As I'm carefully bringing Grimm back into full work, one important factor keeps coming to the fore: relaxation. And boy, sometimes that's a hard one!
The tension in his back is ever-present at this point because he doesn't have the stamina yet to trot for very long. Without lateral work and the muscles he'd develop and maintain from full and correct work, he starts every ride stiff ... which, understandably, makes him rather irritable, especially at the beginning of our ride. If anything else contributes to his discomfort -- like distractions around the facility, changes in the weather, or any number of things that might put him on the alert and cause tension -- relaxation goes right out the window, and it's my job to put it back. Quick.
My secret weapon is unbelievably simple: I praise him for breathing.
At first, the idea sounds ridiculous. I know. I didn't believe it the first time I was told to do it, either. It was early in our partnership, at my first clinic with Pierre Cousyn, and Grimm was behaving like an absolute monster. His explosive response to everything I asked of him had garnered a full and avid audience of blood-thirsty spectators, and the extent of Pierre's instruction had been "haunches out" and "forward" ... then silence while I worked to keep Grimm in the arena and me still in the saddle. I was about ready to die of embarrassment.
When Grimm finally dropped to a tense and ugly jig-trot for a moment between rounds of Grimm-nastics, and then gave a quick, sharp snort, Pierre shouted at me to "Praise him!" I was pretty sure Pierre had lost his mind. Why would I praise my horse for that?
There are so many reasons.
Tension in horses -- and in riders -- is caused by stress, the automatic activation of the fight-or-flight reaction in response to a perceived threat. It floods the body with adrenaline and causes muscles to tense up, the heart to beat faster, and breathing to become quick and shallow. In this state, the horse and rider are hair-triggered, ready to leap into action to avoid the coming danger, be it real or imagined. Communication takes a back seat to self-preservation, and the longer it goes on, the more tension mounts, and the more dangerous the situation becomes.
Praising the horse for breathing helps to break the cycle.
First, let's look at the physiology behind it. In order to 'blow his nose' as Pierre called it, the horse must take a deep breath and expel it. This will cause the need for another breath. Snorting causes a break in the tense, short fight-or-flight breathing rhythm and increases the oxygen supply, which in turn promotes relaxation. Additionally, the snort is a natural part of equine behavior that includes stretching the neck lower, expanding the rib cage, and releasing tension, which can manifest as a momentary softening of the eye, improvement in the gait, or a new swing in the back. Even an incremental change in a positive direction is an improvement, and this is a behavior we want to encourage. Praising the snort increases the chances of it happening again and reverses the cycle from building tension to reinforcing relaxation.
The rider must remember to breath, just as the horse does. Often, if the horse is tense, it's a natural response for the rider to become tense, and it works the other way as well. If the rider is tense, it could be why the horse can't relax. Speaking the words of praise out loud requires breathing. Doing it loudly enough that your instructor can hear it requires even more air, and thus, praising the snort physically requires the rider to breath, even if only momentarily. But it doesn't end there. Praising the snort causes it to happen more , and the more the horse snorts, the more the rider must praise and thus breath, and thus relax. Both rider and horse benefit when the rider is breathing, too.
Praising the snort has psychological benefits, as well. Tension can be caused by a lack of confidence or understanding. The more tense the horse becomes, the less likely it is that he will feel 'good' to the rider. As a result, it's harder to find anything to reward, especially for riders who are new to feeling and understanding what is happening in response to their aids. The snort is a black and white, easy-to-mark behavior that any rider can identify. And it's NEVER the wrong answer! Praising the snort gives the horse a needed reward, and it tells both horse and rider that something went right. The more success the horse and rider perceive, the better the ride will be. Communication will improve, the gait will get better, both horse and rider will be less hair-triggered and less likely to over-react or to react aggressively to mistakes ... praising the snort is a win, no matter how you look at it.
The final benefit of praising the snort is that horses learn to use it voluntarily. It begins as a praise-seeking behavior, but soon, the horse realizes he feels better when he snorts. I have a video of Grimm from a few weeks ago, before we'd finished treating his back. He stumbled behind, and I know it hurt. However, instead of throwing a fit, he started snorting. He snorted for several strides with his neck stretched down, his ears pinned -- but his eye was soft. Then his ears came up, the swing came into his back, and he trotted out. A few years ago, that stumble would have set the tone for the whole disastrous ride to follow. Here, he took care of it himself. Another example happened yesterday, when our facility became an unbelievable morass of distractions just after I got on. By all rights, it should have been the ride from You-Know-Where. I used praising the snort to keep myself from unraveling in the midst of it all, but Grimm used it too. Each time I praised, I was able to help him center and focus his attention on relaxing instead of becoming increasingly tense and anxious, and by the end of the ride, he was doing it intentionally. He'd tense up, then immediately diffuse his aggression with a snort; I'd praise, and he'd expand his back and offer an extremely expressive -- but beautifully relaxed -- medium trot instead of blowing his stack. Praising the snort was the key to keeping that particular ride successful!
It's like magic. I kid you not.
The snort is a great signal from your horse that tells you when to take note of good things happening, and it's a great way for you to tell your horse how to give you something you want that's EASY. Next time you ride, try it yourself. Pay attention to when -- or if -- your horse snorts. Praise him when he blows his nose, and notice how his performance changes in that instant after he takes that deep breath. Notice how your attitude changes the more you employ praise, and see if you can feel your riding changing too.
Praising the snort is a tool that every equestrian should have in his or her toolbox. Add it to yours; you'll LOVE the results.