Some of you know, I came across Karen via the magic of the internet a few years ago, when I had consigned Tycoon to the role of pasture ornament. If you would like to know more about how she helped change things for me and my little brown horse, it’s pretty much here.
Despite the weather, people travelled from far and wide to learn with Karen and I was fortunate enough to get a bit of time with her the day before, which I was grateful for, as those of you who have organised a clinic will know that sometimes you spend a bit too much time ‘doing’ to sit around watching. Anyhow, I did manage to watch some sessions, and Des and I got to show Karen some of the things we needed some help with. I have then been having a big old thunk as to what the key lessons I have learned might be. These might not be the same ideas anyone else took home with them, or even what Karen hoped to share, but it’s what has stuck with me nonetheless.
• When your horse braces are you responding with your own brace, whether mentally or physically? Or is it even your own brace which provokes the tightness in the horse? If in doubt, slow down and breathe, I mean REALLY slow down – rest that busy mind, breathe all the way down into your diaphragm. This interests me somewhat in terms of human interactions – how often do we meet someone else’s brace with brace of our own? Very rarely does resolution lie at the end of brace on brace...
• Maybe, just maybe, horses don’t need pushing and pulling about. How often, every single day, do you pull on his head, just a little? Or push his hindquarters out the way? And how does those little tugs and shoves go into his muscle memory of how to ‘be’ when around a person. What Karen is clear about is that there is always going to be pressure of some sort in the life of a horse (or a human) but if they come to expect pressure to always be your first connection, then what does this do to their mind and body in relation to you? I was recently leading my horse and a clients horse together and they came to rush past me. I stopped my feet and my horse stopped his. The other gelding stopped his feet too, but combined that with a lifting of his head and tensioning of his neck (quite dramatically) as he clearly expected pressure from the rope on his head would accompany this. I figure wherever possible I don’t want my horse practicing tightening his neck and dropping his withers, so if there are ways I can get my horse to manage his feet and body, sometimes at speed, without tightening up muscles, then all the better.
• It is interesting to experiment with managing the space around a horse rather than directing everything ‘at’ the him personally. If you want your horse to move off a space direct him away from that space, rather than AT him. Horses like being given a break from being the centre of attention anyway, so any opportunity you can find to enable them to move without your constant pressuring intent can help them relax. So I have found at any rate.
• Is your touch resting on your horses’s hair or is it reaching right into him? This is where it can get a bit esoteric, but I think you all know what I’m talking about. Whenever you see someone who so easily helps a horse feel better, it is less often about the technique they use and more about the way that person is connecting to that horse down the rein, through a rope, or on their back. Clearly, Philippe Karl has more practical answers than most in terms of helping horses move better and therefore feel better , but there is no doubt that when he comes into contact with a horse there is something that comes from him which goes right into the middle of the horse and helps the horse to feel better. That’s not about technique .
• Let go of the concept of failure. If you are coming with a thought of, ‘The horse will be right or the horse will be wrong’ (also meaning that you will be right or wrong...) then everyone can get a bit tweaky. How about viewing each session as one big experiment? If your feel is always attempting to fit what the horse needs then it’s pretty tough for either of you to be right or wrong, you just keeping working on what feels better.
• Your horse probably needs more time than you ever give him. Most of us are on such a pressing time schedule (she says, looking at her watch every 2 words ...) that we rarely give our horses the thinking, processing, soaking time that they need. We overlay ask with ask with ask. We change their balance, speed, focus so quickly and rarely give them the time to actually assimilate what we are expecting them to understand. They are miracle workers really.
• When your horse gets worried is your intervention actually just a further source of discomfort ? How often do we lay pressure onto anxiety which doesn’t actually lead to the horse feeling really better? Can food treats also become a source of pressure for horses? Can we find ways to de-escalate, and help horses come back into their bodies and focus on you without escalating pressure or marking the moments of ‘correct’ (which is usually far outweighed by all the time of ‘not correct’).
This doesn’t even touch the sides really, but blogs can easily be too long and I think all of us had to go and have a bit of a lie down and a think after this clinic. What Karen isn’t saying is that you should never use pressure. That is unrealistic and unhelpful. But she is trying to encourage a move away from using ‘escalating pressure’, which the horse begins to anticipate. Can we tap into the instinctive horse and harness that life without creating worry?
My concern (which I discussed with Karen) is that when people first start to think about ways to develop feel and offer release rather than increase pressure they can become ineffective. Horses could lose clarity from their person, and horses are pretty into things being clear. That’s why judiciously used pressure and release can get an awful lot of stuff going on with a horse. But therein lies the danger of attempting anything really – the only way to get good is to practice and experiment and that can entail some wobbly roads to Rome. Horses are our canvas and very gracious about it they are too.
I have seen many unclear, confused, unhappy horses trained with either +R or -R (or usually a muddly mix of both) so that risk isn’t enough to putting me off trying my darndest to keep in mind these key lessons and to weave them in as much as I can.