Don’t Embrace the Brace
Have you ever felt any of the following when you work with a horse:
Heavy on the lead rope- as you were dragging the horse around?
Loading or unloading a horse from the trailer/lorry and feeling that you couldn’t “stop” or “move him” to a different place from what he was offering?
The horse was to move out of your personal space when working from the ground?
The horse was resistant to transitions whether being worked from the ground or in the saddle?
The horse is pushing, leaning, heavy or dragging on the bit/bridle?
When you are trying to turn in one direction and having your horse slowly “leak” the opposite way?
When you tried to ride a straight line feeling that your horse is constantly “throwing” or “locking up” his shoulder or hip towards the opposite way from which you are traveling?
Picking up the reins and feeling a general “lethargic” response from your horse?
The list could go on and on… All of the above mentioned “issues” are a result of your horse’s resistance, which I will refer to as a brace. The brace starts mentally. The horse is mentally unavailable to “hear” what you are offering (your communication with him.)
There are different “levels” of resistance/brace a horse can display. For most riders “good enough” is accepted, which is when the horse offers a level of try that he thinks is “good enough,” and the rider accepts it, whether or not it was the ideal quality the rider had originally intended. Most people ride being “polite” to their horses, accepting good enough attitudes in their horse, because they translate in this acceptance as being “nice” or “kind” to their horse. The truth is, when a horse carries any level of brace in him, mentally, emotionally and physically, “being kind” and leaving him there, is not an actual “nice” act. It really leaves your horse in a spot of turmoil. Horses do not have the rationally to say, “I don’t feel good when I think/act like this, so let me change what I’m doing.” So it is up to the human to help the horse get to a “better” spot emotionally, mentally and physically.
The horse’s nature causes him to constantly search for that “feel good spot,” whether it’s when he’s in a herd of horses or with his human handler/rider. The problem is humans typically live in the “gray” areas as far as decision making, clear communication, their intentions, level of awareness, etc., whereas horses live in the “black and white.” They search for what behaviors are acceptable and those that are not.
We’ve all seen such clarity and “boundaries” displayed within a herd; the lead horse swishing its tail or flipping it’s ears back towards a horse lower in the pecking order when that horse gets too close. Or the mare sending her colt “away” from the herd as a disciplinary action, until the colt changes his approach, he is not allowed back into the herd.
But most people don’t realize that they aren’t aware, assessing and are misinterpreting what their horse is asking of them, therefore, they cannot offer their horse clear “boundaries” of what behaviors are acceptable and those that are not. The more “gray” the human is when communicating with the horse, the more “lost” the horse is. The lost’ness’ causes the horse an uneasiness because he is not clear of what is expected of him, therefor he becomes mentally defensive and prepares for “the worst.” The mental and emotional defensiveness of the horse translates into a physical resistance or BRACE. This is when the person experiences the scenarios listed at the beginning of this article.
Now as with anything there are different levels of brace, from the glaringly obvious, such as the horse that plants his feet and will not move forward to the horse that may offer some of the following scenarios… The horse’s brace may appear as him trying what you asked “once” and then “giving up” or resisting if you ask for a different response from him. Or your horse could be “going along fine” but always adds an extra step or two, such as in a transition. This could be your horse offering you a lateral movement, but if you ask him to offer a bit softer, more balanced or rhythmic movement you feel like you literally are sitting on or have put your leg against a “brick wall.” Again the list goes on and on…
My point is most times people offer either “too nice” or too aggressive communication, it’s because they are feeling a resistance, a brace, in their horse and are unclear on a.) Where, when and what is the root cause of the brace to start, and b.) Are unclear as to what “tools” are necessary to communicate clearly with their equine in order to get a change in their horse’s mental, emotional and physical state.
Because of this lack of understanding in the human, people get distracted by the unwanted behavior their horse is offering, which is the symptom, rather than getting to the “root” issue. They also do not understand that the physical behavior offered by a horse is a direct reflection of his mental and emotional state.
Put it into people terms; how do you physically act if you are mentally and emotionally unclear, insecure, worried, fearful, defensive, etc.? The same goes for the horse. Influence a mental and emotional change in your horse, and you’ll achieve the ideal physical response. Now obviously this is not the “quick fix” solution and requires a huge “responsibility” on the rider’s end to first address them before they ever worry about their horse.
So the more common alternative, mostly due to a “distraction” of the unwanted physical behavior is to “fix” the more blaringly obvious “brace”- the physical one. The clearest evidence of the number of riders that experience a brace in their horse is displayed in any tack magazine or catalogue. What percentage of the equipment is offered to “fix” a problem with the horse’s physical behavior? Bits, spurs, whips, martingales, tie-downs, draw reins, etc…
This all comes back to quality horsemanship before you ever get into saddle and taking the time to honestly look at the clarity of communication you have with your horse from the ground before you “expect” quality in the saddle.