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Sunday, 8 December 2013

It's All About Letting Go ...

So I'm kind of a control freak.  Ask my students.  Is it necessary that I go over their horse, lunge it, tighten their girth, check the cavesson and switch bits so many times I get dizzy.  Sometimes I do these things while maintaining a deep and entirely unrelated conversation.  Its second nature.  Are my riders incompetent or unable to do these things for themselves ... DEFINITELY not!!! I was going to say that you could also ask my husband, but I actually prefer you didn't.  For the record, he'd likely concur.  In fact it's my compulsive need to feel in control that sparked my thoughts on today's blog:  Control, or more importantly, letting go.

It's funny that so many riders could be classified to some degree as having controlling personalities.  I mean, could we have picked a less predictable (or "controllable") activity?  Think for a minute ...Why don't we take a wild animal, wrangle it, sit on it, make it do all sorts of unnatural things, then compete against other control freaks desperately grasping at some semblance of control that is slightly more accurate than ours.  Seems like a good hobby for someone who loathes feeling like things are out of their hands.

Want to know the truly hilarious thing.... We do a pretty good job of convincing ourselves that "control" of these animals is actually possible.  That we are just so powerful and intelligent and educated in "horse" that we have that huge, wild and biologically motivated animal completely under our equestrian spell. 

Yes, I am feeling slightly facetious today. 

In all reality though, I have come to learn that our horses are never really "in control" (I have numerous entertaining stories to back this up, which I generally only share when prompted by beer and really trustworthy company).  Horses humour us.  They put up with us.  They learn through endless hours of conditioning that it is far more hassle to disagree than to just go along with us.  We're incessant. And luckily, most of our horses' tolerance of "annoying" is fairly low so the amount of physical pressure we have to apply to get a compliant horse is quite feasible.  Make note though, compliance and control are two very different things.  Compliance is created when we apply pressure to achieve a certain result, and release the pressure it when we find that desired result. In doing this over and over ... pushing, pressing, motivating and then releasing when we see "give", or movement in the right direction ... our horses learn to seek this release. 

In the last few years have come to a much deeper understanding of the joy, satisfaction and peace that can be found in the "letting go".  In fact, I will venture today to illustrate that it is this letting go that gives any meaning or purpose to the pressure.  Pressure in and of itself imparts no lesson or intention.  It is the well-timed removal of this pressure that is the motivator.  No creature likes pressure and biologically we are all wired to avoid pressure.  In my experience most riders can be quite easily instructed on how to apply pressure.  We all get very creative with this in our own way.  I believe though that placing more focus on how, when and why to release the pressure will make us all better horsemen (and women!).

Most of us (especially in the world of Arabian competition) would probably agree that in order to achieve the goals we want from our horses (i.e. lunging, moving forward, collection, balance, walking down the trail, walking into the horse trailer, etc), we must work with some sort of pressure.  We use all kinds of interesting types of pressure working with our horses.  Halters, leadropes, tie downs, legs, hands, seats, bits, whips, spurs and many more items and applications are involved in different methods of applying pressure to a horse. 

If you watch some animal/herd dynamics out in the field, you'll see another whole set of "pressures".  A horse "just hanging out" in the field is in fact avoiding pressures at all times.  If they are with the herd they are avoiding predation pressure.  If they are standing in the shade, they are avoiding environmental pressure.  If they are waiting at the back of a line at the waterer they are likely avoiding herd dynamic pressure.  Most animals' entire existences rely on avoiding pressure, including humans.  We attempt to control things outside of us in order to thwart these external factors from in turn pressuring us.  We try to "control" our horse because the pressure of fear tells us that this big, wild animal could potentially hurt us and we better be the boss or else.  And its true. 

We could get hurt.  Things could go wrong. 

I'll tell you one thing for sure though, things will definitely go wrong with an insatiable need to control.  If we don't learn to release and teach our horses to seek this release, we will find ourselves in a constant, exhausting battle, which generally ends one of a couple ways. 

1)  My horse gets so sick of my constant (and often inconsistent) application of pressure so they totally tune me out

or (and more concerning...)

2) My horse feels confined, trapped and confused by this constant and inconsistent pressure and attempts to "break out" in either fearful or aggressive outbursts.

Most of us have experienced both of these situations and have likely muttered our horse's names surrounded by a whole plethora of profanities and a lament about what a naughty and disobedient animal they are being.

So what do we do?

I hate to oversimplify a very complicated situation of human-animal interaction but it really comes down to this ... An attitude adjustment (and no folks, not just for our four-legged friend).

We have to let go of this illusion of control.  We have to understand that ANY TIME we apply pressure it is for one single and solitary reason ... To release. We have to go from putting so much emphasis on applying the pressure (although how, when and how much pressure we apply is undoubtedly important) to releasing.  We have to seek the release.  We need to ride constantly searching for moments to relent and release the pressure in order that our horses may find a small moment of peace and after many, many repetitions an understanding that a certain response from them elicits release from us.  They will begin to seek and expect this release.  Frustrations will decrease as they learn that they must simply find the required response to the pressure and then they will find their desired release.  BUT WE HAVE TO LET GO.

I am beating this to death because it is one of the hardest things to do as a rider.  Not only is the timing difficult but the emotional and psychological challenge of "letting go" is huge. 

Why is this?

Firstly, we want it all to be a perfect, finished product far too soon.  We want to apply pressure for steps 1, 2 and 3 all together and have the horse discern what the pressure was directing and what the release (if there was release) was referring to.  We want them to "do it all perfect", then we'll release. 

Secondly, we want to move on too quickly.  If we do not repeat the pressure-release cycle for one simple maneuver or exercise OVER AND OVER the horse will not be able to accurately correlate the pressure and release with that body part, movement or maneuver.  They will not have actually made the correlation and solidified the understanding of the correct cue-response sequence for that movement.

Thirdly, we have to ACTUALLY let go, and not just in our body.  We have to be able to apply pressure (and sometimes a lot of it), then very quickly back off.  Some trainer say, "Get in, then get out".  Often the times that require more pressure are more mentally challenging, and we get "tight and tough in the mind" in order to apply the pressure.  When we release, we go through the motion of letting go (i.e. we let a rein go, pull a leg off, etc) but we still retain more subtle amounts of pressure as we haven't released in our mind.  Our horses are sensitive though and can feel this retained tension and pressure and this confuses the release.  Sometimes we need to quite literally practice releasing, breathing out, and fully giving.  Pressure applied intentionally is fine as it can be easily removed, and as your riding, timing and horse's skills and understanding improve you'll be able to maintain some pressure while applying other pressure but you must never retain pressure that you didn't intend to. 

Sometimes (and actually most times when our horses are still learning) we are taking a big risk in fully releasing.  We won't like what they do.  We won't like their decisions.  They will not always retain the movement they were achieving with the pressure on.  It will be very tempting not to release and keep "helping them along'.

(At this point that I could digress deep into a discussion about raising kids and teenagers that would ring very similar.)

I encourage you though ... LET GO ANYWAYS.  Yes, your horse will shift away from the desired action.  They may lose balance.  They may lose it all together if they're not accustomed to this full and committed release.  You may have to go back in and do it all over again.  And again.  And again. I encourage you though to stay the course.  They may fall apart immediately at first, but they will like the release.  What they will not like is the reapplication of pressure when they do fall apart.  It is only when they experience this cycle enough times they will start to learn that maintaining the action maintains the release (i.e. we leave them alone) and they will in fact start to seek this release. 

The first time they hold that frame for 5 strides, halt balanced off your seat, move easily and obediently through a lateral maneuver, I promise you that it will all be worth it.  And I promise you that you will come out a lot less stressed and exhausted. 

So go ahead and apply that pressure.  Use only as much as you need. 

But at the end of the day you have to LET GO.  You can draw your own non-horse related parallels here.  I think you'll find those equally as rewarding.