Quickness is not Lightness

My horse Bonito, the gorgeous dun that you see in the blog banner photo above, is coming through a 2 year leaky gut crisis (I think longer than that) that created a persistent, but not too critical, case of chronic laminitis. I will be posting on his incredible recovery soon, and it features a miracle product that saved his life.

His hooves have been sensitive for some time, and while he is growing healthier new hoof wall and sole, he is not 100% yet. I can work on his hooves now, and it doesn’t bother him, so that’s a big improvement. However, the poor guy is suffering from PTSD when it comes to his hooves. He is very worried about them and anything that I may do with him and so he is very anxious and very reactive when it comes to hoof care. He is also a super friendly, super cooperative horse and so when you stand near his front hooves, he automatically lifts them, but with a quickness that belies his true comfort level.

And so the reason for this post. A few days ago, I asked the woman who works for me in the morning, to take off his boots when she put Bonito back into his side pen, near the herd. (He has food allergies and needs to be on a special diet, so he is separated, by fence only, during the day from the rest of the herd). She texted me later to tell me how amazed she was that he picked up his front hooves very fast when she was near his leg. I asked her to consider his state of relaxation, did he seem relaxed to her? No, she said, he actually seemed a bit nervous. I explained to her that in fact, this quickness or this responsiveness that seemed text-worthy, was actually an interesting blend of uber-cooperation and anxiety. I then gave her some ideas on how to help him relax while taking off the boots.

It reminded me of the many, many conversations I’ve had with horse owners over the years about the difference between responsiveness and nervousness, the difference between lightness and quickness. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know and work with many horses that have been put through rigorous training programs that emphasize strong and immediate responses to any request from the rider or handler – you can probably guess the programs I am referring to. When a horse “leaps” into a response in a split second, you can bet that it’s not a calm response, it’s an anxious response. After all, NOT responding quickly, has produced an aversive stimulation from the handler, and so the horse becomes “trained” to respond super fast.

A rule of thumb that I apply is this: When I ask or suggest something to my horses, I WANT them to take at least half a second or a full second (or more) to gather their mind and gather their bodies and then produce the response or action. (Or not, as I also encourage horses to offer what they are thinking and feeling freely, which can be nothing if they don’t understand the idea or feel that they can’t or won’t offer what I’m asking). Waiting a full second or more produces a calm, and confident response, and makes for a much happier partner. I want to emphasize that when they are learning new ideas, I will give my horses considerable time to think on it, many, many seconds actually. If their mind goes off the moment at hand, I know that either they don’t understand the idea or they are distracted by something else. It can be an eye-opening experience for the handler as they realize that their horse was more than happy to get with them, they just needed an instant or two or three to work through the idea and prepare their bodies for action. Slow down, everyone, seriously, your horse will be so grateful!

Of course, what I am describing is lightness, an ideal that is discussed in all chambers of masterful horsemanship. For me, lightness is the allowing of the horse’s mind to be put into the action. You see, a horse can coil itself and spring finer and as quickly as any mechanical action that we may inadvertently put ON the horse. I liken it to how a cat can go from sleeping to pouncing in a split second. There is speed, of course, but there is relaxed and fluid movement – because there is a mindfulness to it.

How to get there? Slow down, of course, but also WAIT. Give your horse room to think about things and prepare their bodies. A very, very interesting phenomenon (I’ve posted on this before) is that a confident horse will put thought into action VERY quickly – they are usually quite pleased to do so. This requires faith in your horse, faith in the process. More big subjects to discuss in future posts. Stay tuned.

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