Is That Horse Hot or Fearful? The Importance of Relaxation

It’s a question I’ve asked groups lately, “How can you tell the difference between a hot horse and a fearful one? There are a handful of answers but by far, most people say they see the difference in their eyes. Pressed a bit farther, it gets harder to explain. To tell the truth, I’m not sure I can tell the difference. Maybe hot gets labeled temperament, while fear is a behavior… or maybe one name is just an alternative for the other.

I certainly recognize the beauty of an energetic, forward horse, who is responsive to aids and yet soft in the poll, with quiet eyes and listening ears. But horses like that aren’t usually called hot.

I also know the look of fear in a horse. It shows in every inch of his back, from his clamped tail to  his tense jaw. His stride has lost its natural rhythm, replaced by stilted movements and a tense poll. In the worst case, white is visible around the eye, giving a sense of the horse’s real terror.

Most of us have been told to push our horses when they become afraid; to ride them through whatever behavior they are doing. Some horses submit and show passive resistance by shutting down, while other horses come apart and get in more trouble for that. Does it sound too dramatic to say that lots of horses live lives of quiet desperation? Not enough fear to be horribly dangerous, but certainly enough resistance and tension that they are visibly uncomfortable. For the record, chronic fear isn’t normal.

Too often the antidote for riding a nervous horse who’s prone to dancing around and running away is a harsher bit, draw reins, pulling a horse in tight circles, or most inane of all, tying the horse for hours so that he can think about what he did wrong. Just stop.

Fighting doesn’t bring out the best in a rider, but instead creates an adversarial situation where the rider questions the horse’s behavior as something that’s somehow a deceptive trick; that the horse is constantly trying to have his way or be lazy or dishonest. The rider has to protect his dominance because losing a fight will turn the tide of the war and all discipline will be lost. It’s riding with a closed heart and a defensive mind, and then at the end of the day, these riders give each other high-fives for surviving the ride. There’s worn-out adrenaline and bravado. It’s no surprise that the horse gets labeled hot and undependable. If they can’t trust you, then you certainly can’t trust them either.

It’s always easier to blame a horse rather than finding the patience to train confidence. Beyond that, I wonder if part of it is that the rider has no good standard of comparison. Meaning if every ride has always been a battle, they’ve never experienced something better, like sharing a ride with a relaxed and forward horse. Maybe the rider thinks feeling fearful is normal, too.

Here’s where I remind you that working a high stress job is really hard on your health, whether you are a horse or a human.

Rather than seeing riding as an ongoing war, I like to think of horses and riders as creating tendencies toward one result or another. They are always becoming more like the last ride; soft and light or fearful and tense. The best thing about a tendency is that it can change in a heartbeat; it can turn on a breath.

The foundation of dressage is that a horse should be relaxed and rhythmic in his gaits. It isn’t all that simple to balance those qualities. Yelling “Relax, dammit!” doesn’t work on horses any better than it does on riders, so where to begin?

“As long as he stiffens his poll, he also stiffens all of his other limbs. We may therefore not try to address them until he has yielded in his poll.” –E.F.Seidler, 1846

Take the time to warm-up, not because it’s fun but because your horse needs it. Too many times riders are impatient to pick up the reins and go to work before the horse is ready. Or we don’t ask politely, but if the ride starts with tension, the rhythm will be sticky, and we’ve given up an opportunity to let the horse feel good. Is this the point where a horse’s good intention gets traded for a life of quiet desperation? Breathe, go slow, and let the warm up unfold. (How to warm-up here.)

A relaxed horse is a lofty goal, but there are so many good reasons to focus on that peace and rhythm. It sets the horse up for soundness and confidence. When you evolve the conversation without becoming adversarial, then his fear retreats. Your horse still seems to read your mind, but what he finds there makes him feel safe and valued. In his opinion, you’re a wonderful leader –and that’s the place that art and oneness happens.

And a second quote from that same classical dressage master, but this one describes something special:

“To the degree that the horse perfects his flexibility, his obedience increases and opposition decreases. As soon as the horse is completely flexible and through, his unconditional obedience is secured as well.” —E.F.Seidler, 1846

He’s saying that once the peaceful/supple warm-up happens, and the horse is not resistant, his temperament follows suit. In other words, the horse demonstrates a tendency of positive partnership. Isn’t that particular kind of unconditional obedience–the kind that a rider has requested with politeness and not anger–the absolute ideal?

Riders always have a choice in tendency; we can train either war or peace. Fear should never be accepted as normal, but even if you aren’t entirely altruistic about training peacefully, there’s still a benefit for the rider: A relaxed back is much easier to ride than a tense one. From there, mutual respect might start to feel like a surrender in that old-fashioned war. Think of it as negotiating a lasting truce.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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