In my last post I mentioned suppleness and its interconnectedness to everything else, such as responsiveness, freedom of movement, straightness, and forward, to name a few tangibles, but also to another important factor we don’t often consider: the horse’s state of mind. Anyone who practices Feldenkrais or a similar type of movement awareness regimen knows how relieving it can feel to loosen the body. Likewise, those who engage in yoga, gymnastics or dance know there is a substantial amount of limbering before the work-out begins. Even cats stretch on a regular basis, and have you noticed they never do it when worried or upset? A relaxed mind and body go hand in hand, along with our ability to focus and be present. Most of us don’t think of taking time out to do yoga when we’re hurried or stressed, but it’s also true that we generally find it unappealing to get stressed when we’re feeling relaxed or at ease. It’s a preferred state for any species.
So why would it be different for your horse? Give him “room” to let go, to stretch and relax and you will elicit quite a personality change, let alone the ability for enhanced movement (which includes straightness). There are many places to go for instruction on suppling and tension release. The Natural Sporthorse website has several related articles. The Masterson Method website has articles and free video clips — or Google “horse relaxation techniques” and you’ll find a number of sites to explore.
You can also go an alternate route and pursue various types of equipment advertised as suppling aids, such as side reins, draw reins, chambons, more severe bits, pulley reins, tie-downs, and on and on. I never recommend these things. I am not prepared to say that there is never a use for some of them, but they condition us to superimpose an idea, an image, or more specifically, a “head-set” that mimics suppleness without allowing the horse to discover for himself how to let go of a brace from the inside. The latter requires much more patience, acquired skill, and feel.
The fact that we are more likely to lay the responsibility on a device to “train” our horses rather than on the manner in which we engage that device does not change the fact that we are responsible either way. Using such “aids” simply makes it easier to tune out — to go by what we assume should happen rather than by what we notice… if we were paying attention. If we were being present.
The really good news about going through the process of learning what it means to supple your horse by your own feel, timing and acquired skill is, 1) You will subsequently learn how to support him regardless of his job or what you’re attempting to do with him, and 2) It’s a fabulous example of going slow to get there faster (two of the original subjects I was asked to write about). In other words, it takes much longer up front to learn to supple a horse at each gait and in every movement. But once you begin to hone this skill the rewards are immeasurable and eliminate the need to spend years undoing tensions patterned into your horse’s psyche and way of being by not taking the time he needed to learn to let go of them in the first place. Once he can stay consistently supple, you will then be capable of reminding him to relax in tense situations as well.
As long as you’re providing consistent leadership and thus proving yourself reliable to him, he will much prefer to stop worrying if you give him cause to relax. It’s the preferred state for any species, remember?
Well, actually, you might not remember if you haven’t experienced for yourself what that feels like. So, I will digress with another short story, although it’s difficult to convey with words the dismay I felt when my horse went on a bucking spree inside a round pen one afternoon in front of a crowd of bystanders. Eventually, the billets on my good dressage saddle popped off and the saddle slammed to the ground. At first I just didn’t believe it when Tom announced to everyone, “You see, Blackie doesn’t want to be carrying on that way any more than we want him to.”
Oh please, I heard my internal exasperation offer up a very different opinion. It seemed pretty clear to me that my horse was quite determined to be doing exactly what he was doing. But after traveling the long road to deconstructing years of tension I’d unwittingly generated, I discovered a difference between being determined to act a certain way because it’s your only recourse for expressing discomfort, and wanting to act a certain way because it brings you pleasure. My job then, was to figure out how to make the road to pleasure available to my horses so that they would choose that option rather than what they already knew, which was how to brace themselves against me. That transformation did not happen overnight. But very quickly I saw (and felt) little changes that let me know I was on the right track, and that was key.
Of course, keeping a horse supple and thereby relaxed in a tense situation also means maintaining a “presence of mind” by not becoming distracted by what he’s worried about, and then not becoming worried about what he might do. 😀 But honing this ability builds confidence like nothing else. It’s also proof that your horse can learn to be “with you,” or present (as opposed to being in a state of mind that’s anticipating a monster jumping out of the bush up ahead). My rule of thumb is: if your horse can remain soft, he’s in “control.”