Living in-relation with horses: support 2

In this post, I’ll just give one example of the connected form of support that I outlined in the previous post. The situation that I’ll describe will be immediately recognisable to horse people. The ways of addressing it vary enormously.

My horse Pia is very sensitive and can easily frighten. So, we pay particular attention to ensuring that she feels safe with us. When we offer support, it’s crucial that it be something that she will look for and appreciate, rather than something to brace against. The more I work with Corey, the more trusting and happy Pia becomes – it is a joy to see the transformation.

On the day of this experience, she was in fact quite relaxed from the outset. Corey was riding her in one of the paddocks where she lives – a large paddock with hills, rocks, trees and a dam, in other words, a space that offers interest and learning opportunities for horse and human. They were in a nice relaxed walk when, suddenly, a kangaroo appeared from behind a rock and Pia startled. The kangaroo stopped and had a look and then hung around in the bushes nearby.

For horse people in Australia, the sudden appearance of a kangaroo is something of a cliché for a scary situation. Of course, it can be anything and you never know what it will be that a horse finds scary. (This is what makes ‘desensitization’ strategies problematic, but I’ll leave that issue aside for now.)

I’ll say a little now about the way that the appearance of the kangaroo might be addressed by different horsemanship approaches. In doing so, I want to emphasise that this comes from my experience of different traditions - I am wary about making generalisations and others will have different experiences. I spent some years having lessons with people in the eventing and dressage worlds, people who practised what I’ve referred to as conventional horsemanship. I subsequently moved into the world of ‘natural horsemanship’ and have had experience of a variety of trainers and approaches within this field. In what follows, I imagine what my teachers from these different traditions would have advised me to do in this situation.

Starting with conventional horsemanship, I imagine that my teachers in the eventing/dressage worlds would have instructed me to make the horse face the kangaroo rather than turn and flee. This process could be quite forceful, with the horse being held tightly with hands and short reins, and being pushed towards the kangaroo with legs, heels, possibly spurs and whip. The tension in horse and rider would be obvious.

This type of instruction wants submission and obedience from the horse. Of course it all depends on how the horse responds to the situation – it is possible that it could become curious about the kangaroo but, given the rider’s more-or-less forceful activity, it is highly likely that the tension would remain and the horse would simply become resigned. Without being given the opportunity to relax and become curious, it is likely to brace against the pressure being applied.

Within what I have called conventional natural horsemanship there are various techniques that might be advised in this situation, all of which have the aim of bringing the horse’s energy down. From my experience, the rider is likely to be instructed to get busy with disengaging the hindquarters to prevent the horse from fleeing. This will involve the use of an indirect rein, possibly quite forceful, bringing the horse’s head and neck right around, and, possibly, the use of a stick on the horse’s hip to ‘assist’ with a disengagement. With neck and head bent around, the horse will no longer be looking at the kangaroo, and, in anxiety, could well be spinning around. With a successful disengagement of the hindquarters, the horse might not be running but it is most likely to continue holding tension.

In this type of natural horsemanship, it is likely that a teacher would advise some form of ‘approach and retreat’. Now, this can be a helpful tool, if it is done in a way that calmly builds the horse’s confidence and curiosity. However, if it is used as part of the disengagement activity described above, the scenario is more likely to involve something like this: disengaging, turning away from the kangaroo, then turning back and approaching again, with the aim of getting closer and closer. The horse could well be pushed in the ‘approach’ part with a forceful use of hands and legs, and then, when the tension rises, disengaged again before another retreat. The retreat itself might require a further disengagement as turning the horse away from the scary thing is likely to increase its worry and impulse to flee.

One way or another, a rider taking this approach would be requiring obedience from the horse and making it do something. They are managing fear by closing the horse down. Rather than being allowed to become interested in and curious about the kangaroo the horse is closed off from the world around it, including the rider. You can see this in the way horses go inside themselves as a way of coping with stressful situations. And, without a connection, the rider is unable to give any support.

Of course, different horses will respond differently to this situation and these methods. Some horses would manage. Nevertheless, in the approaches described above, the stressfulness of the situation could well be exacerbated, if not produced, by the rider’s reaction. Rather than providing a safe, reassuring space, the rider is intent on getting control of the situation, and, in the process, transmits their own state of tension.

And now to what happened with Pia on the day of the kangaroo. As I said, Pia and Corey were in a nice relaxed walk on a loose rein. There is a lot to be said about the use of reins in this horsemanship approach but, at this point, I’ll just say that, above all else, they are used for connection, as a line of communication in offering support and direction. They are always used with softness and subtlety. (Holding reins in a hard way or with constant pressure will break a connection.) The more secure a horse feels, and the better the capacity to ride with feel and focus, the less reins will be used.

When Pia startled at the appearance of the kangaroo, Corey softly and smoothly picked up a feel on one rein. With the other hand he gently stroked her. Together they looked at the kangaroo, with Corey helping her look straight at it through his focus, his whole being. Had she had a strong idea of turning away and running, he might have used a rein to help keep her looking towards the kangaroo, whilst also calmly reassuring her. In this instance, as soon as she was looking at the kangaroo again, he would have released the rein. On the day in question, he waited for a change in her being, for a relaxation. There was no urging, pushing forward. In a short while, Pia became curious and walked towards the kangaroo: fear had been transformed into curiosity.

Once Pia was fine about the kangaroo, Corey smoothly took up a directing rein to head off in a different direction, without any rush and without any avoidance of the kangaroo.

When Corey picked up that feel and stroked Pia, he was saying ‘I’m here; you can trust me, come back to our connection’. In picking up a feel with good timing, he is able to bring her back to a trustworthy connection before she goes down a fearful path. Needless to say, the capacity to remain calm himself is absolutely crucial to this process. In fact, it is the most important aspect of this experience. Amongst other things, calmness involves a softness of being. So, when Corey looks at the kangaroo, helping Pia look at it, he does so in a soft way as this will help her change, help her soften and relax. If a horse is looking hard at something, it is a good indication that it is worrying them. If we also look hard, this will exacerbate the state of worry. So, a soft way of looking is essential to a capacity to offer support.

What Corey has done here is not a matter of technique or following any rule book. He is not doing anything to Pia or trying to make her do anything. All he is doing is giving support by finding a way to bring her back to the connection. In this instance he just picked up a feel on the rein, but there are any number of things that we could do to bring our horse back to the connection, depending on the circumstances. The key to all of this, is our way of being. Horses need to be able to rely on a grounded calmness, a reassurance that they are safe with us. When the change comes, the feeling of letting down and softening with relaxation is unmistakable. Then, we just need to get out of the way.

When it came to my turn to ride Pia, I said to Corey ‘I mustn’t think about the kangaroo’, which was still hanging about. We looked at each other and laughed: I had just given myself away – I was indeed thinking about the kangaroo. You never know what a horse will find frightening but anticipating something is likely to bring it on. Horses are so sensitive that they will pick up that there is something to worry about. Having an awareness of one’s environment is very important, but as soon as we fixate on something with a hint of worry, they’ll know. And, in the anticipation, we are no longer present to what is at hand – we are lost in our self-concern. So, I need to get out of myself so that I can be there for my horse!

Having acknowledged the worry, I let go of the kangaroo, and Pia was happy and relaxed in our work together.

In this post I have been alluding to questions of time, with references to for example, ‘getting busy’, ‘rush’, ‘anticipation’, ‘good timing’, ‘being present’. In the following post, I’ll describe what I imagine was Corey’s experience of time in this scenario, and talk about the importance of being present to being in-relation with horses.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey and Suzi.

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