However, with Carmen that didn't happen. It's not that she couldn't relax. More like she didn't really understand how to seek it. Her reaction to stress/pressure was to seek relief by running away.
Working on this I've become so very aware of my own body language. I am a high energy person and tend to stand stiffly when working with horses. I suspect that that is a mix of my own natural tendency and my early learning of 'making the horse listen'. I've been working very very hard on letting myself slouch when I'm trying to encourage her to relax.
Honestly, Carmen and I are so very very similar.
|Carmen: seriously? That is news to you? That we are similar?|
It's not easy but it's working. I've been working on the three areas that Tristan advises to directly target: Getting the horse to seek relaxation in response to:
3. Approach (this was fascinating to me. He says that horses don't really distinguish between a scary thing approaching them or them approaching a scary object. So you have to work on both).
Working on relaxation has changed the entire focus of my ground work. We start with the leading. She's to stay a prescribed distance from me no matter the speed or where we go. If she encroaches I send her back and as soon as she moves back I allow the relaxation to occur. Which means that I sometimes have to wait when she moves back until she releases.
I spend a lot of time standing, slouching and breathing.
I have also started helping her realize how stiff she makes the base of her neck. It locks and then everything is locked. I rub it until she lowers her head and loosens up. At first she was 'get off, that is bugging me!' Now she stretches out almost right away. I've started teaching her to stretch when I touch it with my crop. That way I can try it from her back.
I have attached a plastic bag to an old dressage whip and have introduced that into our work. Initially, Carmen was highly suspicious. I also use an old pill bottle as a shaker for my noisemaker.
She's figuring stuff out and learning that I'm looking for her to relax. Initially, if she's too tight I would reward the first hint of her relaxing. Essentially, I drop all pressure and let her rest. Sometimes I had to rub her neck and help her breathe out. I am gradually asking for more work in a relaxed state.
When I lunge, I'm looking for her to stretch out long and have a supple back. I can see her starting to seek that state which is awesome. Yesterday, I had her cantering and she was getting really excited. I waited to see if it was due to excess energy that needed to be expended. But she got tighter and tighter and began to snort/blow (you know that snort when they are really really worried about something?). I stopped the lunging and we returned to the leading and bending exercises until she relaxed. Then, when we returned to the lunging she was much more supple.
Here's a video of her (hard to do by myself) of me working on her approaching a flappy bag without me being right beside her. My idea is that as I move her more away from me and ask her to deal that we can transfer this to under saddle.
Today I have a lesson booked this afternoon. It is a windy day which is always a hallmark of greater nervousness on the part of Carmen. This morning I took her up to the ring to do some groundwork without it being tied to a lesson. At first she was a bit looky but it didn't take her long to settle into the work. I am seeing her confidence grow as she understands what I'm asking of her. I was very aware of the subtle signs of tension even though she was being obedient (tight muzzle, clamped jaw). When I see that I try to dial back my body language to help her follow me.
We shall see if this work helps for later. As I type this I haven't had the lesson yet.
Wish me luck.