At this time of year, many of us are thinking about the coming Spring and finally being able to get back on our horses after a long Winter. However, when a horse has had some real time off, getting them going again is best approached as a process of reconnection. In this post, I’ll begin explaining how I bring a horse back after a period of layoff.
The troubles many of us encounter when bringing a horse back are due to the fact that the horse has returned to its natural way of thinking. This doesn’t mean that all their training has disappeared, only that their first thought may not be to respond in the way they were previously taught. Therefore, we have to guide them back to a relational thought process before we ask them questions that could cause them to react in a self-preserving manner. The way I suggest doing this is to reclarify the relational foundation of your work beforeyou expect them to do anything they would have done previously. Once you have reconnected in this way and ensured that their needs are being met, you can start easing them back into your regular training.
To begin working on this, my first step is to walk the horse and put a gentle feel on the lead rope, just to see what is there. Does the horse soften into my feel and follow it, or does he resist it? If there is some resistance, I will simply wait for a change, using that light feel and staying soft within myself, to inspire a softness in the horse. As always, I will release my pressure when the horse softens to it.
If the horse struggles with this basic request to follow a feel and really braces against it, I will alter the pressure I am using, perhaps moving my hand in a gentle side-to-side motion or using a slight, downward pulsing motion on the lead rope. Sometimes you have to play with things a little bit until you find what works. The goal of your pressure here is not to force the horse to do anything, but simply to encourage relaxation, similar to a massage. In most cases, horses respond quite quickly to this initial work, as it feels good to them to let go of their tension. When they do, you will feel them melt into your hand and flow with the feel of your lead.
Once the horse can follow the feel of the lead in this way, the second step is to add a pressure, such as a flag, to help the horse remember that the way to control various kinds of pressure is to yield to them. When you’re bringing a horse back, you will often find that almost everything you expose them to is going to cause them to click into their self-preserving nature some extent, so we want to be proactive about this by reintroducing the idea of softening to pressure in a controlled manner.
I do this by having the horse stand, then gently shaking or waving my flag until it produces a slight degree of worry in the horse, but not enough so that the horse feels the need to leave. When the horse begins to worry — which often shows as the horse raising his head — I put that light feel back in the lead and ask him to soften, just like we did at the walk. As soon as the horse yields, I stop the flag and release my feel on the rope.
What you may see is that your horse drops his head, but then bobs it right back up again. This is not a true yield, but just the horse’s honest attempt to make the pressure go away. When they do this, you need to keep your pressure on, neither increasing or decreasing it, until you feel that the horse has actually let go inside, which is a true yield. When they really let go, their back muscles relax, their expression changes, the eye softens, and they do not snatch their head back up.
Keep in mind that whenever we are asking for yield, it is critical to focus on the response in the mind of the horse, not just what the body is doing. It is very easy to produce a mechanical compliance in the body without any real mental release, the result being a horse that goes through the motions of what you have asked, yet still carries tension both physically and mentally. In Relational Horsemanship, we want to relieve tension in the horse and replace it with peace and understanding, so be patient, channel your inner Zen master, and it will come!