The Art of Natural Dressage

Working with the Horse's Initiative
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 24, 2013 8:14 pm 
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This sticky is meant to be a collection of ideas on how to inspire forwards movement in your horse, instead of just ambling along when you are running together. Some of the methods discussed elsewhere in the forum can be very helpful for that, for example Chase the tiger or Point to point. They make use of an external object or focus point to inspire the horse to approach it, which can work wonders for a horse's running motivation. Actually the same goes for any purposeful activity. Most horses are much more eager to move forwards while going for a walk, for instance, where they have somewhere to go to, instead of just doing arbitrary circles in an arena. However, this sticky focuses more on factors inherent in your own behaviour or movement. It will consist of two main parts, with the first one being about your own attitude and the second one specifically dealing with ways in which you can use your body language to elicit more forwards movement.

The attitude part can be summed up in a single concept: be forwards yourself. Often when people want to run with horses, they do that like an exercise, a task to be accomplished. However, in order to convince your horse that running is fun, it is helpful if this is reflected in your own expression as well. I am learning this again and again when watching the children who play with my horses. I refer to this as the Aylin lessons, named after a young girl who got my Titum to canter again at a time when he was nothing but bored with me. The whole story can be found in this post, but here are the lessons:

Romy wrote:
First, she loves the horses. She is happy about whatever they offer. Second, and this might sound contradictory to the first point but I think it really isn't, she just doesn't have the patience to sit and wait for the 500th repetition of an exercise. Once something got done, she needs a new task. Third, she never uses pressure with the horses. She just never learned about interacting with animals in a pressure-based way (and after watching her I can say with absolute certainty that she also hasn't taught herself to do so ;)). Fourth, she LOVES movement. She doesn't run with the horses because she wants them to run with her, but because she wants to run with them. The difference might sound very negligible, but I think that's basically what it all boils down to, and it makes a whole world of a difference to my horses.


If it is hard for you to enjoy running, you can change that by simply turning it into a habit. For example, after having watched Aylin, I set up a rule for myself to run every little distance in my everyday life, unless there was a reason that made it impossible. Accordingly, running became my default mode of moving, and after some time it actually felt weird not to run. This also made it much easier to run with my horses, and suddenly they got interested in running with me as well.

Besides these more general matters of attitude, there are several ways in which you can use your body language to inspire forwards movement. One aspect that is important in all of them is the precision of the horse's reactions to changes in your body. Before even starting to play any running games with a horse, I do something that I call "binding the horse to my moves". This means that I try to make sure that even small movements of mine trigger a corresponding movement of the horse in an almost automatical manner. The basics of this are described in the Encouraging politeness thread.

When working in that way in general and when running together in particular, it is important to stay connected with the horse. Thus, if you start walking and the horse doesn't follow, don't continue walking for several meters until he finally starts moving as well. Instead, you can turn back to him and walk past his head in a more sideways manner (or cue a sideways movement of his shoulders with your body language). If he turns with you or even just shifts his weight in the beginning, reward immediately. It seems to be a rather general thing, by the way, that horses are more likely to react to a cue suggesting movement if this movement requires a rotation of their body instead of a mere forwards movement.

Another aspect of this binding to body language is that I always use some sort of small preparatory interaction (a detailed description of preparatory cues and different cue levels can be found here). That is, I usually don't just start running but first signal this to the horse in a more implicit way, and make sure that he is ready to join in. This can be done by first tensing up in your body and only when you see the horse attend to you and tense up as well, you initiate the actual change in your movement. The timing of your body language is crucial for that, and it works best if you manage to capture the movement right at the point when you see that the horse is just about to start moving, because it is much easier to change an ongoing movement than to start one from scratch.

Besides the timing of your body language, also its actual shape can influence the movement of your horse. For example, many people start running but then turn towards the horse and constantly look at him, thereby standing on the brakes and decreasing his forwards movement. However, horses usually are much more willing to run if you look forwards and into the direction in which you are running... or actually not just look there, but throw your focus forwards and then jump after it. 8) When you start running, it also is helpful to not just plod forwards. Instead, you can do that with some momentum, a bit like you were pushing forwards/upwards against a spring. Thus, if you start running less gradually but with a more marked change in your energy, your horse will be more likely to do the same. Also, your hips play an important role in cueing forwards movement: They can be used to flip the horse forwards while you are walking together, which is explained in the sticky about Walking positions and their variation.

And lastly, you can use different kinds of variations, for example between different directions, movement speeds or tension and energy levels. When working with a horse who does not show a lot of forwards movement, I try to avoid whole movement sequences and instead change my own movements quite often, sometimes after two or three steps already. By keeping the predictability of your movements to a minimum, your horse will have to stay attentive if he does not want to miss these variations. However, be careful to adjust the frequency and intensity of such changes to the needs of your horse. Some horses, especially those who don't run because they are shy and insecure, may feel even more insecure with these changes. But also horses with higher confidence levels may disconnect from you and start doing their own thing if you are too snappy and unpredictable for their taste.

Well, that's everything I can think of for now. Please add your experiences on inspiring your horses to run or move forwards in a more energetic way! :)


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 9:46 pm 
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Today we turned Pan, one of the most sleepy horses I have ever encountered, into a horse that was hard to hold back because he was so eager to trot. :f:

It all started with Lena and me talking about transistions from standstill to trot, and Lena said that she could not imagine that her horse would ever do this. So I had a task. 8) The principle was quite simple: giving the pony a reason to trot, so that trotting becomes something that makes sense from his perspective. I did that by making grazing completely contingent upon trotting. That is, as soon as he trotted, I stopped and pointed to the grass so that he could eat, whereas I did not allow grazing in any other situation. In that way, trotting became a reliable way to get immediate access to grass, and the sooner he did it, the sooner he got his grass.

Within a few minutes, I had a horse at my hands who wanted to start trotting as soon as I asked him to lift his head up from the grass, and I even had to use the rope sometimes to keep him from trotting. :funny: Thus, the next step was to get all that forwards energy under control by making sure we only started moving forwards once he stood still and attended to us. This, in turn, gives you a horse who is watching your body language like an eagle looking out for a mouse, and then a little hip flick is enough to make that pony flip from standstill to trot.

So much fun to take any problem that comes your way and adjust the situation in a way that guarantees that the solution to the problem is what makes most sense from the horse's point of view. Thank you, Pan, for being such a perfect teacher in this! :f:


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 11, 2013 8:09 am 
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Romy wrote:
Lena said that she could not imagine that her horse would ever do this.


Indeed, and primarily that he can be spontaneous! My horse..., that perpetually seems to fall asleep! :ieks:

:applause:


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PostPosted: Wed Jan 08, 2014 2:56 pm 
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Spirit seems like she may never run with me or to me.... The only thing she ever is able to do is run away from humans :sad:. I know it is a long journey, and who knows what our relationship may look like in a year's time for example. But I do find it hard to imagine a confident Spirit running next to me. Hopefully someday I will read back at this post and smile, but in the mean time we have a lot of trust building to do. I have tried gently introducing a very calm version of chase the tiger to her. I think may be I shall persevere with this and see where it takes us.


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PostPosted: Sat Aug 08, 2015 7:43 am 
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When reading Nora's description of the summer meeting and that I "waked Titum up", I was trying to find out how I do it. With Titum the energy you put into running is important, because with the right energy he canters with you like a feather, whereas otherwise he will simply not run, or only at a slow and half-hearted trot. But as I am a bit allergic to pressure, for me this energy cannot come from me pushing him but must be about me being in the right running mood myself, so that I can automatically draw him with me. I'll try to disect the mental images a bit.

First, my focus is not on Titum standing still or walking slowly. The slowness is not the issue I am concerned with as it does not fit with what the situation is all about: RUNNING! So I act as if the slowness was not even there. I don't try to end it, I try to start running. Actually, my focus is not even whether Titum runs, because his movement simply does not matter. Overcoming the slowness only is a small obstacle that we need to jump while being headed somewhere into the distance. But the focus is on the distance, not on the obstacle.

Second, there are no individuals. It does not matter what HE does, or what I do. What matters is running, and the partners involved aren't the unit of analysis, because the activity absorbs any individuals. We are a running unit, not a horse and a human.

Third, there is not a single doubt that we will run. Running is like a wave of water when a damm has broken, or like a steam train full of power and with this impatient, pulsating energy that says "FORWARDS, FORWARDS". Don't even think that anything could stand in its way. Nothing can stop it.

Fourth, I combine this with glueing myself to Titum. Just starting to run without actually attending to him at all would merely result in me running while he still is standing there. I have described the glueing many times before, so I'll just skip it here. But the essence is that I bind my body language to him and use him for the non-conscious online-control of my movements. If that the connection gets weak (e.g. because he slows down while I am being fast), I automatically adjust and pick him up again, instead of just continueing. There is this rubber band between us and it cannot break.

Finally, I am HAPPY. Like I am running because I am about to go on a holiday, not because I have a train to catch and am worried that I won't make it. It's this combination of total determination (because nothing could stop the steam train) and total freedom (because nothing really matters) that makes the running possible. We don't have to run and thus failure is not an issue... but we WILL! :bounce:


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