The Whole Horse
It was a warm and sunny morning as I chatted with Jaycee about what she would like to work on with her horse Scamp.
“I’ve been making him move his feet because everyone I’ve worked with says he needs to move his feet more. But he’s always spooky,” Jaycee said.
I thought about this for a moment and then replied, “When you say ‘make him move his feet,’ what do you mean?”
“Well, this is what I do.” She picked up the end of her lead rope, spun it quickly at Scamp’s nose, and stepped aside as he took off to the end of the line and then bounced around in a circle before settling into a stiff lope.
“Ok,” I said. “When you say that it’s important for a horse to move, you’re right. But if we just focus on his feet, and not how we are asking him to move or the quality of his movement, we are missing a big part of the picture.”
Jaycee nodded and pulled on the line so Scamp would stop. He planted his feet in the dirt, raised his head and snorted.
I continued explaining. “Moving the feet can be a tricky way to think of this. If we only focus on the feet, and not how the horse is feeling inside his own skin, we may miss helping him reach the point of relaxation.”
“I think we can adjust a couple of things here. Let’s present moving on a circle more softly, and let’s also watch for his breathing to become regular and his movement to relax.”
I showed her how to step out of Scamp’s way while breathing deeply, and using the end of her rope farther away from his body. We started with a slow twirl. Scamp looked at the rope then burst into a fast trot.
“That was better! Now Jaycee, I’d like you to keep breathing and relax your body a little.”
Scamp trotted a couple more laps before he too took a breath and slowed to a walk.
“Let’s change how we ask him to stop, Jaycee. I’d like you to stop your feet as you exhale. If Scamp isn’t able to stop with that we can use the lead rope to ask.”
Scamp walked half a circle before drifting to a halt. He shook his head and neck, exhaled and stood quietly.
“Wow,” said Jaycee. “That was really different. He’s starting to relax.”
I nodded and said “Yes. That is the inside of the horse releasing tension. My hunch is that once we turn the volume down for both of you, he will be able to not only move his feet, but you can help him feel more relaxed inside.”
“Move their feet,” is a phrase that is ingrained into the fabric of horse culture.
On the one hand, it’s great that so many people have learned this phrase. On the other, it can lead to tunnel vision (or should I say hoof vision?) about what it is we are trying to accomplish with our horse.
We can sometimes get so caught up in “moving the feet” that we forget that doing so is an end result to an internal process. When the horse feels pressure or tension and they need to move, that energy reaches the feet last. We can use that energy, however, to get back to the inside of the horse in a way that will help them calm down.
We aren’t moving the feet to punish the horse or wear him out. We are allowing the horse to do what horses are designed to do – move. It’s a whole body, inside and out process that is expressed through the feet, not by them.
Moving the feet isn’t a part of “making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy” either, since horses don’t know what the wrong or right thing is anyway. What horses seek is what brings them comfort and ease. Their tolerant natures seek quiet places. Sometimes they need to move a lot to find that quiet place. But if we focus only on moving their feet without regard for the rest of them, I have a hunch that movement can feel punishing instead of relieving.
By the end of our time together, Jaycee and Scamp were able to work together quietly. Scamp could walk, trot and lope on a relaxed circle. He was breathing better, his body was loose and he had stopped being hyperalert.
In the end, it wasn’t the feet that needed our attention. It was the horse himself.