Yes, we all love the idea of being relaxed, confident and having attention on that which will assist us in our day to day life. What about your horse though? With so much emphasis on training and achieving training goals, it may be beneficial to explore what relaxation, confidence and attention really looks and feels like from the horse’s perspective. Please note here, it is impossible to truly measure these levels both physiologically and mentally in your horse, even by assessing heart rate variability, or through Electroencephalography. This information I present, is to assist riders and horseman to ‘think out of the box,’ and to establish an inquiring mind, taking nothing for granted.
In the dressage Training Pyramid, rhythm and relaxation are considered the foundational levels of training. Of course each of the levels of the pyramid flow together and are dependent upon one another, but there are some fundamental aspects of the horses training platform that facilitate the relationship between relaxation, confidence and attention.
I will be offering a regular blog on this subject matter, and more information and guidance will be available on line in our university course, ‘Beyond Balance,’ which will be available early summer. I am also in process of completing some written materials for publication in 2021. Please stay tuned to our Facebook page and blog, for excerpts and teachings from that publication. Here are a few thoughts on this topic for this week .
If you think about relaxation, confidence and attention within yourself, you may notice that they are somewhat dependent upon one another. Essentially, going from attention backwards, if you are going to give something your attention, there is a level of confidence that is not necessary, but helpful; and in order to have confidence, the nervous system needs to be in a balanced, base line of activity. This means all systems are operating as they should, without fright and flight, pain, compensation or exhaustion. From a base line activity of the nervous system, it is easier for the horse to drop into relaxation (para sympathetic), or to be stimulated into activity (sympathetic).
Relaxation in both horse and human allows the body and mind to be calm, which is the foundation for learning. Localized awareness and relaxation in the physical body, ~ as in ground work for the horse, ~ relieves stress, tension and bracing patterns in the muscles, therefore improving circulation, body awareness and inviting calmness where there may have been stress.
A horse that is out of balance, whether emotionally, mentally or physically will hold a certain level of stress in his body even though at first glance it may not be noticeable. For a horse, his emotional system and his basic survival, depends upon the balance and function of the body to flight when there is fright. If there is a lack of balance caused either by musculoskeletal stress, tension or an immobility pattern no matter how minor it is, there will be stress in the body. The stress if initiated due to the physical, will create stress in the emotional system because of the compromised flight apparatus, and the horse will not be relaxed. Alternately, a stressed emotional system can create tension and imbalance in the physical body and the outcome will be the same.
Instinctively, the horse’s biological system will often ‘cover up’ any weakness or compromise in the body, as evidence of such makes them a predatory target. Recognizing this allows us to pay close attention to our horse from the inside out, noticing what is taking place below the surface. Organic observation with all your senses assists the horseman in better determining a horses existing relaxation level.
Next time you ride or are working your horse in hand and are actively seeking balance and rhythm, developing postural soundness and form, think about relaxation, confidence and attention in your horse. These attributes are the foundation to rhythm, balance and soundness. If your horse has a gait abnormality created by a structural immobility or muscular lesion, or a restriction through his cervical, thoracic or lumbar spine, sacrum or pelvis, not only will he be unable to establish correct and functional movement or static posture, but he will be unable to access true relaxation, because of the stresses in the body. Remember, even if he is not presenting lame, always check his body for compensation patterns. Look for the slightest reaction when touching the muscles, check the hair on his coat for a change in direction, are the muscles smooth and elastic? Most of all, because we cannot possibly know all of this and see all that is going on in the inside, observe, touch and familiarize yourself with your horses’ body and its feel, daily. Not just under saddle, but on the ground as well. Feel him energetically, watch his expressions and movements and sometimes just wait. A waiting mind is a discerning mind.
Finally, please do not allow yourself to become paralyzed with all the things that can be present or not present in your horse. Yes, they will most likely have tweaks and spasms here and there as we do. After all they are quadrupeds, they run, play, roll and we ride them. My intention for all of us, is to be the best observers we can be. Let’s recognize how often labels and designated words that have a learned meaning for us, ~ for example relaxation, confidence and attention, ~ also have a meaning beyond words and definition. It is this meaning beyond that is related to the facets of the horse that we may never have thought about….. Seek those meanings as well, and YOU WILL contribute to your horse’s overall relaxation, confidence, attention and health.
Take care of yourselves and each other and join me here next week for a continuation of this blog.
Happy Trails everyone.