Saturday, September 7, 2013

Hard/Easy, Boundaries/Softness

This is a follow-on post to my post on Making the Right Thing Easier, and it's been incubating for a while, since these concepts are much easier to do, and to feel, than to talk about in words.  But I'll give it a try . . . let me know if it makes sense and if there are any questions.

Some more thoughts on the make the wrong thing hard/right thing easy concept: there is an aspect of it that makes sense to me - and I think this may be what the masters who spoke some of those things may have meant - I don't know for sure.  And this relates to my own concepts of helping the horse find the soft spot that you continuously offer.

I think a better way of thinking of it - for us regular horse owners where the specific words may make a big difference - is, instead of "make the wrong thing hard" - substitute "give the horse boundaries", and instead of "make the right thing easy" - substitute "reliably give the horse a soft spot to find".  Come to think of it, these concepts really relate as much to dealing with people as dealing with horses . . .

I've said this before, but it bears saying again - helping the horse find the right thing by making it easier has nothing to so with being a pushover, letting a horse walk all over you on the ground, being "nice" (one lady at my barn told me "I've tried being nice to my horse and it didn't work" - well, no wonder . . .), kissing your horse on the nose or feeding them lots of treats (with the exception of carefully done clicker work).  I think making the right thing easier is all about setting boundaries and limits - this is what active direction is all about - and then giving the horse the freedom to find the boundaries that define where the softness can be found, having the horse - not you, the horse - control the amount of pressure as a result, and then choosing to be with you in that soft place where the pressure is zero and there is lots of relaxation and praise.  It really isn't at all about putting pressure on the horse - horses are pretty good at that themselves.

It's all about setting it up so the horse can be successful and then praising and rewarding the horse for getting there, and giving the horse the gift of the softness they can find together with you.  Security for the horse comes from knowing there is a reliable, consistent soft place you are providing that they know how to find - that soft place is defined by the boundaries you set.  A horse without boundaries is an unhappy horse.  Boundaries, and the corresponding soft place, are what build self-confidence and trust in horses.  Boundaries, and the soft spot, are about consistency and fairness.  Boundaries softly guide the horse to the soft spot where they can be with you in connection.

A word on pressure - I think it needs to be variable, not rigid - the farther the horse is from the soft spot, the greater the pressure, and the closer, the less the pressure, and it needs to be something the horse creates, and therefore can remove, on its own - not something we apply to, or do to, the horse.  We set up the conditions, and the horse has to explore those boundaries until it can reliably find the soft place we are offering. Pressure also has to be directive, and not a brace that creates a counterbrace in the horse - that's the definition of rigid, and that's not a boundary, it's a blockade or a coercion.

A couple of examples that may help explain what I'm trying to say.

First, leading, and ground manners - they're closely related.  There are many, many horses with poor ground manners and that don't lead well.  This is all about boundaries - if you don't define your boundaries, how is the horse supposed to know what to do?  For me, leading and ground manners are fundamental - and it's not about "respect" or "dominance/alpha", it's about the human defining the boundaries that the horse can have confidence in and relax into.  Horses without boundaries - that don't know where the boundaries are from moment to moment - are unhappy horses.  Take a look at the sidebars for some leading exercises that can help the human half of the partnership live up to his/her responsibilities to the horse.

Second, softness in ridden work through the jaw, head, neck and body, with a relaxed top line and engaged core.  Softness is many things - it's about vertical and lateral flexion (but please, no chin to chest or head to knee flexions - I believe those to be very counterproductive in producing overall softness as they disconnect the head from the rest of the horse's body), it's about forward and engagement from behind, it's about bend, it's about listening to one another and wanting to be together in the soft spot - once the horse starts to find the soft spot you're offering - if you can be consistent about it - the horse will always want to return to that spot and you can reliably go there together for relaxation and connection.

I don't know that any of this makes any sense to you - it might not have for me several years ago . . .

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