by Jo Spiller
I have had the most marvelous time writing this article. There are things I thought I knew; I mean, after all, I have a degree from The British Horse Society to teach riding. I have been teaching riders and schooling horses successfully for a long time, so what could I be missing?
Then I started studying the theories and methods developed by Cynthia Cooper, who teaches a technique I like to call, ‘bitless, natural riding’, and suddenly I saw connections that had been in plain sight, but somehow hidden, like the image of a pony camouflaged in a larger picture.
Lunging a horse
Do you lunge your horse? If so, why? How will lunging benefit either of you?
People report numerous reasons why they lunge their horses, the most frequent being that lunging takes ‘the edge off.’
Consider this: A horse is a flight animal quick to become highly anxious and agitated, and has the endurance and power to flee predators for extended periods.
Is it logical to think that running him in circles for ten minutes is going to ‘take the edge off’?
It is more likely to cause him physical and emotional exhaustion from trying to stay balanced while running in a tight circle.
Often people say they lunge in order to teach voice commands. Having a horse who lunges willingly and responds to voice commands is a valuable asset when teaching beginning riders.
These aims are all worth discussing, but they overlook the real reason for lunging.
In everything we do with the horse, whether we are on his back or on the ground, our goal must be to find and nurture a connection.
But what is that, how do we achieve it, and how will we know when we have it?
Watch what happens when a group of horses are grazing quietly, and one horse lifts his head and adopts an energy-charged, rigid stance, eyes focused on the distance.
The rest of the herd will stop grazing, come to life, and adopt his energy, readiness, and posture.
If you can imagine the power of harnessing that level of awareness to communicate between horse and human, you’re on the right track to discovering what it is…
This connection does not rely on physical contact or direct actions. It’s not a response to avoid some negative consequence.
Connection occurs when the horse follows your focus, feels for your feel, and tries to search for what you are visualizing.
It is difficult to define. I hesitate to use the term ESP (Extra Sensory Perception), because, for many people, it brings to mind images of crystal balls or fortune-tellers.
ESP is defined as ‘an awareness of information about events external to the self not gained through our five senses.’
A connection comes not through seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, or hearing, but from inside the horse and human, from their hearts.
I like to say connection occurs when horses and humans apprehend each other’s reality. I love using that word because you can comprehend something without having to understand it.
You just know it, deep down in that place where you just know things.
So how do you create this partnership? You don’t do anything, to create it, because it’s not a matter of doing. It is much more a matter of who you are being.
You see, we have language for doing things: We can say “Put your heels down,” “Sit up straight,” and “Get in the car,” but nobody can tell you how to do ‘being.’
We have no language for it, so how do we begin to comprehend it? We begin with:
The Stravinsky Story.
Igor Stravinsky, a Russian composer notorious for creating incredibly difficult compositions for strings, sent a violin sonata to a musician who was considered to be the finest in Russia.
The young musician, after studying the piece, sent it back to Stravinsky with a note that read: “I am honored, Maestro, but this is simply too difficult for me to play..”.
Stravinsky sent the sonata back to him, along with a note that read: “I am not interested in whether or not you can play it. I am interested in who you are being as you struggle to fulfill the promise of the piece.”
Who this violinist was going to be would determine how well he played the piece (if at all), and would require from him an inner transformation.
He would literally need to bet all he thought he knew about his musical skill, his mastery, and all his achievements, against the possibility of the magnificence he could become.
In order to achieve connection, you, the rider, must also undergo a transformation.
Like the musician, you must let go of everything you think you know about horses and training them.
You must bet all of your experience and knowledge against the possibility that there is a much deeper, more profound way to be with the horse which can only come about by relating to him on a spiritual level.
For those of you who think that sounds too out there, let’s define spiritual, in this case, as something you cannot see, touch, or measure.
It is qualitative, not quantitative. And in order to find it, you must look, not in the familiar places, but in uncharted territory.
Becoming a leader
If you want to establish a connection with the horse, you first must become the leader. Contrary to what many people believe, you cannot become the leader by trying to force the horse to ‘respect you.’
In fact, in order to become the leader and create connection, we, as humans, must cultivate unfailing respect for the horse at all times.
When we become the leader, we don’t demand anything from the horse, nor do we try to dominate him by making him fearful of us. As leaders, we must relate to our horse with the utmost respect, empathy, and compassion.
We must convince the horse that we have similar qualities to that of a herd leader, the most important being calmness, courage, and an unshakable promise that nothing will threaten or hurt him, not on our watch.
And how will you know when you have it? Imagine someone who was born blind. One day his doctor tells him that, through new technology, he can perform an operation that will allow him to see for the first time. The patient asks the doctor, “How will I know when I’m seeing?” The doctor says simply, “You’ll know.”
It is the same with connection. You’ll know.
So, now, why lunge the horse?
Lunging offers a moment-by-moment opportunity to establish a connection before you ever put a foot in the stirrup.
Shifting your Focus
In order to achieve a connection with the horse on the lunge line, we need to focus on four objectives:
- An even, regular rhythm or cadence
- Straightness, and
These themes are not only mutually dependent; they must all work concurrently in order to cultivate connection.
Impulsion has power and force. Speed is just a blur. Moving with impulsion is not the same as having speed. Without getting too technical, impulsion means maintaining the energy within the cadence. The cadence refers not only to an even, regular rhythm, but it also suggests a beautiful dance between horse and rider, and as in music; a cadence is a natural progression of chords, which radiates harmony, meter, and joy.
Therefore, we can say that the horse moves with impulsion when he maintains the energy required of him in order to move with an even, regular rhythm, or cadence.
Once the horse is moving with impulsion, we can concentrate on his balance.
The horse is bilaterally symmetrical, which means that his right and left sides are mirror images. This symmetry allows him to hold himself upright.
However, when asked to trot or canter in small circles, he lessens his degree of symmetry, so that in order to keep himself from falling over, he ‘leans in’ on the circle, and is no longer upright.
Imagine how a motorcycle looks when speeding around a sharp curve. When the horse lacks impulsion and cadence on the lunge, he looks just like that motorcycle.
So how does the horse stay upright on a circle? How do we teach him to balance? The solution lies in understanding, correcting and maintaining his straightness.
Straightness on the Circle
The word straightness refers to the lateral suppleness of the horse. What does that mean?
Well, we know that the horse is able to bend his backbone laterally, from side to side, but cannot move his backbone longitudinally, or underneath him, like a cat.
Remember, too, that, since he is narrower in his forehand than across his hindquarters, in order to be straight he will displace his shoulders slightly to the right or left of his hindquarters.
I like to call this straightness on the curve. Think of a train going around a curve. It is like a horse going around a circle.
If the circle is large, the horse will look like a capital “C,” and if the circle is smaller, he’ll look like a small “C.” When he is traveling on a straight line, he will be the shape of a parenthesis.
So in order for the horse to stay upright and balanced, (unlike the motorcycle), his hindquarters must be level and underneath him.
I like those tools that tell you something’s level when the bubble sits in the middle of a liquid-filled tube, called a spirit level. Can you see that, too?
Imagine the horse is traveling in a circle, on a turn, or going straight down the long side of the arena. Now if you picture that spirit level sitting across his hindquarters, and the bubble is in the middle, he will be upright, balanced, and straight.
If the horse is attuned to your wishes, and a connection is established, the correction from ‘leaning in’ on the circle, to being balanced and upright is very simple and straightforward.
Instead of focusing on the horse bending to the inside, place your attention on encouraging him to stretch the muscles on his outside.
If you’re lunging in a circle to the left (counter-clockwise), instead of focusing on him flexing or bending left, place your focus on his right side, (outside).
What we focus on we give power to.
When you focus on him stretching his muscles on the outside, you will alter the way you stand, visualize, and communicate this desire to the horse.
You will be amazed. This is a good example of the difference between doing and being. You didn’t actually do anything, but instead, you became a laser-focused intention.
Positive and Negative Reinforcement
What we must always keep at the front of our minds is that emotionally, horses are excitement junkies.
They can be excited because something startles them, or they can become excited when you let them do something they enjoy doing, especially if you then praise and make a fuss over them.
That motivation is what allows us to handle these huge creatures. The horse is born “connection friendly” and wants nothing more than to please the one who loves him.
The overall aim of our work might be said to give the horses pleasure. This is not a piece of altruism: it is very practical.
If your aim is to give your horse pleasure, your horse will enjoy what he is doing, and if he enjoys what he is doing, he will put everything he’s got into it.
Moreover, you are bound to enjoy yourself more. Horse psychology is about finding the easiest way to get a horse to want to do something.
Many things give a horse pleasure. He gets pleasure when he does what he wants to do, and he gets pleasure eating his dinner.
We make use of these facts when we put a delicious tidbit in our pocket and give it to him when he does something we’ve asked of him.
Similarly, we know a horse enjoys affection. Therefore, we give him plenty of affection and make much over him when he does something well for us.
My student, Nancy, has a magnificent connection with her lovely paint mare, Spirit. Spirit is naturally curious, as are all horses, and when Nancy asked her to trot over ground poles for the first time, she did so willingly and with no fear.
Nancy immediately praised her and made a huge fuss over her. Spirit not only got pleasure from trotting quietly through the ground poles but also because Nancy was pleased with her. One pleasure will reinforce another. So the next time Spirit was asked to trot over the poles, she was eager and excited, (not anxious or hurried), because she enjoyed what she was doing, and enjoyed the praise and attention.
Continuing in this way, every new task Nancy asks to do, she will approach with calmness and confidence, because she expects to be praised. And if she is consistently praised for calmly accepting new things, the positive reinforcement builds on itself, and Nancy should have no difficulty or resistance from Spirit, all through her training.
How we react to the horse after he’s done what we want him to is critical.
A rider, whose horse rushed her jumps dangerously, asked me for some coaching on how to slow her horse down.
When I asked her to show me by jumping a crossbar, the little horse, who was quite willing and keen to please, stiffened his back as he approached the jump, locked his jaw, raised his head, and took off, wild-eyed, towards the thing, which he cleared as fast as he could.
Immediately after the jump, the rider, now furious, sat way back in the saddle and jerked on the reins with such strength, that the horse, to avoid the pain, came to an immediate halt, after which the rider screamed at him some more, and gave him a mighty slap across the neck.
I asked her to do the same thing, but this time, instead of violently jerking the horse to a halt after the jump, I coached her to bring him quietly to a trot, then walk, praising him and making a fuss over him, even when he rushed.
We were lucky, in that in the space of a half-hour, the horse had stopped his frenetic rushing and had begun to canter more evenly and with a bit of confidence.
A negative reaction from us not only compromises the horse’s well-being; it also has a much longer-lasting effect than a positive one.
If we react by punishing the horse, we are negatively reinforcing what has just happened. In the case above, the horse associated jumping with being punished.
Conflicted between wanting to please his rider and wanting to avoid pain, he jumped the thing as quickly as he could in order to have the ordeal over and done with.
Our reaction to what the horse has just done determines how he approaches, anything new we ask of him. Nancy, for instance, will constantly need to praise Spirit with positive reinforcement throughout her training. Yet it only takes a few instances of negative reinforcement for the horse to see you as a predator. Then, he will either do what he is told to avoid the fear, pain, and punishment of not doing it, or you will break his spirit, leaving him depressed and unhappy, with no interest in, or love for living at all.
For some truly practical advice on how to lunge your horse, I highly recommend Connection Training’s video.