Relaxing Work--an Oxymoron or Pure, Unadulterated Genius?
In March and early April I had many trips and activities that took me away from my beloved herd. So, after almost 10 days of not being able to work them, I spent 3 hours (about 1 hour per horse) doing very slow and light groundwork and then sitting and letting them let out all their worry. This way of working was something new, newly discovered and discussed by one of my mentors, Warwick Schiller, in March of this year.
In one of his clinics in early March, Warwick was working with a lady who had owned a Mustang gelding for 3 years, but had never quite been able to get him to relax. It seemed the poor horse just couldn’t “let go.” On a hunch (that came from many years of study, application, and experience), Warwick asked her to just stand there near her horse, relax her body posture and energy, and just wait. And wait. And wait.
After about 30 minutes or so, the Mustang began to lick and chew (signs of relaxation and release), he yawned (same), and then lay down and became almost comatose, dozing in the arena sand. After a long nap, he got up, licked and chewed some more, and lay down and slept again! All this was a first for his owner, who had never had him lay down near her before (for a horse, this puts him at his most vulnerable, and therefore requires great trust; some horses won’t lie down near other horses, so imagine doing so near a human, who is, after all, a predator in the lineup of species!). As the Mustang dozed, it seemed that anxiety and worry flowed off him in waves.
All of this was so interesting, I decided to apply it to my own horses, and see what might happen.
First up I brought Maia into the arena. I’ve owned her for a little over a year now, and she has come a long way from the reactive, sometimes evasive little mare she was at 3.5 years of age. We did some light groundwork together, with me asking her to walk around some cones I placed in a circle. After about 2 minutes of work, I sat down on one of the obstacles and waited. At first Maia looked at me like, “What are you doing? Are you going to tell me what I have to do next, or what?” With my slumped posture and low energy, she quickly realized I was going nowhere and she need not be on alert.
Before my very eyes my normally standoffish mare became the most affectionate she has ever been, rubbing her nose on my face and head and opening her nostrils wide. She let her head drop low and her eyes became dreamy.
She also licked and chewed deeper and longer than usual. I was so touched I cried.
I then rode her lightly, and felt her trust bigger than it had been before (and it had already been quite good). She gave me a window into her soul--I now have an idea how to open it!
With my older gelding, Patxi, I did the same routine as with Maia, but, with him, it was I who ended up letting a lot of worry out, actually sobbing for a long time as he yawned, licked, and chewed next to me. He has always been such a good boy, but I know he bottles up everything in order to be so good. I have had him for more than 5 years now, and this is the first time I felt he trusted me enough to express his pain and worry. It was a powerful moment, very emotional, and, at the end, very peaceful for both of us.
Next up was the young, 3-year old gelding I am starting—like Maia, Txoko has been in my herd for over a year now. He is very tall and immature, so I have really taken my time with him. In recent months I had sat on him a few times, but never really felt relaxed, nor had he. The saddling up and me getting on was never an issue, but he would get quite tense and not offer to walk out once I was sitting on his back. Txoko was like a tight ball of worry, even though he trusted me. To be honest, I was getting more and more terrified of actually riding him, even as he was doing great with all the preparation (groundwork, ponying, etc.).
After watching a colt starting competition at Road to the Horse in Kentucky at the end of March, I came back more confident as my process with Txoko seemed to be mirroring that of the much younger and much more experienced competitors there. (Granted, they started a colt in about 4 hours over 4 days; I’ve been working for almost a year! Hey, I’m 25 years older and stiffer than they are!) Upon my return, I decided it was time to push through my fear and, as Nike says, “Just do it!”.
But, a niggling doubt kept coming up. What’s the point of moving forward in our relationship if Txoko is stuck in a place where he is bottling up his anxiety and fear of the process and what the future looks like?
This is where Warwick’s revelation seemed like the perfect answer for me and my little gelding.
I worked Txoko around the cones, and sat down, just as I did with the other horses. And, like his herd mates before him, he immediately softened, licked, chewed, and got sleepy.
He was so relaxed, it occurred to me that it might be good for both of us to try a bit of riding in this state of mind. Considering that I had been crying for quite a while with the other two horses, I was feeling absolutely no fear or anxiety, just a calm, empty peaceful feeling. There was no time to lose!
I saddled him up, and not only did he feel absolutely relaxed, but he was practically half asleep as I did so! He then proceeded to walk on voice command very calmly and quietly—I couldn’t feel tension anywhere…what a wonderful feeling. He gave a great big yawn, and when, later, he pawed the ground, I got off, listening to his desire to be done with riding for that day. As I congratulated him softly with strokes on his withers, I happened to look and saw he had let his private part down completely (a first!) and allowed me to clean him up a bit. Amazing. If that was not a sign of trust, then what?
Two days later, I worked him the same way, and this time he let his private part down all the way and kept it there, allowing me to take out his “bean,” a thick, paste-like build-up of smegma (a waxy, moisture-holding substance), dirt, dead skin cells, and sweat, from a pouch in his sheath; the bean can be very painful for geldings and stallions and I had even planned a vet visit to have him sedated to get the bean out (stallions could self-clean when mating)!
The next day, we went one step further with our relaxation work. I worked Txoko in the round pen and when I asked him to stop, instead of running to me like he usually does in his half nervous, half loving way,
Txoko lay down and rolled! Our trust just skyrocketed, thanks to doing less, not more!
This has all been so fascinating, and I will be incorporating more
relaxation work in my daily interactions with my herd. Now, if only I could figure out how to get my teenagers to relax around me….hmmm…