Breathe The Connection - Through Loose Work
by Jenny Rolfe
To understand the horse, follow the trail of his hoof prints.
In my recent article we looked at the importance of building our self awareness so we can become more influential as leaders for our horse. He will be constantly tuned in to our breath energy and emotions- as this is the language of the herd.
Have you heard the expression ‘You cannot understand the mind of a man until you have walked in his shoes and trodden his path?’. Well, try using this concept as you delve into the language of the horse and follow the trail of his hoof prints.
Loose work is a potent method of connection, which involves using our body language and power of intention to become the lead mare in the herd. Once we can mirror this behavior of the herd, our relationship with our horse will be totally transformed. When the horse realizes that we can communicate in his language, he will gain security and respect and be willing to listen to our most subtle body language and breathing.
When we use our body language in loose work we are trying to emulate the interaction in the herd. The matriarch mares give the discipline and command total respect from the herd. The stallion is the protector and will make the herd aware of predators.
In loose work we try to mirror the behavior of the matriarch mare. If any youngsters are behaving badly she will turn her whole body towards them, directing her body language and energy to drive them out of the security of the group. There the dejected youngster will stay, until she decides to allow him, back into the herd.
The submissive youngster will then try to move back into the herd, posturing meekly, with a lowered neck and gesturing with his mouth.
Initially, when we work the horse loose, we will herd him away and maintain this intention until we can see that he is ready to connect with us. His inner ear will come back and he will start to lick and chew. He will lower his head and neck, demonstrating a more submissive stance. This natural approach to gaining submission is to be encouraged as it reflects the behavior of the herd family. It is the path to training horses true to their nature and spirit. True submission will always come from the mind of the horse and not through any attempt from the rider, to fix a contact with his mouth.
LOOSE WORK- THE KEY TO COMMUNICATION
When you first ride your horse, do you wait for him to respond to your breath energy and thoughts of your mind or do you anticipate having to use strong aids of leg and hand, before you gain any response?
Have you built a relationship where your horse is listening for changes in your energy and breathing and prepared to move from a breath?
The horse is highly aware of the energy waves created by our thoughts, emotions and our breathing. This power can transform our communication as riders and trainers. If we understand how receptive the horse can be, at such a deep level, we can become much more influential within the relationship. All living creatures are linked by the energy field with radiates around them.
THE SENSITIVITY OF THE HORSE
A student was working with my Spanish stallion, Delfin, who was moving at liberty around her and she was trying very hard to gain his full concentration. I encouraged her to begin with more assertive body language so he would recognize her status as herd leader.
For several minutes Alison worked with Delfin, who trotted in a circle around her. I asked her to calm her energy with deeper breathing and lower her head and body stance. In this way she was asking Delfin to come down to halt, but he would not respond.
She couldn’t understand why he refused to stop, as she had lowered her head, neck and shoulders and was offering him a place of relaxation.
Delfin, being keenly observant noticed that Alison still held a tight grip on the whip with a clenched fist and hand.
Most of Alison’s body language was telling Delfin to relax but the tension in her arms and whip was still giving Delfin the signal to keep moving forwards.
As soon as she understood her mixed signals, Alison relaxed her hand and the whip was lowered, free of tension. Delfin then came to halt and willingly faced Alison with a lowered head and neck to mirror her totally relaxed stance.
I then asked her to take a deep outward sigh, which would normally be mirrored by Delfin, but he just continued to stand still watching her keenly. I asked her if she had ‘felt’ the release of tension throughout her body when she sighed or had she just taken a more superficial, mechanical sigh. She smiled knowingly, then relaxed, as she had again become more tense. She did not believe that Delfin would possibly respond.
Alison repeated a deep sigh, but now released her tension through a huge release of energy and within seconds Delfin became her mirror. He gave a deep exhalation and lowered his head and neck, standing in a very relaxed way. Both human and horse connected through a blending of spirits, opening the path to harmony and love.
The horse is extremely perceptive and we may deceive humans by a cheerful expression but the horse will pick up on the reality of our feelings.
LESSONS FROM THE HORSE-
The horse can teach us subtle communication in the following ways:
1. The horse will be very sensitive to our thought-energy waves.
2. He will immediately be aware of our emotions including those of confidence or fear.
3. He will tune into our body language and detect any tension held in our body.
4. He will be totally receptive to our breathing whether it is shallow and tense or more rhythmic core- breathing.
5. He will read accurately our power of intention
6. The horse is looking for a leader who is calm, self aware and confident.
The loose work has the potential to alleviate confrontation which could be demonstrated, under saddle.
If we can demonstrate confidence in a calm yet assertive manner, the horse will feel our personal empowerment. This is NOT aggression which directs your anger at the horse but empowerment which offers calm steady reassurance and security for the horse.
If the horse understands these qualities of leadership together with the re-assuring calm body language, he will be ready to listen to just whispers of breathing. You can give part of your inner self and become linked, mind to mind and soul to soul, with your horse.
LOOSE WORK – ADVANTAGES FOR THE TRAINER and RIDER
1. Time to learn more of the natural herd language –
2. Development of self awareness, personal body language and breathing.
3. Build skills of leadership which demonstrate your power of intention
4. A time to observe the horse –his mood and way of moving
5. Learning to work with the personality of each individual horse
6. An opportunity to gain the attention of the horse – this pattern of learning and listening will be reflected in the ridden work –hence confrontation is minimized
LOOSE WORK- ADVANTAGES FOR THE HORSE
1. An effective and natural method of warming up
2. An opportunity to let off steam with no tack- his natural exuberance can be unleashed without restriction- he is allowed to be a horse
3. A chance to communicate with the rider in a very natural way for him
4. To acknowledge the trainer as herd leader and gain a connection whilst enjoying freedom in movement.
5. Learning how to move in balance building the correct muscles of the top line.
7. Learning to work with steady core breathing – to enhance fluid movement through a mobilized spine and relaxed rib cage.
8. Understanding how to release excess tension with a deep sigh.
If the horse is lazy or inattentive, it will cause the head and neck carriage to become elevated, but as we ask for more energy within the gait, the horse will produce greater self-carriage and fluidity within his movement. This will result in a natural (not artificial) lowering of the head and neck carriage.
In the wild, a predator will always attack a horse in its most vulnerable area just behind the withers. The horse cannot easily reach this area to bite or kick in self defense.
It is incredible that horses allow humans (potential predators) to sit in this vulnerable spot.
In loose work, I direct my body language, breathing and focus to this area behind the shoulder towards the rib cage of the horse. This is the place where the legs of the rider will hang. Breath and body energy are used in loose work and replaced with the relaxed breathing legs of the rider, when under saddle. When the horse feels the energy of our body language and breathing, directed in this manner, he will naturally move away.
TECHNIQUE for LOOSE WORK
Here are some techniques I use for loose work which may be helpful to demonstrate how your body language and breath-energy can help you to connect with your horse.
So beginning on the left rein, hold the whip in the right hand and adopt a position as if you are lungeing. Position your body so that your right shoulder and arm are herding the horse, following up behind him. Your body position is facing the flanks of the horse. You will be using your body language, breathing and core energy directed to the area, just behind where your leg would hang if you were in the saddle.
The energy is an invisible but potent connection from your core directed towards the horse. The outward breath is similar to the feel of a ball bouncing up and out of your core and directed towards the horse.
On the left rein you will step towards the horse using the outward breath to encourage him to move forward. Your left hand will guide him around the circle as if drawing towards you, an imaginary rope. Your right shoulder and arm will follow the horse around and the whip, which is held in your right hand, will hang lightly and low, to be used only if more impulsion is needed.
Just visualize a triangle. The horse represents the base line. You are standing at the top point of the triangle embracing the whole of the horse. Your left side guides the base of the triangle. Your core breathing energizes towards the base whilst your right shoulder, arm and whip follow up behind the base. The horse instinctively moves away from assertive, herding, body language. Your power of intention and focus will be felt by the horse so remember to emulate the head mare of the herd and feel determined that the horse will move energetically away from you.
If the horse is lazy then encourage more energy and joie de vivre. The over exuberant horse should be loose schooled until he finds a steady rhythm and begins to relax.
At first there is often little connection but as the horse feels your energy giving direction, he will start to tune in to your breathing patterns. You will see his inside ear flicking backwards and his neck begin to lower, you know that he is seeking the connection with you. He will become more attentive and soon will respond to your breathing alone.
If you notice the horse is still tight in the jaw then relax your own jaw and gently chew. I have found that most horses quickly mirror this relaxation and begin to release the jaw and soften through the mouth.
Your outward breath will transmit energy which will instigate more energy or an upward transition. The deeper inward breath will slow and steady the horse, into a downward transition. If the horse does not respond to these breathing techniques together with the body language, the voice and whip can be used to re-enforce the command.
When the horse lowers his neck, relaxes the jaw and the inside ear flickers backwards, slow your walk and take a deep breath inwards. Relax your fingers and lower your whip and turn your body away from the horse, facing slightly inwards towards the centre of your circle. You will then find that the horse will stop and turn in to face you.
To ask for halt, lower your head and shoulders to ask the horse to join you in a place of calmness. When he stops, sigh deeply and the horse will mirror this gesture, releasing tension with a sigh or blowing through his nostrils.
If the horse begins to walk into your personal space, you can use assertive body language by moving towards him to encourage him to maintain his position on the circle.
The power of this connection is enormous and can benefit hugely the relationship and harmony sought by all dressage riders and trainers in all disciplines.
THE BREATH CONNECTION- from LOOSE to RIDDEN WORK
I spent several months in loose work, with a young Fell stallion who had not been ridden.
We then worked on the lunge and when we decided the time was right, we began some light ridden work, still on the lunge.
When his rider initially sat on his back, he remained quite relaxed and immediately walked and trotted from her breathing alone. He had already found this connection in the loose work so his first experience as a ridden horse was to tune in to her breathing. This was a profound and emotional experience for both myself and the rider.
Loose work will help to develop the athletic ability of the horse when he learns to move with energy and calmness. In this way his muscles will become correctly strengthened so he can more easily support the weight of the rider.
I believe loose work is the key to harmony throughout training. I will often work a horse loose before riding and also, after a session of training you may remove the bridle and saddle to see how connected your horse is with you. If you have gained harmony in your work- the horse will stay ‘connected’ the proof of a happy horse and harmony in riding.
Jenny’s books, Breathe Life into Your Riding and Ride From the Heart book/DVD are available from her web site www.naturallyclassical.com