A few weeks ago, Tessa and her horse Casper trailered from the Santa Cruz area to come into training for her winter break between semesters. Tessa’s goal is English pleasure, but despite hours of working on her freestyle skills and having a fairly nice foundation, she wanted her horse to carry himself well as she began to work on Level 3 skills.
Casper is a big, dapple grey Andalusian Percheron cross, so he’s real eye candy if you aren’t looking at his posture. However, in everything Casper did, he kept his head raised, as if his dapples were indicative of his true giraffe identity and Tessa was tired of playing with a giraffe. She wanted him to not only use his high knee action to wow her, but to work through his back, and be more relaxed in general. Casper was being tolerant, but had not yet moved into a state of acceptance (which often leads to relaxation) and Tessa was out of ideas to help him.
As a Parelli instructor, horses from all horsenalities and backgrounds come to me all the time, and often behave like Casper. With the power of natural horsemanship, and a consistency in expectations, I believe we can build in relaxing habits, from the very beginning.
Many horses in performance and dressage offer beautiful stretching when ridden and can be brought into frame, but these same horses look like giraffes when the human’s hands aren’t there to help them find the relaxation.
It has been my focus over the past five years to empower the horses to choose relaxation and give them the skills to find it.
If your horse is responsive and connected, he or she should also be calm and relaxed – it is foundational to our equine partner’s health in the long run. Relaxation, as a horse finds under saddle in an activated stretch, (see Step 1 of the Finesse Sequence) is not just for dressage horses, it is for any horse you wish to have a long, healthy life because he is moving right, in EVERYTHING he does.
Start by observing your horse. What is his body doing when you go to catch him, when you’re grooming him, when you’re saddling, when you’re playing online? Is he truly fulfilling his or her responsibility of acting like a partner, instead of like a prey animal?
In natural horsemanship, we acknowledge the mental, emotional, and physical work in tandem with one another. When a horse constantly has their head up in the air, anywhere above wither height, they are on adrenaline, unless they are in a working, riding frame or it’s truly intentional.
I want to point out that, yes, you can get very far without relaxation, because horses are excellent at protecting themselves. Right brain introverts especially, like Casper, are fully capable of being a statue with head raised and being so still that you can scarcely feel them breathe with tight lips.
I encourage you to correct this in any way you can. The better your skills are in your foundation, the easier your correction will be. Tessa had done a lot of work on lowering Casper’s head with porcupine game for haltering him. I taught her to use this consistently. Whenever Casper puts his head up while she is grooming, Tessa simply keeps brushing, and gently reminds her horse to stop acting like a prey animal with a light touch downwards on the halter until he relaxes and then she stops brushing. Reset and try again.
Tessa also rubs his head when it’s down and sits with him sometimes. Remember that being relaxed around a predator is a very vulnerable offering that we ask of our horses. Be compassionate for your horse. Try and lead him to relaxation with a loving intention. “There’s no reason to worry.”
To start this, establish your porcupine on the head and practice it in different areas. If your horse needs to move his feet so he can better find relaxation, then allow him to do so. This will set both you and your horse up for success.
From here on out, anytime you are playing friendly game, or your horse becomes bothered, you can simply remind the head to come down and induce relaxation in your horse. Practice this with a wide range of stimulus.
Remember that if you are not intentionally asking your horse to do something, it is a friendly game, and your horse’s job is to be a relaxed, responsive, and connected partner.
If you’re fussing with your bridle and getting ready to put it on and your horse’s head floats up, just remind him with a porcupine directive to relax.
The conversation is rub: “Hey there, just me,” Porcupine: “just relax and be my partner,” and then rub again: “good job.”
Tessa has lowered Casper’s head in grooming, haltering, bridling, saddling and upped her friendly game through playing with a tarp. I also taught her to use lateral flexion sometimes if she is too far away (zone 3).
Two weeks in, the simple pattern of lowering Casper’s head is paying off. He licks and chews more often and much faster because when he isn’t being asked to do something, he is finding relaxation and thinking about staying engaged. Casper is starting to lower his head on his own when his knee-jerk response sneak up. He is starting to think like a partner and shedding his giraffe exterior. Over time, Casper will learn to relax himself and trust Tessa’s intentions and body language so that there are diminished reactions.
If you’d like to see a visual example of this, check out this video of a horse I had in training.
I am passionate about helping people and horses with getting the biomechanical foundation right from the very beginning. If you are interested, go ahead and check out my clinic schedule or come ride with me.
I also offer detailed video coaching.
You can find all this on my website: http://horsemanshipcoaching.
If there is a will, there is a way. You deserve it and so does your horse.