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Pressure Release

I’m coming to the keyboard having just watched an Elisa Wallace vlog of her working with a Kiger mustang and an OTTB for the first time at an obstacle course.  The OTTB reacted to new puzzles in very much the same way Luna does, so it was really interesting to watch how Elisa handles that ride.

I am so so so interested in the natural horsemanship/mental training of the horse, and working with Luna is a daily intensive laboratory in this.  Gabby has opened my eyes to the possibility of actual “availability” of a horse; she’s helped me realize that just because a horse is “hot” does not mean they can’t focus on their human and accept direction regardless of surroundings.

I used to think that “hot” horses (Luna, for example.  Or TB’s in general, for example) were just high-strung, easily distracted, extremely reactive horses.  And they may be all of those things, but what I am realizing now is that this horsonality does not belie their ability to be trained and obedient. Sitting on Luna, let’s say at a halt, I used to see her with head raised, ears pricked, turning her neck to look this way and that, and think, “It’s so fun to ride a horse who is so curious about their surroundings.”  Now, recognizing all this behavior as indicative of a horse who is curious about every part of her surroundings except me, I think about delineating her job more clearly, setting her up for success.

When they are with us, of course, the horse’s job is to be focused on us.  Gabby would say, “For 23 hours a day this horse gets to do whatever she wants.  It’s not too much to ask that for the one hour she is with you, she is actually with you.”

So now, when we are standing at halt during a ride, I have a much clearer idea that halt means, “Stand still, without restraint, until further instruction is given.”  In other words, she’s standing not because I am holding her still with rein contact or a braced seat, but because that is the last instruction I gave her.  And while she stands still with focus and self-restraint, my aids will be completely silent.  Should she shift her focus to the surroundings (raised head, ears pricked, turning to look), she is met with application of a rein aid bringing her head back to the neutral, and available, position.

This application of the rein aid is called “lateral flexion.”  If she lifts and turns her head to look right, I’ll pick up the left rein, applying pressure both up and out to the left to mean, “bring your head back this way, please.”  As soon as she yields her head I give a complete release of that left rein.  If her head comes back to neutral, that state of released aids remains.  But if she mistakes the absence of aids to mean, “You’re cleared to look Right again,” I’ll clarify by reapplying my left rein.

Over time and consistent repetition, the theory is that Luna will learn, “I asked you to halt, and you did, and I released all aids.  As long as my aids are silent, you stand ready and waiting for your next instruction.”  The absence of aids, in other words, means continue in your current state. Conversely, she will learn with time and consistency that her actions have consequences.  She will learn, “If I look around, I get a new instruction.  If I do anything besides stand at rest, then I am given more pressure.  I’d rather not have pressure, therefore I am going to choose to stand still.  If I contain myself, there is no pressure.”

The knowledge that there is now, and will be in the future, freedom from pressure is a supremely relaxing state for any animal.  Imagine!  One reason I love horsemanship is because it teaches me so much about being human, or about myself.  I hate feeling pressure.  I almost always do feel pressure (mental pressure, anticipation of pressure, fear of pressure) and I know it leaves me in a state of almost perpetual anxiety. I can understand how releasing pressure is so important for Luna’s relaxation and education because I can imagine how nice that would feel.  No pressure?  This answer “with you” leaves me with no pressure?  Yes, I will choose that answer.  Of course.

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