The Art of Natural Dressage

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PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 12:15 pm 
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Previous posts have shown that some people would like the forum to put some more explicit emphasis on safety when playing with horses. Of course the topic of staying safe is a part of several threads already, in some even quite explicitly as for example Encouraging politeness or Dealing with a pushy horse. However, in order to have different safety measures that our members use all collected in one place and make sure that everyone can easily find them, we have opened this sticky.

Please feel free to add what you do to prevent dangerous situations. However, we would like you to remember that even though the issue of safety is an important one, the same rules apply as for all other topics within AND: personal experiences and opinions are to be stated as such, not as absolute truths, and judgments of other people or their methods have no place here.

..............................................

For my interaction with horses, the safety measures I take focus more on HOW I do things than on WHAT I do. That is, there are hardly any activities that I see as a no-go per se, but within ANY activity I try to maintain a close communication with my horses. That is, I constantly check whether they still react to subtle body language cues, and then I adjust my interaction accordingly.

For example, when Summy comes barreling towards me in canter, I try to influence his movement with my posture, and if still he stops too close to me, I ask for a step backwards first before I reward. The same goes for kicking: if during wild play I feel that they are in a kicking-mood (which usually coincides with less attention to my moves), I use my body language to ask for more distance, whereas when they are more focused on me, they can come much closer, even during high energy moves such as rears or jumps.

Bianca for example has a different but very effective way of staying safe. Many of you will know that she is playing extremely wild games with her Evita, and her safety measures rely more on pre-established rules and signals than on a deliberate micro-communication via body language. For example, her horses know that one side (not sure whether it was left or right in relation to her body) is for trot-like exercises only, whereas the other one is for canter and rears. That is, if you start feeling unsafe while Evita is rearing and jumping next to you, you can simply ask her to go to the other side by stretching out your arm, and she instantly moves there, stops the jumps and starts offering things like passage instead. :)

I am looking forward to reading what you do and how it works for you! :)


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PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 1:07 pm 
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I remember one summer when Romy was staying with me (how fortunate am I?) to play with my boys. The whole thing was actually about me not being safe enough and how I did not take enough care of my personal space, nor made sure I calmed the horses down by calming myself down. All of this I still use to this day and teach my many students. Of course this does not only incorporate within the playing situation, but in all situations when dealing with horses... (and dogs and even sometimes humans...).

Also Bianca taught me how to move towards the horse rather then move away when the horse intrudes into your space. Works wonders every time :)

Miriam taught me to start play from behind the fence which is also a very good tip!

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PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 2:29 pm 
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Thanks, Romy!

I think this is a really important topic.

For me, inviting my horses to play with me was a huge breakthrough in how we all began to change how we related to each other. For Stardust, my rescue who'd been battered by the professional jumping circuit and its systems, being invited to do what he wanted to do in playful ways was mind-blowing. It took him a while to even understand what I was thinking/inviting, and then a while to accept the invitation. Circe, my sure-of-herself Haflinger, was ready pretty quickly, with a "what took you so long to figure this out?" energy.

Playing in this way is very different than working with a horse that everyone is assuming will walk quietly by a human's side, no doubt. It offers enormous rewards and can carry risks.

Our wild play is a lot less high end than what some people are doing (basically it's about goofing off and chasing each other around and being high like kites together) so we have less finesse than many people.

But -- here are some of the things that we do:

1. I work hard to gauge the right energy level for wild play for all of us -- I don't do it when I'm tired or foggy, and tend not to do it my horses are too wound up. This has required a fair amount of attention and learning to read my horses' energy well -- I always come in receptive to that first, rather than having decided before we engage that we're going to play in this way.

2. I'm very, very aware of where they are and where I am and where anything that looks like a flying hoof may be. I've not rewarded kicking out -- I know that some folks here do with some amazing results, but that makes me nervous with my horses. (This is Circe, mostly -- she is a 'give an inch, take a mile' personality and I don't trust her with this. Am hoping that as she grows up and matures (hah!!) that will shift.)

3. When I've felt like it would be fun to play but I'm not feeling like we're all at a place where we can do it safely, I will stay outside the fenceline and run back and forth like a crazy person with carrot pieces. The horses adore this! They run like lunatics, too, to grab carrots from different places. Sometimes that's all we (okay I) have energy for and sometimes it's a nice way to take the edge off before we play.

More will probably occur to me at some point...

Best,
Leigh

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PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 2:42 pm 
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Leigh wrote:
I've not rewarded kicking out -- I know that some folks here do with some amazing results, but that makes me nervous with my horses. (This is Circe, mostly -- she is a 'give an inch, take a mile' personality and I don't trust her with this.


That's a very important point for me, my horses and our guests as well. Whereas I do reward kicking when I like it, the "when I like it" part is absolutely crucial here - as in all the other things we do together. I only reward what I feel comfortable with, and for me this is not a static set of exercises but it can shift depending on my mood or the horses' mood or a lot of other contextual factors.

I also ask everyone who plays with my horses to only reward what he feels absolutely comfortable with. Because of that, different people play with them in different ways and therefore the horses have learned to pay close attention to the human's state. When a person acts like he is a bit scared, they automatically become more careful with him.


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PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 8:59 pm 
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Romy wrote:
I only reward what I feel comfortable with, and for me this is not a static set of exercises but it can shift depending on my mood or the horses' mood or a lot of other contextual factors.

I also ask everyone who plays with my horses to only reward what he feels absolutely comfortable with. Because of that, different people play with them in different ways and therefore the horses have learned to pay close attention to the human's state. When a person acts like he is a bit scared, they automatically become more careful with him.



That statement speaks volumes for me :yes:

That is exactly how I feel reward and encourage what I feel comfortable with and this can vary from horse to horse. With my younger stallion Bertie he can approach too play and his body language speaks calm but sometimes it does not feel quite right. I often find that if I ignore this feeling he can suddenly jump to high energy and it is better to have distance between us. I think this is because he is a young horse and he himself is still trying to regulate his own emotions and can become over excited. I used to feel this way with Gaucho but Gaucho has grown into himself and I think we both understand one another better.

I seldom if ever feel this way with my older horses and perhaps they are comfortable with my less than perfect body language. :smile:

So I think for me at least it is more about instinct and feel, at times I have done things that I would tell others not to do because they could be dangerous and yet at the time it felt quite safe. I think this is very hard to explain to many though I am sure you all understand it is a deep connection with the horse as though we share thoughts :smile:

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PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 9:41 pm 

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Quote:
So I think for me at least it is more about instinct and feel, at times I have done things that I would tell others not to do because they could be dangerous and yet at the time it felt quite safe.


I am not an example to emulate.
I am quite sure that I did things differently and had different focus when teaching a novice rider to lead, lunge or jump, to those times when no-one is watching us.

Of course I would always wear a flourescent/reflective high visibility jacket and a riding helmet if I am riding on a road where, not simply for my horse and my own safety I need to be seen and to protect myself, but also for children in passing vehicles who are wishing for a pony of their own and mistakenly might see me as an example.

Yet when sitting on a horse and allowing him to feel a human for the first time on his back I assess by blissful ignorance, or intuition and body/mind communication.
There are times when knowledge and intellect can obscure intuited communication, or somehow block sensitivity to the conversation we have with horses. Even in those moments of attempting to see with the eyes and imagination of childhood the knowing adult in us somehow oversees and watches for a shift of mood, nerves, hesitancy, and then I would back off and only try if I felt the invitation.
I have climbed onto the backs of many horses and ponies, no neck strap, no tack at all, at liberty because I 'felt' invited.
If I had run to collect a hat or headcollar or saddle or bridle...focus would have been on safety and perhaps I would have alerted my horse to something to fear or brought my own attention to "what if", rather than breathing and being in the moment.
Would I ever suggest anyone do what I do? - Never!

It does help to sometimes say "do as I say not as I do", and demonstrate how to notice when a horse shows tension through his muzzle or ears and facial expressions, or through his posture outline or tail.
Lucy Rees in her 1984 book The Horses Mind was a wonderful observer. So often we already read our own horse yet cannot express in spoken language what we saw. For me, much of Lucy's book was "yes, of course" and to become more aware of some postures I might not have noticed.

I find it helpful to first have my horses learn simple walk in hand movements haltered and at liberty, and reward for walk/halt, walk/half-halt/walk/halt and more difficult for a horse as he must think, the backward walk, yet 'back' helps when I enter a closed barn at feed times, and is the command for halt, think back but stop/release before taking the step backwards, easier than teaching a horse to stop at the front and fall on it's nose.

Susie.xx

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PostPosted: Thu May 03, 2012 2:11 am 
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Oh, lovely thoughts!

Thanks, all.

:)

L.

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PostPosted: Thu May 03, 2012 11:10 am 
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Thank you Karen and Romy for opening this topic. I think it's very helpful to have this among the other exercises. After all, the main issue I hear as an argument against playing with horses (and food rewards for that matter) is safety.

Having started my horse quite inexperienced, I went about it rather tentative, slowly feeling my way through blocks and resistances. Both the slowness and the positive learning environment were (as I see them in retrospect) effective safety measures. Still, now that Mucki is in full adolescence and gaining confidence by the week, I am confronted with situations that remind me of the importance of experience. I know what a horse is capable of, but merely knowing does not mean recognising the omens before it's too late.

As I like to analyse and categorise things, I've categorised for me three types of situations were a horse is potentially dangerous:
1. I (or something else) pressure the horse so much that fighting (or bolting) is the chosen solution for the horse.
Here I can remove the pressure myself and/or be aware of potential sources of pressure to avoid/prevent them.
2. The horse wants to play with me like it would with another horse.
Here I noticed that Mucki for example is often just ignoring invitations from other horses. I tried it myself and it worked nicely to just turn my back on Mucki or walk away if he had just pushed me with his shoulder or cut off my path. Problem is that it's basically a reaction, so the harmful thing (like a kick) maybe already has happened.
3. The horse is not paying attention to me and/or is not aware of what I need to stay safe.
For this I find important to watch my own manners, as well as Romy's politeness/body language exercises, which I practised right from the start with Mucki. Also rewarding for attention is important to me, like turning an ear when I call his name.
If the third point is carefully and constantly improved, I think it influences heavily the other two.
Most important for me however remains the part of my own manners and attitude towards the horse. Horses are peace loving animals, evolutionary engineered to be prosocial and empathic. I firmly believe that if I act respectfully, according to their rules, that they will respect my needs as well.
Unfortunately that does not mean that I'm safe from the occasional hoof on my toe, or even a dangerous kick meant for another horse for example.

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PostPosted: Thu May 03, 2012 8:40 pm 
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I use the same 3 categories, Volker, and I try to keep those in mind while working/playing/being with my horse.

I know I cannot be 100% safe, but Beau knows what en why he does things most of the time... And probably the times I don't understand too ;)

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 21, 2013 8:40 am 
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In another forum I was posting an example from my current training with a horse who still has to learn how to play safely, and I thought that perhaps it might be helpful for some people if I post it here as well.

The horse is a young boy in a huge body and hasn't had any experiences with wild play yet, so he was testing whether maybe becoming pushy and a bit aggressive towards me was a good idea. Therefore, I was extra careful to make sure he reacted to my body language at all times. I asked him to start trotting by swinging my hips forwards when walking and made sure this signal was just big enough to trigger a trot instead of a faster walk or a canter jump. In that way, his movement was done in coordination with mine right from the start.

My cue usually resulted in him playfully tossing his head and doing a very energetic suspended trot. I praised him when he started trotting, and then I asked him to stop (using an immediate relaxation of my body) after only a few steps to give him the treat for the combination of both. If he came too close or pushed into me or tried to bite me, I moved my hips towards him to ask for a step backwards first before giving the treat. Instead of giving a fixed stop signal, I also varied my way of asking for a stop (e.g. sometimes more snappy, sometimes more slowly) so that the horse can learn to adjust the way he stops to my body language as well.

The purpose of these frequent and variable stops was to make sure that he remains attentive and reactive to my body language during the whole movement, so that I know I can stop or influence it at any point. With my own horses, my wild games aren't always as controlled as that. However, I only encourage a more independent wildness around me once I know that with a given horse I can re-establish the communication easily. So first the brakes, then the gas. :smile:


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