Affirmative Training and the Rhythm Method

Remember when you first heard the term The Rhythm Method? I was almost certain it had to do with something bad and music. I was a virgin then, but I was confused about what that word meant as well, because, well, Virgin Mary. Eventually, I found out The Rhythm Method was actually something you don’t talk about and math. My curiosity died, even then I was a victim of bad math. The failure rate of The Rhythm Method is 25%, which is lower than my fail rate at figuring the tip after a dinner out. For all the birthing I saw on our farm, birth control didn’t come up and I lived in the kind of house where it would have been a mistake to ask for clarification. It seemed smarter to act like I understood and try to keep up.

We’re all adults now, but how many times do we skim the surface of a concept or behavior, give it a purely intellectual glance, and then think we get it. As over-thinkers, we can believe we understand something with no actual experience. We skip over something we judge as obvious and go on to whatever bright, shiny thing just caught our attention up ahead. Calming signals are a great example. We’ve seen these equine statements for as long as we’ve been around horses, but now we understand they have a meaning deeper than we were aware. We understand that the Flehman Response isn’t the horse smiling or that when a horse moves slowly, it doesn’t mean he’s lazy.

It’s a great day when we become aware of the gap between what we imagine and what we experience with horses. Now we want to listen for Calming signals, a complicated language with nuance, so we stand stock still, all brain and no situational awareness. We’re watching and throat breathing. Think a stalking coyote. So much of working with horses is doing two things at once, but our brains get dominant in our own bodies. No wonder we send an alarm to horses.

In the saddle or on the ground, we can be moving along, feeling at one with our horse, but then a thought crosses our mind, something like, “Do I trot now?” and our body goes stiff as our brain kills our rhythm. As if we can’t think and ride simultaneously. Or on the ground, a hand might bump the rope as you think about the first step. Our minds trick us into believing them instead of our bodies, and that’s where we lose our horses. They live in the physical world, not our imaginations.

How do we improve our skills to better support our horses? We look for deeper meaning in the things we take for granted. We take something we know and re-discover it. We gain more understanding and focus not by mental effort, but rather releasing thoughts and finding the feeling of it. We can’t understand horses by reading a book any more than we can learn to swim by standing at the edge of a pool.

I’m not going to suggest a rhythm method for family planning, but rhythm is absolutely the foundation for working with horses. Rhythm is the foundation of the dressage training pyramid. It’s common knowledge, but do you feel what that means. Not think about how you don’t like competition, not wander off into a rant about hyperflexion, but hold to feeling the importance of rhythm for a horse. When does your horse relax? We know that the best leadership equals safety for a horse. That feel like relaxation. We experience that when a horse is grazing or walking or flowing like a breeze in and through their herd. Safety has a rhythm that is affirmative.

Remember the feel of a horse spooking or bolting? It’s a total break with rhythm. If you absolutely must think rather than feel this truth, then remember science; that when a horse is frightened, in his sympathetic nervous system, his heart rate goes up and his breathing goes shallow. His blood pressure spikes and his digestion slows. Now feel those words, beyond reading them. Most of us notice a pang of guilt about now, for all of the times we escalated our cues because it made human logic in our busy brains and didn’t listen to our horse’s body giving an honest response of fear. We might feel compassion for all the harsh training methods that have damaged our horses. I wish more people did, but for our purposes right now, compassion is a mental exercise that is meaningless to a horse who lives in the physical moment. How does a horse read our body when we are feeling compassion? Does it read as anxiety or an un-natural stillness? Does compassion in our minds help a horse in the real world or is it more mental busyness?

Maybe getting hung up in our thoughts is the natural default for humans. We take everything personally, making it all about us. Even when we think (keyword: think) we are being kind or compassionate, if we do not walk out those thoughts in our actions, it’s selfish chatter.  And how our horses will benefit from our mental chatter is when we translate it to something affirmatively tangible.

Here we are, back at The Rhythm Method, Equine Version.

Part one is noticing yourself. Notice when you lose rhythm. Notice when your brain hijacks your body. Become aware because if we don’t notice, we can’t improve. Is it anxiety or fear? Don’t try to change it. First sink into the experience of discomfort without mentally judging it. Does your stomach get tense? Do your shoulders change? What does your vision do? Fully inhabit your own negative body minutiae because it is the place of opportunity. If we want to change a dynamic with our horses, if we want to give them something different in our relationship, it means getting our hands dirty. Rather than fuss with the surface, go deeper to the seed of the stuck place, like the lump in your stomach that’s taken control of your body, and use The Rhythm Method. Rhythm is defined as a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound.

Breathe rhythmically. Exhale that lump into release and create space for your heart with the next inhale. Breathe into the broadness of your shoulders and the fluidity of your spine. Into your feet as they load one step and then another in a movement that draws your horse along. Shift to speak the language a horse hears because rhythm is an irresistible force. Rhythm is the miracle cure; the literal activity the calms both of you but it’s up to you to prioritize it.

Improvement means change. What starts as an idea becomes reality when we embody the words from the neck down.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward

Want more? Visit annablake.com to see our class schedule, online courses available on a revolving basis on Calming SignalsAffirmative Training, and More. You can book a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. Join us in The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and so much more.

Anna Blake

16 thoughts on “Affirmative Training and the Rhythm Method”

  1. “Rhythm is an irresistable force.” … what an idea (!!!) , and I also know how little attention I have given rhythm and its relation to the horse until the last couple of years. How come that was essentially never mentioned by the many horsemen/ horsewomen /and trainers I have consulted over the years ??? ( The exceptions being you , Anna, and Jillian Kreinbring)

    Maybe it’s an unspoken understanding , or intuition, some horse people have but don’t articulate. I don’t know.

    What I do know is how often many of us INTERRUPT that rhythm. Especially if we have fear. Stop, slow down, back up, etc etc. That is another deficiency the horse tolerates in us I suppose, but I do aspire to be better for my boys.

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    • I don’t think there is an unspoken understanding… the words are there, but somehow we don’t get inside the idea. My hope is that people would just notice it, because nothing changes us faster… and yes, the impact on horses, especially your boys, is so healing. Thanks, Sarah

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  2. If only – I was aware of all of this when I actually could have put it to use! Altho, after reading this & “thinking” about it – I have put it to use! For a while a few years ago, I was having panic attacks – didnt realize what they were till later. You know what puts them to rest? Breathing – long slow breaths – relaxing my shoulders and arms & hands – all the way down my body. How about that?

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      • Good memory, Anna – Suzie no longer is up to going for walks – so its just little old me. Lots of wildlife tho – love this time of year with the new fawns. Its much more enjoyable when you have company(canine) but at least I still have her in my life.

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  3. I think you’ve encapsulated it here: “What starts as an idea becomes reality when we embody the words from the neck down.” But we need to keep our heads. Our calm cool heads. Which our bodies help create. I liked this post a lot!!

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  4. My horses tell me: “It don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing!” That part of my brain that functions well thanks you, Anna!

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  5. Oh, yes. Yes! The moments that feel glorious when I ride are always this: my busy mind goes quiet and Chico walks out with a beautiful, swinging rhythm and a springy step. I can hear the birds and the shush of cars going by, a train rumbling in the distance, colours are vivid but there’s not much thought. Ironically, this happens when I ride with purpose, practicing the pattern of an obstacle or a dressage test which I’ve had to memorise and plan for. It happens in tiny fragments of moments, and then the busy brain kicks back in. But for those moments we are like the still place in a churning world. And, yes, it’s rhythmical.

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  6. Abby set up a thought with her words about your writing.

    I have had those , from the neck down, connected rythmic rides when my brain has been hijacked by a task. Quadrill , obstical corse and other focused riding.
    Is that close to what you are proposing?
    Or is it more along the lines of disengagement with brain and using senses only.

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    • I’m not sure they aren’t both very related. They say we are the only things under our control, and I think rhythm is the path. Well, not me actually. Dressage… Thanks Kim

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  7. When I was struck ill, suddenly, with Rheumatoid Arthritis, I lost the suppleness and elasticity throughout my body. I literally lost my ability to move softly and rhythmically, and it happened as if overnight. At the time, I didn’t know how important softness in body and mind was to my horses. My body wasn’t soft, or elastic, and my mind was distracted by pain. I had a lovely relationship with my elder (recently retired) horse and thankfully that relationship didn’t change much. He was also seizing up in his body (osteoarthritis, hind-gut acidosis, old age). Things were bad for quite some time while I got myself sorted, and along the way I buried my elder horse. We aren’t always fully under our control. But understanding the importance of rhythm and attempting to bring rhythm and softness into my body or at the very least my breath, I believe, will make my life with horses better. So I dance and do yoga and take the meds that beat back the symptoms. If rhythm is the path, and I believe it is, I’m all in.

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