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January 17, 2023 9 Comments
I often ask my students if they feel their horse is connected or disconnected. Depending on their level of experience, specifically, if they are new to horses, they usually get it wrong. Why is that?
Well... you know me, I dug in deep. I wanted to know what I have to do to change how people see their horse and recognize whether or not, the horse sees them in return. And here is what I found...
I found our industry of horse instructors are teaching people to get responses from the horse. "Do X and get Y." But we are failing to help people really see the horse in the moment. I remember many years ago being handed a horse that knew the lay down trick on command. All you had to do was lean down, tap the ground, and the horse would lay down for you. My friend, the owner of the horse, and a brilliant animal trainer asked me if I'd like to try it.
I said, "Yes, I've never done that before." So, I stepped up near the horse, leaned over and started tapping the ground. My friend broke into laughter watching me tap the ground with my hand and get nothing from the horse. I turned to her and asked, "What am I doing wrong." Her reply stuck with me for the rest of my career, and I hope to make it stick for you too.
She said, still giggling, "You have to get her to connect with you first, you can't just send a signal and expect a response. She's not even looking at you."
And that was it! I was doing the standard horse trainer thing. Ask for "x" and expect "y." Without really knowing whether my horse was paying attention or not. And from that day forward, I've never made the same mistake. Maybe it was her laughter that drove the message home. I must have felt slightly embarrassed. Either way, it changed me. It changed how I connected to all horses. I don't ask my horse for anything without first asking if we are on the same page.
So, what is that page? What is connection?
Well, as hinted above, looking your way is a good starting point, at least while on the ground. A horse that isn't looking at you is most likely not very connected. It's not exclusively true, sometimes, horses choose to observe you from one eye and can prove to be quite connected. There may be a trust issue related to that, but the connection may be true.
What else?... Well, if the horse is looking, you can test their response level by sending a subtle pre-signal, like setting the blinker before you turn, while driving your car. All maneuvers require a shift in balance for the horse. Ask for that shift instead of the whole maneuver. If you get a great response, you're probably connected enough to execute the task.
I'll never forget watching Ray Hunt (one of the old masters no longer with us) teaching a horse to backup while riding. He picked up the reins, and as he did, he asked the audience, rhetorically, if the horse was "ready" to back up. I had never considered that question. I remember watching him and thinking, "Sure, he's standing calm, go ahead and pull on the reins and get what you want." But he didn't do that. Instead, he just held the reins and waited. And waited. And waited. He kept saying, "he's not ready yet." Finally, the horse shifted his weight, flexed his neck slightly, and in that moment, Ray called out clearly, "Now he's ready." And at that moment he asked the horse to being backing.
Again, the message sank in, and I've never been the same since. Connection is looking, it's also responding to subtle preparatory cues, and finally, it's remaining calm. I say calm, not because you can't be connected and excited. You can. But true connection demands mental clarity. If your horse is too excited, they'll jump at your signals but fail to respond to the next thing you ask because they are carrying on with their adrenalin. The excitement you want from a horse needs to come from their muscles, not their mind. Their mind, in order to be precise about what you want, must be relaxed. The horse must feel safe, with no need to escape or become defensive.
They also must not be too playful. I love play, I use it all the time with my horse. And during play sessions I don't demand full connection. We are like two kids on a playground doing show and tell but practicing independently in-between connected exchanges. There is nothing wrong with that, but it's not fully connected, just to be clear. Real connection demands total concentration on both parties.
This kind of connection is magical. It's rare when it comes organically, so you often have to work for it, and when you get it... well, you need to reward it. Honor it by not overdoing it. This is why most demonstrations, worldwide, are just a few minutes long. Twenty minutes is about tops for full concentrated connection without breaks. Even in those twenty minutes I infused dozens of rewards and mini recesses.
One more thing, then I'll wrap this all up in a bow for you. We know what connection is, at least we should be a little clearer now, we can bring it back to the basics now. Connection is responsive, calm, and total awareness. We know we shouldn't demand connection for too long. We know we shouldn't ask for a task, without connection. We should always ask for small things, leading to bigger things. I just want to leave you with one more thing.
Most injuries are related to disconnection. Sure, fear, spooking, falling all happen, but disconnection came first. If I ask my horse to canter and he bucks instead. Why would he do that? It's simple. He bucked because I demanded the canter before he gave me the preparation for the canter, which caught him off guard and made him react negatively. If I'm riding through the forest and a deer pops on to the trail, causing my horse to spin and dump me. Why did he do that? His awareness dropped, leaving his attention to details low and causing him to prioritize his safety over our safety. A connected horse is more aware of the bigger picture and anticipates things like deer, or obscure sudden noises, etc. They can still spook, but they don't spin and dump you. Why don't they? Because the are connected to you and what you need from them. And this leaves us with one last thing. Whose job is it to stay connected?
Answer... both parties must stay connected, but it's your job to ensure it. Always try to be a step ahead. Anticipate potential pitfalls and navigate them with your horse. Don't expect connections, work for it, ALL THE TIME! Connection is not something you earn and forget about. It's something you hold, and let go, many times in a single session. But if you're clever, you'll see the value of holding and requiring connection from your horse. It will change the way you interact forever.
Thanks for reading. I'd love your comments as always. See you next week.
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