Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Adding and Subtracting Energy, and Train Cars, Part II

Finally I'm getting to the post on train cars . . . I did a post a while ago on the issues my horses and I are currently facing together.

There are many ways to add energy to the horse/human combo during my work.  Adding energy helps with forward, transitions and lateral work - basically anything when we need to move from here to there - it even applies to downwards transitions, the halt and backing. There are physical cues to increase the energy - leg, primarily, and also secondary cues such as a very light tap with a dressage whip behind my leg.  Physical cues can often be braces, though, and braces interrupt the flow of energy.  Pushing with the seat is a good example of this - this almost always interrupts the flow of energy from the hindquarters and makes it harder for the horse to do what I'm asking - fortunately this is one habit I've broken.  My breathing can add energy - and it can also be a brace if I hold my breath or breathe unevenly.  And it's possible to add energy with thought.

A side note - it's very common for people to say that horses "take advantage" and want to "get away with things".  I believe that this is untrue - when my horse isn't doing what I (think) I'm asking, I ask myself a series of questions.  Is there a physical issue that's preventing the horse from being able to comfortably do what I want (teeth, fit of bit or saddle, pain somewhere in the body)? Does the horse understand exactly what I want, or only partially or not at all?  Is the (undesired) behavior something I've inadvertently taught the horse? - particularly if I've been inconsistent in how I ask.  Am I creating a brace/block that makes it hard for the horse to comply?  Blaming the horse is an easy out - I'm much more interested in fixing me - the horse almost always gets fixed if I can change how I present the work, and myself, to the horse.  I'm also not a believer at all in the statement that "you can't let the horse win" - win what?  Since when is working with a horse a war or a battle or a conflict? - if I were to approach my horses with that attitude it would completely distort my perception of everything they do, and although I might end up with a compliant slave/horse, I certainly wouldn't end up with a willing partner/horse.  End of side note/mini rant . . .

And taking energy away can be very helpful, particularly to help a horse relax.  Finding the balance between adding too much or just enough energy to the equation can be a challenge - such as when looking for true forward plus relaxation.  I struggle with this a lot - this is really what Mark's challenge to me for the past year was about - "less is more" - in my case it's as much or more about mental energy than physical cues.  And I'm particularly struggling right now with adding too much mental energy - I also add too much physical energy sometimes which tends to result in a brace (because that's what I'm offering the horse).

There are two concepts Mark explores in his new book that are relevant here.  First, there's the concept of "static friction", which is where the train cars come in.  When he was a kid, Mark lived near a train yard, and observed that when a switch engine comes in contact with a line of railroad cars, there's often a chain reaction of noise and jerkiness that occurs.  A quote from the book:
There was a principle at work that day that many horse people unwittingly use, often to their disadvantage, on a regular basis when working with their horses: "static friction." Basically, the idea behind static friction is that if we abruptly push or pull on something that is stationary, the thing that is stationary will get stuck, or appear to be heavier than it really is.  However, if enough force and/or mass is applied during the initial contact between the moving object and the stationary one, the stationary object will break free, although usually with some kind of major turmoil.
That's a pretty good description of how Red's and my first walk/trot transitions were going - until very recently: resistance/bracing then breaking free with some odd fussing added in.   And there's a second concept Mark calls out in the quote: abruptness. With horses, this is all about how the contact/cue/addition of energy is applied: suddenly/abruptly/usually too much or softly/smoothly/as little as possible.  This can happen with physical cues and as well with the addition of mental energy. Abruptness in physical cues/dialing down the mental energy often shows up in downwards transitions - I'm working on carrying the energy forward into the downwards transition.

Hope that makes some sense - it's starting to make sense to me and as usual my horses are my best teachers.  I'm working on leading the horse with my thought - getting the thought motion/increase in energy going before asking for the physical action.  Then the horse isn't surprised by what I ask for and we can avoid that "stuckness" that results from the abrupt addition of energy (through a cue/thought).  I also need to work on toning down the application even of thought energy - I'm finding that I can do a lot less than I thought was possible - it's a matter of changing my habits, which takes time.  I also struggle with keeping relaxation after the addition of energy, particularly when we're doing work that requires a higher overall energy level - like canter work.  My horses tend to get somewhat jazzed up just from my internal energy level and it sometimes causes bracing or a shift over from soft into light (overtly compliant but too sharp/reactive and without internal softness).  I need to work on maintaining my internal softness and keeping the energy level as low as is possible - I've learned to keep breathing in a relaxed, rhythmic manner at the canter (most of the time - if I'm out of breath, at all, when riding, it means that I'm not breathing properly and/or that I'm using muscular effort - my goal is pretty much zero muscle use except to maintain my posture) and that helps but I've got a lot more work to do.

Lucky I've got three wonderful teachers . . . and I expect Mark, who is my fourth teacher, will have some things to say . . .


  1. Well said, bang, bang, bang, boom. Dan

  2. I completely get the jazzed up feeling. Adding energy and keeping it calm is tough with sensitive horses.


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