Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Offering Softness in a Brace to Red, Dawn Excels and Pie and I Take a Step Back

First, on Dawn.  Despite the extreme cold - this morning it was barely 10F in the indoor, and Dawn had been in almost all the day before, she was exceptional - soft, willing and relaxed.  She had her "rump rug" and I had my balaclava, so we were comfortable. I turned her out after my ride and she seems to have survived the below zero wind chills well, eating plenty of hay to keep warm.

Second, on Pie.  He and I have been making good progress on our canter work and his breathing.  Today he got a bit too revved up about the canter and having to keep cantering, and it caused him to lose his relaxation - his early trot work was very good but after the canter work he struggled a bit to relax - we got there eventually.  We need to slow things down a bit and I need to offer him more softness and relaxation from the beginning, with more trot work and a lot less cantering for now.  Pie is much less demonstrative than Dawn or Red, and I have to remember that he has feelings too, even though they're not as easy to see sometimes - or they would be if I paid more attention.  I need to remember to offer him as much softness as I'm working to offer Red - Pie needs it just as much even though he doesn't say so as clearly as Red does.

Third, on Red. Many people would interpret Red's bracing up and to the right on transitions as disobedience, or avoiding the aids, or him "acting up" or "getting away with something" - all interpretations of his behavior that might lead his rider to up the ante - bigger aids, "making" him do the transition, using a martingale or tie-down so he couldn't "avoid" keeping his head down, or punishing him.

But think about it - do you really think a horse that is doing this sort of thing is happy about it?  Do you really think the horse wants to brace (or in other cases, that the horse wants to spook, or pull on your hands, or be anxious).  No, that's an unhappy horse who is only doing what he does because he feels he needs to do it to protect himself.

What Red was doing was defensively bracing against an anticipated hit to his mouth that could come when he was asked to go faster.  I have no idea really why he was worried about this but it doesn't really matter.  What matters is that his behavior was learned, and that it could be unlearned - provided what I did simply didn't reinforce what he was worried about.  And bracing against his brace - by pulling on the left rein and using a strong left leg to try to keep him straight - simply confirmed to him that he was right to be worried - there was in fact strong pressure on his mouth - I was simply bracing against him.

What I needed to do was offer softness to his brace, so he could find his way to a more comfortable place.  There was a story in Mark Rashid's new book that really resonated with me, although on the surface it doesn't seem to have much to do with Red's situation.  The story involved a mare, and trailer loading. Mark was loading the mare, whom he had never handled before and knew nothing about, when she suddenly and violently pulled back and flew backwards out of the trailer.  It turns out that the mare had a history of this sort of behavior and was considered very difficult to load. In contrast to what most of us would have done - trying to hold on for dear life - he let her go backwards but put very slight pressure on the rope as she went backwards.  She backed out twice more, with Mark going with her and putting slight pressure on the lead, and each time she put less and less energy into the backwards movement.  The next time she loaded right up with no problem at all.

This approach - not getting into a fight with the horse or offering a brace to their brace - was what I needed to be trying with Red.  Instead of trying to block his movement to the right, I needed to go with him, while softly maintaining contact and indicating to him by this that I wanted him to straighten up and go forward into the transition.  This is a good illustration of the principle I try to follow of focussing only on the thing I do want - a straight and soft transition from walk to trot - and ignoring everything else he was doing.  If he felt he had to do that "to the right" thing, well and good, but I was going to continue to softly ask for what I wanted without attempting to block him.  I wanted to offer him a better place to be, and a better way to feel.

I also added as much softness as I could to other aspects of our ride - our grooming, tacking, mounting and how I took up the first contact with the reins and how I applied my aids, keeping things slow and soft, not fast and abrupt.  I also tried to remember, and implement, that softness isn't just about what you do with your hands and arms, it's about your whole body, and in fact is about what's inside of you and offering this to the horse. These are things I'm trying to build into everything I do, not just my work with horses, so it was a good reminder.  I also made sure to generously praise each thing he accomplished, however small.  We also did some in-hand softening work and then a generous walk warm up with lots of turns to the left with a soft opening rein.

Our "dialogue" might have sounded like this:

We're doing our "big" walk . . .

Me: "I'm thinking about trotting . . ."
Red: " . . . thinking about trotting . . ."
Me: "Do you think you could trot now?"
Red: "Must . . . brace . . . hard . . . to . . . right . . ."
Me: OK, go right if you need to but I'm still asking for straight and trot with this little bit of rein pressure."
Red: "I'm turning to the right?  But you're not pulling on me? How can I brace to the right if there's nothing to brace against? What??"
Me: "I'm just asking you to straighten and trot with this soft, following left rein pressure and a little rubbing of the right rein on your neck. Isn't it a lot of work to turn in circles when you could just trot off straight, since there's nothing to pull against?"
Red: "Bending left to straighten, lowering head and trotting off straight . . ."

So, over the past three rides, we've been working on this together.  In our first session, we had to do lots of walk work first to get him to turn left on a soft opening rein - interestingly enough, the bracing behavior even showed up at the walk, probably because I was noticing more. By the end of our first session, he'd already given up some behaviors he'd used in the past - he didn't any longer balk or stop going forward (even though forward sometime meant turning to the right), or spring into canter instead through the "blockage" - mainly because I no longer was counter-bracing against him or upping the ante with aids.

We got a bunch of nice transitions in our first session.  In the second session, the issues at the walk were pretty much gone, and good transitions were up to 50% of the total, including some on the straight sides of the arena, which I'd been avoiding previously since sometimes his throwing his body to the right had the effect of slamming my leg into the wall when tracking right.  Sometimes he still circled or took up the trot with his head and neck bent to the right, but he was experimenting with what I was asking - this meant he was already much less worried.  (Empowering our horses to experiment until they figure out how to do what we're asking can be very effective in reducing anxiety and tension.) Sometimes all I and to do was gently redirect his head and neck to the left just as he was thinking about bracing to the right, and that was all that was needed.

Our third session today went as I had hoped it would, despite some excitement in the ring - snow sliding off the roof (Red jumped but then calmed right down) and horses jumping all over the place (and humans overreacting to this and forcing horses where they didn't want to go - no softness there and trust me, Red noticed and didn't approve).  There was almost no bracing on upwards transitions - just a hint a few times but he stayed straight and went willingly right into trot, and 90% of the time he was straight when he did it.  What a very fine horse . . . I told him so, too.

Over the past week or so, Red's demeanor has also changed.  Although he's now off his chaste tree berry, despite the very cold weather, he's noticeably more calm and relaxed, in the stall, on cross ties and when we ride, even if circumstances are challenging or distracting in the arena due to the number of horses and people.

We've got more work to do to improve the consistency of our transitions, particularly since the behavior was very embedded (and reinforced by some things I'd been doing) but I think the hardest part is already done - and as usual the hardest part was about changing how I was dealing with the horse, to make it easier for the horse to find the solution.

Tomorrow, it's going to be even colder and windier - hard to believe that's possible but it is - and we're all taking a day off.


  1. Good stuff. Thanks for takin the time to share all of this. Dan

  2. Good work, as usual. When a horse has nothing to brace against, he can't brace. Makes perfect sense and certainly seems to be working with Red.

    It is very interesting to read of how your three horses have different learning patterns. While all three respond to your "soft" riding, they are certainly distinct training challenges. What a great opportunity for you to develop some diverse and effective skills.

  3. It was a good day for Red when you bought him! For you too- I think your journey with him has helped you as much as it has helped him. Thanks for sharing this journey- it is helping me too!

    1. Shirley - I'm definitely a winner with having the opportunity to learn from Red. Pie is a harder nut to crack in some ways, since he has a hard shell!

  4. I love riding Cody (QH who I often think of as you describe Red and Pie - they have some things in common!) because he will absolutely brace upward if ridden too strongly. He is very sensitive and responds to the lightest aids, so when something is too strong or loud it's almost like the brace is akin to a person clapping hands over ears to block out the sound. He is perfect for showing me how to be soft myself.

  5. Hah! Here in Finland it is cold 77F ~ 25C. Riding is almost impossible because it is too cold. ... I wish here only to 10F. Horses build up power so much because we can only walk!

  6. You know what? I find that when I'm reading your posts, like this one, I have a tendency to relax, my breathing slows and deepens, and sometimes I even sigh...what a beautiful reaction. That must be how Red is feeling too. How I wish every single person that handles, rides, or just interacts with and around horses, could learn to be this way. And most of all, I wish people would stop blaming their horses for absolutely everything that goes wrong. I think, usually it's the other way around - they ought to be looking at how, or what they could be changing in themselves to help their horse out. If only...
    "Empowering our horses to experiment until they figure out how to do what we're asking can be very effective at reducing anxiety and tension." I love this statement!!!! After all, when we're learning something, our teacher doesn't usually whack us or kick our sides because we didn't get it just right...on the contrary, we're usually allowed to make mistakes along the way, until we figure it out. Empowering indeed!! Love this post Kate - thank you!!

  7. Red seems to be benefiting from your philosophies on softness. I agree that if you give a horse nothing to brace against it's impossible for them to do it. I love to see a horse figure things out for themselves and all of yours seem to be particularly good at it because you give them the chance to reason it out.


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