Horse Skills: The Check- In Learning to Acknowledge the Equine to stop Guessing

The Check-In

I often encounter people who are surprised or overwhelmed by their horse's responses. There tends to be a major gap in the human's perception of when/what/how things have occurred rather than an understanding of all the ongoing, continuous equine communication that was ignored, overlooked, or criticized and how the animal's feedback would "tell" the person what behaviors were coming next. 

In trying to help people become more aware and considerate of what the horse was experiencing during human interactions, I came up with the idea of the "check-in." In human terms, think if you were walking someone familiar tapped you on the shoulder from behind. Your focus would be drawn to them, you might slow or pause your behavior, and you would engage in conversation to hear what they wanted. But if it was someone you were unfamiliar with or distrustful of, you would respond very differently. The latter responses are how I see many horses act toward people. 

The Check-In is a "tool" for both the human and horse to develop that offers a consideration, and acknowledgment of one another. Initially, it may be done at the halt, but later it will occur as movement continues whether the horse is being ridden or worked with from the ground. On the human's end, it is an opportunity to assess where the horse's mental focus is, what his responses are to the person's spatial and physical movement, and his counteroffers to physical pressure- could be on the lead rope, reins, leg, etc.- and it gives one information as to what needs to be addressed to better prepare the horse for what will be asked of him next. 

This is where the importance of learning the ability to see the whole horse and also to hone in on details like his ears, blinking, breathing, postures, hoof positions, angle of his head, tail movement, jaw tension, etc. to recognize possible communication, spatial, or physical triggers that are causing the horse to become anticipative and physically tight. The feedback, or responses the horse offers "tell" the human if the equine is ready or if there are aspects of the interaction in that moment that need to be addressed to bring the horse to a place of mental and physical "neutrality." For the horse, it teaches him that the person will acknowledge his feedback subtly so that he does not have to a.) anticipate habitually, or b.) "learn" to offer big, dramatic, behaviors to get the human to quit triggering him. 

What does Check-In look like? First, it is a visual, look at the horse to assess where his mind is. Notice physical tension and odd posturing. Then start to work with redirecting the horse's focus. This will often "show" triggers as one attempts to spatially or physically communicate the horse will have counteroffers. These are coping and defensive behaviors that humans did not ask for.
Example: Asking the horse to step forward, and instead, he swings his hindquarters all the way around in a 180-degree movement.) As he does this, one notices how heavy the horse may be pushing into the rein or lead rope. When attempting to pause the excessive movement, there may be rooting or diving of the animal's nose down and forward- trying to push either the halter or bridle pressure away. Perhaps the equine is asked to step back to offer the person personal space, and the horse moves backward and immediately steps forward again. Noticing a lack of ability to independently move each hoof... the equine maintains braced hocks. After mentally redirecting the horse to where he looks at something different, he may immediately go back to looking at what initially caused him concern...

It is an opportunity to practice offering specific communication, maintaining mental presence and persistence, and experimenting with the physical follow-through that will teach the horse to trust and try.

So much information in the above interaction tells the human the many aspects that need to be addressed to help the horse become mentally directable and physically soft before asking for anything else. Yet, so much of the time folks have been taught to just keep adding more pressure- or moving forward. This is a disservice to the human as many have no awareness of all that is occurring in real time, and to the horse, who when overwhelmed, adding more pressure just teaches him to become more defensive. 

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