This blog post is written in response to a thought provoking coaching article – you can find it here. Its a great read, and I recommend reading it before you go any further. Even though there aren’t any pictures of horses or riding, this is relevant to equestrianism.
Sometimes pictures don’t help our thinking.
I really like to look outside equestrian ‘stuff’ to see what I can learn from other activities. I admit I’m not enjoying the range of Disney behaviour in the FB world these days so I’m not on FB very much, but in recent days I have contributed to a few proper discussions on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of coaching and horsemanship. In a series of interesting articles Marianne Davies from Dynamics Coaching explores some of the psychology of learning in The Ugly Zone, drawing from her coaching and personal experiences in canoeing and climbing. I would love to spend some time talking to Marianne, she is also an equestrian and she’s done a lot of primary research into skill and motivation.
Integrating this kind of deep and unstructured practise is fantastic for developing skill. As equestrian coaches how do we encourage our lovely horse people to take this on? It’s a splendid way to help people get out of the ‘only practising in lessons’ trap, or the swamp of self-criticism for ‘doing it wrong’. I’m giving myself brain ache thinking about how I apply this in coaching sessions given the different challenges of working with two species at once. Now I’ve finished this I’ll go and see what Oro thinks today, but I’ve got my blogging mojo back today!
Learning horse skills and applying them in a kind and compassionate way is critical, but we need to test those skills and stretch ourselves. We can do this in way more ways than we usually expect – practise how to develop a greater depth of connection in ground work, more challenging patterns and movements in schooling, on the trail, in different places – what we need to do is foster is our observation and the curious, explorative parts of our brain. How can I? Is a fantastic question. How can I creatively use a space and the resources within it to positively expand my own and my horse’s confidence and ability?
Meeting with a student yesterday for a groundwork training session, it was a windy day when all the herd were full of distractions. By going through a bit of ‘Ugly Zone’ practise, we found that the best way to help the horse self-regulate to find calm, was for the person guiding her to ramp up their focus and model moving with confident purpose and intense curiosity from point to point. This started with practise over simple walk, halt, back, turn patterns around a line of cones. Initially the horse repeatedly surged ahead and overshot the last cone, and showed several distraction behaviours, not exactly Kite Flying, but In a Pickle. In the end her posture was calm and balanced, and she was moving entirely in synch with her owner around objects, stopping, backing up and turning with no force or equipment.
Here’s a thing. The horse did more yawning and stress behaviour at the beginning of the session than at the end, which is very different than what we may expect in horsemanship training. Going with our updated knowledge about stress behaviour in horses this is The Right Way Round – we can measure resilience by looking for reduced stress behaviour. Horses yawning and dropping off to sleep after a training experience are not always ‘better’ for the training, from their POV they have survived. Horses coming up of their own accord at the end for more scratches, interrupting conversations for snogs and a chat, and offering to come with you and do stuff again have been positively changed by the training experience a little bit. What’s more they are ready for some more later on if you can possibly finish your coffee and get your ass back here!
Practising in the Ugly Zone on this occasion expanded the range of skills my lovely student has to safely calm and connect with her horse. We brought it down to this as a kind of theory of change – the horse had an elevated HR (heart rate) due to the circumstances, inducing a strong tendency to spook and move. The owner also had an elevated HR and felt a level of anxiety, but to start with moved quietly and slowly as an attempt to calm the horse. This was not very effective (because we often haven’t had enough time to change ourselves enough inside by breathing or anything when these things happen, and unless we have a naturally low HR or lots of practice with high energy horses, a high HR horse is very influential to our HR), but it is a place we often start. Neither was progressing with the static and dynamic target training we had planned. We discussed other options that we may or may not introduce to the session, and why the horse would benefit from movement but may view enforced ‘moving the feet’ on a circle without being able to actually get the heck out of Dodge as adding insult to injury.
What we need to do in this situation is to acknowledge and accept that the horse is experiencing internal stress and then enter the Ugly Zone and practise until we find a place where we can help them gain self-control. We also had the option of just stopping the session, but the owner felt confident in her abilities (as I was) and wanted to use the situation which is in reality a very common experience with horses, to practise.
I decided a pattern of walking, halting, backing and walking on a straight line to reach a target which I introduced after the back up, would be a chance to introduce a predictable and achievably positive experience to the horse and a familiar pattern for the owner to follow. Straight lines allow a horse to move in more balance so we wanted any turning to be controlled and slow, as does controlled backing up. I also very briefly demonstrated how re-positioning yourself to take up more room in the horse’s visual space and moving more quickly ahead or next to the head can be helpful in gaining control without physically applying pressure to the horse via the halter or placing a stick in front of them. Please set fire to the rules of Where to Walk – you need to be flexible in this area.
Turning, stopping and positioning herself in a more influential and safer place near her horse’s head rather than at the shoulder, the owner’s anxiety reduced because her HR was now appropriate for the more demanding level of movement and she was gaining force free control of the situation. In this position she very quickly found herself becoming positively interested and she threw open the doors of the metaphorical Cabinet of Curiosities! Her horse found a calm and fascinating spot in the eye of the storm and stuck to her Like a Burr, then she could practise less predictable movements and be creative in the space, on the halter and then without. Their practise developed the skill of moving them into and out of spook zone instantly, and into more explorations in two other fun sessions that day!
Many people these days, myself included, are not motivated to compete with our horses for a variety of different reasons, not least of which is that horse competitions Do Not always bring out the ‘best’ in humans, and beyond food or love competing is fundamentally An Alien Concept to horses. Competitions are more stressful for horses than we can possibly imagine, and we can learn a huge amount from observing horse physiology, behaviour and how we can successfully interact without giving our horses the shits. We as an equestrian community have an ingrained prejudice here and are kind of fixed in seeing competition as the only way to test our skills, which isn’t the reality. A session like the one I described is a great way to experience tackling sudden and potentially overwhelming situational variability and stressors.
Whilst a canoe or a rock face will not pay much attention to a stressed out human, a horse definitely will change in some way as a result of spending less than quality time with one, so we have to develop an additional skill dimension. Putting it in another light there are no watersports classes needed on What to Do when you Upset your Canoe (there are obviously classes on this, the literal interpretation)! As equestrians we have to do something a little bit different and add centaur skills to tool use skills if we want to evolve. And we need to consider that just like other activities we can bring more positive challenges into our practise and get comfortable in the Ugly Zone without hitting anyone’s overwhelm button and still being able to be curious and experimental. And and and…as if you didn’t have enough to do already!
If you follow the link to Marianne’s blog, there are a range of other really interesting articles to read as well. Other people think about this stuff too, which really helps.
This article is the fourth in my series Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart. I would be delighted if you visited the other three articles in the links below:
Since my last blog I have been thinking hard about how I can open up another drawer of my life and give you some insight into what it actually takes, in my experience anyway, to design and make a new piece of equestrian saddle or bridle technology. It sounds weird to describe it that way, but it is technology and we need to consider it as such.
I thought this article was going to be totally for the makers this time – but in fact I want it to help you, wherever you are currently, understand what it means to design and make saddlery from scratch. By knowing this you can understand that there are people thinking and caring about the direct physical interface between the horse, the equipment and the rider.
I’m mainly a coach and designer at the moment, but over time I have been a Master of a Selection Box of Trades (Jack of None of them, obviously). Because of my tendency to enquire, it’s too late, I can’t just settle down and do something in a single issue kind of a way. My neurons are set to pivot, to cross reference, to generate. If you have a brain like this, you know it’s A Right Pain at 4.15am, and I have to Be Careful not to Go Too Far, but otherwise it has some definite advantages and keeps me hugely busy and experimenting and learning.
I love the process of making. It’s challenging on so many levels, it involves knowledge, creativity, skill development and application. Beginning a new project is so exciting, I feel in the shadow of the horse and other makers, and under a lot of my own pressure to design and make something as well as I can. Being as good as a one person band, means its all down to the choices I make and learning from my mistakes, and trying to figure out mistakes other people have made, or looking into traditonal assumptions and seeing if they fit into new knowledge. I feel tremendously grateful to my more knowledgeable mentors in being free with their thought and time and insight, when they constructively criticise my designs and make me go back to the drawing board or re-think something.
In my less overtly practical mind I’ve been exploring how design paths create what is known as a nexus – a place where they join and connect. My adventures this time have made as many physical connections as metaphorical ones, and with this article I will illustrate how my explorations down all the various paths have become a real thing in the world.
As we know, horses are incredibly sensitive beings, and if we want to use tack (which lets face it is safer on most occasions), I really want to make anything I design as comfortable and as unintrusive as possible for them. Apart from making a purchase, getting insight into what’s involved in making a bridle or other piece of equestrian tech is not very common now the days are gone when we all had a working local saddler we commissioned for our equipment. There are still some around, but in general people talk about buying a generically sized X bridle from Y brand off the internet, made…. wherever can produce it cheapest. It probably doesn’t fit well somewhere, and it will usually need a bigger browband and shorter cheeks, but it was a ‘good’ price.
Leatherwork is a very skillful trade but like many industries it has had its dark side. Two memories stick in my mind – Indian children stitching straps held between their feet because they weren’t provided with a clamp, and the female piece workers in the Midlands in the 1990s (one of whom taught me to stitch), turning buckles in for one of the leading bridle designs for 25p a kick. At about seven buckles a bridle thats less than two quid to the stitcher. Even if you are really squeezed for cash, try to find out where and who manufactured the product, and about the supply chain, some of them still have questionable ethics. Look for a local maker or a maker you can virtually meet online, and you may be able to get something custom made that is not as expensive as you might think, and it changes people’s lives directly.
If you’ve been a designer maker yourself, you’ll know there is so much involved in really responsive design. Even I, who is really an unreconstructed skip diver and would rather forage for my food than buy it, prefers (for the above and other reasons), to spend my hard earned cash on something more expensive but from a real person I can actually meet if I want to and who won’t be earning less than minimum wage or be actively exploited in a foreign country.
How we value the products we choose is a common theme from people who hand make products, and these days even the most ‘woke’ people secretly expect to be able to get items delivered in hours. I have recently designed several pieces of saddlery equipment from concept through to manufacturing, and my thoughts over the last few weeks have included how we, as designers and craftspeople can establish a more fulfilling relationship with our community than Add to Basket.
“Craft is politically charged by valuing its principles of excellence and durability and claiming these as a pathway to the future. A new generation of craftspeople stresses ethical aspects of their work, emphasizing sustainability for instance. They value what they make, but clearly also how it is made. Anthropologists have recognized this as a difference between making and doing, each of which creates its own value.” (Centre for Global Heritage and Development, 2018)
Since I trained as a saddler in the 1990s, I have examined bridle and saddlery technology with a research and development head on, and I’ve been lucky enough to work for several thinking saddlery companies. It’s such a traditional but hugely skilled industry, and this has lead to experimentation, innovation and a lot of new insight. It has also lead to setting up a small company, and to achieving an award from the Scottish Cultural Enterprise Office, and being a finalist out of 500 other products in the Design Council Spark innovation award, and just recently the Elevator UK award for our shortly to be launched product Sculptaseat®.
Sculptaseat® is a a new generation of seat balancer or orthotic, designed to support the rider’s seat connection and correct spinal alignment. Added to your existing saddle, it enables you to custom fit your saddle to your seat, giving a close contact ‘custom made’ ride feel, and ultimate connection with your horse. It also reduces the number of redundant saddles floating about in the horse community. (This isn’t a sales pitch, but if you are interested, we’re getting ready to launch our website and first edition soon. You can find more details here.)
My design process starts with the ‘first contact’ principle – if the product is mainly in touch with the horse’s body, I want to make the horse as comfortable as possible, and the same if the product is for the rider. Taking a look at a bridle for instance with my ‘first contact’ principle hat on, bridles often require the horse to compromise in terms of comfort. A lot of traditional designs prioritise the nice shiny bits the human sees (smooth flat leather; hidden fixings; minimal visible stitching or turn backs; bling), over what the horse feels (buckle and loop turn backs; raised stitching; metal studs and projecting loops; thick browband loops that push outwards and into the horse’s head; thickly padded areas that pressurise; stiff joints between components).
With this bridle I want my new design to not compromise the horse as best I can, and to draw attention to our thought processes when we choose the shiny stuff over the comfortable stuff. I want it to look nice, but I have given myself some very well defined criteria. I’ve been thinking about saddlery design and use for a very long time, and examining the equipment we use with our horses from four different but integrated perspectives:
the horse and the extent of our knowledge – i.e what we currently know about them from research, what we can observe individually, and what their species specific needs are, always retaining the option to learn more.
as a qualified saddler and saddle fitter – understanding the history, the application and the manufacture and construction of saddlery, and looking outside into other industries for inspiration and innovation.
as a coach and trainer – what I can continuously learn about how human and equine bodies work, and how to make equestrianism ethical and effective, assisted by well designed equipment.
as a product designer and a thinker – what has lead us to the position we are in today in our industry, how can we ensure the form of our equipment follows the function of the bodies we design it for? Where are our biases, what stories are we telling ourselves? What else can we learn, and how can we constantly improve?
Each one of these persona is a real and active part of my everyday life. I think about this stuff until my brain hurts. My family go barefoot and in rags, birthdays and Christmas are forgotten, names, conversations, diary dates go flying off into the universe when I am thinking about a design. I leave emails half finished, I collect a massive drift of messages of various kinds, the dogs get either abandoned to sleep or walked off their legs (this they prefer), as I need to work a niggly problem out on foot. Horses get quickly fed, then fitted and tested with prototypes, sometimes in the rain or when it’s nearly dark. My workshop and truck and house are filled with scribbled drawings, bits of leather and foam, the kitchen table covered in tools, leather scraps and thread. I treat the sewing machine like a demi-god, bringing gifts of new seams to construct, new materials to bring together.
I start the design process by looking at how an item is currently designed, and why its is designed that way. I consider if it’s sufficient, and if I have sufficient information to make changes that may eventually become improvements. I let my critical mind consider weak points in the design, how the product is used, and look for weak points in my own thinking processes. Let’s look at my current project. I have wanted to design a multi-use bridle for ages. I like to be able to ride bitless and with a bit, sometimes one, the other, or both, and it can be clunky and not very comfortable for the horse to wear a halter and a bridle at the same time. Halters can be OK as a bitless option, but properly designed side pull nosebands are more balanced on the head and are clearer for the horse to understand in training. The original bitless option may have been something like a lungeing cavesson with the reins attached to the nose rather than under the chin.
When I finished my saddlery training in Walsall I was given a bridle sizing chart. I’m not sure when in history the measurements were taken, but the horses they were designed to fit must have been built on a very different scale to those we are breeding today. The first bridle commissions I took needed three adjustments outside of the estimated sizes. They ended up with a way off the scale front (saddlery term for a browband), a bigger noseband, and pony length cheek pieces. I’ve continually heard of this situation since then, even talking on the phone last night. Almost everyone I speak to has cobbled together sizes in one way or another.
For my new project I first established a set of criteria that my design needed to fulfill, which includes a measured fitting system rather than ‘pony – cob – full’ or whatever they might mean in real life. My workshop notebook has a bunch of sketches and my bridle design criteria mapped out:
Ergonomic ‘horse-centric’ design
Bitless & bitted options within one bridle
Balanced, symmetrical design and construction
Smooth interior against the horse
Distribute pressure at known pressure points
Refined / quality / attractive / beautiful
Disciplining myself to plan and research before setting a knife to the leather means I can attempt to be efficient with time and resources. Good leather is hugely expensive, and you don’t want to measure once, but cut three times when it costs a mint. During the planning process for this prototype bridle I have covered a lot of ground: I carefully measured heads and bridle parts, researched other ergonomic designs and up to date bridle research, examined traditional designs, examined construction details to make the design as horse centric as I can, refined strap sizes, checked out ergonomic details, redesigned two articulation points, redesigned fixing points, tested lining processes and materials and considered padding, and considered a variety of style options. And that was before I cut any straps or punched any holes!
Into the workshop next – cutting patterns, checking measurements, finalising punch sizes and testing lining on the sewing machine. There is always learning to be had at every stage, and during the first prototype I expect to rip things apart and rebuild a fair bit. Sometimes I need to find out the right process for the best finish, and practise things.
It all builds into a crescendo of making, which often involves protracted construction late into the night to the sound of talking books, surrounded by cups of cold tea – but there, in the morning, is a new gleaming, new beautiful, new leather, new bridle, right there in front of me.
Innovation kind of precludes being too fond of your ideas – I might like them but they’ve got to be something special and fit the criteria to make the final cut. The horse needs to love my prototype or I will adapt it until they do – the finish I can deal with in time but the bridle needs to disappear as much as it can into the horse’s proprioception from the first contact and survive handling and the barn environment. (That ‘first contact’ principle again). Equipment sometimes gives a horse a strong reason to be frightened (see my last article on poly vagal theory), and do we want to use anything that doesn’t keep a horse as calm and attentive as possible?
There is a small gap between finishing a design and testing it (yeah, about a nanosecond…). As soon as there is sufficient daylight I take it out and try it, putting myself and my lovely, helpful horse-ea pigs under the microscope to see if they are happy (most, most critical) and if it works within appropriate limits. Husband with camera recruited to take pictures. If the horses approve and it does work I’m all “Awesome!!” and can’t wait to make another one and refine the design. If they aren’t and it doesn’t, it’s probably a Dog Walk of Doom along the river, then back to the workshop and a swift re-think. If it’s all going pretty well, I see if I can make it fail in various ways. Then I bring it home and take various bits apart and sweat over them and re-make them until it really works. Then I work on making it look good as well as working, and think carefully about whether I have over engineered it, or whether I’m trying to do too much, and whether I can be more efficient with leather.
I’m at that stage now. I’ve been using my first prototype for three weeks in both bitted and bitless set up, changing between horses. Both horses are calm and settled wearing it, and my rein communication works well. I’ve made several alterations, and fixing changes. There are three or four refinements I want to build into the next one. I need to make detailed drawings and component descriptions today, because otherwise I will go away and do something else for a week and forget what I meant by ’36 @ 1 1/4′ or some other scribble.
When you next go and use your saddle or bridle with your horse, step back for a second and have a think about whether it’s doing the best job it could do for both of you? If it doesn’t a designer might like to know, particularly if you find yourself adapting it in any way. After all you and your horse are the end users of saddlery tech, and are both sentient and remarkable beings. It is supposed to be designed with both of you in mind.
I would love to hear your ideas about things that do and don’t work for you, and what clever stuff you have invented to make things work better? You can message me , I would love to talk.
This article is the third in a series of four articles on horse – human contact. In this article I talk about the shared evolutionary connection between horses and humans, and how focussing on our similarities hand in hand with understanding our differences can help us find compassion in contact. You can access the first article in the series here, and the second article here.
“As mammals we did not evolve to take care of ourselves, we evolved with the help of others to maintain our life. That’s what our body is really asking for. We become more when we are able to feel safe in the arms of another appropriate mammal.”
(Dr Stephen Porges, author of The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe).
When we are faced with something emotionally challenging, how quickly can we bounce back? Can we use our connection with horses and other mammals to help us without damaging them? Can we provide a springboard to help them build resilience? When we need it, can we discipline ourselves to stay at the buckle end of the rein and find safety?
For several days I have been chewing over these questions yet again, trying to encapsulate my thoughts in writing. As it turns out I needed to spend time on one of life’s side trails experiencing loss, which has displayed them for me in a new light. It’s a warm kind of glow. In many ways the process has been nourishing, if fibrous, and, I sincerely hope for most of us the road mostly less travelled (see my post Adventures in Trust and Connection). Less travelled because I have been reflecting on how loss affects my connection with the horses, humans and the other animals in my life, but nourishing because it has made me Find Stuff Out.
Last week we lost a dear friend to a serious and fatal illness. It was what we might conventionally call a ‘good’ death, as in it wasn’t a shocking gut punch as it is when someone is full of health one day and gone the next, but it came a bit sooner than we had hoped. And he was a wonderful person and we miss him. After a few days together, supporting the other dear friends who are in the painfully unfortunate position of having to Sort Everything Out, and also are the people most affected by the loss, we came home and started our own process of coming to terms. Moving into the light of having a loving connection in our hearts without having a living person to connect with.
My brain and heart are re-calibrating themselves. From previous experience with grief I know that for myself it’s not a good idea to a) have total confidence in my own decision making for a bit; and b) trust my own perspective, at least until my mind has settled down. At these times when there is an obvious disruption to the normal state of affairs, I find it difficult to settle, and like many of us I find myself reading a lot, looking for answers.
One of the things I find is helpful is to take up a project. For me at least this is a good way to positively satisfy the need to Do Something, at a time when nothing really can be done. I suspect in my own quiet way, that being so separated today from dealing with the practicalities of a death doesn’t help us process the strong emotions and physical sensations that put our own lives into what can sometimes be desperately painful contrast. We need to move, to create, because death has crossed our faces and we sense immobility is nearby.
Over the last five or six years I have been very interested in the concept of resilience, both in my own life and that of the horses I spend time with. Resilience is described best as the ability to stabilise ourselves after challenge, and is mirrored in how the nervous system oscillates fluidly between states. The work I have done with my horses through seat training and postural work seems to have changed their ability to cope with the things that go on in their lives beyond regular habituation, which reflects a change in reslience. I myself feel more resilient than I used to after getting Up Close and Personal with a lot more exercise equipment than in the old days when rehabbing from injury (cross training; yoga; weights and running – see my blog post The View from the Mat). Now during difficult times I can hold a rope and stay connected to the shore of everyday life, rather than being swept out to sea by big powerful, emotional waves.
In the eighties, behavioural and neurobiological scientist Dr Stephen Porges published his work on polyvagal theory (which I will call here PVT). Polyvagal theory explains the evolutionary neurophysiology of resilience, and gives us some critical points to contemplate as equestrians and human beings. Stephen Porges was the first person to quantify heart rate variability (Porges, 2017), and believes that due to the particular neurophysiology of the vagus nerve which is shared between all mammals, we wear our heart on our faces and in our sense of touch. The vagus nerve is a master conduit between the brain and the visceral organs. Eighty percent of the nerve fibres in the vagus nerve receive sensory input and return information to the brain, and a small proportion of them connect the facial muscles with the heart. If you are interested in his discussion of polyvagal theory, this video interview with Dr Porges himself is a good place to start.
As mammals both humans and horses define ourselves through the sensations of feeling safe. PVT is not limited to human experience, but gives a scaffolding to understand how we share so much of our sensate function with other mammals, and how our lives are centrally focussed on evaluating risk and seeking safety in connection.
The evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system is linked to social behaviour, and PVT emphasizes the importance of physiological state in the expression of behavioural problems. Understanding this gives us a strong insight into the lives of our horses. All mammals share the physiological consequences of native biological reactions to safety cues, danger cues and life threatening cues. We all freeze, fight or flee as a response to danger. We all get jelly legs and loose bowels when we’re scared. We all seek safety in connection with others. Think what it must be like to be a horse so scared in transport that they lose control of their bowels, then be expected to carry a rider and jump enormous fences. What survivors they are! Resilience is essential to survival, so if we want our horses to be partners in a long and adventurous life, we must work out how to recognise and acknowledge these two things:
when our own and our horse’s bodies have reacted to challenge
what we need to do to find our own safe place, and help them find theirs again
In practice, PVT suggests that we could be smarter about how we manage risk and safety. We have developed cultural expectations that animals and ourselves should suppress risk feedback loops, like expecting fearful horses to ‘just get on with it’, or ourselves to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Instead, we can learn to be aware of what our body is doing and why, make decisions about respecting the internal changes that are occurring, recognise that our body is reacting, and do something practical about it to help it find it’s equilibrium again and build resilience.
I am absorbed by this theory. For me it reflects what we actually experience, and what we observe in practice in our horses’ behaviour, and reflects it more authentically than older theories regarding the function of the nervous system. It helps us understand that horse and human nervous systems crave the same safety behaviours – breathing, posture, deep exhalation, social engagement, reciprocation, gratitude and play being some of them. Also these circuits are really, really old. They emerged a long time ago when mammals transitioned from reptiles. Finally – they don’t require us to learn them, they are ‘built in’ as it were, factory settings, and mainly require enabling and activation. Lets take gratitude for instance – “in gratitude you are bathed with the cues of safety, therefore you don’t defend” (Stephen Porges).
In modern times we still have the cultural expectation that we, and our companion animals, should suppress our feelings as they are less reliable than our thought processes. Porges suggests (in another interview with Bulletproof Radio) that this is explicitly illustrated in neurobiological terms, in Descartes’ (1637) phrase “Je pense, donc je suis” – I think, therefore I am. Descartes did not state “Je me sens, donc je suis” – I feel, therefore I am, because of the cultural subjugation of feelings beneath thought. Devaluing emotional responses today after is just like throwing the baby out with the bathwater in survival terms, and has lead to all sorts of ‘interesting’ human practices, like controlled crying in small infants. Parenting advice like “Baby will learn he won’t get his own way by crying” prioritises a tiny baby learning what it is like to be alone at a few weeks old, over the only signal they can make to elicit care and get to safety.
When I am setting the stage for a lesson or training session, a big part of it is to recognise that each individual has safety needs (beyond the obvious hat wearing etc). Polyvagal theory gives me a range of evidence based things I can do to establish safety parameters for my clients, and jointly and in consequence, their horses. These include:
group support – horses and humans will feel safer in a supportive group setting. (This does not include competitive settings, although ‘taking a group to a group’ is a safety solution for attending competitive environments. Polo ponies for instance are often at an advantage as they tend to travel in groups and work in groups as a matter of course).
breathing control, specifically deep exhalation, influences the vagus nerve to slow heart rate (in horses doing slow controlled work with lateral movement with a rider or handler with good breathing control can positively influence breathing). According to PVT I have an advantage here as I learned to play the trumpet as a child! Other ways to develop breath control (like yoga and tai chi) are available.
control of vocal acoustics and talking face to face to humans and horses – using a wider tonal range will help people hear us when they may be going over threshold. Cues of safety also help us process language. Using prosody – ‘motherese’, conveys safety in mammals.
whilst we know we can recruit motivation in learning through positive reinforcement which activates the dopamine system, in practice it does not always activate the horse’s safety system. We need to balance this with understanding how to integrate safety cues into learning situations, and when it is more appropriate to prioritise these – touch, proximity and praise influence the release of oxytocin, the mammalian hormone related to bonding, affiliation, and the control of stress reactivity.
listening and talking in a reciprocal way – the nervous system needs reciprocal neural interactions. This is why humans find social media interactions so frustrating.
visualisation – using positive mental rehearsal allows us to prime our neural networks to feel as if we are already safe and improves performance.
Also – and here is An Important Point backed up by Polyvagal Theory that I don’t think we’ve always got with equestrianism – feeling safe doesn’t necessarily mean total physical relaxation. Your horse is not always either fleeing or flat out. When there is solid, well established and resilient connection, horses and humans can share activities where high energy is expended, with a relaxed mind and positive feelings. When I first started weight training and my heart rate went way up, my brain was seriously rattled. If you are familiar with Steve Peter’s book The Chimp Paradox, my inner chimp was definitely going to pass out Any Minute Now. Imagine being that fat horse in spring when their concerned owner decides trotting up steep hills will help them lose weight, and six weeks of walk work Is For Wooses. No wonder they look so sweaty and frazzled, and don’t want to be caught for a week! Develop resilience and fitness slowly so horses and humans can adapt and feel safe.
I can’t avoid how in equestrianism we are often made aware of the impact of abusive training practices, and how horses can demonstrate differing levels of ‘shut down’ or learned helplessness as a response to some training protocols. Polyvagal theory explains how severe trauma and abuse create dissociated states in humans and other mammals – we literally do not feel our bodies. We are disconnected from feel or touch, can become involuntarily immobile as a defense strategy, or become highly active (think of the bolting stressed horse) to avoid immobility. It is insufficient though to suggest that to regulate the system and support health, growth and restoration in recovering from trauma we must simply remove the threat. Many of us know from experience how much patience, time and thought goes into setting up alternatives to recover resilience in traumatised humans and animals. When these are successful we are recruiting safety systems and rebuilding neurology.
The best horse human contact sessions happen when we are all able to feel trusting, welcomed, supported by the group, and physically and psychologically comfortable to take our space in the activity. They often include playing and having fun together. They do not include endless sets of goals or challenges. They include reflective listening. They include a lot of touching horses and some contact between humans if everyone is cool with that. When any one of us has problems, or we are ill, anxious, or have lost our cool, everybody’s safety and progress is affected, including my own if I am coaching. In my own practise, if I am not on my game physically or emotionally I know I will be running the risk of borrowing from my horse’s emotional bank account, as I am limited in my ability to: get my timing right; to make good reinforcement choices; to get into deep practice; and to create the bubble that my horse needs to feel safe with me if away from their friends.
Back in real life I needed some fresh air and sunlight so I went and found my herd. I probably need to say that I haven’t ever really sought out my horses looking for my own healing. I believe that horses are very vulnerable and my feelings affect them, also think back to my state in the beginning – untrusting of my own decisiveness, and generally unsettled. I recognise, and again share this with Stephen Porges – that we need to appreciate the vulnerability of other individuals and love them to keep them safe. I believe horses are particularly susceptible to the imprint of trauma on our bodies – I discussed Lucy Rees’ theory of synchrony in an earlier article.
When I got to the herd I decided that if Lad was comfortable to connect with me in my unsettled state, we could go out for a walk and a ride round the loch. He is a horse who has a few behavioural markers that point to his vagal tone being more finely tuned to risk than my other horses. He is by nature cautious, he shows persistent fear of a few specific things, and although he will comfortably spend time alone with me, he is strongly attached to his herd friend Dileas – it is stronger from his side. He is also one of those horses who do not self-regulate in eating. Polyvagal theory suggests that over-eating (and other addictive behaviours) may be an attempt by the nervous system to reduce risk reactivity. In my mind I often wonder if some horses who do not self-regulate, and there definitely are some, had abrupt weaning or other early traumatic experiences and suffer resultant attachment trauma. I don’t know what Lad’s early life contained exactly, so I aim to be respectful and give him positive alternatives that he can synchronise with, which down regulate his danger system and up regulate his social engagement system. Getting enough bounce in my bungee isn’t always possible if my vagal tone is flapping all over the place like a wet towel, in which case I will say ‘hi and bye’, but he is resilient enough to manage a degree of unsettled human behaviour now, and using learning theory I can notch up his positive feelings about social engagement.
When we left for the trail Lad’s behaviour exactly reflected my indecision and unsettled state. He paused a few times and looked back towards the herd as I led him across the first field. My internal condition was reflected in my posture, my gait, how I could control my core, and my vocal range was low. He clearly saw the herd as his best route to safety. I had two choices: persist and run the risk of making him stay with me whilst feeling unsafe (not one I choose to take); or finding a way to make myself feel safe and seeing if that gave him enough feelings of safety. So – I moved myself to the end of the reins, metaphorically gave myself the kind of shake my terrier does when she finds me in the woods, took a deep breath, rolled my shoulders back and down, looked up to the horizon, had a foolish grin, put on a silly voice, wriggled my face about and made a raspberry noise. And he stopped pausing, briefly touched my hand with his nose, I rubbed his neck and we went on together.
Remember a rein has two ends.
“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid neither horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.” Cormac McCarthy, All The Pretty Horses
There are two other articles released in this series:
This article is the second in a series called ‘Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart’. You can access part one of the series here.
“I regularly resolve that I will only move the rein hands to the side or up, or close the fingers to stop, but never take my hands back. I had a trainer that placed a lot of value on this and was always watching my hands. Just the desire and the visual in mind of riding this way can be extremely helpful and greatly encourages an effective seat.” Anja Beran, 2017.
In part one of this series I started to look at the intrinsic relationship between equipment choice and training. Alongside ensuring welfare friendly equipment choice, as equestrians we can learn what makes great contact from the horse’s perspective as well as our own, and those principles can change our world. We can learn to set up a positive mental attitude, when it is appropriate to separate or combine our hand, arm and body use, how to use reins, nosebands and bits gently and with care, and how and why we might choose to use rein and bit contact in different ways to influence the horse.
Here’s a story that brings it home: A few years ago my son was having weekly lessons at a local BHS (British Horse Society) riding school. During the first few lessons the instructor had the little class of beginners doing lots of useful things to develop their self-awareness and co-ordination, all on a loose rein in three gaits with polework and a little bit of jumping. One day my son came home from his lesson and complained that his arms were aching. The cause of the ache was that during that morning’s lesson, the children had been told that they were going to learn to get the horse on the bit. They were instructed to hold the reins really short and wedge their hands behind their knees for the whole lesson. ‘Strangely enough’ one pony started bucking during the lesson. I asked my son if I he ever saw me do that when riding, and did his pony feel ok? As he answered no to both of my questions, we decided not to go for any more lessons there.
As thinking equestrians we can call out this kind of teaching, examine why this kind of aversive and unsafe practice has become the norm, and teach our kids compassionate and well informed alternatives. I would love to recommend that my clients sent their kids to regular riding schools and got them exposed to more mainstream equestrian activities, but if this goes on, and it does, ethically I cannot.
I like to introduce the biomechanics of contact to my coaching clients off horse, and do lots of activation exercises and simulations. The first thing I say is that they have the ability pick up a single hair with their fingers, or they can punch that hand through a wall. The same person’s hands can do microsurgery and tug-of-war. We are neurologically prepared to be very precise with our tool use, but we are also prepared to react to fear or stress by gripping, holding and pulling with extreme strength. Our species tries to shape the world around us with our hands, and this is reflected in our brain organisation. We are also clever enough to organise our brains differently when we want to, and we can understand the emotional difference between embodying control, and embodying expansive compassion. We want to say to the horse “I’ll look after you, and let me help you learn to balance and move with me”.
If we introduce the act of pulling through the reins to our horse’s mouth or nose, we know now that we can expect negative consequences. Researchers have implicated bit use in tooth erosion, bone and dental damage, bone spurs, commissure ulceration and tongue laceration (Cook, 2011; Mata, Johnson & Bishop 2015).
It’s surprising how subtle ‘pulling’ can be, but even mild pressure can aversively influence the horse. You often see horses who are mildly BTV (behind the vertical), but their rider looks to all intents and purposes as if they are not overtly pulling. They might not look like it but they are activating the internal neurology of their ‘pulling system’, by feeling disorganised or out of physical or emotional balance. They might be trying to control speed or balancing themselves on their hands and their horses head. Either way, they are offering a brace to the horse rather than a forward following contact from their own independent seat and self-carriage.
To use rein contact as a rider, we need to commit ourselves to learning ways to counter-condition our pulling system, and use our entire body to communicate with and influence the horse mindfully and skilfully. Following this path in depth is fascinating and for some of us, as compelling as doing competitions and things. Learning the biomechanics of riding (for instance from Mary Wanless and the Ride With Your Mind system), gives riders a great human toolkit and fosters deep practice. We can shape the majority of our riding skills off the horse, and we need to be fit to ride, rather than ride to get fit.
What makes contact ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is subject to much discussion within equestrian groups. There is a rich written history in Classical riding which describes terms used to describe hand positions and actions – for instance in the 18th century François Robichon de La Guérinière in his written treatise L’École de Cavalerie, “The School of Horsemanship” – described three degrees of contact – ‘light’, ‘moderate’ and ‘firm’. How we know what these really meant to him, and how they might differ from your ‘light, ‘moderate’ and ‘firm’ contact is unknown, because unfortunately we can’t ask him. He might have had a hand shake that took your arm off at the elbow, or a grip like a dead fish. Probably not, but we will never know, but there are lots of people thinking and practising these skills today who are gaining useful insight and we can ask them what they have found to be helpful from the old masters, and what needs more thought.
“Many riders are concerned with the rein contact being too heavy. But there is also such a thing as not enough rein contact. When the rider can no longer feel the horse’s hind legs in his hands, because the horse is no longer seeking the communication through the rein, then the rein contact is too light. The conversation, the energy circuit, and the circle of aids have ceased.
A rein contact that is a little too heavy is still better than a non-existent rein contact, because in the first case, you can still have a conversation with the horse, whereas in the second case the horse has discontinued the talks.” (Thomas Ritter, 2016)
I am genuinely interested in how we communicate about our actions, and how this relates to the do-ing of the same actions, because clarity can really help reduce mis-communication. When I am trying to learn something I often deliberately try to explain it to someone else. When I mess things up it shows up holes in my knowledge and communication, and I have the opportunity to then find better information and associate them with the right actions, which I can then use in practise.
In equestrianism we use a lot of non-specific and traditional terms, and often refer to written accounts from people from other generations, who we can’t actually ask for clarification from (without the help of a psychic). We then find it difficult to accept others accounts of different lived experiences doing the same or similar activities, because we are not ‘speaking the same language’.
Let’s look at one of these contact themes – the ‘fixed hand – with mobile fingers’. Imagine your hand holding the rein with it coming up through your hand between third and fourth fingers, and lightly compressed between your thumb and first finger. With your hand held still, your fingers are isolated rein tension controls. They provide a lever to press on the rein and increase tension by acting backwards, upwards, sideways, or downwards, or they can open and release it – often described as a ‘giving’ hand. You can’t release a rein that you, or the horse, are not tension-ing, as it were. It is hard to have mobile fingers that do not at least sometimes act to increase tension even briefly and a little amount. Is a little bit of rein tension a problem for the horse? On balance probably not, if adjustments are being made in order to maintain a forward following feel as the horse moves their head and neck position, but we need to have criteria for what ‘a little bit’ is.
It is not surprising that contact is described in a multiplicity of terms and concepts, because ultimately It is Difficult to Do Well, or well enough to help the horse rather than hinder them, or do nothing. And, it is integral to how you use your body and the parts of it that we consider to be the Seat (which is not quite all of it, but the majority). It really is something that you have to practise a lot and maybe become obsessed by. It’s hard to learn without the physical feedback provided by the horse, and without a trained pair of eyes guiding you from the ground, and a road map for wherever the heck it is you’re going.
“The most difficult aid is to teach the horse to respond correctly to the giving hand. In theory, the aid should come from your inside seat and leg, which ask the inside hip and hind leg to move forward. With this reaction, the spine will rotate all the way into the head of the horse, stretching the outside top line. The horse will then search forward and down in stellning and will bend towards your giving hand” Bent Branderup 2014)
Wow, think of all the things that we need to be able to do to achieve this! Isolated control of the inside seat (and all its parts) and leg. Isolated arm and hand control to ‘receive’ the bend and maintain connection. Torso maintaining a neutral spinal posture and enough tone to influence the horse to lift their back. What’s the other arm and hand doing? And the other leg? And someone has to maintain breathing, conscious thought, steering etc. This is why it is the work of a lifetime. Equestrianism is much more of a martial art than virtually anything else.
Some of the problem may be that riding is best learned by doing and being guided, rather than by reading or watching. A process for developing a contact skill set is not described in specific detail which makes it elusive. We are given hints, and concepts, and warnings. Many books on contact and the seat are written by amazing expert riders, who have self-carriage in mind and a detailed mental road map to get to it, and importantly, have trained and ridden horses right through the training levels for many years. They ‘just ride with their seat’, ‘breathe’, ‘sit in the direction of the movement’ etc. Of course they are unconsciously practising all sorts of miniscule internal balancing movements and tonal shifts that enable ‘it’, whatever it is they are aiming for, to happen. But to them it ‘just feels like…’. I have learned to smile politely at anyone who says “you JUST have to do X…!!
Rider coach Mary Wanless and some psychologists refer to this as expertise amnesia, and it has become rather a distracting filter for aspirational riders.
“This phenomenon [of expertise amnesia] is based on the assumption that reducing or diverting the amount of attention paid to material being encoded and stored will reduce the quality and quantity of the later retrieval of that material in a form that is explicit and reportable. So, if a well learned skill is stored as a procedural memory, and its retrieval and subsequent performance is mostly unconscious and automatic, there is evidence showing that the explicit recollection of what happened during the performance will be reduced.” https://arcuterie.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/expertise-induced-amnesia/
What is clear from the research I cited at the beginning and others, is that we need to work to change the status quo regarding contact to improve the welfare of the ridden horse. We have to take this on and be grown up about it. It might be reassuring to reflect that we are not the only discipline where people are unpicking information from the past in the light of new findings. We might be able to cross-pollinate.
“Jue-shou or “Sensing-hands” is a practice method for exploring the preliminary stages of taijiquan partner study. Through simple, non-competitive exploration, sensing hands develops tactile and kinaesthetic ‘listening’ skills which enable practitioners to discern and express different qualities of touch, force and intention.
The goal of jue-shou is the development of ‘sticking and adhering’ skills…” Sam Masich (2009).
Sounds very much like how we can initially develop our contact skills, maybe without the force part. Taijiquan practitioners are very interested in the discipline of study and practice, and the geneaology of these techniques. Sounds familiar? They can also argue like a bunch of eight year olds about it like us too, but we are all human. Taiji historians recognise that historical skill concepts and development integrated inner self-cultivation with social transformation at the civil level. Also like the principles communicated in classical equestrianism.
In sensing-hands practice practitioners recognise five sensing-hands energies, supported by five connection-operations. A contact skill map. One of the most appropriate pairings from sensing-hands practice for the rider or equestrian on the ground which directly relates to hand and seat contact is sticking and adhering.
“Sticking and adhering energy is a sensitivity attribute employed by people skilfull in maintaining a comfortable, even-pressured touch connection with other individuals during changing conditions. These could include varying physical locations of the point-of-connection; differing tempos in movement; [and] shifting intensities and intentions of participants… The ability to ‘stick’ diminishes the effects of unbalanced strength relationships…” (Sam Masich 2009)
What’s not to like about that? Does your horse settle when you achieve a ‘comfortable, even-pressured touch connection’? Mine does. I was riding my youngster last night In the Big Field. Twenty acres of space was about equivalent in my mind from here to the moon, and I was working very hard on just focusing on the area we were in. Due to the circumstances – his second ride only in the Big Field, him feeling a little spring like and assertive, and me having a slightly graunchy lower back which enhanced my sense of vulnerability, I had internal pull going on and I wasn’t as plugged in as I would have preferred. After fifteen minutes of shaping my seat to be ‘stickier’, and my hands to overcome their tendency to hold ‘just in case’, we found a soft, swinging walk and he agreed to go with me. We were both more comfortable and the seat and hand touch connection was more even and agreeable. We parted as friends.
The important thing to note is that in riding and taijiquan, and probably other partner activities, we can explore how we connect and communicate between two bodies. And if we are all thinking along the same lines of compassionate connection we can learn from each other.
One of the most effective things we can do to help ourselves have the right attitude is to understand the influence of priming. Priming refers to what happens in our bodies as a result of our internal dialogue, our self-talk. Priming has been well investigated by psychologists, and is used commonly in marketing to get you to buy stuff.
“Priming refers to the incidental activation of knowledge structures, such as trait concepts and stereotypes, by the current situational context.” (Bargh et al 1996).
In the study I cited above, the researchers found that if they primed their subjects with concepts of rudeness (I can’t help thinking of them sitting people down in front of a computer and flashing rude words at them….), or politeness, their subsequent behaviour changed to become more rude or polite. This also worked when young people were primed with words about old age. They tended to move more slowly following exposure to this word set.
For our purposes contact is often associated with confrontational or combative words and phrases – ‘control’, ‘submission’, ‘closing your hand’ and ‘taking a hold’. This immediately influences our bodies to prepare to resist. In contrast, words like ‘giving’, ‘receiving’, ‘following’, ‘sensing’ and ‘guiding’ suggest a two-way conversation, and we are likely to remain more pliant and responsive. We don’t just expect to resist a force, we can physically act to maintain a low level of positive tension within a system by making a myriad of tiny adjustments in our bodies. Just like sticking and adhering energy. In my ride last night I deliberately used my self-talk to keep myself safe and my horse below threshold – ‘how can I get to… soft; swinging; step together; and wait’.
I will finish this writing with another quote from Sam Masich. Sam is a taijijuan instructor, with very deep knowledge of his subject and an expansive, confident but calm energy. I am not as dedicated a taiji student as I am an equestrian, but I like to borrow useful concepts. He has the feel of someone you could always trust to have your back, or to guide you in your learning – and this is what I aim to embody to my horses. You can get this feel from equestrians too, but its less easy for them to teach it in practise because our discipline doesn’t explain it well. I will borrow his words again – but these are my own, contact practise is about developing the skills to be a better human.
“Touching passes knowledge and goodwill electronically through the high-tension wire of human interaction. To ‘tactualize’ reality, to bring oneself into the deep sensual sphere of physical connection, may be a critical factor in our reaching out into the world in attuned and non-destructive ways.” (Sam Masich 2009).
Bargh, J.A., Chen, M. & Burrows. L. (1996). Automacity of Social Behaviour: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on ACtion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 71:2. American Psychological Association.
Blanchfield, AW., Hardy, J., De Morree, HM., Staiano, W., & Marcora, SM. (2014) Talking yourself out of exhaustion: The effects of self-talk in endurance performance. Medicine
Branderup, B. (2014) Academic Art of Riding – A riding method for the ambitious leisure rider. Cadmos Publishing: Richmond-Upon-Thames, UK.
Cook, W. R. (2011), Damage by the bit to the equine interdental space and second lower premolar. Equine Veterinary Education, 23: 355-360. doi:10.1111/j.2042-3292.2010.00167.x
Masich, S (2009). Wudan Taiji Jue-Shou – 5 Section Taiji Sensing Hands. Tai CHi CHuan & Oriental Arts Magazine, Summer 2009. The Journal of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain. Glasgow.
Mata, M., Johnson, C. & Bishop, C. (2015).A Cross-Sectional Epidemiological Study of Prevalence and Severity of Bit-Induced Oral Trauma in Polo Ponies and Race Horses,Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science,18:3,259-268,DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2015.1004407
“No bit, or any other single item of equipment, can be properly understood out of its cultural and historical context. Traditionally in Spain and Portugal, a young horse is never bitted, but instead is worked in the ancient jáquima (hakma, hackamore)… Traditionally, the expert horseman of this tradition works his horse for several years in the bosal before bitting is even considered… There are several reasons for this tradition. First and foremost, it stems from a fundamentally correct understanding of the horse’s biology. No horse, at any time, anywhere, has been physically mature before the age of five and a half… The main purpose of the long work in the jáquima was to create a completely supple and decontracted horse – one that could be stopped or rolled back over its hocks in the bosal by the mere pressure of the riders little finger.” (Dr Deb Bennett, 1998).
Who doesn’t want that? A completely supple and decontracted horse…wonderful! How the heck do I get one? In this and the next two articles I will discuss something really interesting and complex – contact. Here are a few questions to ponder today that relate directly to this. I have used the term ‘head gear’ to refer to bitted or bitless bridle, hackamore, or halter:
What made you decide on the choice of your horse’s head gear?
Was it something you felt confident to choose without guidance?
How much thought have you put into what your choice of head gear for your horse is designed to do?
Are you planning to keep to this choice for good, or change at some point? What are the criteria you will use to make that change?
What do you believe your horse’s head gear will do?
What do you believe is the most ethical head gear to use?
How was your horse trained to the use of their head gear?
What have you done to educate yourself about hands, reins and contact?
What are your goals in rein contact?
Are there some of these questions you haven’t considered?!
Conversations with trainer colleagues, and recently becoming an Associate Trainer with the World Bitless Association, have prompted me to Marie Kon my mind basement and lean up my contact files.
“The WBA represents ordinary riders, non-riders, competition riders, trainers, behaviourists and all equestrians bitless or bitted, who want to see evidence based ethical training and riding increase in acceptance and popularity for the sustainable well being of the horse both mentally and physically.” World Bitless Association
Why are we so worried about discussing contact in the context of compassionate riding and training? After all, unless we are a human butterfly, we cannot ride the horse without connecting with their body through our seat and in most cases, our hands. Contact skills (and seat skills – see my post A kick ass day – Putting the amen into your fundamental seat connection) are A Learnable and Wonderful Thing. I have thought about and practised them in depth on and off horse over the years, and there are many people doing the same.
My own learning has been and continues for ever as far as I can see. I have gathered strands and embroidered my understanding from as many people as I can find, equestrians and non-equestrians, about what we can learn about the how of connecting hands and bodies for the purpose of compassionate communication.
Personally I went through about ten years of groundwork and riding entirely bitless, because I couldn’t find a trainer who could teach me the knowledge and complex skills required to develop good contact skills that felt authentically good to the horse. I was frustrated and felt like a failure because it Could Obviously Be Done by other humans, and They Learned It somewhere.
I burned all my bridles and rode with no or hardly any contact at all. This had a few advantages to my horses but it didn’t give them anything much either, because I still didn’t have the right skills or the attitude that I needed. Then I happened upon trainers who could open up this skill set for me, and who embody the attitude that We Have to Practise and Get Better at this. I have learned mainly through the French classical tradition with input from Western horsemanship, and from tai chi and baguazhang, how we can learn a compassionate kind of contact that can offer something to horses.
The World Bitless Association aims to help all equestrians make evidence based decisions about the headgear they choose for their horse, and have published general guidance on categories of bitless bridles and their application within Least Invasive Miminally Aversive principles. Unfortunately, as they found, bridle makers mostly believe the gear they make is totally fine and horses love it. As a saddler, trainer and coach, as well as a scientist (master of all trades, Jack of none – obviously…), I recognise four integrated areas we all need to consider and learn about so we can make informed choices about the design, fit and use of equine headgear. In the next three blogs I will explore the following topics:
The culture of bridles and headgear
Skill development and learning – human
Skill development and biomechanics – horse
Compassionate communication and welfare friendly equipment
The culture of bridles and headgear – history and design in brief
Many of the more complex elements of head gear and bits are the retained badges from past eras when human society used horses much more extensively for martial or working purposes, than we do today. They were originally designed (and used) to exert extreme control over the horse’s head position and range of movement in combat situations either on the battlefield, raiding, or in the bull ring, or used to allow herders and cowboys to be efficient during long, hard days in the saddle and manipulate lots of other equipment as they needed when they needed it.
From then on equipment has been adapted for practical reasons, but also fashion. The way people use it has changed for the greater part. The questions as I see them now are, do we as an equestrian society in the 21st century want to find a way to resign this kind of equipment to the past as relics of a different society, if we can find more welfare friendly equipment, given that most horses are not ridden in the contexts where they were intended to be used today? And what exactly makes equipment welfare friendly?
It is worth investigating some of the history first though, so that even if you decide to use complex head gear, you understand that the use of it was first and foremost intended to be part of a training process. People did not go into their local tack shop and grab whatever took their fancy because they ‘were expected to ride in a double in the show ring’, or ‘thought their horse might have better brakes in X bit…’. When used in the manner that they are intended by well thinking people, properly trained horses are gradually habituated to powerful bits, and they are not intended, in modern usage, to be used with any force.
For instance, well fitted spade (leverage inducing) bits are designed to apply pressure firstly to the palate, then chin and poll, and finally the bars of the mouth of the horse causing them to move their poll away from their chest and arch their neck. The intention is not to escalate pressure, but to stimulate the palate so that the horse lifts the base of the neck and the poll, taking pressure off the bit. It is intended that extensive prior training over years in a bosal, then with a snaffle bit, prepares the horse for the action of the leverage bit and creates the groundwork for self-carriage.
Try pressing your tongue towards the back roof of your mouth. Do you feel a little lift in your own neck below the back of your skull, and a small chin tuck? They are designed to influence the same system in the horse. Training the horse in compassionate collection can be protective to their musculo-skeletal system, but these days it is very possible to train this with more simple bits or bitless, without the use of potentially very aversive equipment.
I choose to use a bitless bridle most of the time, or a side pull noseband alongside a simple bit for everyday riding. I introduce the bit when the horse is riding calmly, along side the side pull, to teach the young horse that the aids are equivalent. I only use the bit for very refined connection in schooling to influence balance and posture, and I pay great attention to making sure that the horse is calm and comfortable with any equipment I choose. Historically this is what was done too.
“In the classical era, horses were more often ridden in the cavesson than longed in it. Young horses who wanted to carry their head high were not forced into a leverage bit to “cure the problem”, for educated horsemen knew that the solution lies in the horse and the horseman, not in any bit” Dr Deb Bennett (1998).
In both the European Classical traditions, and in the Vaquero and the other Western traditions being practised today that stem from the same root, the headgear chosen for the horse is intended to be a reflection of their level of training. Riding a collected horse with no contact and draped reins was the result of a specific training process which was intended to enable the horse to be ridden in self-carriage. As the quote from Dr Deb at the beginning of this article indicates – it is the outcome of years of training and testing (in the way that ‘descente de mains’ or dropping the rein to the neck and expecting the horse to continue a movement on their own is a test of the horse’s balance). In this way the layered headgear of the modern day Vaquero and the double bridle were introduced very, very gradually, have a practical purpose and the horse and practitioner had to be ‘qualified’ to use them. The whole ensemble was further intended to illustrate the practice level of the practitioner to the audience.
In the 21st century as equestrians who are predominantly aspiring amateurs, we have to consider when choosing head gear:
what it is intended for
what it actually does (rather than what we are told it does)
can we use it ethically and appropriately.
Evidence is starting to emerge for instance that some head gear definitely has an aversive effect on horse’s vascular perfusion (in the case of tight nosebands), and they may be undergoing a physiological stress response when wearing double bridles (McGreevy, Smith & Guisard, 2012).
We might also have to be honest with ourselves – if we are considering using head gear mainly for control of a forward moving horse, it’s a sticking plaster and likely to Make Things Worse. The horse needs us to train them more effectively and give them the confidence they need not to do this, or we need to limit the contexts in which we ride the horse. If your horse runs away out hunting and you are not prepared to put the hours in retraining them, don’t go hunting.
The majority of modern ridden horses are not ridden by people who are trained in the use of complex head gear, or expected to be ridden in a high degree of collection, and never in a combat situation. Furthermore, we now understand the extensive damage that can occur if we force the horse to assume unnatural physical postures, and in the mouth from bits and from our hand actions.
Even if we do aim to develop the horse in self-carriage, we can train horses and develop their strength without the use of potentially punishing and complex head gear. Given the high level of literacy and the internet compared to the 16th century, there are a range of other ways to communicate the level of training the horse has undergone, even if the gear itself looks pretty! I love a gorgeous bridle as much as the next person, supple leather is just so ‘mwah’! But I would rather buy one that the horse appreciates and that gives the artisan a proper income to reflect the level of thought and skill they have put in. Equine head gear designers need to include better research and development in their production process. Saddlery is predominantly a craft based profession and riding equipment isn’t really yet recognised as sports technology. Traditional products don’t go through R&D well unless the results can be used to promote something innovative about the product. Understandable from a business perspective but not very objective.
I remember being given bridle cut measures charts at college – clearly taken from a very different shape of horse than we commonly see today. I made dozens of ‘cob size’ browbands that have never fitted any cob I have ever met. Change is happening with organisations like Horse Bit Fit, who offer much more in depth biomechanical bit and bridle fitting and education. They are independent, offer detailed assessments and consultations, and can advise on headgear choice.
We understand the needs of equines in far greater depth, and we need to promote compassion in the relationships we form with them. Happily lots of people are now exploring these innovative pathways, and it is easier to find enough information to make an informed choice, and a wider range of products.
See my next post for ideas about the kind of things we can do to develop our contact skills!
Bennett. D (1998). Conquerors: The roots of New World Horsemanship. Equine Studies Institute; California.
McGreevy. P, Warren-Smith. A, Guisard. Y. (2012). The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, Volume 7 Issue 3. Elsevier.
McLean, A. & McGreevy, P. (2014). Riders’ application of rein tension for walk-to-halt transitions on a model horse. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.
When you hear about the idea of riding your horse barefoot, what is your biggest concern? Do you worry about their feet falling apart, bits falling off, or the dreaded ‘wearing away’? Let me tell you a secret from pro-trimmers – we NEVER worry about any of those things. Or hardly ever anyway. We might worry that you will be worried about them, and about how we can reassure you. Otherwise nope, they are not a significant problem on our check list.
The reason we don’t worry is because we have the whole rest of the horse to think about! One of my last shoes off clients is a case in point. Her carer has tried her barefoot before and her feet ‘fell apart’. Well obviously not completely, but the damaged, dried out, weakened horn around the nails crumbled and made the edges of the hoof wall look a bit horrible. The horse was moving fine, but she’s a big solid mare and her feet started to flare, and her last hoof care professional didn’t really do anything about it, so more bits broke off, and cracks appeared, and then they tried grooving above the cracks (that sounds funky…), and yada, yada, yada. You know the rest of it.
So now it was my turn to team manage the second go at barefootin’. Her carer carefully listed all the things that were on her mind (see above). While she related the story to me I wasn’t looking at the feet, I was ‘grooving above the cracks’ so to speak. I was looking at the rest of the horse. Like I say she was a big strong mare, she had a straight leg at each corner and a wardrobe in the middle, in regular work with a good biomechanical trainer, a managed diet and environment. All things being equal she should manage fine with some responsive hoofcare.
When a horse is barefoot, the condition, shape and resilience of the horse’s feet are absolutely, utterly and completely the product of what’s going on in the rest of the horse’s body. If say I spot flare in an assessment, I want to see what in the horse’s musculo skeletal balance is driving the initial deviation, and what else in terms of metabolic condition, weight, fitness etc is compounding the limb balance change.
Now before I go any further I want to let you into another pro-secret – the horse’s balance and hoof shape changes all the time. If you bring your horse in from the field, then leave them tied on a concrete yard for half an hour the shape of the hoof capsule will change. The horse is standing on a much harder surface than is was half an hour ago. If you then put them out again (we’re talking a fairly soft surface here, no hard baked dust pans) within half an hour the hoof wall will have visibly changed again. This is because the hoof is a smart structure. It responds to changes in the horse’s direct environment immediately.
I was once at a hoof care clinic where a group of pros were dumbfounded because a horse that had generated a long and detailed discussion of limb balance and possibly associated low level flare, was turned out in the arena over lunchtime, brought back in, and the flare had ‘disappeared’. As a reaction some hoof care professionals believe that we should ignore the existence of flares, or that the horse ‘needs’ long toes as some kind of support, or even that feet, and ligaments and tendons and nerves and bones, are not subject to the laws of physics including leverage. Far from it, the shape of the hoof is an outcome of the interaction between what is going on higher up and the exterior world. The shape of the hoof is also changing all the time, and in many, many cases is also change-able with biomechanical postural training and responsive hoof care (which is something hoof care pros, and coaches who were hoof care pros, love to see happen and what this post is really about).
I would like to introduce you to three important ways how riding and training can impact on your horse’s barefoot success. These are things holistic pros like me think about a lot:
As humans we are drawn to the symmetry in faces and bodies. Some of us even get bothered when our environment is visibly lacking in symmetry. Findings show that if we are thinking about symmetry when we look at something, when it is visually symmetrical this spontaneously makes us feel better about it (Pecchinada et al 2014).
Functional symmetry is a mathematical concept, but it is also used in biomechanics to describe how the movement of the limbs on the right and left sides of the body compare. Let’s think about foot placement. If we were standing side on watching a horse walk or trot up in front of us, would one front foot land more or less heel first than the other? Can the horse step its left hind leg further away from its midline than the right hind under the same circumstances? What is the difference in where the horse chooses to place the foot and what might be influencing that?
As the rider or ground worker, our bodies influence the functional symmetry of how our horse moves. Working on our own functional symmetry is best done off horse, and using all the great tools we have these days, like mirrors for instance, we can become more aware of the symmetry (or assymmetry) of our posture.
Over time, we can develop the skills to change our posture which will change our horse’s way of carrying us or working with us on the ground. As a pro trainer and an old ex pro-trimmer I want to know that my clients have knowledgable eyes on their own and their horses bodies who are going to help them with functional symmetry and give them good skills. I also want to know that they have a realistic expectation of how much Time to Fix Things will be required. If they have a trainer who has zero real understanding of biomechanics you can tell in their bodies and feet, and their hoof care professional is never going to feel like they are winning.
2. Building healthy movement patterns
It is normal for healthy barefoot horses walked and trotted up in hand, or moving around in a relaxed attitude, to place the feet visibly heel first. In these circumstances the muscle tone in the rest of the horse’s body is often low, it is in an efficient neutral posture, and it is not required to carry a rider’s weight. Horses that do not land heel first when walked or trotted up in hand but still have a relaxed posture either have a pathology somewhere in the body that is causing them pain, or have weakly developed feet. As horses are commonly observed by hoof care professionals walked or trotted up in hand, and we like calm relaxed horses, heel-first landing is what we commonly expect to see, but like lots of things more is not necessarily better.
When a horse is trained to change it’s posture during collected ridden work, as in good classical dressage training, its stride length becomes more dynamic – moving between higher and shorter steps to longer, more ground covering steps. The fascial net of its body in collected work holds more spring, more potential and its landings change. In collected steps flat or even toe first landings can happen, but the effect is mitigated by the slow speed, control and trained tone of the horse’s body.
It is really important for the horse’s body and feet that they are trained to learn the best posture for the ‘carrying’ part of being ridden, otherwise we put them at risk of horrible pathologies like arthritis and kissing spines. Correct biomechanical training can substantially increase the control a horse exerts over its limb movement, and is how we build healthy movement patterns. [Thankyou Dorothy Marks and Solo for demonstrating a ‘tensegrity’ trot].
3. Making good posture feel good
Yesterday in my first schooling session after the snow with the Ladster we started the same way as usual, establishing that he was calm and happy to leave the herd and spend some time with me doing gymnastics. He had eaten a feed, had a big warm drink, had some hay while we tacked up, then we walked slowly across the big field together checking out the condition of the ground and whether there were vole and rabbit holes anywhere I was planning to ride. We did lots of copycat blowing, and the atmosphere was definitely ‘amble in the park’ before I mounted. See my blog post Adventures in trust & connection – having the horse’s back for why setting up the right attitude helps.
My aim in training is to layer ‘good’ experiences, only adding more challenging ones if bracketed by definite ‘good’ associations and to be LIMA – Least Invasive & Minimally Aversive. The day’s progression was to find even bend in my body so he could take it up, and to explore what happens in moving frequently between higher and extended neck position in trot for him, on both reins. Lad has experienced a more balanced posture in the last few years which has given me access to a major movement reward. I don’t have to mark and stop to reward good posture with food, he chooses to carry it on sometimes after I suggest we could stop, or when I turn him out back to the herd.
Neck extension with tensegrity was so different to his prior posture, those early FDO experiences must have felt incredible. It might have been impossible to get the timing wrong because the movement, like a good stretch, was an intrinsic reward. Now he returns to it very easily with huge enthusiasm.
So tell me – what is in the front of your mind now when you think about your newly barefoot horse, or your barefoot from birth youngster?
My glutes are getting work again. They need to be reminded that they have a job and are subject to regular work appraisals, but I get the idea that they don’t really give a rats ass. Getting them to work properly for riding when they have been stretched and de-activated by years of bending over trimming horses, is in my experience a case of literally kicking ass until they activate and then working them a lot more than you might think. Luckily for me though I have this dead critical inner PE teacher, who warns me that if I’m not careful my legs will drag me towards the sofa and I may never move again unassisted (until the fire brigade have to take down the end wall of the house to get me out in one piece).
So on days like today when the day stretches ahead like a smooth, clean page, when I can decide to spend hours doing things, and what kind of fun I can have, I still start with a workout. Why? Because I like to move and I like to move as well as I can. You can keep your duvet days. By about 3pm I’d need tenderising with a mallet. If I haven’t got all my bits flowing and talking to each other, then when I go to RIDE and I want to PRACTISE and get into something NEW, or go out on the trail and have the best FUN possible ever, some bits won’t work properly and my horse will have to compromise on my behalf. A workout makes the rest of the day the top half of the first division.
These days as my body is feeling a bit battered by years of trimming horses feet and other stuff, being supple in the morning without even a short mobility session and regular chiro treatments is rare. Still cool, but also crrrr…unchy. Restoring my mobility after sleep can take from fifteen minutes to forty five, depending on how stiff I am, how much time I have, and what I am prepared to put up with for the rest of the day. As I progress from not being able to put my socks on to intense full body stretches, I start to feel the layers of stiffening melting away from my muscles and fascia. To be able to impact on it in just fifteen minutes with the right kind of mobility activities is brilliant, but it also means I can’t not do it, if that makes sense.
My helpful friends include a spiky massage ball, a foam roller, a yoga mat, a mirror, lots of water to rehydrate, and guidance from some fantastic bodyworkers and body thinkers. My helpful labrador Katy coaches my mobility sessions, and adds a few shoves and a bit of a wrestle to test me. She has graunchy days too, and her favourite thing is to roll about on warm dry grass, or in front of the fire, and I wonder why we don’t follow our bodies and do more of this ourselves. Why do we have sofas even? I sometimes just want to lie on my back in a deep shingle bed and wriggle all of myself mobile. I get into deep practise as much as I can during mobility sessions so I can focus on making improvements and stay in the moment.
Dr Kelly Starrett in his very useful book Becoming a Supple Leopard agrees (although he does go into lots of specifics as well):
“Don’t feel like you have to overcomplicate this mobilisation by targeting specific muscles. People like to say, ‘Hit your glute med or short hip rotators’. If your last anatomy lesson involved dissecting a frog, this advice might leave you a tad clueless. What’s important is that you find your business and put in some quality work, staying on the tight area until you make change. Fundamental stuff.”
Dr Kelly Starrett (2015).
Today in my horse life it was right for Lad and I to have some ‘us’ time. Also fundamental stuff. There is a lovely depth of snow on all the trails, so we went for a perambulate round the loch in the late afternoon. Now himself has been babysitting for a few weeks, which has been necessary for young Oro, but not Lad’s favourite way to be with me. We walked across three fields together on foot first. Walking for the first part with your horse helps you tune in to each other safely, and warms your body up in movement before you ride. He paused a couple of times en route, and made one fairly determined suggestion that we turned left and Went Home Now Before we Got Too Far. If you turn left long enough however you end up pointing where you started, and as I took the executive decision not to join in with his going home ideas, and I had positive feelings about getting out on the trail, we got on reasonably coherently. On board I received a few further questions from him about my personal commitment to the trail (a subject I will write about again) for the next 100 yards. I must have answered them convincingly enough for him, he relaxed and said OK he was ready to start Enjoying Himself and maybe It Wouldn’t Be So Bad. (I know it sounds anthropomorphic, but I hope appropriately so).
“Anthropomorphism is making judgements about other species based on our own human way of experiencing and interpreting the world… [It] allows us to use, as a starting point, what we know (because of who we are) in our interpretation of what other mammals, at least, do and how they are.
But we must be very critical of making judgements assuming that equines are ‘just like us’. We must understand where the differences lie, in both what we perceive and how we analyse this information.”
Marthe Kiley-Worthington (2005).
In Lad’s terms enjoyment means a jolly kind of ride somewhere he knows well, with a lot of blending and togetherness. Happily that is my definition of enjoyment as well. Snorting means ‘I am ok now’, trotting up and down gradients, and some decent fast canters on good going, a heathery snack here and there, confidence giving from me when necessary with scratches, cheerleading, rubs and food and lots of blethering. As it was a ride out for him today, my job was Riding Technician rather than Horse Trainer. This is a road many horses never get to explore, but it can seriously help trust and connection in training to travel both roads separately.
As Riding Tech it is my job to ride as well as I can, to establish his mindset (see this blog post for mindset ideas: Seven useful concepts for really satisfying training sessions with your horse), to accept challenges, ideas, problems and conundrums without argument and find agreeable solutions or alternatives, to anticipate what my horse needs before they know they need it, and to generally maximise my horse’s pleasure.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth”
Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken
The difference between Riding Tech rides and Horse Trainer rides is that as Riding Tech you are working on your intrinsic toolkit, and measuring your effectiveness by their responses. Letting them be them without asking for a lot of extrinsic changes. It doesn’t mean you don’t influence the horse, you surely do, but you are not going to ask for anything very complicated, difficult or new, and it is your job to ride as well as you can. Leave the other stuff for another day, this day is about enrichment and giving them a good ride.
Three of my biggest performance measures for Riding Tech rides are:
The quality of the walk home. On good rides when I have done my job the homebound walk is balanced, blended and beautiful to ride, and can go down new trails at the drop of a hat if I look down them.
Having a horse who stays with me for more ‘us’ time when I turn them out again.
Looking at the horse’s back and body after the ride it looks smooth and elastic, as if he hasn’t been ridden.
In my explorations into the business of what the rider’s seat is and does, the anatomy of the human fundament and associated domains looms large (did you see what I did there?), and has a significant influence on ‘a good ride’. Studying the physical interface between the human body and the horse, or more accurately the human body, the saddle or ‘sitting on’ technology, and the horse’s body beneath is surely very critical if you want to use it as well as you can. After all unless you flutter above your horse like a butterfly the connecting place between two bodies is a fundamentally physical, rather than solely an energetic connection.
This is the place where the Riding Technician work is most immediately effective. Today my ‘big picture’ jobs were to keep my body centred, connected, quiet and aligned over the upslope of Lad’s withers and his centre of gravity, and to help him keep his back lifted going up, down and over things, through transitions and at different paces. To do this I had to find a place where I could become a receiver more than a transmitter.
To do THIS we must attach as much of our seat – thighs and underneaths, to the horse’s longitudinal back muscles, and the layers of muscle that connect the shoulder into the ribs. We also have to find the right tone for our muscles, too high and the horse may find it alarming or feel pushed down, so will shorten and hollow, too soft and they may be too saggy and lose their own tone.
Scouring my book collection it seems that many equestrian writers find it difficult to distinguish the ‘seat’ from the entire body in trying to describe the ‘how’ of seat work. I can understand their position, in practice yes bodies are integrated systems, but if we are going to work on our seat skills, we need to start to adopt a shared and specific vocabulary from the bottom up so to speak.
To find the right tone for Lad today I first blended with, then adjusted the slightly tense tone in his long back muscles by bring the tension in the muscles in my inside thighs and butt down a little to create a lovely springy movement. It took about fifteen minutes of focussed riding to start to work. This picture is a great image to look at when thinking about the seat – most of the muscles shown are important in your seat attachment and you need to know them up close and personally. Look how many connected structures there are. I can clearly feel my semitendinosus today, and my sartorius was tight on the foam roller earlier.
Up and down steep gradients today in a seat tech bareback pad I have designed particularly to help amplify the rider’s seat, it was possible to stay blended and aligned and not slide forward or backward. In a good trot and in canter uphill and cornering, it was easier to find length along my thighs and underneath, to centre myself and maintain the right tone in my muscles and therefore in his back muscles, maintaining his vertical balance and helping him move safely and calmly on snow and icy trails. Letting him move with the aim of giving him freedom and agency within the stride, we belted up one hill straight through a snow covered broom bush that had fallen across the path. Fully in the moment he shut his eyes, reached his nose forward so it didn’t hit him full in the face and cantered straight through it without breaking stride.
I forgot something, the other sign of a ride well done is dirty fingernails.
With my face down in the water I hold my breath for as long as I can so I can stay in the blue misted underwater world. Not being an ultra free diver this lasts about thirty seconds, but it gives me long enough to adjust my focus and calm down so I stop twitching when objects that ‘are seaweed but could be sharks’ float into my peripheral vision. During thirty seconds of breath holding the first ten gets my adrenalin down. My survival brain reacts to sudden cold water immersion like a baby monkey fell in a river, but after that it’s time to explore the underwater pool.
From beneath the water’s surface the breaking surf looks captivating, the waves breaking through the surface above me are like a kalaidoscope, rather than looking ominous and threatening. I feel the swell of the tide’s incoming fill as it carries me further into the tidal pool, but it only lifts and carries me, and clouds my vision with dancing bubbles of silver and aquamarine.
I turn onto my back and float with my fins out of the water, resting on the incredible power of the Atlantic waves breaking over the rocky barrier behind me where this big pool lies in a rocky fissure. Wild swimming here is a way of adventuring into a place and a circumstance where you couldn’t normally survive, at least not intact for very long before the massive waves introduced you to a barnacle covered rock. It isn’t safe, or within my comfort zone, but I really want to be here. In fact I really, really want to be here, being swirled around, upside down and inside out by a natural washing machine because it is totally, captivatingly different from how you imagine it to be.
I always feel that being in a small boat or in the sea wild swimming is like riding an absolutely enormous horse. I have no choice but to surrender and be carried along by it, blending with the massive force around me, then finding another self I don’t usually use for whom the sea feels like home. I have to trust and know and activate my own physical and mental abilities so I can move myself around, but as I am always going to be seriously over matched in terms of energy I am humble. Finding which way is up in breaking surf can be a panicky situation, as the powerful forces moving you can be overwhelming. I need to be mentally quiet and trust that I can do it, I need to receive rather than project energy, and feel all of myself right to the edges, top, bottom and sides to find a place of confidence.
Before finding the pool I waited five years. Technically I knew roughly where it was but not exactly how to get to it so it became part of my personal mythology, like a white stag. It’s existence depends on the state of the tide. Too high and it becomes another part of the coastline, blended into a foamy maelstrom by huge Atlantic swells. We talked it up for a few days, then on the last day before leaving for home we just HAD to get up early and go. It was not the most inviting day for Western Isles swimming. Grey, overcast and windy, the sea looked hard and impenetrable. I sat on the edge of the pool in my wetsuit dispatching thoughts of conger eels with a mental baseball bat.
We found it under a massive fold of rock between the cliff edge world of sea pinks, short turf and sheep, and the rock pool world of limpets, little sea weeds and barnacles. We found it just in time. Forty minutes later when my wetsuit no longer protected me from the summer sea cold I climbed out and rubbed my stippled limbs dry while balancing on a huge, smooth rock slab. Holding a cup of tea between my warming hands the breakers flooded over the rock lip of the pool and the sea pool rejoined the sea entirely.
It feels such a whole life having days like these. Dried off with fins packed on the back of my rucksack, we picked field mushrooms from the multitudes of little cream caps strewn along the cliff tops. A couple of days before we fished and foraged for mussels. We walked into the interior trusting to landmarks to find a special trout loch. The island where we were is a kalaidoscope of waters – lochs, lochans and beautiful, complicated coastline. A landscape of great diversity in the microcosm and little diversity when you take a wider angle. It encourages you to find and unfold elemental hidden energies, and say “ok I will trust you”. When you walk, when you are alone in the sea, when you are foraging for mussels or seaweed, you have to let your senses trust that what you are looking for will be there. That if you stop trying so hard to look for one, a path will unfold and take you home. You have to be coherent.
On the way back from fishing, we were talking and we took a slightly different route. We knew we had to walk pass six small lochs on rough moorland to get back to the truck. In the middle of a large boggy expanse we knew we were heading in roughly the right direction but had lost our bearings. Standing and looking for landmarks, my small dog was also collecting information. Suddenly she said “it’s this way of course, you nose-blind numpties!” (she is hugely affectionate but is her own dog and is often perplexed by human limitations), and trotted off across the moor. She had never shared her tracking skills with us before, perhaps not wanting to risk that we might be interested in her private collection of vintage rabbits, but she was so absolutely determined that she was on to the truck that we trusted her, and of course she lead us in precisely the right direction.
Trust and heart coherence are the first places I go in developing that interface between two bodies that we need for really good riding, and adventuring into new realms both in our experience and in our thinking brings them into sharp focus. With that foundation, that sense that we literally and metaphorically always aim to ‘have the horse’s back’, like holding on to a small child as it looks over the edge of a high bridge, we can be coherent, we can receive a lot more of the information we need to keep ourselves and our horses safe, and we can make decisions with clarity and precision about what we need to do throughout a ride.
“Horses don’t ignore their sensate experience. As animals they gauge trust, not by words spoken, but by how they feel. Trust with others is developed over time. We can chase a wild horse in a round pen and bring it to submission in half an hour. This does not mean we have gained the horse’s trust. The horse learns to trust the human gradually, each point of contact building on the previous session. Training a reliable horse takes recurrent reinforcement that we are not dangerous, that we are competent socially and that we respect his need to be a contributing member of the team. It only takes a minute to break trust, but it can take a thousand hours to repair it”.
Ariana Strozzi (2004). Horse Sense for the Leader Within.
It’s a big responsibility. The other day myself and a good friend and two of my dogs took Lad and Oro the Youngest for his first big trail ride. He has done lots of smaller trips out, and this was a progression to a trail ride of about 1 1/2 to 2 hours on a much more varied trail round the loch. The way I visualise it is to create a small, mobile herd (this one was two horses, two dogs and two humans), where most of the members are going somewhere they know well, and just one member adventuring off his personal map. When you set it up like this, the rest of the herd is a support system. Most of the group, dogs included, had a really good mental map of the territory we’re covering, it’s backyard stuff to them. The herd also needs to be a herd, they need to live or spend regular relaxed time together, rather than be a bunch of strange horses and people.
“Relationships are based on connectedness. When people communicate, an exchange of perspectives takes place that can lead to new ways of seeing and being together for the people involved. We are capable of communicating far more than fear and insecurity to each other when our feelings become part of the legitimate scope of or awareness. Even when we are feeling threatened, angry or frightened, we have the potential to improve our relationships dramatically if we bring mindfulness into the domain of communication itself.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn (1991) Full Catastrophe Living – How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation.
The adventuring horse is there to extend his mental map, but the delightful thing about horses is that as they progress they can borrow responses from other herd members when they come across new obstacles and vistas. This has two sides to it, as many riders know, but it can seriously improve learning when it goes well (and learning other stuff when everyone decides to spook at once). When you can tap into their self-organising system again they become one mind. One horse stops, the other stops too, then they move off again in synchrony. Oro adventured ahead, or trusted to the group to look after him while he went behind Lad and absorbed Lad’s reactions while he made sense of something. You see this in wild or feral herd behaviour with young horses moving ahead and scouting stuff out, then coming back when it gets a bit alarming, and its good to encourage it in young horses rather than forcing them to follow an older one or go out alone.
My job was to manage where we went, the speed we took, whether we had any stops or not (and decide whether to compromise on this point in relation to heathery snacking to prevent fatigue), and health and safety. This is not really a role that in nature one horse ever takes, they don’t work like that, but humans can learn to be good at it. It brings up the verb ‘leading’, but I think of it in practice as ‘managing’. Leadership is an attractive concept to humans, but it has all sorts of connotations and I feel its definition is too blurred for me in relation to horsemanship. In practice I want to manage the edges of the experience of the adventuring members of the herd so they can safely build confidence and get home again with good memories. It’s more like a collie might with sheep. Go here, don’t go there, let’s all go at this pace, let’s all wait here. My aim is to keep the herd flowing together, connected, calm, and safe.
We had a lovely ride sharing the adventure with Oro, a familiar ride through fresh eyes. When he had an idea, like experimenting with trotting up a steep bank as a way to tackle it, if it felt calm and purposeful I went along too. I trusted my feel for how he was expressing himself with normal calmness, and if he felt a little scared and had to pause for something I didn’t wait or put pressure on him, but hopped off and we progressed close together on foot until calm again. If I had to do something else with other herd members, like rescuing the dogs when they were stuck in someone’s garden, I did it on foot but took him with me. Then we picked up the ‘looking for a getting on object’ activity, one of his faves, hopped back on and rode along pricky ear adventuring again.
Over the course of the ride this meant very little fear stopping even for the two narrow footbridges we needed to cross. I got on from about six different objects, which he knows how to do well and seems to enjoy. Getting this consistent makes it very easy for me to mount calmly and with his help, from funny objects like fallen trees and tumbledown walls. For me the foundation job in riding is going along calmly, developing trust in each other and the activity, rather than being subject to a series of fearful bumps, stresses and separations. It is important to keep the flow going by giving yourself the instruction to get off and walk when your horse needs support, and only remount when you have re-established calmness. If the horse is not calm for mounting, it isn’t calm for riding!
And we all got home and lived happily ever after.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (1991) Full Catastrophe Living – How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Dell Publishing: New York.
Ariana Strozzi (2004). Horse Sense for the Leader Within. Authorhouse: Bloomington, Indiana.
I didn’t ride my horse today. It’s a nice day, the weather is good for the time of year, my horse is well and healthy, I feel fit and had the time to do it. But I didn’t ride my horse today. And the reason is? My insides didn’t match my outsides. I wasn’t coherent. I could have gone ahead and done it anyway, it would probably have worked out pretty well. The difference wasn’t very big, and I believe my horse is resilient enough now to tolerate it. My journey is on a trajectory though to present myself to my horse in a way that is as coherent as I can make it, so I made the choice not to compromise. I also had the recent experience of not being totally coherent on a ride and lead the day before with Oro and Lad. Snow rides are often exciting for horses, and Lad is a bit fed up of babysitting and would like a good canter. As Oro isn’t ready for that kind of gidding yet, our ride in walk and trot reminded me that if my insides don’t totally match my outsides my ability to bring two horses’ excitement threshold down is definitely reduced. I could have winged it… but I want to come home looking forward to the next ride too!
The definition of coherence is something logical or consistent and something that makes sense as a whole. An example of coherence is an argument (as in a debating position rather than a verbal ding dong) that has no inconsistencies. For horses to be able to understand us we definitely have to make sense as a whole. Today I have a little niggly twist inside. I can feel it most clearly in my body in the left side of my diaphragm, but it is affecting my whole front body and reaching round to the left of my rib cage. I need to sort it out as it’s producing a little bit of anxiety. What it’s probably doing is actually mimicking what my body does when I feel anxious, therefore I feel a little bit ‘physiologically’ anxious. I might have a rib out of position, my anxiety producing gut flora could be flourishing or I could even be dehydrated, or be making a fascial change – I have spent this week working on my posture in lots of different movement including with heavy weights and my muscles are feeling the difference. My focus has been predominantly internal so I could also have temporarily lost the balance between looking inwards and looking outwards.
So many things can influence the body it might all seem subjective and a bit of a palavar. In real life when I am making the choice to do something with my horses or not on any given day, it doesn’t really matter how my niggle got like that, experience tells me that horses don’t find these little niggles very helpful at all. Whilst we often downplay them, they find them pretty alarming indeed. Because there is some extra tension in our body and mind, they have no choice but to reflect it in their body and mind and it feeds directly into their alarm system. What happens when you just ignore it and go ahead anyway? Well yes that is an option I have chosen sometimes, and a lot of times it has ‘kind of’ worked out, at least nobody got badly hurt and I have found a way to unravel tautness by moving it back and forth between my body and my horses body. It doesn’t on the surface require much of the grown up horse to do this, but in my mind it’s not very respectful of them. In most domestic circumstances we can’t legitimately ask the horse if they mind, or genuinely give them the choice to back out of it. We have trained them to tolarate our inconsistencies. My horses are hugely aware of my physical and therefore my emotional state because their evolution has physiologically prepared them to do so. How do I know that isn’t over time going to contribute to their stress and affect their health? In lots of years of being a horse guardian I know it definitely can do.
Why does this happen, and what does the evidence look like? After thirty or so years of being exposed to natural horsemanship in practice or the written word, most of us will be familiar with the concept of the horse as a prey animal. Our relationship to the horse has been directly described as predatory, and one of the stated aims of modern horsemanship training is to mediate our own predatory behaviours in order that the horse accept us into its social environment. Lots of us have practised this like a martial art over many years and are getting to discern what is useful information and what we need to unpick now we have learned to be aware of our breathing, heart rate, posture, muscle tone, touch, timing and rhythm etc., all of which make up our ‘feel’. In relation to our coherence and how we directly pattern our horses, equine ethologist Lucy Rees in her recent book Horses in Company (2017), discusses two important applied ethology principles that we could learn from.
Firstly – hard wired avoidance of predators blueprints the majority of other equine behaviour. This is what natural selection prioritises for the continuation of the species. As handlers and riders many of us have learned not to behave like predators, not to sneak up, grab, pull or hold on to horses trying to escape. This is fairly straightforward for most people to analyse and learn for themselves and the most obvious response.
A human behaving like a horse in the presence of a predator however, can also have the consequence of triggering escape behaviour and is probably where the learning gets a bit more technical. When your insides do not match your outsides, when you are ‘faking it to make it’, or ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’, or feeling any strong negative emotion your chance of triggering escape behaviour increases. Plus when you are incoherent yourself you are very likely to be less aware of things that are about to happen as your own mind focuses on controlling or suppressing a negative emotion. This can happen in any circumstance when you are with a horse, on the ground or ridden, handling or just standing next to each other. The first thing that commonly happens with an alarmed horse is that after assessing the threat they move closer to other horses or to you if no other horses are nearby.
“Horses’ primary reaction to alarm is to bunch together, producing the predators eye confusion effect (Pullian 1973) a common defence strategy among social prey animals.” Lucy Rees (2017)
When this happens at speed you can get sucked into being part of the herd quite easily, but you are a lot more squishy than most horses and you don’t really know the rules. You may interpret their behaviour as barging or pushing, but in fact it is the first part of their alarm system kicking in. Bunching comes before running away as it over-rides moving directly away from a source of danger so the herd can all assess the danger and start to synchronise. We can use bunching behaviour as a marker to remind ourselves to back up a bit, slow down and take our time establishing calm in the horse before doing anything further with them. They are not ‘taking the piss’ or messing about, they are genuinely fearful.
When I was trimming for a living, some clients would be so worried about how their horse might behave during the appointment (or how the professional might respond to horse escape behaviour, unfortunate but true), that their horse was convinced they were about to be beset by wild dogs. They could be quite a way from the horse but their fear was palpable. All the horse knows is that you are freaked, he isn’t going to ask why before mentally heading off. If he can’t physically head off his alarm is going to build, like squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the lid on. If you have a good hoof carer or other pro who sends you off to make tea or similar distractions during appointments, it might be because they are too polite to say you are freaking your horse out and making it difficult and dangerous to work underneath them. Happily there are lots of ways we can learn to rationalise our fears so we don’t inadvertently trigger alarm, either through self-help or with professional guidance, and it can vastly improve handling situations without ‘re-training’ the horse at all. In my work I explore the relationship off horse between thoughts, feelings and behaviour with my clients, and use positive mental rehearsal, visualisation and reframing to change long standing human behaviour patterns.
Secondly – Synchrony, this is a brilliant concept. Horses, like birds, fish or sheep, use behavioural algorithms for self-organising group movement. When looked at from above, the movements of a herd resemble those murmurations of starlings that are so amazing to see. Self-organising species flock, herd or shoal, keeping a set distance from each other and appearing to move with one intention. This behaviour is innate and hard wired i.e it does not have to be learned, they can do it from birth, hatching or fledging. For our purposes, a group of two or more horses moving together in self-organised group movement essentially becomes one synchronised mind. In fact a horse being ridden or worked on the ground by a rider or handler with highly developed body awareness after a few minutes also moves in synchrony with their human. This is why even very inexperienced horses can appear to have amazing skills when ridden or worked on the ground by very organised, body aware and influential people. Domestic horses learn to move in and out of being themselves and being in synchrony – i.e all one mind, even when not alarmed. You often see horses sharing hay who move the same, have the same posture and the same energy, but we must remember eating ‘piles’ of food together is not natural horse behaviour so is unlikely to be seen in feral observation studies. They do take up similar grazing and resting postures however. Wild or feral horses act like one mind more of the time as they need to have a very sensitive alarm system.
“The single horse loses individual identity in the band, the band loses its identity in bigger groupings… doing what others are doing, moving together and turning together, is what keeps the herd united in flight from start to finish” Lucy Rees (2017)
Doesn’t that remind you of really good riders as well? If you have worked with groups of horses in movement, for instance riding one and leading another you might have recognised that at some point during the ride, providing the horses are comfortable with each other, it starts to be as if you are riding one horse. Moving up and down the gaits the lead horse (lead as in the one you are leading rather than the ‘leader’) picks up the movement cues in parallel with the ridden horse . The same for herding groups of horses at liberty. Knowing how you can trigger synchrony can be very useful when you need to motivate a number of horses to do something like go somewhere or exercise together, but it can also be a big ask to require one horse not do to what a lot of other horses, or even one very excited horse, are doing. Or in reference to our own coherence, require our horse to be calm and controlled when we are squirting excited alarm out of every pore! I might not have been quite doing that on our yesterday, but there was a background vibe of ‘this could turn into a bit more of a gid than I really think is healthy’.
Exploring synchrony with our horses is one of the most rewarding parts of horsemanship. We might call it blending or influencing, or see authentically talented riders shaping horses in synchronicity without force in a way that the horse totally ‘agrees’ with. We can learn this by developing awareness of our own bodies and minds and how we are presenting ourselves to the horse. The questions I ask myself are how close are we to triggering alarm in our horse? And what do I need to do, or where do I need to be to synchronise with a movement? To find the answers to these questions I need to develop in myself a sense of coherence.
“People who have a high sense of coherence have a strong feeling of confidence that they can make sense of their internal and external experience (that is basically comprehensible), that they have the resources to meet and manage the demands they encounter (manageability), and that these demands are challenges in which they can find meaning and to which they can commit themselves (meaningfulness).” Jon Kabat-Zinn 1991)
Exploring the way you see yourself in a relationship with your horse can help you to change your experience of that relationship. If you feel like a victim of your horse’s bargy behaviour you may have some very negative self-talk, but if you can change that thought to your horse simply expressing primary alarm behaviour you can quickly think of ways which you can get help and keep yourself safe. It could be as simple as the orientation of the horses body when it is tied up for daily care or it might be more complex, but you can act to keep yourself safe and balanced.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1991). Full Catastrophe Living. How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfullness meditation. Dell Publishing: New York.
Rees, L. (2017) Horses in Company. J.A. Allen: Marlborough, Wiltshire.
When your life drops a glorious new day of adventure right in front of you and you can “ooh” with delight and take advantage of it, it’s time to shout “THANKYOU UNIVERSE!” and dive right in and make the most of it. It’s time to throw out the “I should’s” and the “I must do’s” and all the guilt and responsibility, and swim out into the bright light of play. Follow your nose, your feel or your feet, or all three, feel grateful and enjoy it.
Loads of opportunities have come together to make this week fine, fat and healthy, and I am so grateful that the timing left me with a free day and (wowserooni!) twenty acres of four inch deep powder snow, and a bunch of new things to practise and a sound good horse who likes to move and learn and eat apples.
Thankyou herd for it being OK to ask the young Rey del Oro if he minds if I ride bareback in the snow to put him out after breakfast. He said he didn’t really mind but if I could see my way to not wriggling on my belly quite so much on a wet coat he would prefer it next time. The rock was quite slippery, it wasn’t very comfortable or elegant for him and it was definitely worth more than two pieces of apple. Thankyou for the two minute ride that reminded me very clearly where my still, small centre is so I could add it to the ‘doing’ of active riding.
Thankyou snowy fields for the walk across with Red Devil Lad in deep powder where he said he was so happy to be out doing things in the snow and we blew, and blew before getting on and doing some very lovely patterns and stretching together. Riding in perfect conditions like these is usually a singularity here. If our luck holds tomorrow and it doesn’t freeze or thaw there might still be the best surface in the world to ride on for another day and I will be so grateful for it.
Like making the first lines on a new sheet of cartridge paper, we spiralled and circled in the snow putting into riding practise the new body learning from last weekend with Mary Wanless at Overdale. Want to see whether your renvers really is on three tracks like it should be? Are your circles circular? Lad and I find fifteen metre canter circles his best diameter in the field, why do we like them so much? Can we do our best canter figures of eight in the snow ever? Thankyou Mary, Karin and Dorothy for helping me find my right back corner and my deep tensegrity, canter on both reins was way more functionally symmetrical and had a rather ninja uphill feel to it, and the trot afterwards, kapow!
Unfolding the spaces between the actions allows the learning to bloom from bud into full flower. Apologies for the plant analogy if it’s a bit flowery, but after that I feel like a wisteria vine in June. I’m spreading my arms into new territory, some flowers are in glorious full bloom, some are tiny nodes that I can only just see, some have been deliberately pruned or dead headed, and some have gone over in blowsy remnants and are just memories on the vine.
That was a reasonable enough insight, but the wisteria image is tempting me to drift off into broader emotional states when I am practising gratitude. Some brains are so attracted to metaphor. Mine is particularly open to doing that after profound insight experiences. Back to the practical, I like this description of the imaging of insight in the brain from studies using fMRI and other techniques from James H. Austin Zen-Brain Reflections:
“Insights are sporadic, unpredictable, short-lived moments of exceptional thinking, during which implicit assumptions about the relevance of common knowledge to a problem must be discarded before a solution can be revealed.”
J. Luo and colleagues, The function of the anterior cingulate cortex in the insightful solving of puzzles.
On such a rare day how hard it is to be disciplined and not be carried away by your emotional response. But to retain the detail of what led to the insight and not affect our horses we have to do it. How many times have these amazing experiences unfolded and then pouff, they drift away in the stream of emotions magnetised to them and we find ourselves in tears on our horse, or having to have a quiet moment afterwards. Importantly for coaching or practise if we feel wrung out by the emotions we have opened ourselves to we just can’t retain the learning so well. What was the recipe for that last segment? I have no idea, I felt incredible…. How do you make ‘incredible’? It used to take me days to sort this out and I would give my horse headaches. His mind felt like one of those metal pan scrubs. Emotions are a bit like mind crocodiles. I agree with this thought, even it’s a little bit paternalistic.
“Life becomes more efficient and inspired once we learn how to channel the energies feeling our consciousness into mindful avenues that become more creative and adaptive, not into trivial pursuits and unfruitful fantasies.”
James H. Austin (2006) Zen-Brain Reflections – Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of Consciousness. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It seems a bit like growing up to responsibly steer myself away from emotional watercourses, but they can easily become torrents and I aim not to implode on my horse. He has no choice but to experience it and he won’t thank me for that. He might not feel gratitude like I do, but the biggest thing I can leave him with is to set him up positively for the next time we are together.
While I write I am listening to a song from an album made by my brother and his band Salthouse (they are well worth seeing, they are touring all this year, try and catch them https://www.salthousemusic.com/). I got up to turn it up because it is so much of him, and it sounds so much of me, it’s ‘us’. It has family resonance, and that feels good although I know and feel grateful for being lucky to have a close family. I choose to identify the ‘us’ in the listening and when we’re together. In comparison my horse has to listen to me and experience my internal state whether he wants to or not, because he has evolved that way. We can be a calm and outward looking ‘us’, or emotionally conflicted and inward looking. I can tell myself the story that I have given him choice, but it’s not technically true.
Gratitude is like the full stop at the end of a sentence. It’s the point at which effort is over. It’s where striving and yearning has stopped and we are calm, happy and complete for now. The amazing thing about gratitude is that it does some really useful things to the brain. In gratitude studies people showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy compared to other groups, and feeling grateful can cause a reduction in physical ailments (The Grateful Brain (2012) Korb, A. Psychology Today Magazine). In feeling gratitude for your riding you can cherish it, then close the end cover and put it on your mental shelf and it will still be there when you need it.