Red came to me two years ago as a very anxious, worried horse, and he had some pretty dramatic ways of expressing how he was feeling, although it was clear that he really wanted to be a good boy and do what we were asking. One of the reasons he spent 90 days at Heather's last spring was that his pattern was to get anxious and worried each time a new task or situation was introduced - we'd work through that and the behavior would disappear, then as soon as we moved on to the next thing the behavior would pop up again. Heather described it as having to work down through the many layers of the onion - and she said he had more layers than almost any other horse she'd seen, which spoke to how engrained the worry/behavior was.
One of the behaviors, which apparently was really baked in by his prior handling/"training", was a big brace - he would brace his head and neck up and to the right, putting pressure on the left rein, and his left shoulder would tend to pop out, the back to front connection would disappear and his steering (either with leg or hand) and forward would become non-existent - he would become very wiggly, to the point of running himself (and your leg) into the wall or objects. One of the characteristic situations where the brace showed up was on upward transitions, or if a new task was introduced - basically any time he felt under pressure. It was partly a mental resistance thing - "I'm anxious, no I can't do that" and partly, we think, a specific "trained"-in behavior - we believe he was trained initially when he was very young as a barrel-racing horse, put under a lot of pressure mentally and ridden in a very tight tie down (he has a scar on his nose) and big bit. The bracing upwards is a typical behavior for a horse that has learned to look for and lean on a tie-down or tight martingale, and the bracing on the hand is often a sign of being overbitted or ridden with heavy hands.
Last Thursday, Red and I started doing more canter work than we've done in the past. We've been doing most of our work in trot as he builds his fitness back, with an occasional bit of cantering thrown in on each lead. Although he's pretty consistently sound at the trot now after we warm up, the hock arthritis is still lurking and canter work, particularly in our small arena with tight turns, is physically challenging for him. That day we did a number of trot/canter/trot/canter transitions, and he was a bit fussy and doing some bracing through the upwards transitions and was getting revved up. Trot work continued to be good, with consistent softness, but he was pretty up, started anticipating and felt like he was on springs. After getting some good trot/canter transitions, we called it a day. What he was doing was either due to his hocks being a bit sore, or because he was anxious about doing the work at a faster speed.
On Friday, the brace was back big time - he couldn't even do a walk/trot transition without the brace showing up in full force. He was anticipating more canter work - even tried to canter several times while bracing - he was anxious about it, I believe more about the speed than about his hocks hurting, and that caused the brace to come back again. So I did what I usually do in this sort of case. There's a principle I believe in - if something isn't working at a slower gait, it sure isn't going to work at a higher gait. We needed to work through the bracing issue again at walk and trot before we even attempted any more canter work.
So we did lots and lots and lots of walk/trot transitions - but only if they were right. This meant that I had to help him find a way to stay soft and not brace through the transition. At the beginning of our work session, if I even thought about trot, he braced. We didn't do very many transitions for a while, we did a lot of my thinking about the transition, him bracing, and my redirecting him - initially with a small circle or series of serpentines - until he was soft at the walk again, etc. etc., then we worked on getting a nice forward, connected soft walk until the next thought of a transition threw the brace back in. I didn't let him transition to trot if he was braced. Finally we got one good transition - much praise and I let him trot out for a moment, encouraging him to stretch down. Each time it took a little less time to get at least one good transition. Then I started asking him for transitions at different points in the ring, long sides, short sides, quarter lines, on circles - circling right was the hardest since he was already bent in the way he braces. It took almost 45 minutes before we were reliably maintaining softness around the ring in walk or trot and through transitions without any more bracing, regardless of where we were in the arena or what distractions were occurring - and there were plenty. For him the reward was praise and trotting out while stretching down. He was relaxed and happy again by the end of our session.
I got about what I thought I would on our next work session two days later on Sunday - he'd had a day off in between. The brace was still there, but in less extreme form, and it took less than 10 minutes to get to reliable, soft, forward, "through" walk/trot transitions, with some nice soft trotting out afterwards. There were even more distractions during that session and he coped well with them. Interestingly enough, in the first minutes of our work, he did one very big sideways spook near one of the doors - there was nothing there, we just kept on working and he didn't spook again. This reactive spookiness is another form of his worry, and I was pleased that he let go of it and relaxed pretty much immediately. One reason I think we progressed so nicely was that I started adding a few steps of shoulder in to the left before asking for trot - this bend counter to his brace direction interrupted the tendency to brace before it got to showing up, and made things easier for him. After a bit, I didn't even need to do that to get a nice transition. I expect the next work session it'll take even less time to get there, and after that the issue is likely to disappear again. There might be a next time, and there might not, it's hard to tell. We'll approach canter work a bit more slowly, making sure to keep his anxiety level down.
Then, after our very successful work session, we took a ride into the front pasture in the lovely weather - he really enjoys this and stepped out happily and with good relaxation. We even tried some trot work up on the hill - this is the first time he's trotted out there - and his transitions were excellent and he maintained his softness and relaxation. I was delighted with him and told him so, many times.
In situations where the horse is telling me that he is anxious or worried by his behavior or how he is using his body, whether the anxiety occurs because of the circumstance we're in, or because of a past trained-in reaction, I see it as my job to provide the horse with a calm, non-anxious presence, telling the horse that they are not alone - this requires that I be calm, and that I communicate to the horse that I am calm by continuing to give them direction, as softly as I am able. My job is not to block, or restrain, or stop the behavior the horse is using to express its anxiety - that sort of repression of the behavior might work with some horses to get the behavior you want in the short term, but you'll just be building in trouble for later. My job is to help the horse through and past the anxiety or worry to a place where they feel better about things, which will improve the behavior since the behavior is arising from how the horse feels.
I'll be interested to see how Red does on our next ride . . .
Update: We rode again today - Monday - and I got what I thought I would get - virtually no bracing at all. We did our first few walk/trot transitions out of left shoulder in, just to be sure there wouldn't be any bracing. After that we did some shoulder in, then straightened for a stride, then trotted - that worked fine so we just went about our business and did lots of normal walk/trot transitions with very good softness. I told Red how proud I was of him, and then we went on a nice walk around in the front pasture, with a bit of lovely soft trot thrown in.