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Empowering Our Horses Empowers US

With the holidays right around the corner (or already happening) and shorter days, things seem to be moving all too quickly! I encourage you all to take the time to SLOW DOWN, myself included! Yes there is so much to do, so many people to visit, and so much food to eat. But really are the holidays truly meant to be hectic and stressful or is that what we make them? To me the holidays are about being good to others, and yourself. To spend time with ones that you love and to connect with everyone on a deeper level, while being grateful for all that we have and experience in our lives. Do not buy into that holiday madness and enjoy yourself, your family and most of all... your horses! At this point you were probably wondering when I would start talking about our beautiful four legged friends :) and you are also probably wondering what the heck this blog post is really about?! Get with it Michele! I know, and I do not wish to linger on the topic of holidays for too long but to just put it out there and hope that each of you enjoys this time. But that is all! Now on to the actual blog topic ;)

I want you to take a moment and think, what makes you feel like you can conquer the world? Is it dressing a certain way, a certain activity, being able to do something on your own, having the physical or mental capacity to handle a particular situation? All of the above, or none? Whatever it is I want you to sit in that thought and that feeling and recall it throughout reading this blog. For me it is feeling physically strong and being able to do things on my own. Now for a brief moment I want you to think of just one thing that completely brings you down, knocks you off your horse and exposes all that hinders you from being your best self. I personally greatly dislike dwelling in this feeling or even going there. I do not like to be reminded of being what I would consider a failure and incompetent. But it happens to us all, and in so many ways. It could be a lack of knowledge, an off putting experience with another person, something you see, or even feel. Whatever it may be it hurts us emotionally and mentally as well as our productivity. Our horses are the same way. They may have very different functioning brains, but there is much we can do to either empower them or bring them down in our daily handling and training.

When we can get to a point where most if not all our experiences with our horses build empowerment in our equine partners, you become the leader and friend that they can look to and feel safe following. A leader is not someone who can dominate a submissive creature and suppress their expression. A leader is someone who sees the best in another, their strengths, weaknesses and their potential, and lifts them up and helps them reach it instead of forcing them to it or to be something that they are not. Too often people think that they need to dominate horses or that if a horse does not do everything that the person asks, that that horse is seen as naughty. When in reality, the "magic" that we seek with them comes in letting go of that dominant and submissive relationship that so many think they need to have. And guess what, helping your horse feel good about themselves and their work will boost your savvy and confidence as well! I have seen students and clients absolutely blossom with their horses and as a teacher, there is no better feeling than seeing horses and their humans grow, reach their goals and even beyond.

Two lovely new students and their horses working through the learning process together and growing, just in one day! Happy horses and happy humans. I truly enjoyed teaching everyone up in North Carolina earlier this month.

Ok so Many of you may be reading this and thinking, yes yes this is all good in theory but how does the average horse owner, or any owner and rider get to a different level or type of relationship with their horses? How exactly does one go about empowering their horse in their training? How can we help our horses feel like they can conquer the world by our side? There are four basic and simple things, that when done regularly will go a long way with your horse!

First thing's first, be patient! If you are working with your horse and you ask them gently to do something, wait for them to respond. There is a popular tendency to increase pressure when asking a horse for something and they do not respond right away. But I challenge you to wait instead, give your horse the chance to think about what the pressure or ask means and problem solve. Without allowing the horse the time to respond, we are basically saying to them that their response, input and thought process is irrelevant and the execution is what matters. It all needs to matter, the entire process from start to finish. Allow your horse that extra moment and even make a game of it for yourself! Something that works for people who often anticipate is to count in your head from the time you ask to the time your horse responds. This will help you focus on something else and not put quite as much pressure on your horse. It is also a gauge for you to see any pattern in your horse's reaction time. Is it getting shorter, longer, staying the same?

Second, reward your horse's efforts! When they do respond make it a big deal and let them know that it was important and wonderful. Rewarding your horse and acknowledging their efforts through positive reinforcement lets the horse know that what they did was a good thing and that it will be reciprocated with another good thing. Now the reward for each horse can be something different. It could be a quiet moment, scratches in their favorite itchy spot, kicking up their heels, or something yummy, but whatever it is, learn it for your horse and take the time to see what it is that they truly enjoy. Through acknowledgement and reward, your horse will become more and more willing to answer your questions. Now sometimes when you ask something of your horse, they may respond beautifully, but this response was not what you originally asked for. When this happens, do not make your horse wrong for it! What?! Yes it may be something that seems a little or really counter productive but shutting down a horse's efforts, even if they are wrong, is to shut the door on their willingness to try. Think of it this way, you made a suggestion to a 1200 lb animal, they took it into consideration and made a gallant effort to respond with what they thought you wanted. That in and of itself is worth more than a forced correct response. Training is and always should be an open line of communication between you and your horse and the goal is to never shut that line down. I had a perfect example of this the other day with my mare Mandi. We were working on walk to canter transitions, and then I wanted to work on lifting a bit more into the halt and then from halt to walk. In asking her for more and more collection in these transitions, she offered a halt to canter transition. It was powerful and lovely, but not what I was wanting to work on. Instead of bringing her immediately back down I just went with it! we did several halt to canter transitions, switching leads with each canter depart and she was spectacular. After working on what she threw into the mix, we returned to our collected walk and halt transitions.

Third, allow your horse freedom in movement and do not try and micro manage every stride. In order for a horse to truly build strength and learn movement patterns, they need to do so in fluidity and softness, they cannot learn where or how to be if we are always trying to put them there. Allow the horse physical experimentation so that they can find where they need to be through our guidance and never through our force. In putting the horse into our perceived idea of "correctness" they often develop through tension and brace, never developing the elasticity and strength to have true self carriage and collection. Allow them the time and space to figure out where they need to be and they will get there! Allow them to be perceptive and puzzle solve within their bodies. This gives the horse independence and responsibility and the ride transforms from you doing all that you can to keep them together, to you guiding your horse with soft aids and receiving a prompt response!

Lastly, quit while you are ahead! When you are working with your horse and something is absolutely wonderful and seems perfect, be done for the day! Regardless of if you planned to ride for 30 minutes, or an hour, if after 15 minutes everything is perfect and you and your horse seem to be on the same page and riding in harmony, quit while you are ahead. Thank your horse for being such a willing partner and dismount. It again may seem counter productive when you are trying to build fitness in your horse, but correctness trumps time spent every time! If you were tempted to continue after asking your horse for something and it being perfect, the more you repeat the same motion and pattern, the more likely your horse will now start to respond and move through tension, as well as yourself! Repetitive motion causes horses tension physically and mentally as drilling does not make sense to the horse. Once at that point, you are then training and building muscle through tension and not fluidity. There is nothing wrong with putting it down and revisiting whatever it was that you were working on the next day, and even adding in something new to the mix.

In consciously adding these steps to your work with your horse, you will become more than a rider, you will become the leader your horse needs and looks up to. Think back to what was mentioned before, what is it that makes you feel that you can conquer the world, and what is it that brings you down. Now think of what this may be for your horse, and if you can be what makes your horse feel strong and confident. We all like to feel and do our best, and in turn inspire others to do so.

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