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Although my husband’s gelding Dot Com came to us already having a long list of achievements in the roping pen, his sensitive nature combined with the pressures of life as a high caliber performance horse had contributed to a way of feeling and moving that involved a lot of physical tension, high headedness, inverted posture, and emotional insecurity.
When presented with an opportunity to spend time with Dot Com, although I drug my feet initially, I have to say I did feel confident I could meet Dot Com’s needs in a way that would change his life for the better, and bring out the best in him – both in the arena and out.
It just hasn’t happened the way I thought it would…
My journey with him so far has been rewarding, especially lately, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. In this article, I’d like to share a few of the lessons Dot Com has helped ME learn and ways in which he’s helped expand my own abilities, in hopes that it will expand yours as well.
To start with, you may already be well aware of how magical simply directing a horse’s feet can be for establishing leadership and bringing a horse’s focus back to you. I had a feeling DC was desperate for more, and better quality leadership. I moved Dot Com’s feet a lot in the beginning, expecting him to really start relaxing as a result. I moved him slow, fast, up, down, left, right, forward, back, etc. usually in quick succession.
The way he carried his body was terrible at this point, and although his posture wasn’t my first priority, even as I noticed a little relaxation, the way he carried himself didn’t start to naturally change as I expected it to, AND the huge degree of relaxation I was after wasn’t really coming together either.
I started to think that perhaps the way he carried himself had been ingrained over so many years, that it might help if I offered more guidance and support. So I introduced a new way of moving by asking him to lower his head, flex at the poll and round his back by using well timed pressure and release.
When that wasn’t working so well, I was getting desperate. It even crossed my mind to resort to the temporary help of a martingale – all in hopes we could replace his old habit with a new, more athletic one, and that his new posture wouldn’t be one I’d have to “hold” in place constantly.
I thought maybe it might assist him in getting the initial idea, BUT that didn’t work either. He would move with decent posture, but only if I held light contact. When I released and left him to his own devices, he couldn’t seem to maintain it.
I was offering the leadership I knew he was so desperately needing, I was moving his feet, I was rewarding him for good posture, but nope – the relaxation and the quality of movement I was after – was not coming together.
In addition, when I set out to teach Dot Com to better yield to leg pressure, his default answer was always to squirt forward, or to fidget around and completely ignore my cues. He already understood how to yield from basic leg pressure, but he just didn’t seem to be learning! I noticed that the more firm I was (in an attempt to drive the point home), the more mentally “slow” he seemed.
He already had a foundational understanding of moving laterally off leg pressure, and I was confident I was doing my part – so what was the DEAL, I wondered!?
In comparison, my own gelding is a thinker – he learns VERY quickly. Perhaps, DC just wasn’t as “quick on the uptake?” So I cut him a little slack. However in time, he still wasn’t making the improvements I expected.
I began to wonder if he had a learning disability!?
Why weren’t my time tested techniques for teaching and building responsiveness working to just “DO what he already knows” – a little better!?
This is where the HUGE light bulb moment came for me… Although Dot Com does appreciate quality leadership, moving his feet so much, so quickly didn’t soothe him – it scared him.
This would be easy for the average timed event competitor to overlook. I certainly admit to it in this case. Honestly, the way he operated didn’t appear much different compared to what many of us consider “normal.”
But his worried facial expression, the tension in the musculature of his neck, the short, shallow breathing, a slightly raised head, the choppy, short strided movement – even if these symptoms are subtle, it might not mean your horse is “excited,” but actually fearful, worried and unconfident, which are certainly not the foundational elements that contribute to a high level athletic performance!
Truth be told, from the beginning my husband had always had trouble with DC in the roping box, and I could see the areas where he needed improvement from the beginning, but Dot Com showed me that the route to getting there wasn’t the one I had in mind.
What I learned was that Dot Com didn’t need me to focus him with redirection him in quick succession, he needed me to SLOW DOWN.
There’s a time and place for the techniques I was using, and they are VERY effective and valuable with certain horses in certain environments (for example if your horse is very distracted or can’t stand still), but it wasn’t the best choice for what Dot Com as an individual needed at the time. For example, it wasn’t that I wasn’t offering what he needed, he just didn’t appreciate the WAY I was offering it.
As this first major light bulb came on, I said a silent apology to Dot Com, and vowed to do better and understand him more as we went forward.
My next lesson came in realizing that being more firm with DC didn’t encourage him to try harder or understand me better, it actually shut down his brain down even more.
When I slowed way down, and made our rides less intense, and focused more on calm, quiet repetition, Dot Com REALLY started to relax. Relaxation especially flowed when I allowed any tension in my own body to melt away, and we trotted small circles for extended periods – the consistency and repetition was soothing to DC.
The relaxation improved even more when I would stop and reward him with a break for any tiny signs of relaxation, like blowing out (sneezing), lowering his head, or even working his mouth.
When I was patient and consistent (I mean REALLY patient and consistent) his brilliance started to reveal itself.
It’s not that DC isn’t smart, it’s that I asked him for things in a way that gave him “brain freeze.” When I slowed waaaayyyy down, and made absolutely sure he understood, and wasn’t worried or tense about what I was asking – he delivered what I asked and did so flawlessly.
I had finally found the place where I could build and optimize from.
The physical tension he carried in his body was a symptom of his unbalanced emotional state. Plenty of timed event performance horses operate like this, but when they do – they’re operating at a fraction of their potential. Now of course, I don’t expect my horses to walk in the arena half asleep like a wet noodle, but if your horse carries an extreme amount of tension in his body, lacks mental focus, and the willingness to allow you to position his feet with the utmost accuracy in competition, he’s likely showing more subtle signs of the same problem day to day – and it WILL get in your way in competition.
I could have tried to teach him to hold his body differently by physically bothering him with my hands, or forcing him into a position with a tie down, but only once he could truly relax organically, without anything “artificial,” could I ever have hope of him traveling and performing with his body shaped to perform the most efficient athletic maneuvers, with the ultimate degree of fluidity and quickness.
When I did my part to create “all natural” relaxation in him, he blew out, and blew out, and blew out as more than a decade of tension stuck his body started to release and for the first time in years he volunteered to relax his body, lower his head, and extend his stride – because it felt good, and because he no longer felt insecure, fearful and worried. His past tendencies weren’t so much about habit, or even education – as they were emotions.
To change and improve how Dot Com used his body, I had to change his mind first.
There is great benefit to be had by taking the time to learn how to get to the other side of the physical and mental tension that is so often a byproduct of lack of foundation combined with the pressure of timed speed events and uneducated or indifferent riders. It’s also true that getting to where we are now has taken much longer than the two weeks I originally estimated to complete Dot Com’s “mental rehab,” which provides even more motivation for myself and I hope anyone who reads this – to always do their best to not go there and create a need to fix such problems to begin with.
To summarize, remember…
- When horse is not responding to or learning from pressure and release, consider that their mental state may be preventing them from thinking. Meet a horse’s need for security first and they become much more likely do what you ask.
- Slow and correct is always better than fast and wrong. Take the time it takes to develop your own, and your horse’s foundation on all levels. You’ll be further ahead (and have faster times) in the long run.
- A horse that is emotionally imbalanced will also be physically imbalanced – which takes away from the level of athleticism, and ultimately speed, they can perform with.
- Be more aware of the subtle signs and symptoms your horse shows. Don’t overlook and ignore them, or accept tension as “normal.” Deal with the small issues as they come up, before they become big ones.
- What worked for one horse, or what worked in the past may no longer apply to your current horse or situation. Make your motto -“There has GOT to be a better way!” and be willing to go back to the drawing board, listen to your horse and especially, open your mind to a new perspective.
- If you’re horse’s poor posture and tension is related to his emotions, no amount of education, or artificial means will create the quality movement and positive mental state that dealing with the issue at it’s source will.
Dot Com is growing more confident each day as he continues to release even more tension as we move on to doing more advanced things in a WAY that is new for him. As we progress, going forward will continue to require very keen awareness and skill on my part to gradually introduce him back to the high pressure environments that contributed to the creation of his challenges.
He has all the talent in the world, but if Dot Com were to continue performing in a way that was tense, stiff, inverted, worried and mentally disconnected, his true potential may have never been revealed.
All this makes me wonder – what kind of diamonds are hiding in horses throughout the world who are shut down, and “rough around the edges” because they weren’t exposed to people who had the skills to bring out the BEST in them? Wouldn’t you love to be confident you offered each horse your very best, and brought out the best in them at the same time?
I’m interested in investing the time and developing my own skills to reveal the VERY BEST in Dot Com, AND every horse I throw a leg over, not just today but far into the future.
I do so not only with the purpose to reach the highest levels of performance in the arena, but to give them the very best quality of life I can as well.
I guess that’s my passion – optimization.
Revealing the VERY BEST in a horse, a circumstance, an environment, in myself and in others.
I hope this article will help you do the same.
Of course, if you’d like to go even more in-depth, be sure to grab a copy of best-selling book, Secrets to Barrel Racing Success where I devoted and entire chapter to Quality Movement (and you’ll receive my FREE Barre Racer’s Guide to Speed Development instantly).
Now, please share YOUR experiences. Did you enjoy this article? Can you relate to my lessons with Dot Com? I’d love to receive your feedback in the comments below!