Does your horse get restless or bored when standing with you? Does he pull the rope, trying to graze when you are busy? Am I going to blame you for that, too?
I was asked to share a pet peeve, which seems like inviting a donkey to a dinner party, but I’ll try to keep my hooves close to the ground. I notice humans don’t focus well. Our senses aren’t as sharp as equines in any way, but we don’t even use the comparatively frail ones we do have to their full potential. The theory is that we are the superior creatures because we have self-awareness but that usually works against us at least as often as not. We are always missing the opportunity to be in the moment with our horses.
Your horse has just done a really good job. It might be groundwork or standing for the farrier who never stops talking. It could be under saddle; a light canter depart or the beginning of a shoulder-in. It was just what you asked for, but it was especially sweet and a little better than you probably deserved. You know it’s that good, so you give your good horse a release. In other words, let him know he’s done.
Move a few feet away, out of your horse’s space, and then stand around and breathe for a while. It isn’t a release until the horse takes it. Look for some calming signals, maybe full-blown yawns or a nose-rub on his foreleg, or a more stoic answer like a few blinks and a small lick and chew. Let your horse’s last memory of the arena or the work he’s done, be a good one. Let him ruminate in that affirmation.
A release is the message of gratitude that horses understand and appreciate the most. It’s a bit depressing, I’d rather clutch his head to my bosom, but I want to put him first, knowing those signals were a release of stress, I won’t add more. I want him to settle into his parasympathetic nervous system, the restive and relaxed part. With any luck, some brain chemicals will kick in, like dopamine or serotonin. Things that matter because they are the foundation for a true better relationship. Something that might even mean more than a cookie.
At a clinic, this might be a time I’d ask if I can take him back to his pen. I want the horse to have a clean, uncomplicated release, to make the most of this good work. It isn’t that I couldn’t ask the participant to do the same, it’s that just outside the arena, she might run into a friend who wants to know how it went. It’s exciting to share our horse experiences, so the participant stops and talks. After a few moments, the horse might get restless. The other word for that is bored. We aren’t working with them and they aren’t released, because we got distracted.
Humans get distracted effortlessly. At the home barn, we might finish riding and tie them, untack and check our messages or return a call. Maybe make up a few feed buckets or just wander off to gaze at a bright shiny thing. On a bad day, empty-headed complacency gets you or your horse in a dicey situation and one of you may be injured. Safety still matters.
Bottom line: The horse, who was given a release, isn’t eating or rolling or doing anything pleasant. He’s tapping his hoof, waiting for you to keep your promise, and probably getting into trouble out of boredom. Then we mindlessly correct them, then their anxiety rises, then they slide back toward their sympathetic nervous system, the flight/fight/freeze (or just let me go eat!) phase. We’ve trashed their good work by letting ourselves get distracted. Old school training says a horse should have to tolerate anything we do with quiet obedience. Is it fair to ask them to focus better than we do?
Confusion is that limbo-like place where horses get punished for things that are our fault.
We do it with dogs who we’ve invited out for a walk and then stop and talk to neighbors for twenty minutes instead. I notice how often children are made to wait while adults yammer on, only to be corrected for interrupting. Are they impatient or are we distracted? I’m not sure if it’s a lack of focus or just rudeness but if we are the leaders, this isn’t anything I hope to inspire.
Horses manage to be completely involved in passionate spring grazing or finding the exact right place for a dirt bath after a ride. Dogs who play ball aren’t interested in talking about the weather. Even a cat can focus on ignoring us with a razor-sharp focus. But we can’t walk to a pen without losing our way.
It’s possible that horses have something to teach us about multi-tasking. Is there some reason we couldn’t prioritize our horses for a moment and ask our friends to wait? Perhaps the leading from behind exercise that so many are confused by is a simple payback for this bad habit of ours.
Horses may be domesticated but so many of the things we ask of them require them to go against their profound instinct. Instinct runs deeper than inclination, it’s a primal force for survival. If we ask for that kind of connection from them, we have to offer something of equal value. We might want to trade our focus for theirs, but it must start with taking our own words and actions more seriously.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.