My work with clients and their horses is ostensibly about teaching the humans how to ride, or the equines new behaviors. But underneath that, before that training can start, I need both horse and rider to be in a calm and confident place. Whether it’s the off-track thoroughbred learning how to move in a ring instead of on the racetrack, or a little Quarter Horse mare who panics out of sight of the barn, there is an emotional component to the work that we do.
My clients usually call me in when there is overt drama – a gelding that balks on the trail, and then spins and bolts for home, or the mare that only has one speed under saddle. But I can’t ask an ex-race horse to do a cadenced trot around the ring if she’s anxious and bracing against her rider. I can’t ask a trail horse to stand quietly facing home if the barn is the only place that she wants to be.
Some horses look perpetually tense, but I can always find a moment of calm to start from. It’s usually fleeting and very, very small. It might be a quiet breath, a head that comes down an inch, a slight turn of the eye to me, or an ear that swivels forward. It’s rare that the owner sees these things. They’ve got too much worry and history wrapped up in the horse, and too much desire for change. But once we switch the focus from the big drama to the small breath, everything improves.
When you can see the calm, you also see the tense. Then, and only then, can you develop feel and timing. When you watch the best trainers, it seems as if there’s no conflict with their animals, and all movement flows. But, in actuality, that trainer is making second-by-second decisions about when to ask and when to wait.
Take the example of what seems like a simple thing that you do with your horse – hand-grazing. Is there a lot of tugging and being pulled around? There doesn’t have to be if you communicate what you want the horse to do (let’s go here, or get your head up, or time to go back to the barn) when the horse is in a mental place that is calm and can tune into you.
Last week, Tonka and I went to a horse show. He was gone all day and hadn’t had any turnout, so I took him for a hand-graze when we got back home. All of the other horses at the barn were in their stalls. That put Tonka on alert. He wasn’t terribly worried, but a horse on his own is always more watchful.
Even when wearing a fly mask, which prevented me from seeing his eyes and facial expressions, I could read his emotions. Take a look.
It’s clear that when he stops eating, that he’s scanning the environment to make sure it’s safe. But there’s so much else going on! Notice how the tempo of his breathing changes before he stops chewing. The flare in his nostrils. See the tension in his neck near his head? How his ears seem more erect?
When it was time to go back to the barn, I carefully chose my moment.
I got it when Tonka swung his head and looked at me to check in with what I was doing. In another second, he would have looked back across the fence, but I slipped in a let’s go. It’s a verbal cue that’s been highly reinforced in the past. It signals that we are now going to walk calmly elsewhere.
So, on a loose lead rope, with a relaxed demeanor, Tonka and I walked back to the barn.
On Friday, I trailered Tonka to a state park to go for a trail ride. There were two other horses at the parking area. Tonka checked them out, then looked at me as if to ask what did I think?
We agreed that they weren’t important. Before riding, I let Tonka tell me where he wanted to graze. Note that although he’s leading, he’s not pulling.
Sometimes I make suggestions. I thought he’d like to see what was at the edge of the field. He thought it tasty, but being so near the tall corn, and not knowing what was beyond, made him nervous.
I could tell that he didn’t feel entirely safe by how he was chewing and stopping, like in the video. Instead of getting used to this place, his muscles told me that he was getting more tense. So I decided to move him back to his comfort zone, the trailer. When a horse is quivering and on alert like this, pulling him away can make him more nervous. So I put my hand on his neck and said his name. For a split second, Tonka relaxed and turned his head towards me. That’s when I asked him to walk away. Start from calm, and that calm builds. Even if the calm is less than a full breath.
This attentiveness to those moments continued when I tacked up. I don’t tighten the girth unless he’s standing still and ready. I wait for this calm, I don’t cue it. I want my horse to recognize his own steady breaths, and have inner motivation to build on them. Horses are designed to spend hours of the day in a relaxed state, slowly moving while grazing companionably with friends. I want to bring that mental state to our domesticated life together.
Those very, very small moments of calm can lead to the big ones like this. Rewarding for both of us.