Thursday, August 11, 2011 |

Freeing a horse up and causing him to want to be with you

We’ve been playing a lot with cantering lately on the 35’ line out in the pasture. I’ve been finding how stuck she still feels in tack—if she doesn’t feel confident cantering, that means there is a lack of confidence to really move out at the other gaits as well.

A way I have been able to get her into the canter better is to think of really “freeing her off a spot.” Meaning, mentally free/release her to run away to the end of the pasture, so she can feel totally free off that spot. So “release off a spot” is synonymous to “be freed off a spot”—freed to the far corner of the world, if she so chooses. In other words, it’s having the concept of “no limits/boundaries” (meaning, be released to the ends of the earth, I will never try to stop your running/leaving, be FREE, feel free, like you were created to be, in fact, PLEASE run, please go, please run until you can’t anymore, as far away as you can, because that is beautiful, that is FREE, that is totally released!)

I want her to feel free to leave, yet not as a runaway.

She is far more willing to really move out, then, as there is no small part of me constricting her or thinking, “please stay near me.” She feels that “please stay” and feels stuck, so doesn’t really move out. Freeing her up with tack is much harder, because of course there IS a boundary: the edge of the tack. So for her to feel free in tack I need to use giving float and release, not pull and pressure. Similarly, on the lunge, free her to a circle around you—ie, be taking just that space behind her and mentally be letting her run to the ends of the earth in front of you, totally free. No at her head!!

What is interesting is that, again, this is a principle popular now in many training techniques, but with an important difference. In many training techniques, you let the horse leave whenever they want. In this way, the theory is that you build into the horse the understanding that he’ll never be pressured to be with you and he becomes a happy, willing partner, willing to stay with you through thick and thin.

Contrary to having a horse who wanted to be with me, I found it built a horse who thought the job was to leave the moment he did not understand or was being asked something new or encountered something fearful, instead of thinking that the job was to be a partner and trust me. This became abundantly clear when Maia would tear off to the other side of a 40 acre pasture without a second thought if I even blinked wrong at her. I got a lot of exercise that summer. ;) But, more seriously, that led to quite some dangerous situations, especially under saddle, as her mentality was to run away the moment she became upset or confused—not a fun place for EITHER of us. She was miserable. In fact, she seemed infinitely happier with a far better expression when she had tack on and couldn’t leave, as if she were so relieved that she didn’t have to run away. I really think she thought that was the job—she thought had to leave, even though she perhaps didn’t want to.

In a sense, this is a similar technique. I want her to feel free to leave—and leave far—as far as she wants. Yet, there is a critical difference. I am the one freeing her there (not driving her) so she associates the idea of freedom with me, not in spite of me (which was what was happening when I “just let her leave,” see previous paragraph). She is not doing it in association with a certain mental state which is negative (ie, “when I’m confused I leave”) but is associating the freedom with a positive mental state (“I am free, therefore I’m not trapped”). Without a judgment about the space (I don’t mentally think that where she’s going is bad/good), she doesn’t feel judged about where she is going so feels right, and would be willing to come back. Yet, with no judgment about the space, I am not even thinking about her coming back to me. I’ll just keep freeing her to new spaces until she no longer feels trapped and can approach me with confidence.

It definitely makes a difference for her—I can “free her off a spot” (or “free her to a space,” if you’d rather think of it that way) at a fast canter and she will often turn right around with a great expression, or even come back, not in the least offended. It’s a great feeling! It has been developing in Maia that very horse who wants to be with me and feels no pressure about it—the very thing that previous technique sought to bring, but didn’t quite make it with us.

Amazing how those subtle differences do make all the difference!