would happen if you broke the goal into smaller pieces - say first make a tiny circle (in the "safe" end), with lots of praise, then a slightly longer bit down the side, with a circle back, more praise . . . slightly longer bit, etc. etc.? Find a place where she can succeed and then slowly build on bits where she can succeed again.

  3. I like the way you describe soft as calm and quiet. This is so important. Mufasa isn't a spooky horse but he does have some trust issues. We are always quiet, calm and - I would add confident - around him. He has started following us around the pasture. We are becoming a place of safety for him. This way of being is so basic, so important, and so rarely done.

  4. Hi - I really enjoyed this, do you mind if I put a link on my blog to this article? Best wishes - Alison


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