One of the methods I use to start building confidence in the horse is teaching the horse to differentiate between what I call the “Four Intentions of Pressure”. This involves using the same aid (I use a flag) to call the horse’s attention to four different intentions within me:
- Not for You
Learning to distinguish among these four intentions creates a mindfulness in the horse that helps him think under pressure instead of simply reacting to it. Through these exercises, the horse learns that he can look to me and read my intention to guide him on how he should respond to pressure. However, we must remember that before we apply pressure with an aid, we need to be clear within ourselves what we want the horse to do or not do, and we have to project that intention outwards towards the horse so that he can receive and respond to it. When used in this way, the application of an aid gives support to our intention, which helps the horse learn to tune in to our intention, not the aid itself.
The intention I work on first with most horses is “Draw”, in which you apply a pressure such as changing your position or shaking a flag to bring the horse’s mind to you, then release that pressure when he focusses on you. While drawing to a pressure is contrary to the horse’s natural instinct to flee from pressure, the great adaptability of the horse allows him to quickly learn that he can control pressure by bringing his mind to you. This simple exercise provides a foundation of understanding on which all of our Relational Horsemanship work is based. The draw is typically my first priority when I begin working with a new horse in the round pen, as most horses come in somewhat fearful of pressure and I want to immediately change that paradigm for them.
Once I have established a connection that allows me to draw the horse with pressure, I can move on to “Drive”. Drive is a use of intention and pressure that conveys to the horse that my aim is for him to move. I externalize my intention by stepping into the space directly towards the horse, using my body language and my aid as necessary to get the horse to move out of the space I am entering. However, I also want the horse to stay mentally connected to me as he is moving, exactly as I would if I were riding him. Thus, I will strive to find a balance between Drive and Draw so that I can direct the horse through the space without causing his mind to leave. Achieving this balance is another important building block for establishing confidence in the horse, as it helps define pressure as a form of communication, not something to fear.
After you have worked through the first two intentions, you are ready to try “Not for You.” In this exercise, the horse learns that you might use a pressure, but if your intention is not directing him to do anything, there is no need for him to respond to the pressure. This is a hugely important training element, as it teaches the horse that pressures can and will come up in the world around him that have no impact on him, and they are therefore not a cause for concern. Horses that understand this are far less spooky, even when they encounter something unfamiliar.
When I am working through “Not for You”, I start by parking my intention in neutral, then giving my flag a little shake off to one side. As I am not asking the horse to leave, I don’t want him to. If he does, however, all I will do is keep shaking the flag in the same way, turning with him as he moves around me. As soon as he stops his feet and looks my way, I stop shaking the flag. What you don’t want to do is lower your pressure because it worried the horse and made him move off, nor do you want to increase it as “punishment”. This is very important, because allowing the reactions of the horse to dictate our use of pressure will only feed into his natural tendency to flee from pressure, rather than building his confidence by helping him learn to think through it.
Gradually, once the horse starts to understand “Not for You,” I can increase my pressure from a little shake to a big wave and so on. Eventually, I will be able to wave my flag over his head or underneath him, smack it on the ground, or use it to direct another horse, and he will stay relaxed because he knows it has nothing to do with him. This is exactly how I want him to respond to random pressures that pop up in the environment, as well. Say a car backfires or a deer suddenly comes around a corner: my horse will know that unless I have told him otherwise, there is no need for him to react, as it is “not for him”.
The final intention I can express through my aid is “Praise”. To do this, I use my flag to stroke and rub the horse in places that feel good to him, such as around the shoulders and withers. While doing that, the energy I am projecting is calm and peaceful, letting the horse know that we are in a good place to relax and enjoy the moment. This further clarifies for the horse that an aid like a flag is not something to fear, and it deepens his understanding that he can look to what is happening within me for guidance. If the horse tenses or moves away when I am praising him with the flag, I will follow the same principles as I do when teaching “Not for You.” I will try to keep my flag in the same relative position until he relaxes or at least stops his feet, then take the flag away.
Until next time, Josh