Are you doing all the talking?

Monday 14 May 2018

Over the course of a few schooling sessions, I’ve become increasingly aware of an issue concerning my dialogue with Harper. Having observed Mark and Arran with their own horses, I’ve come to realize that throughout Harper’s training, I’ve been doing most of the talking – and when you always talk, you are unable to listen. 

Furthermore, what I thought were clear, precise aids, was actually a constant niggling of vague commands – a slight tweaking of her posture here or there, accidentally blocking her with my body language on the ground, or with my seat in the ridden work. When I thought we had a conversation going, Harper seemed to only hear a set of instructions to follow. Or, in other words, what I had previously judged to be a shared conversation between us was, in fact, just a series of one-way commands and directions targeted at managing her framework and behaviour. Eventually I would love to achieve a point in our relationship where we have a flexible exchange of shared ideas and intentions – a kind of synergetic connection, rather than simply just a teacher/student relationship. 

Now that I understand the importance of this two-way dialogue, I am conscious not to ‘manage’ Harper, and since then our dialogue has become more precise and a little more collaborative. However, one area that I have been particularly struggling with, is the in hand work, so when this was the subject for our last private mentoring day, I was keen to get started! 

During the theory session we discussed the way in which individual horses within a herd communicate –primarily through body language – and how it links in to the work in hand and on the ground. Because of this innate behaviour, horses are able to immediately pick up on the subtlest of movements. Even the slightest changes in your body position can have huge implications on the signals you send to your horse, and therefore their way of going. 

For instance, for a long time I had trouble with Harper invading my personal space when taking her on a circle in hand. She would cut right across my bubble and want to make the circle as small as possible. But, by standing further back, a little behind her shoulders, and being aware of my own body position (especially my shoulders), this problem has almost completely disappeared. 

I’ve also been working on Stellning (lateral bending of the poll) with Harper for quite some time, not realising that she actually finds it very difficult to release her poll. So by massaging around her atlas and axis, and flexing her head a little from side to side before I let her release into forward down, she is able to also release laterally, allowing a more even, deeper Stellning. 

In an effort to perfect everything I’ve learnt so far in our sessions, I can try too hard, therefore failing to be fluid or flexible with our structure and blocking her by over-communication. Before, Harper was starting to challenge my aids, because I was sending a million messages and didn’t give her a chance to speak, but, now she knows I will listen to her, she is more willing to listen to me. We are talking in collaboration! 

It would seem that during training, rather than focusing on purely just being the ‘teacher’, one must also listen to the thinking of the horse. Become aware of his reactions, observe his body language and listen to what he has to say – sometimes you may learn something too! 

Written by Octavia Hopwood

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