Thursday, December 27, 2018

Letting the horse be the boss

When I first started out with horses, I remember that the common advice was to make sure the horse knew who was boss.  The way you conveyed that knowledge to the horse was sometimes violent.  Thankfully, the horses that I was lucky enough to interact with were mostly well-behaved and I don't remember ever having to engage in a lot of serious corrections...until I got Nimo.

Nimo came to me not knowing how to pick up his feet and being almost impossible to lead.  In hindsight, I'm not sure why I didn't question that more when I got him.  (I suspect it was because my brain was saying, "Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, I have a Friesian!")  I'll never forget the first time I picked up his feet, though.  It was before I bought him and I was just going through a basic examination of my own before I had a vet out to do a pre-purchase exam.  I asked him to pick up his feet and he threw a temper tantrum.  It was then that the seller mentioned that he didn't believe in having young horse's feet trimmed, so Nimo had never had a farrier or anyone else really touch his feet.  I think my jaw may have dropped in disbelief.  Nimo's feet were not in too bad a shape for the inattention, but one thing I insisted on as part of the purchase was that a farrier trim his feet before I picked him up.  I never knew how that was accomplished, but I suspected drugs were involved.  I will note that the seller was otherwise very good and the horses were well cared for.  He was new to selling Friesians (or any type of horse), though, and I suspect he had gotten bad advice from someone about young horse's hooves.

So I had my work cut out for me when I brought Nimo "home" to the boarding stable I intended to keep him at.  Horses at boarding stables really do need to have good behavior and interact safely with humans, but because Nimo was young (only 14 months) and very personable, everyone at the barn was willing to give him some time to grow up.  As luck would have it, I had a clinic scheduled with Mark Rashid already set up for two weeks after I bought Nimo.  I had signed up for it many months before, when I still had my last horse, Preacher.  Preacher unexpectedly had to be put down due to a catastrophic injury to his hock that could not be fixed.  The joint had shattered when he was out in the field.  It was a heartbreaking event because I had always thought of Preacher as my "heart horse."  And to be honest, I'm not sure that I have ever really recovered from that horrible day.  There is still a pain in my heart that belongs to Preacher.

But I also knew that I could not live without a horse, so about 2 months after Preacher's death, I had Nimo.  Unlike Preacher, who basically knew everything and understood everything and was this amazing animal to work with, Nimo knew nothing.  I will be forever grateful to Mark Rashid for his help at the clinic.  The technique he used to help me figure out how to lead Nimo is one that I'm not sure he would use today, but it didn't involve any force and it was surprisingly effective.  I think I've posted about that particular clinic before, but basically what he had me do was every time Nimo stopped moving, I would quickly turn around and make myself big while yelling and acting nuts.  The idea was to show Nimo that as long as he followed me around, I would be normal; if he stopped, I would turn into a crazy person.  So he could control whether I was normal or crazy by moving or not moving.  That was, in fact, the opposite of showing the horse that the human is the boss.  It was giving control to the horse.  And that was my first real lesson in learning that everything I'd been told about horse behavior and horse/human interactions was probably wrong.

Over the years, I became obsessed with getting a better understanding of how I could nonviolently and still safely interact with Nimo.  I've done a lot of experimenting and I'm sure that some of those experiments were not the best ideas, but I do have a horse that seems to behave himself most of the time and that I feel comfortable handling.  The barn staff where I keep him all tell me that is easy to handle and take care of, so I think I managed to bungle my way through training him.  Although, he definitely appreciates routine and knowing what to expect.  He is quite solid in those situations.  In new situations, he can be a bit more unpredictable and still a little spooky, but I've noticed a mellowing with age and experience.

So anyway, fast forward to a few weeks ago during a lesson that Nimo and I were in.  One of the interesting things about Science of Motion is that quite a bit of responsibility for achieving goals is handed off to the horse.  The rider's job is to educate her body and use it effectively, but the horse is given a lot of room to experiment with responses and mistakes are to be treated as no big deal.  That is because mistakes typically happen for one of two reasons: either the rider didn't effectively communicate, in which case, the horse shouldn't have been expected to know what to do anyway or the horse is trying to figure out how to respond but needs more time and practice to get it right.

In this particular lesson, I had started with a sense of accomplishment because Nimo and I had been making such great progress over the past 2-3 months and I was expecting that progress to continue.  Instead, we started really having trouble with achieving good balance.  Nimo was walking too quickly and it felt like he was ignoring my communication (others might refer to it as blowing through my aids).  I could not slow that horse down to save my life.  My instructor and I treated it as a problem-solving exercise and we methodically went through my position - my head, my shoulders, my hands, the tone in my core, my legs, my seat.  We went through visualization exercises that have helped in the past.  But nothing was having an effect.

Thankfully, no one, including Nimo, was getting too frustrated with the process, but my instructor did finally ask me to start using a lot of half-halts.  Half halts in SOM are not the same as in conventional dressage.  They are really a quick upward motion of the hands so that the bit makes contact with the mouth (hopefully not too harshly) to remind the horse to lift his withers/shoulders, particularly if said horse is rooting down on the bit or just very heavy.  The contact is very short, like less than a second.  I suck at these kinds of half halts because I'm terrified of putting too much pressure on Nimo's mouth.  At one point, my instructor said something like, "You're not half-halting a kitten!"  But even that wasn't working.

My instructor was still game to continue, although I was thinking it just might be one of those days when giving up and trying again later might be a good idea.  Nimo, of course, had been paying attention to everything going on, and while I felt like he was giving me zero assistance, he had apparently been thinking through the situation and came up with a solution that neither my instructor nor I had thought of - he simply started trotting.

In my experience, it is typically a good idea to get things straight at a slower gait before attempting the same thing at a faster gait.  But learning to communicate with and ride a horse is actually not a linear process.  Nor is it one that necessarily benefits from a systematic approach.  Learning often occurs in leaps and spurts due to random occurrences instead of a step by step instruction manual.  And in this case, what had happened was that both my instructor and I had fallen into the step by step trap.  We were methodically dissecting the situation and trying to change one variable at a time.  That's great if you are performing a scientific experiment on bean plants, but may not be super helpful if you've got a very dynamic process to manage.

You may remember an earlier post from this month when I mentioned the concept of tensegrity.  Well, the problem I was having in this case was that my tensegrity was not good.  I was not in harmony with Nimo.  And I couldn't feel how to get into harmony.  I was doing what I used to do sometimes when warming up for band practice with my flute.  I would play it and I could tell that it wasn't quite in tune.  So I would adjust the instrument a little this way and a little that way, but I could never get it in tune until the oboe player with perfect pitch would play her A note.  Once I had the note to match, I could adjust my instrument properly.

By trotting, Nimo gave me enough movement so that I could better feel when my body wasn't in the right place for him.  All of a sudden it became much easier for me to feel when our bodies were disconnected and I could make the change I needed to make to get us back in harmony.  I could communicate much more clearly with him and we were able to achieve the balance we'd been trying to get for almost an hour.

It was a stunning realization for me - Nimo could participate in this process just as much as I could.  His role isn't to simply respond to me, but to actively engage in the process, perhaps even direct it sometimes.  Our lesson ended up being a three-way collaboration.  My instructor could tell me what she saw from the ground, Nimo could tell me what he was feeling and offer different types of movement, and I could adjust my body to work with Nimo to help him balance.

This all may sound like so much nonsense to some of you.  And I'm not sure that I'm doing a great job of communicating what the situation was like, but I will say that I think I have a very different perspective based on that lesson.  I had perhaps never really let go of the idea that I have to be in charge until that day.  Nimo could easily refuse to move or buck me off or scrape me on the arena wall if he didn't want to do what we are doing.  Instead, he suffered through almost an hour of me making mistake after mistake (and doing nothing other than walking too fast which was basically his way of saying that I hadn't gotten it right yet) and when realizing that I was never going to figure out what needed to be done, he offered a solution.  I kind of wish he would have offered it sooner, but I'm not sure that I would have taken it if I hadn't tried everything else I could think of.

I had dismissed his ability to contribute to our work and I hope I never do that again.  My real goal is not to make Nimo always do everything I ask him to do as soon as I ask him to do it, aka mindless obedience.  Instead, my goal is to be able to communicate with Nimo under saddle so that I can help him to be physically fit and able to be ridden safely and in a way that benefits him instead of hurts him.  The path that we take to get to that point doesn't have to be of my construct, especially because I have no real idea of how to get there anyway.  Who better to tell me if my position is correct and in harmony than Nimo?  To this day he still stops dead in his tracks if I get really out of balance in the saddle or if he feels really unbalanced (there is a lot of stopping and starting in our rides in the arena because of this...).  I've had the chance to ride quite a few times since that lesson, and while I haven't turned into a riding master, I have noticed that I feel more in tune with Nimo.

So even if SOM methods aren't your thing, perhaps my experience will encourage you to listen more closely to your horse and give him the chance to be the boss sometimes:)

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