Written by: Josh Nichol
How to direct your horse effectively, once you’ve gained his focus.
In the last issue, we learned that your first priority in the round pen is to ensure your horse’s mind is attentive to you so that he is open to what you ask of him. If his mind is focused elsewhere, he won’t be able to “hear” your questions, and any attempts to communicate will likely cause a stress reaction if he is sensitive, or simply go unheeded if he is a less sensitive type.
We also talked about fostering a softness within your horse when he is with you mentally, as a soft horse is a calm, willing horse, able to perform to the best of his abilities. We achieve these things by teaching the horse that he can “control” the pressures we apply by staying with us in a peaceful state of mind.
Once your horse is able to be calmly attentive, you are ready to start directing him into movement, which I call “sending.” This is where things often start to fall apart for many people, as they are not able to differentiate between sending and chasing. The goal of sending your horse is to have the ability to carry softness and connection into motion, which strengthens the relational foundation we are aiming for. Chasing also creates motion, but instead of building relationship, it causes your horse to disconnect and feel the need to leave.
Sometimes people chase a horse intentionally to “show him who’s boss,” and it is very easy to create apparent submission resulting from learned helplessness (see I Give Up above) by using the round pen in this way. However, many people who want to work from a more relational perspective also end up chasing the horse simply because they don’t know how to modulate the balance between mind and space that creates movement while maintaining connection.
Picturing Straightness on a Circle
The starting point for being able keep your horse connected while asking him to move is first being able to visualize what that looks like. What you want to see is your horse’s inside eye is turned slightly toward you while he is traveling around you. When you have that eye, your horse is still with you mentally and you still have some “draw” on him, so it should be fairly easy to actually draw him in if you ask for that.
Having that inside eye also creates a bit of lateral flexion in your horse’s poll, which helps the shoulder stand up. That is important because having the weight off the inside shoulder allows the hind legs to activate correctly, meaning they can reach well forward under the horse. His hind legs need to be able to come forward like this in order for him to perform with athleticism.
When all of this is working optimally, you will see that your horse’s head, neck and body form a curve that matches the arc of the circle he is traveling on. This correct nose-to-tail bend is what we are talking about when we refer to a horse being “straight on a circle.” You will also tend to see less rushing and unevenness in your horse’s gaits, as being soft, balanced and straight on the circle naturally creates better cadence in his movement.
If you don’t have your horse’s eye, he is not connecting with you, and is probably wanting to leave. Of course, being in the round pen prevents your horse from actually leaving, but when he is even thinking about leaving, his body shape and the way he moves will typically look quite different than what I just described. First off, the poll will not be flexed inward, but will be either straight or counter-flexed (bent to the outside), and his body will thus not follow the curve of the circle. This causes the horse to “fall in” to some degree, putting more weight on the inside shoulder, which then blocks the hind leg from being able to come forward well. If your horse is also worried while wanting to leave, he is likely to get quick and tight in its movements and may travel in an inverted posture. When you recognize these things, you start to see how a lack of mental connection can impede physical function. This is as true in our mounted work as it is on the ground.
Working in “The Grey”
Once you can picture what it is you want to achieve, you need a way to make that happen. This is best done by what I call “working in the grey.” If you think of your horse being completely focused on you as “white,” and him leaving you as “black,” you will understand that keeping the horse connected while sending him is all about playing with shades of grey. You create these shades of grey by using intention and pressure to do two things: draw your horse’s mind if he is thinking about leaving, and ask him to move by engaging in a spatial conversation. By continually balancing the inward pull on the mind with the sending intention, you put into the space, you will find your horse’s “sweet spot” – that perfect shade of grey where he is able to stay with you mentally while moving around you.
But, before you find that balance point, you are going to have times where your horse has been drawn too far into the white (turned and faced you), or pushed too far into the black (wants to leave). This is perfectly normal and nothing to get upset over. You just need to take the appropriate actions to show your horse what you want, and only seek to find the sweet spot for a moment or two at first. Here is what you need to do to start the process:
1. Start by making sure that your intention – the thing you want the horse to do (step the shoulder away, walk on a circle, etc.) – is putting out an energy of “stay connected with me,” even though you will be asking him to move out in the space. This may sound contradictory, but horses are great readers of energy, and they can feel a difference between a person asking them to move away with a calm, inviting energy that still promotes connection, or a more aggressive or unsettled energy that will simply make them want to leave. But, don’t get discouraged if you believe you are presenting an inviting energy and the horse still decides to leave. This work is a learning process for both horse and human, and this does take practice.
2. With that clear intention and your horse focused softly on you, step into the space directly toward the horse’s nose (assuming he is facing you) and apply some spatial pressure (done with intention, body language and your aid as needed) to ask him to move out of the space you are stepping into. Try not to step around the horse, as that is actually asking him to draw to you, not move out of the space. If you are working with a pressure sensitive horse or a horse that loses mental focus easily, you may only want to move him a step or two at this early stage before shifting your intention and drawing him back. Gradually, you will ask for more movement forward on the circle.
3. Once you have your horse moving, be ready to make a change to bring his eye to you if he starts leaving mentally. You can do this by either stepping in closer to his hip, which will prompt many horses to bring their eye around, or stepping a bit in front of his shoulder, which will impede his forward motion and often get him to look your way. If you step to his hip and your horse just scoots faster, try stepping in front. If you step to the front and he turns into the fence, you may have used too much pressure, although sometimes this is just the horse’s natural response. Regardless, try stepping in front again in the new direction, playing with your use of pressure to find what works in that moment. You may have to do this a number of times before your horse tries something different by bringing his eye to you.
4. Whether you are stepping in to his hip or in front of his shoulder, you have to be sure to release your pressure to reward your horse for bringing his focus to you. If you want your horse to keep moving after his eye has come to you, be ready to ask for movement after you have rewarded (released pressure) for his eye coming to you. Since you have been working on drawing your horse before asking for movement, don’t be surprised if he wants to turn in completely to face you, which is natural since you have taught him that focusing directly on you is a way for him to control pressure. That is also nothing to be upset about – just be aware that if that is your horse’s tendency, you must be sure your intention is clear, and use your spatial conversation to help him understand that you want him to keep moving forward on the circle.
VERY IMPORTANT: The major challenge of this exercise is not to get too demanding, especially in the beginning, but instead to only look for moments of being in the grey. It is extremely common for people to get a glimpse of success and want more, but if you start pressuring your horse too much – working space, mind, space, mind, etc. – your horse will get discouraged and confused. Just look for little areas of grey and go easy on the idea of your horse needing to hold that.
When you are starting to do this work with your horse, always keep in mind that feeling your way through the shades of grey to find the sweet spot takes practice. It will come more easily and stay longer as both you and your horse gain understanding, but even when you find it, and can generally maintain it, there are going to be times when staying in the grey is more of a challenge due to things going on in the environment. When these moments happen, it is important not to get frustrated or discouraged, as it is perfectly normal to have ups and downs in the training process. Remember that getting emotional works against your relational goals, so if you have a tough moment, just take a breath, regroup, and figure out what needs you can meet for your horse in order to create a positive change.