Sunday, 8 January 2017

Relationships before goals

Does having a goal with your horse put pressure on them and you to achieve it?

Clearly, the answer is maybe, sometimes. There should be a difference in our minds between meeting a deadline like going to a comp, and knowing what we would like to achieve and having a plan. Plans can be changed. A good leader or organiser will be going somewhere and have a plan, a focus. It is important to ourselves and to our horses that there is purpose in what we are doing or trying to achieve. Most of us don't drift aimlessly through life, even if we don't have big ambitions we have everyday a plan or a purpose. In horsemanship, doing something with a purpose gives meaning and focus.

If you can't visualise what your intention is, and focus on it, it will to be harder for the horse to work out what you want. Find a way to do this. In a dressage clinic, I heard the instructor suggesting to riders that they imagine a conversation bubble above their head, saying what they wanted to achieve in shape, movement, etc. With the idea that if you don't know yourself what you want, how can you expect your horse to do it. I think this is true whether you are seeking a higher level of communication and connection, or just starting out, or doing a short groundwork session.

However, having an aim, intention or purpose doesn't mean you can't change it mid session, that would be being inflexible and putting pressure on yourself or your horse. That would be putting the goal before the relationship. Start with an idea of what you would like to achieve but be prepared to adapt and follow a different route, and if what you had in mind isn't working out you may need to break it down and fix the bit that isn't happening, or the horse may be getting frustrated in which case go back to something that restores confidence and connection, then reapproach; or isolate the element he was having trouble with. Don't allow others to pressurise you into a situation or doing something you don't want to like a competition or a group ride, or simply riding when you or the horse aren't ready for it.

Aims and goals need to change, be refreshed, adapt to where you are and what your horse is offering. 

Always deal with the horse in front of you, and be prepared to adapt, don't try to make the horse fit the goal, think of it as causing him to want to go there.

Sometimes you can take what your horse offers but don't let the horse take control. Be clear in what you want, accept a try or say thanks for offering that, now could we try my idea again. If it isn't happening, are you being clear and focusing on what you want.

Remember to think about whether you are teaching, reinforcing, refining or controlling.

It is true for me that sometimes when I go get my horse I don't start out with a clear idea of what I want, but somewhere in the routine of collecting the horse from the field, there will be a clue or something in their attitude will give me an idea. Sometimes it feels better to abandon my immediate plan for a ride or groundwork, and just hang out with them in the field. I can still say that I changed my plan, because if spending undemanding time, or giving scratches if asked for, or getting in the moment with them if they are busy eating or enjoying a sunny corner of the field, feels right, then that will do more for the relationship than insisting the horses do what you tell them. Sometimes they must do what you tell them, but you don't always have to be asking or forcing the horse into a human time scale.

Pressure, stress, timing...

The subject of pressure is a fascinating one. For me, discovering how to use pressure and release (it is the release that teaches) as a training method has been a revelation. Why did nobody tell me before? It simplifies - and complicates - everything. Because it goes hand in hand with timing, and phases. Good timing can be learned, some people have it and some of us have to work on it.

Understanding how to apply pressure in phases sounds simple, at first, but the more skilled and experienced you get with this technique, the more you find to it. You get into questioning the type of pressure - physical, mental, implied, direct, distance, thought... How little it takes, how much is too much. What is a try, what is a release or a micro release...

While the very word "pressure" sends some horse owners into declarations of horror of the idea of putting stress on our poor fragile horses, it brings a smile to my face as I think of how this invaluable technique has transformed my horsemanship and taken it to new levels, and degrees of refinement I didn't know I had or desired.

Pressure can be as light as a thought or the air, or it can be heavy and dulling, or threatening, or mind blowing. It all depends how you use it, like a cudgel or like a magic wand. While horses, as humans, cannot learn while under stress, they also cannot learn without motivation. Pressure motivates. Too much pressure stresses. Everything has to be taught. Leaders teach. Mothers are leaders. Mares teach their foals, to follow, to move, to yield. Horses use pressure and release to teach and move each other.

Pressure and release is balanced, it flows back and forth, it is alive, it is communication.

If I behave like a leader with my horse, and he perceives me as a leader, he will respect and follow my ideas. This concept works for me and I believe it works for my horses too.

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