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Confidence Crisis

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When I first met Mandy the conversation went something like this: “You’re my last chance, if you can’t help me with my new horse then I’ll have to sell her and I’ll walk away from horses forever...”.  So no pressure then!


Mandy Norris (47) has been involved with horses for around 20 years and enjoyed a very long and happy relationship with her first pony but after he sadly died and she bought a young gelding she realised that not all horses were like her first.  The two never really bonded and Mandy eventually decided that he needed someone with more experience than she had so she sold him and bought Jade six months previous to our first meeting.  Jade is a rather lovely 13 year old Welsh Cob mare and, although Mandy had started to make a connection with her from the ground, Jade was anxious and difficult to handle when in the stable, and Mandy was still unconfident and riding was clearly a matter of survival for them both.  Jade was incredibly over sensitive to pressure from both the bit and the rider’s legs, overbending and rushing everywhere as fast as she could go.  She wasn’t safe, calm or enjoyable for Mandy to ride and consequently they both lost confidence in a big way.  It was after Mandy had a nasty fall during a schooling session in the arena that she finally realised she needed help beyond that she was receiving from her regular instructor.


I started off getting to know Jade on the ground first.  It is important for me to understand the horse I am working with first and, in the case of lost confidence in the handler, that I get a level of safety into the situation straight away.  It was immediately apparent that Jade had no confidence at all.  She was very wary of everything and rushed as though trying desperately to respond as quickly as she could so she didn’t get told off.  The problem was that instead of responding to me she was reacting.  When a horse reacts to something he does so with the ‘right side’ of his brain (the instinctive, prey animal side that is programmed for survival).  When he responds to something he does so with the left side of his brain (which is the thinking, problem solving side).  Jades problem was that she was spending most of her time in survival mode and not thinking very much at all.  So I set about starting to help her change that.  (I use the terms “right brain” and “left brain” loosely as a metaphor).


I always start by teaching the horse to back up out of my space, to yield the shoulders and hindquarters away from me, to uphold a responsibility to maintain gait, speed and direction on a circle and to be drawn back in towards me when asked.  This is designed to build a communication and level of trust, respect and understanding between horse and human that is needed to go on to work through any other situation or problem area. It gives the handler the tools to deal with any inappropriate behaviour with ease and confidence, and fills a nervous or resistant horse with trust in, and respect for, his handler.


At this point I got a very clear picture of where Mandy was within herself and what degree of confidence loss I was dealing with when she vacated the arena very quickly after Jade had rushed off very fast on a circle when I was working with her on the ground.  She couldn’t even be stood inside the arena whilst I was working with Jade when she was going around at anything faster than a steady trot.


However, we very quickly started to see a change in Jade.  As her confidence grew (principally because I was being consistent in my actions, confident & quiet within myself, and recognising the slightest try) she started responding more and reacting less.  She became more deliberate and careful in her actions and took a moment to think about what I was asking of her before she responded, to be sure she got the answer right first time.


Towards the end of the first session (and once Mandy was able to come back into the arena) I showed her how to back Jade up by sending some energy down the rope, so she would know how to get the horse out of her space if anything happened.  This would help Mandy feel more confident when handling Jade on a day to day basis.  I then talked her through some leading techniques that involved encouraging Jade to walk on a loose rope, walk when Mandy walked and to stop when asked without any pressure on the rope at all.  

We continued to work on the ground over the next few sessions to help both Jade and Mandy gain confidence in, and an understanding of, each other.  Mandy started to notice more and more things about Jade and often started each session by telling me about a discovery she had made or something she had noticed about Jade.  She really started to see Jade for who she is, and before long she was sending Jade into canter on the circle.  This was a milestone for Mandy considering that just a couple of weeks before, she hadn’t been able to stand on the same side of the fence as Jade when she was going so fast.  


As Mandy became more confident and understanding of Jade, (and Jade of Mandy) she started to see big changes in Jade’s general demeanour when she was handling her in the stable.  Jade had relaxed and become more confident in her environment and was no longer becoming stressed when stabled, even when she was the only horse in the barn.


During the groundwork sessions we took the basic foundation and added to it with exercises to help Mandy learn to use, direct and control her energy as well as to understand how her body language and positioning affected Jade.  This helped her to further gain confidence as she started to recognise the changes Jade made in her body when she wasn’t happy or confident about something, so she was then able to diffuse the situation and help Jade instead of letting things get out of hand.  Other exercises she learnt were designed to help Jade build strength and athleticism within herself by promoting the relaxation and lengthening of the neck and back muscles, as well as the stretching and suppling of the croup and deep loin muscles, hamstrings and stifle extensors, all of which are required to enable the horse to work at his optimum and in natural balance - particularly under saddle.


My first ride on Jade was not the most pleasant.  During my assessment of her I found she was tight and tense, and so reactive to the leg, running off it instead of responding to whatever I was requesting.  She had no comprehension that the leg meant direction instead of speed.  In addition to this she was quick to draw her chin to her chest if I even suggested I might touch the reins, and everything was accompanied by a kind of snorting sound, which clearly showed her anxiety about the whole thing.  This first ride was in the Gag Mandy had been using, but I put the reins onto the main ring as I was not happy about using such a bit for her.  The communication should come from the leg and seat - if a stronger bit is needed in this environment then there is clearly a problem with the communication between horse and rider which needs addressing.


So during my first couple of schooling sessions with Jade I started to encourage relaxation by asking her to flex laterally to each side whilst standing still.  This exercise not only promotes bit acceptance but it also helps the horse to relax and ‘let go’ mentally and emotionally.  Most horses can touch their sides easily if a carrot is offered to them and they have to reach around for it, but if you physically ask a horse to bring his nose around to his side using a rein whilst in the saddle you will often find that they want to move their feet around to follow their nose.  By doing this they keep a level of straightness in their body and, thus, tension, so they could, if they needed to, still run away from something if required.  For a horse to accept the restriction of the flexion around to their side and be asked to stay there for a moment, they must first completely ‘let go’ and trust in the rider.  Survival is the horse’s main concern and any kind of restriction automatically sets the horse up to ‘need’ to be able to move his feet or know he can get away if necessary.  So the lateral flexion really does help the horse mentally, emotionally and physically - I find it invaluable as an exercise for such emotional horses.  Once I have the horse responding to lateral flexion from the rein I then start to ask for lateral flexion from the leg.  This helps to teach the horse that the leg means direction and softness, not speed.  The result is that I can drop the reins at standstill and put one leg on (ensuring there is no energy in my body that might suggest to the horse that I want him to move forward) and the horse will bend his head in that direction.  If I do the same thing when we are walking along then the horse will start to turn in that direction - if I keep my leg on he will continue to move in that direction and so we are walking a circle.  The same works for trot and canter too.  Since this exercise not only promotes direction but softness too, then the leg also becomes encouragement for the horse to lower his head into a contact or, in the case of a loose rein, forward and downward into a lovely stretch.  Of course the intention and body position of the rider also helps to indicate to the horse what is required, the leg on its own is simply part of the picture.


Next I started to ask Jade to move her shoulders around when walking, encouraging her to flex one way and push the shoulders in another.  This promotes softness through the head, neck, shoulder and back, as well as encouraging her to move off the leg directionally rather than run forward.  At first she wanted to go faster so I simply kept my leg in place whilst encouraging her to slow with my seat, energy and voice until she was able to offer the direction.  Looking for the slightest try speeds up the process - I released my leg as soon as she even thought about yielding to it.  Pretty soon she was moving quite calmly around the arena in walk, yielding well to my leg. 


After the first few rides, I rode Jade in a medium bosal, which has a rawhide nose piece held on by a leather strap (hanger) which goes behind the horse’s ears where the headpiece of a bridle would be.  I wanted to get through to Jade that I wasn’t interested in her mouth, as she was so defensive about holding the bit.  This really helped to break the pattern of pinning her chin to her chest.  She wasn’t inclined to do so with no bit in her mouth and she quickly learnt to hold herself in a much more natural and balanced way - she found a freedom of movement without rushing and her whole attitude started to change.  However, I really wanted to help Jade get over her negative association she had with the bit so I moved on to a Myler combination bit with some tongue relief, which she took to immediately.  The work with the bosal had been invaluable because she very quickly started to trust that I wasn’t going to get heavy on her mouth and began to accept the corrections I made whenever she did hyperflex.  Gradually she become more and more steady in her head carriage - she was beginning to find herself and her natural balance.  It is very important when schooling or reschooling any horse that you help the horse to find himself and not put him where you think he should be.  Every horse is different and his conformation will dictate where his head needs to be in order for him to be working in natural balance within himself.  


Generally, once things are going well in the walk I will then start to work in the trot.  I can usually expect to start at the beginning again and teach the horse not to rush forward as the faster an emotional horse goes the higher the level of anxiety.  It wasn’t long before I was able to adjust the speed of the trot using my seat and breathing alone and she started to move around to my leg and seat aids with my hands simply being soft and supportive.  


Once I had reached this point with Jade it was time to get Mandy back in the saddle, although I continued with Jade’s reschooling at the beginning of each session.  It was important that Jade was in a good place first as Mandy was beside herself with nerves and it was easy to see how the two had got into so much trouble before.


All Mandy did in the first session was to sit on Jade and work through lateral flexion, first from the hand and then from the leg.  Because she had such a positive experience she was much happier about getting on the next time.  She went through the same thing the second time but then I taught her how to ask Jade to move forward from her energy, intention and seat.  We talked about her position in the saddle as she had adopted a very insecure, hollow and forward seat - it was no surprise when she told me she often suffered with a sore lower back after riding.  For the rider to be properly balanced with minimum effort the pelvis needs to be neutral so you are sitting on the back of your seat bones more rather than the front.  Your lower back then relaxes out and the shoulders sit comfortably over the top.  The lower leg is naturally positioned correctly and so it is the core muscles that are holding the body up and in place instead of the outer muscles, thus reducing back pain and putting the rider in a far more stable and secure position - in natural balance in fact, which is exactly what we are looking for within our horses.


Over the next few weeks Mandy’s confidence was gradually built by taking her through the same routine each time she rode but adding a little more each time to ensure that she made progress and didn’t get stuck in the same place.  Mandy learnt how to move each part of Jade around and what each rein and leg could do to affect Jade.  She also learnt how sometimes the aids for two different moves are the same or very similar but it is a change in her own body and intention that will cause Jade to respond differently.


Having this kind of knowledge is key to building confidence as you stop trying to “ride the moves” and start actually feeling for the horse and adjusting yourself to help the horse be more correct, softer, sharper, etc.  The more you are able to feel for the horse and make adjustments in the moment as necessary the more you read the horse and understand where the horse is emotionally.  Consequently, response times become quicker when diffusing a situation and, thus, confidence in both horse and rider is strengthened.

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Six months on, Mandy and Jade are going from strength to strength.  Mandy has started hacking out again and riding in the school on her own too.  She can ask Jade to go from halt, to walk, to trot, to walk and back to halt simply through her breathing, intention and energy.  Jade comes into her stable with no trouble now and seems to really enjoy the time Mandy spends with her.  She is calm and relaxed, whether in the stable, being worked on line or ridden.  Jade’s sensitivity has meant that she is becoming a lovely responsive ride now that her confidence has been restored and she has become far less emotional.  She and Jade are still working through things together but they are both enjoying every minute of it.  Mandy rides around with a big smile on her face now and its so lovely to see them both moving around the school with confidence, softness and fluidity.  I am proud of them both and the progress they continue to make on a daily basis.


Mandy says: “Viki taught me to communicate with Jade from the ground, building a relationship based on mutual understanding and trust.   She uses similar training techniques when training both human and horse and acknowledges the student’s fear with empathy; offers alternative responses to anxiety; teaches new skills in a stepped approach; and, gently expands comfort zones so that learning continues at a progressive but safe pace.  I've finally experienced true joy when riding Jade.  She has been relaxed, responsive, safe, and a willing partner.   We’re having so much fun now and enjoying this new journey together.  By the way, did I tell you how much I love my pony?!!!”


Sadly Jade passed away a few years after this article was published.  I consider it a privilege to have worked so closely with her and to have played such a key role in changing her view of the human world for the better.


Written by Viki Sheppard.  Published by D J Murphy (Publishers) Ltd : Horse & Rider UK : January 2011 & February 2011 Issues

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