When our horses have had a long layoff we like to restart with building their fitness back up so that they can comfortably enjoy engaging with us more energetically again.
We are not just considering their physical fitness and balance, but also their mental and emotional fitness as well - One isn’t much use without the other.
Basically we want to help our horses to be both physically and mentally comfortable with the increased effort that we will be inspiring them to share with us.
Connection and leadership
Along the way, we also want our horses to continue choosing to follow us as a leader that they have faith and trust in.
We don’t want to lose our horse’s partnership as they start feeling good developing their fitness and confidence.
As always, we are talking about leadership, and not about being a self-appointed boss who demands compliance by making things uncomfortable until the horse does what we want.
A leader is someone who inspires others to enthusiastically commit their hearts, minds and spirits to a shared goal.
Our desire is for our horses to choose to follow us as a leader of their choice, not by us enforcing our power for bringing discomfort.
They should be free to choose us because they want to and not because we are the lesser of two evils.
Fitness before riding
We like to build our horse’s fitness up before we ask them to take on the additional pressure of carrying a rider and having to concentrate on the rider’s requests.
An effective and enjoyable way to achieve this is a program combination of liberty and in-hand gymnastic activities.
We find this effective in building foundational fitness - physical, mental, and emotional – while also continuing to earn our leadership credentials in the eyes of our equine partners.
Limiting the dimension to ground work, without the complexity of rider dynamics, provides clarity and simplicity to the whole process.
It’s also easy to take a break and allow the horses to blow off some steam as we build their endurance for engagement.
Liberty lets us engage with the horses in an unconstrained way while building their physical fitness, attention, and emotional control.
It also gives our horses a choice and they will leave or challenge if we are not offering them the good deal that we should.
The horse’s response to us will give us honest and direct feedback to how we are doing in our own fitness development – specifically our leadership quality and emotions.
The lack of physical bondage and the freedom of the horse to choose means we have to feel for the horse.
We can’t impose a timescale agenda and we have to progress at a pace the horse is comfortable with.
Horses are honest and live in the moment, they will let us know how they are feeling and how well we are doing at keeping them mentally interested, emotionally stable, and physically ok.
Get it right and the horse will enjoy the stimulation, enthusiastically playing the liberty games….and we will get that great feeling of empathy and connection.
In-hand gymnastic or classical dressage type activities allow us to be more specific if necessary.
Using proven exercises we can help our horses develop fitness, symmetry and experience the benefits of balance.
The aim being that this will become their choice of going.
Horses tend to take the path of least resistance and effort, help them discover an easier more efficient way and they usually adopt it without our continued micro-management.
Making it fun and games, not work
The last thing we want is to turn the relationship with our horses into work, for either them or us.
Purposeless repetition quickly makes any activity a chore that everyone would prefer to avoid or to get over with as quickly as possible.
Once certain movements are beginning to get established we add freestyle to what we do, varying purpose, speed, energy, etc.
Having said that, it is still our responsibility as the leader in the partnership, to ensure that we have a plan to bring out the best in our horses.
There needs to be a structure of progression so that the horse isn’t over-faced by asking too much too soon.
But at the same time, our activity should, and can, be kept playful.
Bottom line is that we want our horses to look forward to the stimulation and to become energised through the interaction with us as their bodies and minds get active again.
It is always rewarding to see a horse look forward to our time together and to happily put effort into the games and activities – to be able to make learning fun.
Different programs for different horses
One size doesn’t fit all and our horse’s needs should dictate how we construct our fitness program.
For example, the three horses we are currently working with all have different backgrounds and starting points.
While one horse may need the security of the in-hand activities, another may be better started with the relative freedom and flexibility of liberty.
Breeze, our veteran horse being restarted, corresponds to the latter and is best served by starting with liberty.
We have a post about how we applied this consideration with Breeze. It discusses her needs, the approach we took, and the positive results we that we quickly achieved.
The post is 'Restarting with Liberty' (click here to view)
Guided by the horses needs – not ours
As a leader we need to demonstrate that we always have our follower’s best interests at heart.
There has to be a willingness to come down to their level of need.
From there, we can constructively bring them up to the higher levels of potential that exist within them.
We work with what they have to offer at the time, take it and build on it at the pace that works for them.
It is important to point out that this definition of leadership doesn’t mean that we are a doormat to our follower’s behaviours and wants.
It means that we need to develop authority and influence to become effective.
...But that's a subject for another series of posts
Set things up for success, confidence and safety.
Clear intent, energy, and communication.
Break down activity to as small increments as necessary (make each step as simple as needs to be).
Use as little pressure as possible (guide to a feel).
Change what we are doing if not managing to communicate (no need to shout with more pressure).
Set up to acknowledge any try often (our responsibility to ask the right level of question).
Create a feel good environment, grow a confidence in always being able to find the right answer to our questions.
Try not to lose connection, but don’t be critical if unhooks. Simply re-establish and start over
Make being (politely) with you a sweet spot. Guide to that spot so the acknowledgement and relaxation can be found, and then actively sought in the future.
Get to finding neutral while stationary and while on the move.
Vary speed, duration, and direction.
Practice sticking, drawing, sending, disengaging playing tag, bringing back (physically and emotionally).
Within a short while you will start to see positive results.
As an example take a look at this post on Breeze, our veteran mare's journey 'Restarting with Liberty'.