Thursday, August 11, 2011

Is the Horse Soft Inside? Part I - Introduction

Getting the horse soft on the inside, not just the outside - now there's a challenge.  I've been thinking about this lately, a lot - with my coming off Pie - possibly because of a spook and spin - and Dawn's bolt and bucking and Drift's bolt - in all three cases my horses weren't "with" me in some fundamental sense when it really mattered - they mentally "left".  As with such things, often something shows up just when I need it - in this case a marvelous book by Tom Moates - Between the Reins:  A Continuing Journey Into Honest Horsemanship.  Tom is a marvelous writer, and very good at conveying his own frustrations and learning process, as well as the teachings he's received from Harry Whitney.  If you haven't read Tom's two books - this one and A Horse's Thought - I strongly recommend that you get them now (available from Amazon) - if you don't need them today, you will at some point in your horsemanship journey - trust me on this.

There is so much in Tom's book that it's hard to even choose what I found most important, so I expect they'll be a series of posts on the various topics that mean something to me, but here's a start.

Tom talks about what he called "the trampoline factor" - he and his horse encountered a girl jumping on a trampoline in the woods and his horse lost his mind:
The trampoline factor is the primer charge that ignites a big explosion in your horse, unexpectedly, which reveals where your relationship with the horse is lacking.  On the one hand, a kid doing flips on a trampoline might be so bizarre as to spook almost any horse.  But a horse that is with you in the Harry Whitney sense will spook then immediately look to the rider to see what to do.  It is automatic because the relationship, communication, and willingness all are real, solid and real solid. On the other hand, a horse like Niji, without a concrete confidence in the human's lead spooks and mentally melts down attempting to take over the situation as the rider works to get through to the panicking horse and have a say. . . . The horse isn't wrong, he is merely doing the very best he can given the sum total of his make up and expectations.  It isn't up to him to figure it out and get right with the person.  It is up to a person to get better with the horse and help him to understand he can count on us in every situation - the ones we plan for, and even the ones we can't anticipate: like a flipping kid on a trampoline! (pp. 28-29)
And here's a related quote from Mark Rashid's Whole Heart, Whole Horse:
Now, for the most part there are two main ways for horses to be soft.  One is physically soft, when the horse completely understands the aids we give and is easily and willingly able to physically perform whatever tasks are asked of him.  The other is emotionally soft, in which the horse is able to stay in a thinking frame of mind, almost no matter what the circumstances or situation, without flipping over into his fight-or-flight, reactive state of mind when presented with something out of the ordinary.  External softness is relatively easy to achieve in comparison to emotional softness.  Being consistent with our training aids and communication with the horse will usually do the trick. In order to achieve emotional softness, as the rider or handler, we must be able to achieve a level of consistency in our overall behavior, so the horse not only sees us as being dependable but also trusts our judgment and has enough peace of mind when we are around to willingly offer up the inside of himself to us.  (p. 197)
That's pretty much where I've been with my horses - I'm beginning to have a handle on how to get a horse to be physically soft, and my three are in different stages on that journey.  But to get them emotionally soft - on the inside - there's the trick - and our various spooks/bolts/bucks have exposed the holes in our training for emotional softness.

Pie may have spooked and spun with bicycles with tall flags on them came up rapidly; Dawn bolted and bucked when a large paper lawn waste bag was shaken out behind her, Drift bolted when Scout galloped up from behind and is generally somewhat spooky.

Today, Dawn and Drift and I worked on some things involving firmness, insistence and beginning to work though to mental softness.  Dawn and I worked on her being immediately attentive and available and on her releasing lateral braces both physically and mentally (this is what I planned to work on with her), and Drift and I worked on his spookiness/reactivity (this is what came up, which makes sense after his bolting the last time I rode him), again looking for that elusive mental softness.  More to come . . .

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