I’m so over rain! All day yesterday, now thunderstorms this morning. Everyone is stir crazy, even the cats are inventing games and woke me up at 5.30 divebombing the bed from the very top of the curtains.
A funny thing happened on the weekend. I have told you a bit about Magic, my quirky 11 yo bundle of contradictions…she is the one who is most focused on learning and environment. A brave adventurer, who believes in herself.
She is the one that rages and storms at any attempted leader, equine or human, pulls faces and rears and has tantrums before just doing it anyway (this mental picture is exactly her response just this weekend to being pushed out of the arena by Joe, our doughty old timer and Most Immovable Shoulder Ever). She knows better, but others are more dominant.
She and I have had a colourful relationship. I’ve owned her since 8 months old, and started her age 4 using Parelli methods. She’s always been an interesting character- the day I went to choose her and her mum (Apache) 11 years ago, she kicked my butt the moment I turned my back on her- a foretelling! So Magic! Her horsenality chart for anyone who reads those tendency lists, is a LBE Axis point. She is a playful, reactive, momentarily frozen, food obsessed self performative contradiction in any moment. She literally can own every quadrant at any time, but her saving grace, and plenty of it, is that the behaviours, while varied, are relatively mild.
Magic has a keen mind and is very curious. She’s gregarious and friendly and wants all the attention, but gets offended if there’s a crowd and she can’t squeeze in. Her biggest worry is environment. She is deeply claustrophobic, hyper alert for ‘squeezy places’ and loves wide open spaces which she watches as much as she can. She seldom relaxes. I think this is why she challenges the leaders before complying. Maybe she thinks they are irresponsible for not scanning the horizon enough.
Out riding, she would look about and look about more. If she found something to worry her, the first instinct would be to stare, then either rush up to it or flee. None of these options suited me as her rider, and I would make a too big bid for her attention, too late; interrupt her pattern, argue, and eventually she would comply and not run off with me, but muttering under her breath all the time about it. In the early days I almost had to frighten her to get her attention at all. I found her frustrating to ride, because I like harmony, not conflict. She found me frustrating to be with, because she felt environment was way more important than I did, and she doesn’t like being told what to do by someone who plainly couldn’t pay proper attention.
After years of arguments which I always won, but which re-enacted every time she got tense and did nothing for our relationship, I heard Elsa Sinclair’s take on the five areas of Focus, and a big penny dropped for me. I have known these 5 areas for years (thanks to Russell Higgins) as ‘areas of confidence’ as in diagnosing where a horse is most bothered.
I had never thought of them as ‘focus’ areas before. That bit had escaped my notice. Places where horses and humans can habitually put their attention. We can be sublimely balanced (lots of switches of focus- good leaders are good at this) obsessive (one huge area of committed focus or concern) and a full range in between. The focus can be good or bad, as in addicted, learned behaviour, an innate tendency. A couple examples: very high prey drive can lead to obsession with environment; concerns for comfort can lead to obsession with herd, fearfulness can lead to a desperate search for a confident capable leader etc. obsessive learners are the ones who are into everything all the time, making up games and swinging their lead ropes.
The confidence in each area is also a subset. You can see how identifying this is a useful tool in helping horses to learn to trust our judgment.
Just that one tweak of the brain, from ‘confidence’ to ‘focus’ helped me figure Magic out. You see, she’s not an unconfident horse. She rides out great alone, not herd bound, curious and brave. But when she does get scared, because she spends such little focus on leaders, she just doesn’t turn to a leader for help. Instead she panics, because despite her tendencies, she’s still a horse.
Huge lightbulb moment.
Magic was fixated on environment. She overreacted to leadership from horse or human because in her mind it was always ‘too much too late’. We weren’t good leaders, because we never even noticed what was going on out there!
So I started training focus changes as subtly as I could. We started at home and I just observed how much effort she put into environment, so much more than everyone else.
Then I started matching her. She would stare out, so would I.
I started the ‘last step’ procedure. This is when a Thing of interest arises, and a horse stares at it. We stare too, and step towards to investigate, and if we are esteemed as good leaders, we can pronounce it safe (through our body language) and help the horse feel better.
I had done this before, but without commitment, and they know lip service when they see it. The often wouldn’t believe me. You have to really look, not just pretend to. I used to be so inconsistent too…not helpful.
The ‘last step’ towards a potentially scary Thing is usually taken by the bravest leader, and they get the ‘last word’ on the level of threat.
Magic is very good at having the last word! She likes learning, ‘new’ is interesting to her…and ‘interesting’ can be good interesting or scary interesting!
Her ‘famous last word’ at home is when we take turns with the ‘last step’, both unwilling to hand over the leadership, until we are both pressed up against the fence between us and ‘it’, and she wins by having the longest neck! However except for when that happens I generally held my own, and even got better at it, which meant she felt safe enough to relax with me. With me in those moments she could let down her guard. At last, someone else was taking care of business! Then I could ask for the subtlest focus change, an ear maybe, and get it without a storm of emotion. We are growing this in various situations, and now, in an emergency, she will bend as softly as when at home and as she was trained to, because she believes I might not be as useless as she thought I was about protecting the herd. This changed the feel of our time together significantly, and esp our rides.
She listens much more willingly to me now, instead of automatically saying ‘no’, arguing, then giving up with a sour note. Positive reinforcement peppered in was the cherry on top. I became her favourite leader.
Anyhow, I opened my round pen on the weekend to have some horse time on a surface that wasn’t under water, and the whole herd of four rushed in. They love the play pen. Apache wanted to roll, McCoy wanted to show off, and Joe was hoping for some clicker training.
Magic, being claustrophobic but brave, rushed in as well and just wanted everyone else to leave. She couldn’t get near me in the middle with McCoy flexing his muscles (he recently learned ‘crunches’ it’s still his fave thing) and Joe especially with his huge presence. So she pranced around the outside, crossing my line of vision again and again. Then I realised what she was doing! It was a pattern. She would circle the outside, then stop dramatically as if seeing ‘something out there!’ And stand staring at a gap between the trees. Then she looked at me. Then take a step or two towards it. Then glance at me. Each time she ended up pressed against the fence in her ‘famous last word’ position, staring out, before doing it all over again.
That glance! Reminded me of something the Goddess of Calm, Anna Blake, said at her clinic last year about ‘asking with her eye’. Well I had to go see. I left the boys with a jackpot each (for excellent crunches, and being polite respectively) walked around Apache, who was laying down still, and joined Magic in the race for the Last Step.
You should have seen how smug she was to have won my attention. I honestly think it was a ploy. There may have been ‘something out there’ to start with, but there was nothing by the time I got there except a very happy horse pointing it out to me! She won (long neck etc) but I got a free nose touch! She quickly pressed her muzzle against my face, and sighed. It was very touching to be so esteemed, and very satisfying seeing how pleased she was about getting my attention.
Our moment was short lived as the herd closed in, but it was a clear shining snapshot.
I think the gold in this for me was the bringing home of the idea of Focus, and my horse being able to ask for some attention, and get a reply that she liked. After all the work we had done together practicing this, she obviously likes it and couldn’t have been more obvious in how she went about getting it, despite the boys and Apache all doing their thing. I was impressed by her perseverance, and bravery (honestly, four strong minded horses in a 50’ round pen is three horses too many to Magic) and determination.
Most of all though her using a pattern that she and I had practised so overtly. It could have been conditioning, we had done those moves enough, but for the very obvious ‘ask with her eye’ that she kept casting at me. It was almost theatrical. She switched the game, asking for my change of focus just as I usually asked for hers!
Focus gives us Feel.
Focus and Feel give us Timing
Focus, Feel and Timing give us Balance. Flow. ‘The Zone’.
Please excuse my flowery descriptions- I don’t seriously anthropomorphise my horses, but I’m trying to get the full flavour across in my words for you. I so wish I had my camera running. I would love to watch the whole thing from an outside perspective, and see what else I missed.