Thursday, May 9, 2019

Connecting to the Feet, Part 3: Intention, Attention, and Calibrating the Feel

by Mary Gallagher

Why: To expand on the previous concepts and exercises in Part 1 and Part 2, helping you and your horse develop a language of feel and connection. Continuing a series of articles on Connecting to the Feet, in advance of Mary Gallagher's clinic of the same name (at Freedom Farm this August, 2019).

Horses have an uncanny ability to feel inside of you—they can tell if you have a plan or you are winging it. As you stand with the lead rope, or sit with the rein in your hands… have you thought about a task for their feet? or are you caught up in emotion, pushing an agenda, driving for an end result?

The answer matters more than we think.

When we bring our intention into the present moment by directing the feet to a specific place, we get our horse’s attention. This is different than correcting mistakes. There can be no mistake when you synchronize your mind and then your aids with the horse’s feet, you can feel the horse’s feet, and the horse can feel that you feel his feet.

About correcting mistakes… On the contrary, when we have an idea of what we want the horse to do, then set about asking and correcting, asking and correcting, we and the horse may get frustrated if he doesn’t do as we imagine he should. Worse, we may inadvertently be training him to do the opposite of what we want! Horses learn much faster than we do, so repeated actions followed by a release tend to reinforce whatever the pattern, right or wrong!

Using the simple principles I shared in Parts 1 and 2, releasing the moment the right thing happens, you can progress. With practice connecting and synchronizing with your horse’s feet, you develop a language with your horse—and the better you both get at this communication, the better you both cooperate with each other in general. Over time you and your horse learn to calibrate your mutual feel in order to make the next step more exact—that is when the dance begins!

How we connect to the feet—a handy list:

Which rein affects which foot:
  • Right direct rein affects right front and left hind (backward movement)
  • Right opening rein affects right front (lateral movement of forequarters)
  • Right indirect rein affects right front and left hind (lateral movement hind quarters)
  • Left direct rein affects left front and right hind (backward movement)
  • Left opening rein affects left front (lateral movement forequarters)
  • Left indirect rein affects left front and right hind (lateral movement  of hind quarters)
Okay, so it’s a lot to remember, but worth it. Make it a point to learn these terms while working with your horse (a coach can be a huge help as you memorize the feel of each rein/foot interaction).

Exercise: sideways over or in front of a pole—an exercise for ground or riding. I like this exercise a lot because it tends to inspire horses to cooperate. The horse wants to be off the pole and you are setting up the direction for him to do just that. Remember, the slower the better—no agenda!

(Note: I do recommend doing this exercise on the ground, first. It’s a great way to see the interaction of your horse’s feet as you ask for each step.)
  • Begin by having your horse take a step over the middle of a 10’ or 12’ pole, and stop. For the beginner (horse or rider), you can have him stand with the pole in front of him; also, you can set the pole perpendicular to the arena fence to give you a handy boundary.
  • Pick a front foot, and using your opening rein, ask the horse to move it one step to the right or left;
  •  Follow that with an indirect rein on the opposite side, to ask the hind quarters to step over.
  • The next step is with the same front foot, again with an opening rein; however, because the horse will be bringing his weight over the hind quarters, the opportunity for the horse to walk forward off the pole is greater, so be ready. (If you are riding, be ready with your direct rein on the outside to prevent that diagonal pair from stepping forward and off the pole rather than laterally.) 

Remember to go slow—one step at a time—not only to make sure your set up is correct, but to encourage your horse to synchronize with your feel. The more he is allowed to use his brain, the lighter and more responsive he will become. Going fast in this exercise can quickly create too much pressure and discourage his cooperation. Go slow, be precise, and see how little it takes to move a single foot at a time.

As you grow in your understanding of how you can connect to your horse’s feet, try increasing the distance between you and your horse when doing this exercise on the ground. Place a second, parallel pole between you and your horse and repeat the same exercise—you staying behind your pole, and the horse behind his.

Over time roll your pole further and further away from your horse’s pole. You should be able to cooperate just as effectively, even at a distance. The benefits of synchronizing through feel are many. As you master these steps with your horse, your horsemanship with grow, and your horse will thank you!

Summary—you have just learned to
  • Slow down your communication, recognizing the power of connecting the rein to the motion of one foot
  • Differentiate using the opening rein to move the front foot, and indirect rein to move the hindquarters
  • Communicate more effectively by communicating at a distance
  • Synchronize with your horse for deeper connection, and....
Bonus! As you work with communicating from a distance, you will probably feel a strong draw to be close to your horse—it’s like a magnet. If so, you now know what it feels like to be herd bound. And it just so happens that increasing the working distance between you and your horse is the antidote! The sideways over a pole exercise builds confidence in your and your horse, outside of the herd.

Want more of this kind of training, with coaching and friends? August 17-19, 2019, I’ll be leading a clinic at Freedom Farm in Port Angeles, Washington called—you guessed it—Connecting to the Feet. Whatever your level of experience, it will be a great experience to share with your horse (or one of ours!) Let me know if you’d like to reserve a place! - MG

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