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  1. Sherlock Rocks 

    I see a lot in books about horses and the “fight or flight” instinct. Horses being prey animals they prefer flight. Supposedly us being predators we prefer to stand and fight. Hmmmm, I have been looking around and what I see more and more is “fight, flight or FREEZE”.

    When a horse is tense it needs to move, and that can mean MOVE. If a rider is tense too then the rider wishes the horse to be calm and obedient, and as a true predator type being will try to control the situation by controlling the head of the horse and pinning it down. This, when ridden, usually means that the rider grabs hold of the reins and pulls!

    Here we have two opposing types of character, each with<BLOG_BREAK> needs, the horse/prey needing to move to feel safe, and the human/predator needing to feel safe by controlling and pinning the energy down. They are not a match. It is a vicious circle, the more excited the horse, the more the rider holds tight, and in response the horse cannot move or "flee" so has to fight the contact  to move. This scares the rider and they hold ever tighter.

    The rider is not able to flee the situation (have you ever tried to safely dismount an excitable horse, or do you ever feel like you mustn't "give in"?) the fight has not made them feel a whole lot safer, they are like a victim, barely containing the situation. They seem to go into the next stage, that of freezing, just keeping the rein pressure on, bracing against the movement, hoping it gets better (or the horse gets tired!).

    This scenario may seem familiar, so what is the answer?

    Some people see it as a two dimensional puzzle, the horse does not be slow enough so I pull harder. Now, this may be necessary in the shorter term to bring the horse to a stop, for instance, if it is running out of control, but in the tense horse scenario pulling harder on the reins does not tend to make the horse less tense! “Well, he should learn” is some people’s response, and often this is followed by a change to a more severe bit. The new bit may well control the situation for a while, but the underlying tension and misunderstanding on the rider’s behalf has not been solved. Soon the horse will break through that bit and need a martingale or ever more severe bit. The horse will not be able to move well as he is tense in his back, he will go crooked and if jumping will tend to run AT his fences to clear them with speed as he cannot use his body to clear them with contained power alone. Besides, in dressage you have to wear a snaffle and no martingale, and with the riders who have taken this route that presents a problem!

    Lets rewind to the tense horse who needs to move, maybe a young horse who is on an outing for the first time. The horse needs to move, and the rider directs it. That is directs the MOVEMENT, not just clamps down on the mouth. Initially just at walk, the rider stays thinking and soft, and directs the horse with purpose, giving the horse somewhere to go. With horses the person in charge is the person who directs movement, so we are already working with the horse’s instincts.

    We need to find a way for there to be a release from our pressure. There will be some release, if we look for it, in the turns. We ask for some bend, and when it is given we can release the inside rein. At first with an excitable horse, this may be just a bit, but it is there, and we can build upon it. So, we bend and turn, every time the horse bends some, we release. The bending may initially need to be quite direct to give enough response to be able to give the release, but when the releases start to come, the horse will start to pay attention to the rider. Something important is happening here.

    Now is the time to start to ask the horse for other small tasks, puzzles that have an answer, like a small increase or decrease in length of stride. We ask, the horse makes a response, we can find a release. The horse pays more attention.

    Soon we can move forward to the trot. Often the extra energy causes the tension to return. I think that the order it happens in is that as the horse is still a little tense it gives a bit more trot than expected, and the rider reverts to pulling and the unhelpful pattern sets off again. So, if there is an emergency then pull as hard as you have to, to stay safe, but otherwise find a way in, the key to provide a release. Usually this is through the bending so you can release the inside rein.

    Most tense horses are short in their necks, high in their head carriage, hollow in their backs. But even if the rider were to release the reins entirely the horse will stay with the tense high head carriage. We can  use the bend to help the horse stretch the head and neck forwards. Think about the mechanics, if we achieve an inside bend then the outside of the horse has become longer. If we then provide a release to the inside rein we can hold the outside softly and allow the horse to maintain the longer rein length and stay in a longer frame.

    Best of all the horse realises he can move, and we are not fighting, and he relaxes, and in return we get the slower and more controlled work that we were desperate for in the first place.

    Now that’s schooling!

    It can be great to see a horse and rider who start a lesson with tension and anxiety, who are not thinking with each other, make a turnaround and by the end of the lesson things are more on an even keel. But it demands a three dimensional thinking, we are the ones who do the reasoning, the horse is a more reactive being.

    You can see this in action at the more professional shows. I went to Sykehouse Arena quite recently to watch a show, they were jumping up to 1.30m. There were beautiful horses, and my favourite rider of the day was a very well known rider. His horse was a beautiful young stallion, I saw the horse being walked in hand in the lorry park, and it was ALIVE and interested in all that was going on, his handler kept him moving and directed. When ridden I loved the way the rider sat so relaxed and poised. The horse jumped beautifully. I studied the rider, he sat so quiet, independent of the horse in a lot of ways, but very with too, he did not say much to his horses, but when he had something to say they really listened, but if they did not get it straight away he did not give up, he asked until they got it, even though the round was tight and there was not much space, he asked right down to the line, as if there was no crisis of time or space at all. He was relaxed all the way to the fence, I could see how the horse would trust his leadership.

    I watched as he cantered past at only 3 ft away, and I saw that he was so relaxed that his face went relaxed too, the skin on his face was like when you see a slow motion video of a bloodhound or similar (ever see “Turner and Hooch”?), right through the round he was moving every joint in a fluid way, in time and with the horse. It was beautiful to watch. I saw enough of the horse to know that if a tense and anxious rider climbed aboard it would be, as my American friends say, a “wreck”, but with an understanding and horse-wise rider it was beautiful to see that the horse was allowed and encouraged to move with extravagance and power, the power received and directed.

    So, that is the top end of the scale, how can we build a bridge or path from where we are now to where he is?

    When I first started to compete Sherlock he had been out in a field for 3 years. We had the directing the energy thing pretty well when schooling at home, but when we first went to competition it was different. Sherlock was very excited, and I found that I was “surviving” the situation, tension abounded.

    I took up a mantra if you like, whilst on this quivering tense beast, Sherlock needed to move but be directed. So, I would say to him (in my head so people would not think I was TOO scatty) “You need to work Sherlock, good, the work is over THERE”. And as I said it I would show him a gap in the collecting ring where we could move into. When we got THERE I would direct my gaze to a new place and say again “you need to work Sherlock, good, the work is over THERE”. Bit by bit I would start to ride “forward” and “to” somewhere instead of just hanging on and surviving. Then I could look for other tasks such as bending and lengthening/shortening, where we could find a release, and balance. It would not take too long before we could start to produce the same quality of work as if we were at home.

    Tense excited horses in a busy collecting ring, nightmare! I was recently asked for advice on this by someone preparing their horse for its first Dressage outing. I usually advise that we start by taking the horse to different schooling venues. By doing this we let the horse know that wherever we are the rider will direct both and keep them safe. The horse and rider can also practice travelling and having a routine in a new place. The next thing is to start schooling with another horse in the arena, or two, but friendly horses and riders so we can practice passing left to left, and having horses overtake.

    On the day of the competition I advise lungeing first, at home if necessary, not to tire the horse out, but just to take the excess energy, and also to put the rider in the driving seat. Also arriving early and getting the horse out while it is still quiet. I always wait until I have the horse’s attention on the ground before I mount up, making sure he is in a receptive frame of mind. This is where our ground work is indispensible. Then, when first in the collecting ring I use the right rein initially as then when you pass left to left you are then not pinned against the wall. Also I pick my time to go into the collecting ring. In fact for Sherlock’s first outing I requested to be the first competitor in the day, and initially we warmed up with me as the only one there, when we were working well another arrived, and there were only 3 people warming up when it was time for my test, but the atmosphere was there with lorries arriving etc. I guess I was practicing not biting off more than I can chew!

    We have practiced asking for what is achievable, until now we are relaxed with each other in competition, I now call Sherlock “Mr Plug and Play”, he can be offloaded from the lorry, mounted and would be ready for his test mentally, with no preparation at all. Long term there are big benefits to not biting off more than you can chew. I enjoy introducing new things to Sherlock, little puzzles that we can work on. This month we have worked with balloons and an umberella.
    Sherlock stays dry

    Just this evening I was working with a “see saw” or “rocking ramp”. Sherlock has not seen one of those before, and to walk along a moving wooden board is alien to horses. In order that Sherlock did not feel the need to defend himself we broke the situation down into manageable pieces. First the board was flat on the floor and we just crossed it sideways, walking in hand. Sherlock saw that he could actually step right over without touching it, so next time I marched on it myself to show him it was safe, and kept it slow so he would step on and off. Then we did it lengthways, still flat to the floor, and first time he skirted round. This made me laugh, I did the board and he did not, but he had followed all the rules, he had kept to my elbow, not pulled or pushed on me, so next time I just explained it better! We then moved to raising one end, and finally to the whole see saw thing, with me first showing him that it moved, and keeping it very slow.

    Once this was achieved we repeated the whole thing whilst mounted, and after 20 minutes of work from start to finish we had the final article, Sherlock being ridden over the rocking ramp, slow and thoughtful, with a soft eye, no panic.

    As we had broken the whole thing down so much, neither of us had gone into defence mode, no fighting or flight, no freeze or fear. Back to not biting off more than we can chew. But the amount we can bite off in a new situation has got bigger as he trusts me not to fight or freeze, and I trust him to stay level and with me.

    If I had ordered Sherlock straight over the rocking ramp, and had to use whip and spur I may well have got Sherlock over the ramp quicker, but he would not have been careful and slow with his feet, as he would have been tense. Also, if we had forced it then the next time he saw one his tension would be up, and he may have needed even more pressure for the same result. If we gave him even more pressure we may still have got him over the ramp, but as time goes on he would become less comfortable with the whole experience of facing a fearful situation.

    The added tension would show in resistance, refusing to go followed by explosive movements. Even if the horse did not hurt himself through the quick movements then, if the resistance was brought about through genuine fear, the situation would go from bad to worse. It is an old problem people face, is the horse genuinely frightened or just being less than wholehearted in its efforts?

    I am fantastically lucky with Sherlock, as we have such a good one on one relationship I know that he always gives of his best. If it is a horse that I do not know then it can be harder to tell.  What I do know though is that if you punish a horse who is frightened then it does not generally make it less frightened, or if you punish a horse for being too tense then that does not make it less tense. So, I break the problem down to find the root, and work on it from there.

    If the horse is not giving of its best then this can be seen, often with a request as simple as to be asked to walk on. The horse who is bursting his heart to try will swing into action. Even the most genuine horse can become unresponsive if that it what the rider has permitted over time. See my blogs from earlier this year, I had allowed Sherlock to think that he need not be too responsive to me, and we have been working on that. If the horse does not listen and respond to the rider then the problem can be corrected at this level, where there is less risk of injury or creating a “phobic” problem for the future. Once the horse is responsive and receptive, then the "problem" can be introduced, one mouthful at a time!
     
    This approch works for many situations, for instance with loading into a trailer, rather than simply punish a horse for not loading (where you may force it in, with tension, explosive movements and risk of injury, plus more tension next time from anticipated reprisals) it is good to follow the problem to the route, to go back to basic ground work away from the trailer to establish the rules. To do this of course requires “stepping out of the box” and being the thinker of the partnership, and losing the ego involved with “making” the horse load (or "making it jump the fence" or "making it go over the see saw"). Instead you sort out the misunderstanding at the lowest level, and bring it to the "problem". I guess that is “unfreezing” your mind, and risking being called soft! That is funny, as, far from being soft, it is demanding attention and complience all the way through, and it is more demanding on the horse, but also more demanding on the rider. It is hard to be aware ALL of the time, rather than just when things have gone wrong. Hard, but long term easier too, a paradox!

     

    I have been putting into practice all the lessons I have learned from America in my last few blogs, and thinking round this, and by heck, our jumping is getting better!

     

    Yesterday we went jumping, and did the discovery class, and there is a video on Youtube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EKviLurjhg

     

    I know the course is not big, and our round is not perfect, but we are both working together and having fun, and to me that is what matters. We have been working on being more active, all of the time, straight, all of the time, and then we were not suddenly having an emergency at the fence. Also on riding the WHOLE course, and not sitting around congratulating myself after every fence. It is another case of being more aware all of the time, harder but long term more easy!
     
    This morning we went cantering in the stubble, and that was fun too (even though the stubble is a reminder that autumn is on the way). Then this evening playing in the school with the ramp. Sherlock is just such good company!

 


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