The Nature of things

Continued from last time…

12. Stacking functions

permiedefIn permaculture design, stacking functions is a way of ensuring that whatever we do in life has multiple benefits. That’s a pretty broad statement, but if we narrow our focus to our back yard, for example, planting a tree by the bank of a stream holds that bank in place, provides a wind break for a house or garden, shades and filters sunlight for plants under its canopy, prevents water runoff during the rainy season and prevents water evaporation during the heat of summer — all while purifying the air and producing the oxygen we breathe. Three deciduous trees strategically planted around our house will keep it cool in summer and warmer in winter, saving up to 50 per cent on energy bills.

evergreenAn evergreen provides beauty during the dreariest times of year and habitat for nesting birds and countless other flora and fauna. A forest floor is one of the most nutritious places on earth with the interaction between fallen leaves and the multitude of micro-organisms rebuilding soil at the expeditious rate of about one inch per every thousand years.

forestfloorNearly every modern drug known to man can trace its origins from the forest, a plant or an herb. In short, nature is by nature complex, ever coordinating in amazing harmony its broad circle of countless undertakings, an ability that took multi-millions of years to hone into the infinite life forms we now take for granted.

What could it mean, then, to stack functions with a horse?

rollWe tend to think of training in a linear fashion. A horse is “well-trained” when it can run through a set of gaits, movements or actions developed one after another. Yet how odd to see a Grand Prix jumper leap a six-foot wall but spook at a flapping handkerchief. Or a Grand Prix dressage “master” execute a perfect piaffe but refuse to load into a trailer. What causes a horse to carry us over the most difficult terrain yet walk away when they see us approaching the stall door or paddock gate? Why will they make themselves uncomfortable or prematurely lame performing collected movements before developing the muscle to do so, yet throw their head out of reach when we attempt to bridle?

On the flip side of the same coin, it is not uncommon for me to attend a show with a student who has spent the last several years re-schooling their horse and hear the comment, “My, that horse is so well-behaved. What breed is he?” as if they might decide to place an order for just that make and model.

Ah yes, I smile in return, it must be the breed because who would be willing to put in the time and effort to do what so many horse owners don’t realize can be done in the first place?

Perhaps the better question is: how do we incorporate a multi-layered approach into our “training” program to ensure the quality of the relationship as well as the quantity of tasks we are trying to achieve? In the same way that working with nature rather than against it requires us to learn something about nature and our relationship to it, so does working with a horse in a more-than-superficial way. Learning about the nature of the horse informs us of how best to interact with them in order to ensure they would rather be with us than anywhere else.

stuart8One example of this presented itself earlier this year when I was working with a student at Denise Lesnik’s Inside Out Horse Training in Elgin, IL. Every time his horse passed by the open gate to the indoor arena his mare spooked. The contrasting light of the outdoors to the darker shadows of the indoor caught her off guard every time, and everything he was working on — her softness, head carriage, and calm walk (you know, the important stuff of “training”) — evaporated into a big spook.

Denise on Toshi, approaching the "spooky gate"

Denise on Toshi, approaching the “spooky gate”

How many times has something like this happened to us, and we find ourselves cursing the sound or the sudden movement or the wind or the dog or whomever-it-was that “wasn’t supposed to be there” who “ruined our ride” or “disturbed that very important moment?” We often become frustrated and angry and resort to shorter reins and punishment aimed at getting our horse to, “pay attention and do as we say!”

But if we look at the situation from the horse’s point of view we might recognize that they need a way to assess what they perceive as danger, even though we see their worry as

Flexing to the outside while riding past the gate allows Toshi to assess her environment while keeping her soft and responsive to her rider.

Flexing to the outside while riding past the gate allows Toshi to assess her environment while keeping her soft and responsive to her rider.

nonsense. Instead of fighting them for their attention, we have another option. Flexing their heads to the outside or toward what they’re spooking at works the same way as a flexion to the inside by breaking up the tension in their jaw, neck and shoulders. In this way we can direct them to soften to the rein and stay with us while at the same time allowing them to look at whatever is causing them to spook. If we do this while in motion, we elicit a response from them while respecting their needs as well. Then we haven’t actually allowed the situation to control our ride after all, but made it possible for them to stay connected to us while meeting their own desire for self-preservation.

“But my horse isn’t really scared. He’s just spooking to avoid having to work,” you might argue.


Crossing the hind legs unlocks the hip joint and stretches the adductors and abductors, breaking up our horse’s brace and making them more responsive and maneuverable. As softness is achieved, relaxation can ensue.

Yet the remedy is the same. Think about why your horse is trying to avoid working for you or paying attention to you. A horse likes or dislikes what they’re being asked to do because of their association with it. If they don’t see you as a leader worthy of their effort to override those associations, they’ll resent having to comply with you. The counter-flexion is one way of establishing or reestablishing your leadership in this kind of circumstance.

If your horse spooks or runs past the area in question, your job is still to maintain the counter-flexion, but not to try to stop them from scooting past what they’re averse to. When they move far enough out of perceived danger, they will begin to respond to your counter-flexion by turning back. As they turn, their hind legs will cross. Just as flexing helped to un-stick the front end of your horse’s body, the  crossing action of the hind legs has a dual

Letting our horse stand and look may or may not be helpful. Sometimes it calms them right down. Other times, the lack of movement bottles up their tension. In that case, keep them moving. The movement acts like a valve on a pressure cooker, letting the steam out to prevent an explosion.

Letting our horse stand and look may or may not be helpful. Sometimes it calms them right down. Other times, the lack of movement bottles up their tension. In that case, keep them moving. The movement acts like a valve on a pressure cooker, letting the steam out to prevent an explosion.

purpose: 1)  it will  un-stick the hindquarters and break up bracing through their whole body, helping them become easier for you to maneuver, and 2) as the brace dissolves, softness takes its place. Getting that softness is key to getting them to relax and let down, thereby helping them create a new association with the troubled spot.

If your horse’s reaction is still too intense for your ability to manage, allow him to move farther away from the epicenter until he quiets enough for you to move in closer again. That may take a few minutes or a few days. But as you achieve even small successes, the situation that initially caused you to think it had ruined your ride suddenly becomes a training exercise to help your horse become more supple, athletic and attentive. You may find that it helps your leg-yields along with your horse’s ability to keep his head in scary situations because he has learned to have confidence in your direction. You have now used every aspect of an unwanted situation to you and your horse’s benefit. Stacking functions indeed!

About findingpegasus

Author of 'Finding Pegasus'
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2 Responses to The Nature of things

  1. Sally hankins says:

    Indeed! Good article.

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