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As I’ve been riding my superstar gelding Pistol again this spring after a LONG year and a half of being sidelined due to an injury, I’ve noticed that he wasn’t the same horse I left off with.
But things had started to change even before he got hurt.
You see, a few years ago I had started learning more about what true leadership REALLY IS (which wasn’t what I thought).
I’d started learning about the difference between a horse that is quiet and calm vs. quiet and withdrawn…
A horse that performs based on desire vs. avoidance.
A horse that responds vs. reacts.
A horse that yields to pressure (and can even come toward pressure when asked) vs. run away from it.
The vast majority of timed speed event horses are withdrawing, avoiding, reacting, and running away.
And the vast majority of timed speed event horses could perform even better and faster IF they were operating from a foundation of calm, connected, responsive desire.
When I set out to create a relationship on new terms with my gelding a couple years ago, in my experimentation, I inadvertently swung the pendulum too far the other way and in the process lost leadership points AND my horse’s confidence – leaving my once “Steady Eddy” with insecurities as an aged horse, he never even had as a youngster.
Having an arena here at our new place in Texas means I’ve been doing a lot of riding at home, but I KNEW that his insecurities wouldn’t be solved by simply getting him out and about more – they was deeper than that.
When I was invited to “make a big circle” on a friend’s ranch a few weeks ago, I was expecting a leisurely, fun ride but Pistol felt like a fire cracker. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but ugh!
Something had to change… and it had to start with ME.
While I believe that preparing horses for new or stressful environments does require actually hauling and putting them in those environments, working through their tension, anxiety and insecurity in ANY moment or environment where it comes up (even a little bit) will greatly help resolve it in ALL circumstances.
I noticed that Pistol would get a little nervous about potential “bogey men” in the trees down the road near our home, so because my time has been really limited and there haven’t been a TON of challenging or high pressure environments to put him that are close by, I elected to ride down the road and get a head start on dissolving his anxiety so that I wouldn’t run into it during our summer travels.
The FIRST KEY toward dissolving any reactivity, impulsiveness, anxiety, distraction or tension is to acknowledge it. A lot of people notice it, but either aren’t sure how to address it (so they do nothing), OR they write off this way of being, feeling and moving as “normal.”
I know just how easy it is for timed speed event competitors especially to get conditioned to thinking it’s “the norm,” but I encourage you to become even more aware when you’re horse shows signs that all is NOT well in his world.
The next step is to TAKE ACTION. When you feel the subtlest form of reactivity, impulsiveness, anxiety, distraction, fear or tension, it’s absolutely imperative that you DO something about it.
What you do exactly will vary depending on your conditions and the space you have available, but most important is that you don’t ignore, overlook, or pretend/wish it’s not happening.
For example, if your horse shows small signs of emotional distress in moderately pressured circumstances, chances are he’ll have a full-out meltdown under even greater pressure.
Notice the little things at home and in practice and deal with them there, and you won’t be so surprised by a major behavior changes under more challenging circumstances.
The NEXT very IMPORTANT STEP comes in WHAT to do. There are a couple basic maneuvers that can be performed in a variety of ways that are very effective for regaining your horse’s focus and instilling relaxation. One is any kind of movement that involves the legs crossing over each other such as lateral movements or hindquarter disengagement. The other is full-body bend, making sure the ribs are actually yielding and supple (not just an over-bent neck).
In The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion I’ve gone into even greater depth about exactly WHY these movements work so well. If you’re looking to build your skill in applying them, click here to learn more!
To work toward getting “the old Pistol” back, I did some of the things that “the old Heather” used to do, but in a different way, and ultimately achieved different, and better results.
First I headed west out the driveway and went for a stroll down “Bogey Man Road” and just waited for Pistol to show signs of insecurity – which seems to start with his head and ears coming up combined with a subtle inconsistency in his stride. The moment he hesitated to look at something he wasn’t sure about, I did one of TWO things…
First, I asked him to walk a figure eight as wide as the gravel road would allow, while being very particular about the even pace of his walk and the complete bend through his ribs and body. I used primarily my legs to accomplish this while using as little rein as possible.
Instead of getting frustrated or emotional myself, I was patient and persistent but effective – if he didn’t yield to my leg or if he wanted to cut off his nice round, forward circle (which tends to happen at the point you turn toward home), I’d bump, Bump, BUMP with my leg until the quality improved.
Around that time he also tended to relax, lower his head and lick his lips – then we stopped for a rest, always facing the direction of whatever “Bogey Man” he was concerned about.
As we continued down the road, if he got nervous or insecure, I’d again put his feet, body and mind to work and instead of always doing small circles, I also asked for an even, quality sidepass.
Most important was the TIMING in which I started and stopped the figure eights or side passing. You can use these techniques all day long, but if you don’t start doing them at the proper time and release at the proper time, you’re not likely to make much progress and your horse might even learn to just move his body around on auto pilot without really connecting to you mentally and relaxing.
If you want to get to a horse’s MIND, be particular about how he’s using his feet – test this out and see if quality responses and attention is there under ALL circumstances. If there are exceptions to when or where your horse will yield his body and give his focus to you, then these mental/emotional foundational elements could stand some firming up.
Keep in mind also, that you DO need to have a firm educational foundation already established. If your horse’s basic understanding of yielding to pressure and moving his feet is limited, the effectiveness of these techniques will be also. Focus on instilling these elements really well at home first before venturing out and expecting more.
Basically, when we don’t have effective influence of our horses in challenging circumstances (at the barrel race) it’s a sign that it needs to be even better under less challenging circumstances (at home).
While going through the process, sometimes you have to hang in there for quite a while before you notice a subtle positive change. Basically, I released on ONE of two things – either he improved the quality of what I was asking (a perfect, even sidepass or a soft, forward circle with full-body bend) OR he showed some sign of relaxation. Usually they would occur around the same time. Once they did, he received even more reward for the effort.
Aaaah, DEEP BREATH…. LICK & CHEW.
Pistol was reminded that there is peace and comfort to be found by connecting to me, that I’m the source of his relaxation. The “sweet spot,” even in moments of uncertainty is to check in with me mentally, and soften and yield to me physically – not to worry, tense up and think about escape.
After just one ride there was a significant, positive all-around change in Pistol. As we continue to get things reestablished, the more calm, connected, responsive and confident he’ll become.
So what’s so different between how I went about this now vs. a few years ago?
Instead of getting frustrated and emotional myself when a horse gets worried (after all, it’s SO annoying!), barking orders at them or REALLY hustling their feet in quick succession automatically (which didn’t build authentic confidence but only contributed to them hiding their emotions by becoming withdrawn – it actually made Dot Com even more insecure!), this time I stayed more neutral in my body and mind – I didn’t let his emotions affect my own.
So rather than instantly launching into an intense frenzy and essentially communicating “I’ll give you something to be scared of – so you better start behaving or else!” I just matched my own energy level to his. Horses have no concept of good or bad, they’re just doing what they have learned, or what they think they need to do to survive. When we attach negative or anxious emotions to their behavior, things tend to get ugly.
The difference in how I would go about this for a very innately sensitive horse (such as Dot Com, for example), is that I’m a little softer and more passively persistent – I might “bump… bump… bump…” with my leg where as with Pistol I’d “bump, Bump, BUMP!”
By taking these steps, I’ve made a huge stride in reestablishing leadership by bringing Pistol’s focus back to me, then rewarding him when he made a positive change, even a subtle one to start with. By actually NOTICING and DOING SOMETHING to help a horse when they’re the slightest bit worried, it changes how your horse sees you through his eyes.
When we become our horse’s hero, they become more confident in themselves, and this bleeds over into other environments. How you go about relating to your horse when just riding down the road can completely change how he relates to you in the alley, in a run and the world in general – YES, even in moments when you’re not in the picture.
Although I’ve been doing my best to ALSO haul Pistol and get him out and about in preparation for our summer travels, picking out an environment that Pistol was insecure in, and working through it as it came up has truly brought the calm old Pistol back, but on different, more positive terms.
This is all a lot like “sports psychology for horses,” and let’s face it – as much as we enjoy focusing on the physical aspect of training horses, while important, we could all benefit from a lot more attention on the mental aspect of competition for horses AND humans. It’s not so much their behavior that’s the problem, but the REASON for it lying under the surface that we must address. When we do, the undesirable behavior goes away.
When our horse’s mind can work in our favor, when our idea and their idea are the same idea, the physical part of barrel racing tends to come together much more quickly and easily!
I plan to be more aware as we go forward, but now Pistol doesn’t only “look” quiet, calm and confident, he really IS. There’s a BIG difference, and I KNOW it WILL be reflected in competition, and that we’ll be set up for a much more successful summer as well.
Remember, we have a choice. Resist the temptation to overlook your horse’s impulsiveness, fear or anxiety. Acknowledge their emotions by taking action and working through them when they come up consistently and they’ll tend to come up much less extremely, and much less often.
When your horses can count on YOU, you’ll be more likely to be able to count on THEIR full focus and attention when it matters most.
Here’s to developing authentically confident, educated, WINNING barrel horses – on purpose!
In the comments below, I’d love to hear YOUR questions, challenges or experiences with creating relaxed, focused, high performing horses!