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The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range

One trainer

No tools

Just body language

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shut down or overwhelmed? 

When any of us are shut down or overwhelmed, the space between can seem as narrow as a tightrope and balancing in that calm seems beyond any realm of possibility.

So I want to talk about this side and the other side of the space between.

It’s not wrong to shut down, and it’s not wrong to get overwhelmed and propelled into action; it just doesn’t feel as good as the space between.

The best way I know to find that space between is to have a friend. Yes one can be friends with one’s self, but it is awfully nice to have a friend next to you to help you find your center. On a good day we are friends to our horses, helping them find their center. On a less than good day…. a shove is as good a boost?

People love community, and horses love their herd. The friends around us keep us interested, and push us to grow and develop our emotional fitness as the natural chaos of community can often be overwhelming.

As anyone who has ever been married can tell you, the closer your friends, the more overwhelming they can be; and you wonder why they would choose to hurt you instead of help you? A shove is as good as a boost perhaps?

A brilliant riding instructor once told me abuse only comes when we don’t know what else to do. It is the same for both horses and people. Horses kick and bite when they don’t know what else to do, when they feel alone with no friends and know no way to feel better. When they can’t find the space between, the only choices they can see are to take action- to drive away or flee from anything overwhelming. Fight or flight. Or, if neither fight nor flight seem viable, shut down is all that is left.

So what do we do when the space between cannot be found? What do we do when our horse is angry, or scared, or shut down?

All we can do at that point is be their friend, showing them that we are indeed a friend over and over and again until they believe us.

How, you ask? Approach and retreat is the best way I know. There are many ways to use approach and retreat; however, the basis is always the same- get closer and pull away, only to get closer again, and then pull away again. Getting closer lets the horse know they are not alone and you are their friend; pulling away lets them know you understand they feel overwhelmed and you don’t intend to make it worse. ( This is another way to understand balancing the drive and the draw.)

Even if a horse is shut down or disinterested, the same principles apply. Sometimes just the simplicity of being near them, aware of breathing in and out, is an advance and retreat of intense subtlety. Each breath brings you ever so slightly closer and then farther from them. Closer letting them know they are important to you; farther letting them know you understand they feel overwhelmed.

So when do we use advance and retreat in a big way, and when do we use it in a small way? Usually the rule of thumb is: when the horse feels dominant (anger or bored disinterest) we need to be a playful and provocative friend with big movements in and out of their space. When the horse is feeling lack of confidence (fear or shut down), we need to get quieter, smaller, and gently understanding in our advance and retreat.

What next?

As soon as you see the horse get a glimpse of what feeling good is like, as soon as the horse knows what the space between feels like for a moment, the most important thing in the world is to be still together. Let the horse enjoy what felt so incomprehensible moments ago- the ears forward, the deep breaths, yawns and signs of comfort are the greatest gift you can give a horse. If your horse can associate you with helping him feel better when he doesn’t know how, that bonds you together like nothing else.

We get to be both the cause of overwhelmed or shut down, and the solution. The closer we stay to the space between, the more functional is our relationship with our horse. There is a sense of flow in relationship as there is in anything else. Csikszentmihalyi’s chart is applicable here as well.

Today, working in the pouring rain with Myrnah, I found myself wondering, Why do I ask her to do these silly things that make her uncomfortable? Why do I get on and off her back repeatedly even when I can see her lack of confidence in the shake of her head and the tension in her neck? Why do I ask her to step up on a box when she never has before and doesn’t really need to? Why is that conversation important?

The tasks themselves are not important; however the tasks create pressure. Pressure causes growth, and, when the pressure is too much for Myrnah, I get to play advance and retreat until she finds her center again. I get to show her I am her friend and I will help her feel good again, no matter how much pressure she feels.

Today, beneath the drenching clouds and standing in the puddles, I didn’t really think Myrnah would step up on that silly platform. No halter, no rope, no stick, no treats… Nonetheless, the conversation was fascinating. Sometimes we worked in the sweet spot of flow, and she was interested in me and the box; sometimes I pushed too hard, and she marched off angry and alone. I would follow, playing advance and retreat until she felt like I was a friend again. Then we would re-approach and converse about the silly platform. When finally she did step up, calm as could be, I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face. She wasn’t forced into that action, she had plenty of exits, yet she chose it because I asked, and the look on her face was neither shut down nor overwhelmed. She was firmly in the space between. Happy to be quiet and still with me, enjoying life completely.

Happy New Year,

May you always find the space between.

Elsa Sinclair

EquineClarity.com

4 Comments

  1. As my horse caused me great grief the past couple of weeks, causing me to slow down and go back to ground work but most importantly being a friend and dominate human. Dominate meaning I would like him to do what I asked without ears back and tail twitching…here is were that happy place needs to happen and your lesson may sink home. Your lesson is noted and poignant and hopefully we can be friends and find that happy place.

  2. Wow, a lot to think about, both as a friend and training student. M

  3. Your post was exactly what I had to be reminded of these days. In this season of the year I always seem to lose the sense of ‘doing things’. I tend to withdraw in my ‘cave’ and when I’m ready to crawl out again I don’t know exactly how to start ‘doing’ again. You made that perfectly clear with this post: just start very simple by approach and retreat. I see how this can be applied to life in general, not only to horses.
    Also your question ‘Why?’ ‘Why would I want things from my horses (or myself) they (or I) don’t like?’ was very helpful. For growth sake. Thanks for showing me these simple handles of life.

    Oh, and one question: I can’t figure out the meaning of ‘a shove is as good as a boost’. Is this an English proverb perhaps? Could you say it in other words? (for my translation, thanks ;)!)

  4. Elsa, addition to my earlier comment——Congratulations for accomplishing, in a year (first blog was in Jan. 2010), what you explicitly said you would do, set out to do, did it and in just 12 months.
    You found a friend who wanted to be with you, let you use movement for communication and is now a willing partner, even when it may seem silly.
    Cheers! And you still have 8 more months to let this partnership flow into full connection. 😉 😉 😉 😉 😉 M


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