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| Tuning In to the Small Stuff
Makes All the Difference
“Life is just what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Until I looked up the quote, I didn’t remember it was a John Lennon lyric from the song “Beautiful Boy,” written for his son. So apt, isn’t it, for most of us at least some of the time – including when we’re spending time with our horses.
How easy is it to get caught up in the work, fixating on skills mastered, levels achieved or prizes won. This sharp focus can come at the expense of the big picture – the basic skills necessary to sustain long-term soundness of mind and body, the nuance of the relationship, the tiny signals that something is missing or needs attention. The little things that, I believe, are the point of it all.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have goals for yourself and your horse. Keeps you motivated, gets you to the barn on those cold or hot or windy days. But what about the insights and information we can glean in those times of “not doing,” when we have no specific agenda other than possibly getting from one place to another. That’s when we can practice a wider awareness, when we can give ourselves and our horses space to breathe, to express, to choose. Important information dwells there and, when we ignore it, we miss a big part of what it is to be real horsemen and -women.
For both people and horses, I have so often seen really potent teaching and learning happen in those moments in between. If we’re paying attention, these opportunities come up often in our everyday interactions. When we’re tacking or grooming or loading in a trailer. When we’re leading the horse from stall to tackroom and from saddling area to arena. These openings also exist when our routines are interrupted, when horses are laid up with lameness, in that unstructured time between the task of treating an acute injury and the happy day they’re ready to go back to “real” work.
Even though we aren’t technically “training,” in all these moments, we are shaping the horse’s responses, choices and expectations. We’re forming the postures, movements and communication that are the basis for everything else we’ll ask them to learn and do with us.
Horse people of all experience levels so often overlook these opportunities, passing off a horse’s interesting responses as temperament or old habits or “it’s just how he is.” What kinds of common issues hold information? Consider the otherwise well-mannered horse who habitually lugs back or pushes ahead when being led, who crowds or pulls on you when you’re turning him to close a gate or who creeps and fidgets when asked to stand still. Ask yourself whether you can easily place your horse’s feet wherever you need them to be with a little input on the halter? Do you have minute control of all four quarters, or any combination thereof, in hand and under saddle? Can you move him with just a word or a touch when you need to maneuver around him to groom and tack and wrap and medicate? Is your horse “girthy” or “cold-backed” or averse to being groomed or touched? What information might be uncovered in exploring these types of basic, mundane issues? How do they connect to or explain other challenges or roadblocks we encounter with this individual animal?
The keys to the big issues often are found in the little things our horses do when we’re not quite paying attention, in those everyday interactions that are so easy just to do without conscious focus. Like the horse I’m riding these days who had a tendency to lean and creep forward while being bridled until he was nearly pushing on me. I was absently backing him off me one day when it occurred to me that he felt heavy and was hard to move (translation, on the forehand.) So, I started intentionally reminding him, with just a few strokes of my hand up his chest, to mind his posture and stay balanced while I bridled him. After a few days, no more getting crowded while bridling. In this case, bad posture mimicked bad manners. Does that small correction translate into better body awareness and balance choices in this horse’s other interactions with me? I think so, though I can’t give you a concrete example. I just know that these little choices can add up to big changes.
I was having a similar conversation with a student recently after her groundwork lesson. Normally, you expect the lesson to start after the horse and handler are in the arena workspace. But this time, most of the lesson actually happened before we even got there.
Her arena is located away from the barn, along a wide graveled path winding through pristine desert, down a long and steepish hill, across a concrete bridge over the small wash where water flows after a hard rain and up a gentle slope.
We were chatting away when my student turned her horse away from the barn toward the path. He didn’t move. She took a stronger feel on the leadrope and he still stood. Then, she swung the end of the lead and lightly whacked him on the hip – common practice often effective at getting a horse moving. He took a couple steps and stalled. She swung the rope, he took a couple more steps, then another stall. And again. And again. Oh, did I mention that when I arrived and asked what she had been working on most, she told me she had been focusing on getting him more forward under saddle?
Okay, so what information was there in that moment, in that series of stops and starts, that might inform her mounted work? Was there, maybe, a bit of information that just might provide a breadcrumb trail back to the root of the “lack of forward” issue. I can tell you from experience that many, many horses who are forwardly challenged – and labeled lazy, sluggish, dead-sided, stubborn – are really just off balance. They are stuck on the forehand, and have lost the mechanics of lifting and lightening the front end so the back end push has somewhere to go.
What I saw that morning with my client was not a horse who didn’t want to leave the barn and go to work. It was a horse, who in that moment, couldn’t. Instead of lifting his center of balance, rocking back a bit onto the hind end and pushing forward, he would move his backside to the side to avoid the swinging leadrope, take a couple of crooked steps, and then dump onto his forehand and assume his standard posture with his left foreleg braced out in front of his body. Okay then. Let’s start here.
So, I asked a question. “Is this a posture problem or a behavior problem?”
“Some of each,” she answered after a bit of thought.
“So, if we help him make a different choice in his posture, what’s likely to happen with the behavior?” I ask.
“Hmmm. Seems like maybe the behavior would at least be less pronounced, without the postural issue to drive it.”
So, instead of just trying to get the horse to move, she turned her attention to his posture and balance. First, she connected in to the halter noseband and did a bit of the waggle exercise to get him connected back to front, then reminded him to soften at the throatlatch and shoulder. As he started to shift a bit of weight off his forehand, she started asking him to rock back a step or two and forward a step or two until he came unstuck. After a few rocks, she had him moving forward without pulling, bracing or needing extra input to his “engine.” So far, so good, for the level beginning section of the barn-to-arena path.
But, then came the downward slope, where Mr. Sluggish turned into Mr. Speedy, dumping onto his forehand and rushing forward until he was nearly pulling his handler along or running her over. Not a big surprise, really, or particularly surprising given his preference for loading the forehand. Tough to balance going down a hill unless you get your backside underneath you. Same postural habit as the stalling, just with a different expression.
Still, there was the rather obvious straightness issue, in both the halt and the forward transition. He fell out to the right so far a couple of times, his shoulder dragging along his disconnected backside, that she had to abandon the exercise and pull him sharply left just to keep him from getting too close to the edge of the bridge. That’s definitely not evidence of the straight-spine connection that is an essential ingredient in impulsion.
So, the dressage whip became the outside rein, just a stroke or a touch reminding his off shoulder to wait, to stay with the rest of the body. And, finally, with straightness came that elusive combination of lightness and powerful forward movement that meant we had achieved impulsion.
When we finally reached the arena, horse and handler did some bending work in hand and continued to reinforce the rock-back, spine-straight transition for a few minutes, then called it a day. Mission accomplished. Forward gear engaged. And it all started with the simple act of leading the horse away from the barn.
The little things. In this case, the lesson was what happened while we were on the way to the lesson. Stacey Kollman
(In case you’re wondering whether anything lasting came out of this somewhat unorthodox “lesson,” here’s what the client emailed me a few days later: “It was a great session, and one of the things that really stuck in my head was the whole connection idea. When I get it, the rushing, balking, etc. is gone, because there is a connection and the spine is straight. It’s when the train is derailing that it all becomes so much more complicated. I am noticing the brace in the left shoulder, and last night when I went to get him from the arena he was standing even and straight in the front. Wahoo.”)
© 2009 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman
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