A lot of horses don’t understand that they have the option for relaxation.
If they did, they would seek it out as a place that is nice to visit and stay whenever possible.
Instead, many horses believe they have to take the lead role in looking after themselves.
It’s not a role they want, its stressful, but they are not seeing any alternative.
In this situation we need to help our horse find a place of relaxation that they find preferable to their place of anxiety.
We also want that place of relaxation to be associated with us and our leadership.
If we can achieve this, then at a later date, we will even have the option to put relaxation on cue, a great help in stressful times.
Releasing nervous energy and the need to move
We want our horse to be able to stand quiet and relaxed without worrying unnecessarily about what’s going on around them - but that’s not where we start, there is no need to make things more difficult than necessary.
To begin with, our horse needs to be able to move and let out their nervous energy.
Trying to keep our horse still would just create tension and nothing meaningful can be learnt under stress.
But if we do things right, our horse will quickly develop the emotional fitness to be able to judge situations and focus on us as their trusted leader.
Tuning out distractions
Some horses can be easily distracted searching for, or responding to, potential threats.
So we need to give them something else to think about.
The easiest way is to get our horse moving purposefully with intent.
This doesn’t mean forcefully, just knowingly with a plan – like any good leader.
Once we have our horse’s attention we can work on offering relaxation as a desirable state to be in.
While moving, relaxation is a sort of active neutral or rest.
Before long our horse’s focus will be on our requests and gentle leadership direction more than on the diminishing threats elsewhere.
When our horse sees problems and gets distracted, we need to accept the threat is real to them and to not criticise.
Instead we help our horse through it in a way that they will start to value our judgement and leadership.
Giving confidence needs relaxation in our own emotions
Our horses need to gain confidence that they are doing well, they also need to know that making mistakes is ok.
Regardless of whether they respond how we want, we have a leadership responsibility to stay emotionally relaxed ourselves.
Our horses are never wrong, if they don’t do what we want, then it is a failure on our part not theirs - we need to hold ourselves accountable.
When things don’t go to plan, we have just asked too much too early, or not made ourselves understood.
We need to accept that we got it wrong, forgive ourselves and move on, adjusting to our horse’s needs at that point in time.
Acknowledgng the try with relaxation in our body and hands
Our horses need clear acknowledgement of their efforts and this means relaxation in our bodies and calm petting strokes from our hands.
We take every opportunity to acknowledge the smallest try.
Our preference is to praise early rather than miss the opportunity because the moment has passed.
We also don’t want things to fall apart because we held out for more effort from our horse than they could give at that moment in time.
Small increments and the shaping of behaviours always results in more solid and faster results.
Attention on us, relaxation with us, sticking with us...while on the move
We will soon progress to having our horse find relaxation by our side while on the move.
Same principle in practice, but now acknowledging the position.
Eventually our horse will stick by our shoulder, finding relaxation and acknowledgement in our connection.
Relaxation with us at the standstill
Coming to a standstill we can encourage our horse to stop in position and find relaxation without having to move off.
They will like the feel of being with us, they will be aware of us, they will be building confidence and trust.
Relaxation with things going on around
Once our horse is comfortable with us at a standstill, we can ask them to stay relaxed while we leave our position taking various paths away and around them.
If our horse remains relaxed and comfortable we can introduce varying levels of energy and transitions in our movements.
We build in increments always returning before the relaxation is broken and our horse is compelled to move.
If we sense our horse is becoming uncomfortable, then we get back to the position of comfort and acknowledge before they take back leadership of the situation and we have to rebuild our leadership credibility.
Leadership through feel
As we practice we will become more sensitive to our horse’s emotional state, recognising their particular signals and responding to them considerately.
Many of the signals will be subtle.
It can be a revelation to discover how much our horses quietly communicate before they get to shouting to be heard.
Similarly, our horses will begin learning to recognise our intent, body language, and energy focus.
In fact, as a horse, they will be better at reading us than we are of them.
We also need to be aware that being a horse, they will pick up on any action that is not congruent or authentic, and if this happens our leadership credentials will be immediately undermined.
Connection, feel and synchronisation
Maybe we will have started off our the session with a horse that was a high-headed worrier, unable to keep their feet still or pay attention to us for more than a moment.
But after a short period of playing, with no intimidation, they can be transformed to a horse keen to find relaxation, enjoying the game of staying close while on the move and at standstill, and able to quietly dismiss commotion and movement occurring around them.
In short, they will show improved emotional fitness and be starting to look at us as viable leaders that they could trust and relax with.
Another indicator that connection and feel are being established will be synchronisation of movement.
As with people, subconscious synchronising (or mirroring) is an indicator of connection and engagement.
Here are a few pictures from a session with one of our horses, a particularly challenging mare called Jade.
You can clearly see relaxation, connection and synchronisation of mind, body...and even the legs.
It was a great result, without stress, and all in under an hour.
This was a great start but only the first step of a journey
The behaviours wont be solidly established, they will still be fragile for testy conditions
But the progress made was a good foundation for starting the horse safely and without stress