Have you ever heard anyone describe their horse by saying things like: "She's bracing against me, she's not giving, and there is just no softness. She is resistant, sticky, locked up, heavy, and unresponsive. She's not trying, and she's just tuning me out. She panics for no apparent reason." You may even be able to relate to some of these fairly common statements as you think about your horse.
But that isn't really what I'm talking about. The bracing I'm going to talk about doesn't really have much to do with the one who wears the saddle in the family! The bracing I'm talking about is in us! You and me.
Now re-read that first paragraph - could it be that if your horse could talk they might be saying these very same things about you?
What is the cause?
Any time you find your horse responding to your requests by bracing, there are a few preliminary issues that should be explored. Is there any chance the horse has a physical reason to brace? Is there any chance the horse is sore? Is there any chance there are some saddle fit issues causing discomfort or pain? Biting issues? Dentistry issues? Shoeing issues? Feed? Lack of turnout? These possibilities should be carefully evaluated and eliminated as being a potential cause for the horse's actions. This can require a good bit of homework, research, time, and effort. It can be heartbreaking to realize you've been trying to address your horse's "problem" with a training technique, only to find out down the road that the horse was just trying to let you know that he was hurting. It is critical to try and find the cause of a problem before working towards a solution.
Ok, maybe it's not my horse.
If your horse's responses are not caused by something physical, then you have a place to begin searching for the answer. What is starting this cycle of bracing for the two of you? I'm sure not trying to pick on anybody here, but when you get right down to it, it takes two to brace. So somebody in the relationship has to step up and make an effort to break that habit or pattern of bracing.
So, where do I start?
I've heard my friend Mark Rashid talk about "taking away the fight" several times when he was working with riders and horses that had various problems with bracing. Now it took me a little while to figure this part out, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't talking about the horse! I feel confident he is talking about taking the fight away from US.
If you approach your horse looking for a confrontation, you will be very likely to succeed. If you approach your horse searching for everything he's doing wrong, you will probably be able to create quite a long list. For me, it can sometimes take a good bit of self-discipline to not allow myself to brace against my horses. Old habits die-hard. There are times where my instinct and past training really wants to match that horse's brace with an "equal and opposite" brace of my own. This is still something I really try to stay aware of when I'm working with a horse. It takes work and dedication to overcome. Some situations are harder for me than others, but it is getting easier!
But what do I DO?
My first suggestion would be to soften your thoughts. If you find things like "oh no you don't", "now you listen here", "you're not going to get away with THAT" or "you KNOW what I want, and you ARE going to do it" popping into your mind as you are working with your horse, that is probably a good place to start. The thoughts you have affect your attitude, and they also affect you physically. Changing your thought pattern to something more positive like "you don't seem to be understanding this, so let me break it down and help you", "I see you are worried or afraid, let me help you through this", or "I know I have been unclear in my requests of you in the past, but let's take a fresh start and try to work through this together" can make an incredible difference. The key is it has to start in your heart.
Ask with the expectation that the horse will offer us the very best that he can. Ask as softly as possible. Always work to redefine that softness to be even less than you believe possible. Begin each request just a little softer than the last one. Try to find just how little it can take for your horse to respond. Slow down, and then slow down some more. Be patient. Begin searching, sincerely searching, for those little tries the horse offers up and begin building the response you are looking for from there. Give the horse that unwavering promise of the release, and then keep your promise. Try and set things up for the horse to succeed. Make every effort to present things to the horse so that the horse is not put into a situation he isn't prepared to handle. Don't ignore the "little" problems that may surface as you are working with the horse. Try to identify braces in yourself that you may not even be aware of, and work to soften them up. And remember, it's always ok to help your horse!
But it doesn't work when .....
As you begin approaching your time with your horse with a softer attitude, things may begin going along pretty well for you. Then something changes - a new location, different weather conditions, different riding companions, a new maneuver, or any of a few hundred other possibilities. You are going to have to try and feel the changes in yourself, as well as the changes in your horse. Chances are pretty good that you are going to have to make some adjustments to help your horse find the softness he is capable of offering to you, and to find the softness in YOU that you can offer your horse. Stay with the principles, and do your best to help your horse though these new experiences. If that just isn't working, go back to where the horse is comfortable and try and work from there.
Where does this lead?
These are just some of those things that begin to build that strong foundation of trust that most of us are searching for - the horse's trust in you, and your trust in the horse. We have to earn another person's trust, and it is no different with the horse. We earn the horse's trust through our heart, attitude, intent, sincerity, consistency, dependability, fairness, actions, and effective techniques. That trust is a gift from the horse that must be handled with great care. The wonderful thing is that along with that gift comes a confidence in each other that is better than a banana split on a hot Texas summer day!