True relaxation in my horse……

So someone posted about their horse not truly relaxing when playing with things like the tarpaulin — or going over jumps. And, if she touches a pole and it moves when stepping over, she finds that challenging.

Here is the original question:

I have a confidence question, my horse is still not confident about tarpaulins, she will stand on the small one, walk over it putting both front feet on it, will back over it and stand on it until asked to move but she is still bracy in her… back and hind legs no matter how much friendly game I do, I always give her as much time as she needs to get on it, once I ask I step back and let her choose to stand on it, until she is really confident with the little one I don’t feel I can progress with the big one. She also has big confidence issues with jumping anything, she would much rather scramble over one foot at a time which of course means that the object will often move under her making the issue worse I don’t want to ‘force’ anything with her but do feel these are issues which need addressing before we can progress to other things and as a LBI we can’t stay where we are as she gets very bored if we do the same things too often. Any suggestions”

I have been thinking about this and it brought to mind several things, which I will share here — now some of them might be directly useful to the poster, some of them might not — but I think they are all things useful to horse people.

First of all, the question reminded me of an old note on “Tolerance and Acceptance” — sometimes our horses will tolerate things because we ask them to, without really accepting these things, toys or activities.

Another thought that occurred to me almost immediately was the comment the poster ended her question with: “a LBI we can’t stay where we are as she gets very bored if we do the same things too often”…

And I wondered if this desire not to bore her horse could be getting in the way of doing things long enough to get that acceptance, that relaxation.

Which raises another question — how can you tell the difference between a horse who is acting out (eg moving feet, not paying attention, chewing the tarp, pawing things) through boredom — and a horse who is doing those same behaviours as displacement as they struggle with acceptance?

Now one line of thought says you do something often enough and long enough and a horse will get used to it. True — so the first question here is HOW long and HOW often have these things been done?

Here’s something to think about — if you stop doing something when your horse is still tense — your horse will BE tense the next time you come to do that activity.

Just as with a human, if you go swimming and are tense and worried in the water, the next time you even think about going in the water, you will tense up and you will start at the same emotional place you finished last time.

This is the principle behind repetition.

One friend of mine told me how she was dealing with her jumping concerns by finishing each riding session gritting her teeth and going once over a jump — rewarding herself with ending the session after that one jump. She then said it wasn’t working and in fact she was getting MORE concerned about jumping, not less. We talked about this issue of where you END one session is what your body remembers for when you START the next one — and it made sense to her. What was needed was for her to do that jump so many times she was relaxed about it. In fact, it was to do it so many times she was bored with it…no adrenalin at all.

Which brings us back to the boredom point. This would be one time when boredom is EXACTLY what we want! To be bored means we are accepting, not even noticing, and wanting to do it to get to something else…I call it constructive boredom…

Now of course, we don’t want our horse (or ourselves) so totally bored about being with us that they don’t want to be near us — but we DO want acceptance to the point of boredom with one or two — or three activities. We can still mix them up with more interesting things to stop the SESSION from being boring…

So how can we help our horse be relaxed about things like tarps, friendly game, jumps that move?

What knowledge, tools and techniques do we have that will help a horse relax?

How do we handle something that bothers our horse?

One fundamental technique we use for many things is “approach and retreat”. How does this apply here? And what are the principles of using this technique?

For example, someone I was working with discovered that her horse was bracing during lateral flexion: when she first lifted the rein to ask for the head to come round, her horse braced against it and only yielded when her head was pulled almost half way round. The second half of the movement was nice and soft — but that first half was tight and bracy. This horse was definitely not accepting this movement. She was in fact tolerating it (mainly because of the great relationship her owner had with her).

When I watched this movement, I could see that her horse was not truly yielding. Yielding the mind is the most important thing a horse can do. When a horse yields her mind, she is putting her trust in you and saying “well, if you are asking, then it must be ok, I accept what you are saying and here is my trust…”. Physical brace is just the symptom of the mental brace — the physical feedback that your horse is not mentally or emotionally yielding to you.

Now the whole topic of yielding — what it is, and what it isn’t – -and what it can be — is deserving of a whole separate article, so that lies ahead. For now, let’s just say that if we notice a physical brace, we can guarantee that a mental brace came first.

With F and her horse — we played approach and retreat on just lifting the reins. I asked F to lift the rein — and when her horse showed the first signs of concern — we lowered the reins again. We did this until she showed no brace response when the reins were lifted. Yes, it was a friendly game with the reins. After all, if you can’t play friendly, then you can’t play anything.

With this horse, in this relationship, this didn’t take long. The horse soon realised that when F picked the reins up there was no need to brace either physically or mentally.

One thing that helped us get to this point was that I was on the ground “reading” the horse — so I could see every eye wrinkle, lip tightening and nostril movement that happened BEFORE any actual resistance to the rein….and that was the level we were working at. We were trying to catch the THOUGHT of bracing and work at the mental level.

Once we had that friendly established, we could start working on actually using the rein to ask something. So then I asked F to lift the rein — and then very, very slowly, slide her hand down it. At the first sign of mental brace, we retreated – not to dropping the rein, but just to where it was lifted (after all, we had already established that as the friendly position so that was our new safe place).

Once we could slide the hand down without any brace, we noticed that the horse would give an ear to her owner when the hand slid down, but not tighten anywhere — so she was asking a question — what IS this game? Now she was ready for us to offer her an answer.

The next stage was to slide the hand down and slowly (count out 5 long slow seconds) close one finger on the rein — and wait. If we have done the previous stages effectively then the horse will not brace, but will be trying to work out what we want. It is likely she will think its just another friendly game and do nothing, so to clarify we are asking for movement, we will just vibrate the rein slightly — micrometres. Up and down — so no increase in pressure or feel. This is all done with less than four ounces of pressure on the rein.

At the slightest movement of the horse’s head or nose towards that pressure — we release. And rub. And rub again.

So here we have used approach and retreat to remove the brace. Now when we lift the rein and slide a hand down, the horse is soft and relaxed. When we close a finger on the rein, the horse tips her nose towards that pressure, finding her own release in that pressure now coming off.

When there is brace in response to the rein, then the rein cannot be used for communication. It is only when the brace is removed that we can use the reins for talking and conversing with our horses.

So lets go back to the original question.

A horse who is bracy in her back end when playing friendly game, is not relaxed on the tarp or going over jumps that move.

Where does that start?

I don’t want to make this note so long no-one makes it to the end — so will take a break here. If I were to summarise the things that came to mind when writing this they are:

– boredom can be constructive

– remember that where we finish one session is where the next one starts — so if we finish with a brace, we will start with a brace

– physical brace is a reflection of the mental brace — and where there is a brace there is no communication only conflict

– a brace is feedback and we can use our skills to remove it so we can communicate clearly again

– taking the time to take a few steps back, remove the brace, and then move forward again is the key to softness

And finally — a horse yields in its mind….how can you help your horse to accept vs. tolerate?

A horse who is not yielding is reflecting a lack of confidence….how can we build our horse’s confidence?

Hope this helps — am happy to write more, but these are my starting thoughts on the original question.

yours in confidence,


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