Finding the Inner Donkey: how to know your horse is safe to ride
Now one thing you all know is that my emphasis is very much on confidence. And what gives ME confidence is knowing I am as safe as I can possibly be.
So when I see my horse leaping around playfully and energetically on the end of the lead rope, having a total blast and full of the joys of the summer finally arriving – well, it’s only honest to say that I do not always feel 100% happy about riding THAT horse!
Of course, eventually I have visions of riding an energetic, enthusiastic horse – channelling that energy into wonderful jumps and elevated dressage moves – but first, I want to know I am SAFE.
In fact, if we look at the mantra of classical dressage – the order of things for the horse is CALM, Forwards, Straight.
CALM has to come first….
Calm means relaxation. It means the horse is relaxed physically, emotionally and mentally. Without this, then they are not able to do what we are asking and, even worse, as outlined in the earlier blog article about Armouring, then are not able to even HEAR us asking – and to me, that is NOT safe.
When a horse is calm, they are able to hear the slightest whisper, they are able to think through what we are asking – and they are much more able to offer a positive response to our questions.
However, many people I meet, don’t seem to WANT their horses to be calm: they talk about how their horses need energy, enthusiasm – and forwards.
All of that is true – but the forwards I see in their horses is tense, tight – stiff – and not the forwards I want in my horses.
Ok, so a calm horse might look a bit like a donkey – eyes half closed, ears at half mast – nodding off – a calm horse might be more inclined to whoa than go – but you know what? I will fix that LATER
FIRST I want the calm – THEN I will work on the forwards – and the forwards I get will be a relaxed, positive, supple movement that can be channelled into whatever I want to do.
Ok, so having established that I am looking for that “Inner donkey” before I ride – how on earth do I get that?
There are many ways – and most of them work!
One phrase is “warm up strong to ride soft”: in this school of thought you play online with energy and enthusiasm, asking your horse to go faster and further than you intend to ride – taking your horse through his energetic bounciness to the calm on the other side.
Taking an extrovert horse and playing enthusiastically with them over obstacles and at speed can mean that when you stop, your horse is feeling good after the play and is now ready to pay attention to you.
Another phrase is “prepare the horse you want to ride”: in this school of thought, you only do what you plan to do when you ride: if you want a slow, steady ride, then you don’t play hard and fast energetic games – you play slow, thoughtful games which result in a horse that is ready to pay attention to you.
And there is everything in between.
However, they ALL have one thing in common: they all aim to have your horse READY TO PAY ATTENTION TO YOU.
They all aim for the MENTAL CONNECTION between horse and human before getting on.
Some of you may remember the post about non confrontational leadership where I talked of how the advice was to play hard and fast with an extrovert horse so get him ready to listen – and how that didn’t work – instead I had a horse who seemed to be escalating into arguments in order to defend his dignity.
So instead of playing hard and fast, I simply asked him to stand. Still. And look at me.
When he moved his head to look at something, I gently tipped it back to me with a hand on the rope – saying “that’s none of your business, look at me”.
At first I had to do this a lot – but after about fifteen minutes, he relaxed. And let ME worry about everything else going on around us.
Whenever he took a step forwards, or moved off the place I had chosen for him – I gently asked him just to step back to where he had been. As gently as possible – but insisting until he moved his foot back to where it had been to start with.
Again, he eventually decided that it was ok to let me control his feet – and sighed, licked and chewed – and relaxed.
Now he was relaxed with me about standing still – I could ask him to do the same when moving.
To do this I started by asking him to step his hind end around away from me, with one leg stepping under his body, crossing in front of the other hind leg – and end up facing me, but not walking forwards at all.
This exercise (called the disengage in western horsemanship) is a test of how relaxed a horse is: a horse has to think to be able to do this move, and so cannot do it properly when tense or worried.
It’s also a move that TRIGGERS calmness – because the horse has to think to do the move, they focus their brain on the move which means, by the end of the move, they are in a different, more calm and thoughtful mental state than they were at the start.
They are CALMER
One thing to remember is that horses are motivated by safety, comfort – and then play. So if we become the person where they repeatedly and consistently feel calm and safe – how much will they look forward to us arriving? To us haltering them? If they see us and think “oh wow, here is that human who always makes me feel SO safe and good about myself….” how good will our relationship be?
Once I have this move going softly, with the horse looking to me for what to do next and asking – how far would you like me to step under? – then I will ask him to disengage one way – stop, and then bring his front end around without moving his back end. This is called “bringing the front end through” – and to do this, a horse has to sort his hind feet out, shift his weight back onto his hind end, and then bring his front end around without coming forwards into my bubble.
You can see how this is a great test of how good my bubble is, and how closely my horse is listening to me…
Doing this exercise slowly, softly – gently – creates a slow, soft, gentle horse who is mentally connected with me….
Now I am not saying this is the only way to do things – -and with some horses who have a strong need to move their feet I might head off round the field playing a travelling circling game for a while before doing these other exercises – however, I won’t even think of riding a horse if I can’t do these exercises with them.
Now I know I haven’t given you a “todo” list of how to make your horse rideable – I hope I HAVE given you the key: the only safe horse to ride is one who is mentally connected with you on the ground and in the saddle…..
And in response to some questions I have been asked, here is a list of some of the things I call my “must haves” before I will ride a horse:
Can I touch my horse all over with positive responses – why would I ride a horse that I can’t touch?
Can I give my horse a massage or body balance all over with positive responses – again, if my horse won’t “allow” me to massage or balance a part of her body, why would I want to ride her? How safe is that?
Is my horse looking to ME for answers to her questions – if she is looking inside herself, or to other horses/people – why would I get on her? When *I* am the source of her answers, then I know if she has any problems, concerns or questions, the FIRST thing she will do is turn to ME for an answer – she won’t bolt, spook, run, buck – she will ASK ME what to do…..
This last one is why I do so much groundwork before riding – I use the groundwork to develop this “Ask me and it will be alright” mindset…. and this is the horse I want to ride.
I had a horse I did all this with – she previously had a history of bucking people off and running home, so I did a lot of natural horsemanship with her. One day, after we had been together about a year, I played on the ground and all was going well. I got on her – and she tensed and very clearly asked me to “get off!” – she held herself tense and quivering while I dismounted – then she ran off, pulling the rein out of my hand and went across the field bucking and rearing and totally nuts.
When she finally came to a stop, we went over to her – to find that the saddle had broken and was causing her pain when I mounted her…..
Now THAT is a horse that is safe to ride…..
I want to ride a horse that is calm, relaxed – connected to its inner donkey; and who believes that I have the answers to any concerns or questions….
I could write a lot more about specific exercises I use with different horses to get to this inner donkey state – but perhaps it would be better to stop writing for now and put those in responses to any comments or questions you might have about YOUR specific situations?
So what do YOU do to help your horse find their inner donkey – and have yourself a SAFE ride?
Yours in confidence