Episode 171: Positive and negative tension in riders

HELP! “My horse “flinches” at everything. I mean everything – including me sniffing. Somedays are worse than others. My trainer has kindly talked to me about it being me. I try so hard to be relaxed and positive, but I will admit, I am a bit “on guard”. Any tips for this situation!?!?!?!?!”
I have certian situations where I feel this same way and I’m sharing the exact tool I use in this situation. I explain how it allows me to feel more in control and prepared, gauge my level of tension, and desensitize myself and my horse to startling noises. 


Episode 171_ Positive and negative tension in riders.mp3
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] The most excellent news I have for you is that I actually, personally deal with this every time I start a horse under saddle.

Announcer: [00:00:11] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:31] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is all Q&A. If you have a question that you would like me to answer, you can leave a voicemail by visiting my website and looking for the orange button that says, “Leave Voicemail for Podcast.” Today, I’m actually answering a question that was sent in as an email in response to Episode 169. Episode 169 was about, it was titled, Fearful Horses: Instinct Training, Speed of Learning, and Accidental Rewards. The timing of this question was perfect, so I decided to answer it now.

Stacy Westfall: [00:01:17] Here is the question: Stacy I have a very well-trained, reining horse that I have owned for almost a year. He had colic surgery 30 days after I bought him, so we had a rough start. We are now trying to get show-ready. I am a rookie for sure, but I have an amazing trainer. Ok, so my question is this, he’s super sensitive. He flinches at everything. I mean everything, including me sniffing. Some days are worse than others. We have treated him for ulcers and all physical things. My trainer has kindly talked to me about it being me. I try so hard to be relaxed and positive, but I will admit I’m a bit on guard as I’m not as young and I know what will happen if I come off him. So when he flinches, so do I. I’ve never had a horse that’s done this before, so it’s new to me and it’s pushing my confidence level. The good news is he recovers from his scares very quickly, but still, two to five flinches a ride is exhausting. Any tips for this situation?

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:28] I do really love the timing of this question because of the last two topics that I covered in Episode 169 and 170. In 169, I covered fearful horses. And then 170 was the question, can you change the story in your head about a horse? I think both of those are going to show up a little bit in this episode if you listen. First, I appreciate that you’ve explored physical causes, things like ulcers and other issues that could be plaguing your horse. And the good news is another sentence that you put in here actually helps support this possibly not being physical. It’s this sentence when it says, my trainer has kindly talked to me about it being me. And the reason that I really appreciate you putting this in here is because I think it acts as further evidence that this is less likely to be a physical issue for your horse. So one advantage of having a trainer or someone else ride your horse is that you can view how the horse acts with different people. And the good news is that lameness and physical symptoms of ulcers and things like that don’t generally change from one person to another when one person dismounts and the other one turns around and mounts right back up. So if you are saying in that short sentence that this horse is not jumpy like this with the trainer and that the jumpiness is much more exaggerated with you, that’s good news because it does point more towards it being you and not the horses being–the horse being in physical discomfort. Now that can also sound kind of harsh when I say it’s great news that it’s you. Now, depending on how you view that it could be taken as harsh or it could be taken as helpful. I will tell you this, I recognize that something like this tends to be a combo thing. And what I mean by that is that you mentioned this is the only horse you’ve had this issue with. What I’m going to say when I say it’s a combo thing is not all horses would have the same reaction, even if you stayed at what I’m going to call this level of jumpiness. So first of all, some horses are going to reflect that what I’m labeling jumpiness. Some horses are going to reflect that and react to that more than others. Horses tend to, on their own, have varying degrees of sensitivity to things like this, which can make it more confusing at times to a rider in your situation, because you could just switch to a different horse that was less reactive to that type of behavior in a human. And it would give the appearance that you didn’t have that problem anymore. I think the interesting thing is that this particular horse is pointing out this in you, and then you get to choose whether you want to work through this so that this horse doesn’t have anything to reflect back to you anymore or whether you want to switch horses. The most excellent news I have for you is that I actually, personally deal with this every time I start a horse under saddle, which means a couple of things. I do have lots of ideas on how to address it. And I have personally noticed exactly what I was just telling you. I know I have a level of tension in my body when I’m starting colts, when I’m riding horses the first one, two, five, ten times. And I know this tension is there. I know that it can be right on the edge of a positive tension, which means I’m ready to have a quick response to an unexpected move that a horse that’s first being started under saddle might make. And I know that’s there, and even though I’m calling it a positive level of tension, some horses react more to that. And I don’t make that mean that anything’s gone wrong for me having that tension or for the horse reacting to it. It basically just tells me that we have more work to do. I believe that each horse has something different to teach me.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:17] Now, let me explain real quickly what I do with the colts when I’m starting them, and then I’ll go into more detail. But before I explain what I do, I’m going to put in a little disclaimer here. I want everyone listening to follow my theory in your head. And I am not suggesting this as a recommendation for everyone to give it a try because I know I teach this theory and groundwork, and then I transfer it to ridden work. But I also understand there’s more risk in this, in the ridden work. I’m going to explain what I do personally. And then Kelly, specifically, I want you and your trainer to sort out how this could, or maybe you don’t want to work it into your system. But this is for sure what I do. And in this very short version, it might sound a little bit crazy. So basically, when I’m starting a colt, when I go to step up on that horse and I’m riding it, let’s say that it’s the, you know, fifth ride and I feel myself being uptight about the horse, possibly reacting to noise or something. I actually do something that could trigger the horse. I slap my leg. I do something that is going to actually make it more likely that what I’m fearing might happen. And here’s what I’m thinking in my head when I do this, I know that I’ve already trained my horse how to recover quickly from the ground. I’ve already trained this theory to my horse in the work. What I know I’m doing when I slap my leg is I’m triggering two things. Three, really, if I want to go into me. But I’m basically causing or triggering a possible reaction so the horse could jump and then I’m going to have to execute what I’ve already got planned and what I’ve already been practicing, how am I going to handle it if my horse does spook or react? So I’m triggering that and I may need to then execute whatever that means. But I’m also, because of my groundwork training, I’m also possibly triggering a trained response. So when I slap my leg there are a couple of things going on just for my horse. It could cause a possible reaction that I then have to address, or it could trigger the beginning of a reaction and a recovery, which is what I’ve already trained the horse to do through groundwork. So some of the things that I’ll do, I will slap my leg loudly. I might tap my whip on the wall. I might cough really loudly on purpose. Anything that could cause a flinch from my horse. You said sniffling. You could sniffle on purpose. And what’s really interesting about this is I just said there’s definitely two, maybe three. The other thing this does for me is it actually helps me diagnose exactly how much tension I have in my body. It helps me diagnose whether I’m still on the side of positive tension, where I’m basically prepared for a reaction that this horse that’s just being ridden for the first few times could have or I can tell, because I understand what I’m feeling in my body, if I’m actually crossing over into being so uptight I’m more likely causing a problem.

Stacy Westfall: [00:10:54] The reason this works for me is because it does a couple different things for me over time. Number one, there is more of a feeling of being in control because I know it’s coming because I’m the one that’s about to do it. The interesting thing is, because I’ve done this in groundwork, my horse is likely to recover faster and starts to, I’m going to say, ignore these intentional startles more and more because it’s something that I’ve done, and I literally, if I’m really questioning it, I will dismount, trigger, trigger. I will actually remind the horse through groundwork, like, hey, I can jump, I can startle and you’re just supposed to be like, Oh yeah, she’s just a little weird. So I remind my horse of that on the ground. I step back up on and then I do it up there, and then the horse is like, Oh, I totally see the transfer here. And then another thing it does is I recover faster on the unintentional moments when the horse has a little moment. Like, so if the horse has that little startle moment, I recover faster during those unintentional things, which actually happened less often because I’ve been trying to make it happen. But when they do, it’s interesting because both of us are more ready for the whole incident to happen. So even my body becomes kind of less hardwired for a bigger reaction because we’ve basically been practicing the smaller reaction. Make sense? I think it’s interesting because earlier I said some horses are more likely to reflect this. I could also have phrased it like this, some horses are bumpier than others. Now what’s interesting is some people are bumpier than others, and that’s why I’m saying that you’ll find that when you put certain horses and certain people together, it’s going to be a little more magnified. I am a jumpier kind of a person and I still think nothing’s gone wrong here. I’m not trying to fix my jumpiness, but this, what I’m explaining to you about becoming jumpy on purpose, has really helped me. Because the more often I kind of call myself out on and notice that tension without judging it, the more time I spend accepting it and desensitizing myself and my horse to these sudden, random, but I know they’re coming a lot of times, but I’m still calling it random moments. So it becomes a desensitizing theme for both the horse and the rider, and I’ll put this out there, most riders don’t have a desensitizing theme when they’re riding. I think you’re more likely to find that in the starting phase, because it’s sort of what saves our life in the colt starting phase if you can actually be able to rock that boat back and forth between desensitizing and sensitizing. But a lot of times when we’re headed towards shows, I think the desensitizing is undervalued. But then to me, this is actually what helps horses have longevity is when they can see not just the ups, but the downs. They can see getting sensitive, but that–they can also see when to rest and be quiet. And then another thing that sometimes happens is that when we’re riding and getting ready for shows and things like that, a lot of times we’re trying to be very precise. And it’s interesting because sometimes that very precise can be read as tension. It might truly be tension, or it might be read as tension by your horse, which goes back to what I was saying about my idea of positive and negative tension when I’m riding.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:55] So again, I developed this awareness when I was starting horses under saddle, and I believe that the first few rides have a lot more unknowns. And in that situation, I think me being on edge is a benefit. I’m ready to respond to the unknown and that has me a little bit more ready to go a little bit more on the muscle, a little bit more on edge, but in a positive way. I have done enough work around this awareness that I can actually tell when I switch into too tense and it’s too much tension, and then it actually starts to block my ability to respond. As you start noticing this more and more you’ll start to realize what you do when you get tense. Maybe you don’t breathe as deep. Maybe you get really focused on loud, unexpected noises. You become almost hyper-focus on the things that could trigger and then you’re less aware of your body. So what I did was basically, I started to deconstruct what I noticed was going wrong or not helping me so much when I was riding these colts and I would go like, OK, I’m going to take a deep breath. Oh, look, that changes my seat. I’m afraid of a loud noise. I’m going to make a loud noise. And by doing this, even if it’s not like totally noise, sometimes if I start noticing my body is trying to be really perfect, then I will reach and I will pat or scratch my horse really vigorously. So like scratching where at roughs up their hair. Because you kind of have to do that in a fast way and that’s going to, like, release a movement in your body that are more likely to help you understand exactly on a scale of one to 10 how tense you actually are. Basically, at the end of the day, I’m addressing my own tension in a way while I’m riding the horse. And I, I keep wanting to come back to the idea that you can actually have positive tension, and I think that people maybe don’t think about this that much. I also experience what I’m going to call positive tension when I’m going to show a horse because I’ve kind of got this more alert and preciseness in my body that feels a little bit like I would call a positive tension.

Stacy Westfall: [00:17:17] Now that you’ve kind of heard what I do, I want to go through it just a little bit slower because for me, it happens quickly because I’ve practiced it a lot. But I want to give you a slower walk-through so you can understand kind of step-by-step how it was developed and what’s going on. So the reason I love it, I love the exercise of doing something like slapping my own leg, is that for me it completes a cycle. And that cycle starts in my head with some kind of worry about what’s going to happen. That happens because I’m thinking about a problem and it starts to show up in my body as tension. And then that decision to slap my leg or make this noise goes back into my head. I make a choice that I’m going to do this, which is very interesting because as soon as I make that choice to slap my leg, my awareness goes straight back out to my body because I immediately scan the physical world. Where am I in the arena? What is my horse doing right now? How long is this rein? How short is this rein? Am I prepared for the spook? Am I ready to deal with what’s about to happen right after I cause what’s about to happen? I notice and rate all of this, and at this point, this happens very quickly. I also rate the level of resistance I have to the idea of slapping my leg. So if I think, you know, maybe this is the second or third day in a row that I’ve done this, I notice my level of resistance to the idea of doing this and that level of resistance actually gives me feedback. So if I’m really high, if I’m an eight, nine or ten, I really don’t think this is a good idea. I don’t do it. But at that point, if I don’t think that’s a good idea, I actually admit it. And I go back down to groundwork, back to the ways that I trained this horse to respond to noises that are loud and different things like that. And so it literally, even if I don’t fully execute, it tells me something very clearly about where I am in my own body. So it takes me out of my head, into my body, back into my head, back into my body. And then if I can’t get there to where slapping my leg feels like a great idea, like it can still feel like a four or five, six, seven, a positive tension, but not crossing over into the negative. If not, I dismount go do the groundwork. If yes, then I actually commit. I slap my leg and then I notice both of our reactions. Sometimes that means I react more than they do. That might mean that I really notice how much I tensed before I did it and then also notice that the horse didn’t do anything. Or maybe I notice that right as I slapped my leg I actually thought in that last fraction of a second like, Oh, that’s actually like, I’m ready. Maybe that’s the final thing that I could feel really resonates through me is I’m ready, and then whichever way it goes with the horse. And so it’s this diagnostic tool that helps me get out of my head, back in my body, and then scan the surroundings and then back into my body. It’s like a back and forth that I just love. And I’ll give you this. It’s a massive tip. If you have studied your horse in groundwork cycles in those emotional control cycles where maybe you’re whipping the ground around your horse, if you’ve really studied that, then you’re actually very likely to have a good idea of how your horse is going to respond. I love that, Kelly said, he recovers quickly. That’s why I believe that if she discusses this with her trainer and her trainer thinks it’s a good idea, that’s why I think this is a good fit in this situation. Because basically, she’s already saying that the horse has this quick recovery time. Now to work on Kelly we’re going to get her slapping her leg or banging on the wall or coughing or sniffling or whatever that is, because that’s going to help get it more into a controlled situation where she’s making the decisions.

Stacy Westfall: [00:21:18] Now, when I teach this in person, the most common thing I see people do is really brace against the idea of that first slap of their own leg. Some people even squint like almost close their eyes when they go to do it. So that’s the first thing I notice is that real like that real big buildup and like that, that thing that goes, that tension that comes into their body during that moment. Then the next thing I notice is that they tend to want to continue slapping their leg. So even though in a real-life demonstration, I just showed them what to do and explained it. It is very common for people to slap and then continue slapping their leg. And then what’s interesting is if I interrupt them and ask them why they’re doing that, they often don’t know. Now, I have a theory. I think that they continue because they intuitively know that rhythm desensitizes better than random. That could be an entire podcast in itself, but I’m going to summarize it here as rhythm and random are different training tools. And I think the true magic happens when you keep this idea of random. If your horse is in the place where it sounds like Kelly’s is, then what you do is you keep that as a random thing. So you do it and then you process what happened and you ride around and then the next time you go to do it, it’s not the same location. It’s not multiple times. Because what this is going to do by keeping it really random if your horse has that real quick recovery time like described in this question, then what happens if you don’t break into the rhythm is that you actually have to deal with your own anticipation that builds up when you have that longer gap in between. Now, keep in mind again, I’m answering Kelly specifically because I love how she laid out just all of the different pieces that made it easy for me to tell whether or not I thought this was a good idea with this particular horse. If in doubt, you need to not execute this and you need to go back, check with a trainer, do your groundwork. But if you are understanding the theory, which I think everybody can learn from listening to it, I think it’s really a beautiful thing. Because if you start really listening to what I’m telling you, you’ll realize it’s something that you can practice even without your horse. Anywhere that you can increase your awareness of the idea of tension in your body being positive or negative, that’s going to help you when you work with your horse. Do you agree there’s such a thing as positive tension? If you do, where do you feel that? If you don’t agree with the idea of positive tension, then when you exercise how would you describe that feeling in your body when you are exercising? Do you believe that there’s negative tension? How does negative tension show up in your body? It’s fun when I quiz different riders, some of them will feel it in their shoulders. Some people feel the negative tension in their calves. Some people feel it in their gut. So you start actually studying this entire concept everywhere before you even need to take it to your horse. And then I think it’s really fun when you start to acknowledge that this tension is happening to you in different places of your life, you can play with the idea. Can I move it around? Can I diffuse it? Can I take control of it? What can I do? And what’s really interesting about this is this final phrase that I want to look at where it says, but still two to five flinches a ride is exhausting. And I know for me, Kelly, that the mental shift really happens when I go from, oh, this horse flinching is exhausting, to the idea of, I wonder how many different ways I can try to trigger this today? That’s when I know that instead of it being exhausting, I’ve made this into a game. For me, this game always starts off in groundwork. But then I also do transfer it into the riding because then it takes away the idea that flinching is exhausting. I take control of it and I actually make it a training tool. I hope this was helpful for everyone listening. Thanks again for asking the question, Kelly, and I’ll talk to you all in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:26:30] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com For articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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