Karen Rohlf at Dressage Naturally (www.dressagenaturally.net) has a wonderful youtube video that demonstrates natural balance and head carriage in different types of liberty and riding play. I found her site to be wonderfully instructive.
The pages in this section contain video of a session working with developing softness in this impressive gelding. This horse had on several occasions injured his owner, and it was easy to see how effective he was in using his shoulders to push on and into people, while expressing threatening gestures with pin backed ears and threatening to bite.
In developing softness, it is crucial that you yourself are always and consistently soft. One cannot develop softness in the horse by carrying on with what I call “instructor dominance.” Instructor dominance assumes the role of the human is to command, and the role of the horse is to obey. This particular horse, having a noble character, tremendous sense of self, and absolutely no fear, is understandably averse to this notion.
In addition, his bracing and pushing tendencies have been interpreted by instructors as a tendency toward dominance and aggression. These are not useful terms. A horse is always a horse in context. In the context of instructor dominance, the horse appears dominant. The instructor then reacts to this category and becomes more dominant in her approach. The horse and the instructor become locked into an action-reaction cycle of dominance and aggression (and fear on the part of the human).
One should never approach a horse in this way. To build softness, one must be the movement you want to see in your horse. You approach, your body language, your emotions, must all be of a whole movement– that of lightness and softness. How to do this in the presence of a horse whose default behavior looks like aggression, is the subject of these videos.
Getting to Know: Two Beings in a Field of Relations
In the first video I examine the horse’s default response and levels of aversion to pressure on his shoulders, by feeling into the level of his reactions to 1) the directness of my approach, 2) using my body language to “push” on his shoulders, 3) using my hands to pressure his shoulders, 4) using the rope to signal the shoulders.
You can easily see the horse’s default behavior, and why people jump to the assumption that this horse is dominant/ aggressive.
Rather, think of this as a dance, with a certain kind of energy flowing in both directions, and two beings feeling into each other. Despite what it looks like to the untrained eye, to the person who is both dominant and/ or fearful, the dance has already begun.
It is important to note how I begin to make large circles around the horse each time I prepare to approach. This builds relationship in the horse– it is natural bonding language. Unlike the conventional “instructors dominant” approach, wherein the instructor drives from the center of the circle, this approach invites the horse to partner in a kind of dance of equals, where there is not one direction only (I say, you do) but two beings in a field of relations.
In the last part of the video, I am allowing the horse to investigate me, in the same way I investigate him. By allowing him to feel into my energy, which despite his advances, and one timely “threat” gesture, I keep soft to him. Consequently, there are not action-reaction cycles in our interaction.
It is crucial to note: Softness is not fear. A person filled with fear cannot be soft to the horse, just as a horse filled with fear cannot be soft to a person.
Finding Lightness Through Movement
The horse starts off in his usual manner, bracing toward me, with an “aggressive” posture. My approach does not change. I use the rope to key his left shoulder, and the movement instantly changes to and outside spin with impressive lightness. The habitual bracing is being released. No horse intent on bracing in the front would execute this maneuver in the opposite direction which such seamless grace and lightness. I accept his gesture as we share a moment of mutual admiration and respect.
Starting to Dance
In this footage, the horse is invited to dance through correct body position. Unlike conventional “instructor dominance” approach, I do not drive the horse from the center of a “circle of safety and control”– rather, I take position on the circle the horse draws out for us, and become the movement I want to see. In this simple way, we enjoy a deeply profound connection through the joy of movement, while continuing to feel into and experience the boundaries of our individual energies.
The horse is transforming into softness, performing graceful circles with me. He begins to become so light in the shoulders, that I can cue a graceful and seamless outside turn with a gentle signal of my wrist, hand and pelvis.
The horse takes up this dance from an innate sense of joy in movement and engagement. There is no pressure to perform, to do the “right” thing; there is no duty expected, nor any orders from a “command and control center.” There is only my continual invitation toward the direction a horse naturally seeks.
Precise & Coherent Body Language
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and video is even better in slow motion. But in my experience, people have to be trained to see in entirely new ways in order to improve their relationship with their horses and develop enlightened ways to engage with the horse. The following is a slow motion video of the beginning of the dance between these two beings. Since the horse is such a perceptive being, one’s body language must be precise and coherent. Over and over again I see people trying to relax their horses when they themselves are fraught with fear; trying to create softness in their horses from a position of command and control; trying to bribe their horses for friendship — these are emotional inconguences that the horse rejects. In addition, there are so many body language incongruences given by people, because they have lost their natural ability to move coherently, due to improper instruction by others. See if you can notice in the video the following:
How the rope communicates softness.
How I take up the position of the circle that the horse draws, and thereafter, he takes up the circle that my hips are defining by the way my legs cross over in the front.
How I “draw” the horse into me through a subtle curvature of the center of my body in my lower belly.
How the horse becomes my movement, as I maintain the movement I want to see in him.
How there is the complete absence of any action-reaction cycle.
How there is no one absolute direction of A leading B or B leading A.
That the movement in the horse becomes expressive, light, soft, and even moreso– curious, adventuresome, always leaning into the next moment with enthusiasm and curiosity.
The body language of mutual respect.