Episode 178: My mare goes from calm and sweet to disconnected: self awareness, anticipation and adjustability

A listener asks a question about her mare, who at first appears, “…very good and calm, until she’s worked out what it is we’re doing and starts to anticipate.” The answer involves understanding the riders’ role in both the calm and the anticipation, identifying how anticipation can look different between hot and cold horses, and a training exercise to help adjust what the horse is anticipating.


Episode 178_ Calm and sweet to disconnected_ self awareness, anticipation and adjustability.mp3
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] So if you start changing your habits, you’ll start to see, can you dial her down? And is she really as hot or zippy as she may be appearing? Or is she just kind of being, you know, maybe she’s just a little bit zippy and she sees your pattern, which happens to be making her zippier.

Announcer: [00:00:20] 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: [00:00:40] Hi. I’m Stacy Westfall. I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is all Q&A, and today’s question covers a few different topics. Self-awareness, horses that help us out by anticipating things, and an exercise for learning how to dial things up and down with your horse. Let’s listen to the question.

Caller: [00:01:11] Hi Stacy. My name is Carmen and I’m from South Australia. I love listening to your podcast as it challenges my perceptions about my horse and gives me more insight into how and why my horse does what she does. My mare is the quietest, sweetest, and smartest thing ever, and I’ve noticed that the first time we do a new thing, she’s very good and calm about it until she’s worked out what it is we’re doing and starts to anticipate. For example, I started riding bareback recently and she was dead calm. After some time and a bit of trot work, it’s like she realized that we can actually trot bareback and start to anticipate when I pick up the contact. It’s the same thing with jumping. We can jump something once quietly, but then the more we jump, the harder she gets. It’s as she switches off, then realizes we’re doing something, something a bit more fun or demanding, and then switches on and disconnects from me. I admit it, I do the same. We are so the same it’s kind of scary. My main question is, is this normal with horses like thoroughbreds who want to place and I need to learn how to manage it? Or is it a particular issue that can be resolved with a magical training exercise which I know doesn’t exist?

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:15] Thanks for the question, Carmen. As I was listening to your question, I was trying to picture a horse or horses that I have ridden in the past that remind me of what you’re describing. And the good news is I was able to come up with several. So when I’m picturing this situation, that’s the angle that I’ll answer from. I’m also going to specifically answer three of the different things that you mentioned in your question, including a possibly magical training exercise. Let’s start with you first, though. You mentioned she is so like me. I admit it. I do the same thing. We’re so the same. It’s kind of scary. If I take this phrase that you left on the voicemail at face value, then I have something I want to share back with you. Let me read this section of your question, but let me replace everything that you said about her with you. You’ll see if you follow this. Here I go. “I’m very good in calm about new things until I work out what it is we’re doing and I start to anticipate. For example, I started riding bareback recently and I was dead calm. After some time and a bit of work. It’s like I realized we can actually trot bareback and I started to anticipate trotting when I picked up the contact. It’s the same thing with jumping. We can jump something once quietly, but the more we jump, the more worked up I get.”

Stacy Westfall: [00:03:58] Could you hear the difference when I turned that around and wrote it like it was from your perspective, where I had you saying, I am very good and calm about new things until I work out what it is we’re doing and I start to anticipate? I think you’re already onto yourself. And I like the idea of writing almost like a complaint letter about your horse and then turning around and replacing all of the places that would be representing your horse with you. Because sometimes when you read that back, it’ll actually just highlight it from a different angle and make you really see where you might be playing some of those actual roles. And this is going to come up even more when we talk about the magical training exercise at the end. But right now I want you to actually grasp another thing. Then one of the things you said was, I admit I do the same. And the interesting thing about that is that you may have been framing that as in that you get excited and you escalate, you do the same. It might have been spoken in that kind of a way, but what I want you to think about is that if that’s true, if you two are alike, then you’re also playing a role in that calm, curious investigation of new things. So I’d like you to start exploring how you’re showing up in your thinking and in your body when you’re trying something new, like the example that you gave of the bareback riding. Were you, for example, curious how it was going to go but a little bit reserved? Because I’m going to guess there’s something in the way that you’re showing up there, and I’m going to use the word reserved for a minute. So maybe you’re going, Oh, this is new. I’m trying this, and there’s a certain energy in your body that I’m labeling as a little bit cautious or curious and cautious or curious and reserved. If that’s in you, if she is really good at reflecting you and you notice that especially in more of the escalation, maybe you can find the way that you are showing up in this calm way so that you can understand how you could bring that up more frequently. Another thing you mentioned in your voicemail was the question, is this common with thoroughbreds? And what I want to do here is look at it from a couple of different angles. The first being hot/cold, and the next being the training level. And a lot of times when we look at the horse like you described, and especially when people are like, is this more common with thoroughbreds or is anticipating more common with blah, blah, blah? I think it’s interesting because anticipation in itself happens in both hot and cold horses. And you mentioned that your horse was the quietest, sweetest horse. And then you also mentioned some of these things that could fall into the category of hot. But I’m going to give you a different word. I’m going to say, zippy, because the horse that I’m picturing in my head wasn’t exactly hot, but technically on the scale, if it was zero in the middle and plus ten is extremely hot and it goes up in increments of plus one plus two plus three, and then the scale goes the opposite way down to minus ten, getting colder and colder, the horse that I’m picturing that fit this quiet, sweet, but a little on the hot side I used to call, zippy. And the reason why this matters a little bit is that all horses anticipate to some level. Now hot horses, when they’re being helpful and anticipating and helping you out, the way that that comes across tends to be different than the quiet horses or the lazy horses and the ones that help you out by anticipating in a different way. So let me illustrate that. The the slightly hotter horses or even just the ones that are pleasantly spicy, the zippy ones, they anticipate things and it tends to be a little bit quicker, a little bit zippy here, a little bit of–a little bit of spice, maybe not too much, but it leans towards that direction. And a lot of times that’s how you can diagnose that. You’re working with a horse that’s maybe a plus two or a plus three, not extremely spicy, like what Popcorn my horse was, but, you know, a little bit on the spicy side. And what happens with them is they tend to volunteer things that would be a little more effort and a little bit quicker.

Stacy Westfall: [00:09:01] Now, if you turn around and you look at a horse that tends to be a little bit more lazy or quiet, then a lot of times they volunteer stopping, they volunteer slowing down. Gabby is a little bit like this and she’ll volunteer lateral work, which is kind of an interesting thing. She’ll volunteer lateral work more so than forward work. That’s kind of, to me, interesting that she perceives the lateral as easier than the true forward, where Willow is more likely to volunteer forward. So on trail rides, I’ve mentioned it before on the podcast, there are times when I’m out there and there are long stretches where we can canter and I’ll be cantering along on Gabby and I’ll say, You want to go faster? So I’m kind of just opening the door allowing, but not, not necessarily pushing her to go faster, but kind of like suggesting that it would be possible and she’ll be cantering along because I required the canter and then I’ll say, you want to go faster? And she’ll be like, Why? Do I have to? What? Why? And Willow, if I do the same exact thing, we’re cantering along and I go lean forward and I just kind of open up the door and I go, You want to go faster? And she’ll go, Yeah, how fast can I go? And she’ll go a little faster. And now she’ll kind of check in with me, but she’ll be like, faster? Can we go faster? Her questions are completely different because Willow is anticipating, but her brain likes to think in that quicker kind of a way. So some of her anticipations go down that path a little bit more than Gabby. Who Gabby, in that same moment when I’m saying you want to go faster. she’s thinking about going slower. So her question is why? Her anticipation is actually in the slower gait. So she wants to default to the slower gait where Willow is going to default to the faster gait. So that’s where the horse that I’m picturing when I listen to your question was just a little zippy. Not–not quite as–not quite as hot as Willow, but, you know, sweet. A lot of times quiet, but a little bit zippy. And that’s going to play into this next piece, which is a little bit of a talk about the training level.

Stacy Westfall: [00:11:28] So when you mention the switching on or off, to me, that phrasing a lot of times is a little bit indicative of a training thing, more so than necessarily like the hot or cold. Because what happens, and it especially happens with the hot horses when we’re adding things that could be a little bit of speed or excitement, some of the things that you mentioned–and it will actually happen with the cold horses. And if you guys have ever listened to one of the earlier podcasts, when I when I’ve said that some of these naturally quiet horses can actually almost be more dangerous because people just assume they’re quiet and they don’t do the training when that naturally quiet horse lacks the training. A lot of times they’re really good until it feels like something snaps. And then that horse actually doesn’t have skills in recovery because they kind of don’t lose it very often where a naturally hotter horse tends to, I’m going to say accidentally get trained, because they present more problems along the way, so they get trained to handle those problems. But before I go down that rabbit hole too far, when you use the phrasing, switching on or off, it’s almost like I’m going to take it a little bit like tuned in or tuned out. And the way that that can work is that it’s a skill set for the horses to learn to respond when they’re getting excited. So a lot of times when that horse gets a little bit zippier or maybe even more than zippy and starts to lean towards just flat hot there is naturally just by default when the horses are all taking off, running in the herd, even Gabby will will do that if something startles them, there’s kind of that initial–and then it’s how they recover from that. And those, some of those horses recover more quickly, naturally, and some of them kind of get stuck in that go mode. So when we talk about this switching on or off, sometimes you’ll hear me talking about it more in the training perspective of teaching the horse to dial up or dial down. And if the phrasing switched off or tuned out or something to that effect comes in, to me that’s when that disconnected feeling comes in, because the horse has switched into a different realm. It’s no longer on that same page with you. So we’ll see this with young horses when they’re first getting trained. They don’t know to look to the human as a leader. Like they’re–maybe they grew up in a herd of horses and they look to other horses for direction. So when they’re first taken away from the other horses and the human is working with them, they don’t naturally look to that human. And then they start to go, Oh, wait a minute, this human is using some techniques that remind me of if we want to look at it like leadership skills, or they start to recognize that the human has something to offer, that there’s something interesting, that there’s something intriguing, that there’s something that that human is bringing here, and we start to engage them. So you can pretty easily in the early, early, early stages, imagine that that horse isn’t looking for answers from the human well. For me, the way that I picture it as we continue going on is that as the training continues, the horse spends more and more time looking to me for answers. And in the beginning that–that switching off or that breaking point or that–that like the horse is like, okay, where is the herd? Looking for–looking for a horse to answer this question. That can happen pretty often and everybody accepts that as like, well, of course they want to go back out to what they’ve known. And then the way that I would describe it is that it starts to be something like this. The horse starts to be with you up to a certain point. So when I hear you describing this on or off. To me, it sounds a little bit like because you use the example of jumping and you use the example of going up into the trot. These things both involved a little bit of speed, a little bit of some energy being introduced, and you even said something like that in your message. So it sounds like at a certain energy level, that’s when the horse is kind of like switching out of that looking to you for leadership kind of a role. So that’s just another way to look at what could be happening. And then that kind of opens up the idea that maybe we can just like we stretched that horse’s initial, not having an idea that they could look to the human for guidance and then they learn to look to the human for guidance and that makes sense in the beginning when we’re first teaching them about what the halter is for and teaching them how to load into a trailer and we’re teaching them all these skills, as that is built up that can also be a skill that’s built in speed.

Stacy Westfall: [00:16:53] So the final area that I want to touch on is looking at your question, which is, can this be resolved with a training exercise that doesn’t exist? Which I think is really funny that you put that in there because I’m sensing a little bit of doubt from you that maybe this can’t exist and maybe that doubt that you left in your voicemail by saying, which doesn’t exist. I think that might be coming from the word resolved because you said, can this be resolved? And I think that word resolved might be what’s actually causing the doubt, because you’re hoping there’s some sort of an exercise that could help, but you sort of don’t think it’s going to be resolved. And I think both of those are accurate. Because, first of all, maybe this isn’t something that has to be resolved. Maybe it’s just something that we want to take a closer look at. And part of the not resolving it is recognizing what parts of this are like, hey, I have a zippy horse and that’s okay. This is what we do with zippy horses. And zippy horses tend to ask this kind of question, and that’s okay. And maybe there are some training exercises that could adjust that horse. Here’s a way to phrase it. What could I do to make my plus three horse sometimes act like a minus three horse and then I can dial it up to a plus and down to a minus at will as I want. That’s where I think the magical thinking begins. So let’s circle back. You left two specific examples. You left bareback riding and transitioning up to the trot and you left jumping. And when I ask myself what these could have in common. The thing that comes to my mind is the question where is the release? So when I say this, the release is going to be almost like a freedom of movement, like a release, a reward, a yes, that’s the spot. And this matters, this is going to tie back together with that hot or cold idea and where we release or where we soften, where we reward the horse. So I’m picturing, let’s go to jumping first. So we picture teaching a horse to jump and I picture teaching the horse to move forward and to approach the obstacle. And we, if we picture this for just a moment before we even go to a jump, let’s picture it like a tarp on the ground. So there’s a tarp on the ground. And let’s say the horse is looking at it like what you want me to do? What? And you’re asking the horse to walk over it? Well, let’s say the horse hesitates 20 feet away. A very common thing to do would be to release, soften when that horse is looking at it snd then maybe even maybe you take the horse and you ride the horse around and the horse is moving and then you come back and you, like, release and soften and–and let the horse look at the tarp. So this is to get you on the page that when I say release, there’s some kind of a like reward, release, softening that’s happening when they’re looking at that tarp. And then they don’t feel trapped or forced to go over the tarp but they kind of get curious about why they’re getting this release every time they’re looking at the tarp and they notice that that release is happening when they’re curious. And so they develop this confidence and curiosity about the tarp. To me, when I think about teaching a horse to jump, there’s a very similar process to the jumping. And a lot of times there is almost like a guiding. Let’s picture that this horse kind of knows how to jump a little bit. Like you’ve been working on it for a little while. A lot of times you come around a corner and you guide and line the horse up and then you kind of like soften and release them towards the jump. And so there’s that release that’s coming towards the jump. And so this, you can see, would start to be a little bit of a magnetic type of a thing for the horse. So the horse starts to see that release, that softening, that reward, however you want to look at it, coming when we come towards that jump.

Stacy Westfall: [00:21:23] And then in bareback riding. Let’s just go with the idea that maybe the first time that you rode, you were a little bit cautious. You were kind of curious about like what could happen, but there were some questions in your mind and you’re on the horse and you were a little bit reserved in your body and reserved in the way that you were showing up and you were exploring it, but from this slightly more reserved way, and then you started to loosen up. You started to feel more confident. You started to be a little bit more free, and so did your horse. Especially when I think about the transition from the walk to the trot. This typically involves some kind of ask, some kind of increasing, like, could we trot? So maybe that’s like a squeeze or a waving of your legs or some kind of thing like that and then the horse goes up to the trot and we soften, we release, we let that horse go up into the trot. And so here’s how this works with the hot horse or the cold horse. And again, I think you just have a slightly zippy horse, but I’m going to use the hot and cold just for clarification. So if we look at a horse like Gabby, who tends to be a little bit lazy out there on the trail, that means that a lot of the time I try to make sure her releases come in the motion. So it’s like I’m asking her and she goes up into the canter and she’s cantering and I soften a little bit. And because she’s lazy, when I soften a little bit, oftentimes she just asks if she can go slower. So it’s a little bit of a game like, send her up into the motion and then let her be there. And then, so there’s kind of a less leg being used there. I let her be there and then she’s always thinking about slowing down because that’s sort of her default. Now I’ll put a P.S. in there. Over time, you can start recalibrating them slightly. They always maintain their natural default, which is what’s what’s interesting about knowing who they are at their core. But you can–you can modify them to where you don’t see that expressed as fully if you do years of training.

Stacy Westfall: [00:23:36] So let’s go back to Willow for a minute. Let’s imagine that Willow is a little on the hotter side. So imagine that I send her up into the canter and she already wants to be there. So if I soften there and she’s like, Yes. If it’s just softer there, then my hotter horse will just seek that release spot faster because that release spot happens to fit what she already wants. Just like Gabby if I release her and let her stop. The more times I do that, the more times she’s going to hunt the stop because she really doesn’t hunt going. So are you following me with this? Gabby needs more releases in the motion, so I’m almost letting her move forward because she doesn’t necessarily want to because she’s a little lazy. Where Willow, if I send her forward and then just soften there, I have to watch because she already wants to be forward. And I just remember exploring, when I first started exploring dressage, I came across an article and I was like, I love this phrase and it is this: hot horses need more leg and cold horses need less leg. So the article was just talking about and this is a thing you can go find it in many places. It wasn’t just one article. It’s a concept in dressage that when I found it, I was like, I completely agree with it. I agreed with this before I ever read this article, I knew this from riding horses. That’s why the cold horse, Gabby, needs less leg. So that means that when I send her forward, I make the request to go to the canter, and I release her up there, and I release her into the canter. I don’t carry her along using my legs the whole time because the cold horse would actually just lean against my leg a lot. The hot horse like Willow needs more leg because if she moves forward and she’s released in the motion and there is no leg used there, she’s actually going to get hotter and hotter which makes her zippier and zippier and more reactive to my leg. So keep in mind one more concept here in my notes is that this idea of hot and cold, this view, I’m making it a little bit extreme so that you can picture it in your mind. And Gabby really is on the lazy side and Willow really is on the hotter side. However this hot/cold view can–and I want it to exist in one horse–what I do if I have a plus three horse, is I want to know how can I take this plus three horse and dial it down and dial it up so that I could choose to balance that horse at zero. If I have the minus three horse, how can I take that minus three horse and dial it up so it looks like a plus three horse and dial it down so that it can look quiet and then I can choose where I want it to be on that scale. So if you follow this line of thinking, we can take the plus seven horse like Popcorn and we have quite a bit of work to be able to stretch him all the way down to a minus seven so that we can try to balance him out around zero. And we’re going to recognize that they all will continue for the rest of their lives to default to their natural. So they kind of default back without–without handling or training you turn them out or they just start getting ridden by a whole bunch of riders that don’t know how to support them. They’re going to start defaulting back to their natural state. That’s the way that I view it. So what I’m doing in my training is I’m teaching the horses how to be where they are and then dial them down and up so that I can make them extremely adjustable, which explains why I can take this hotter horse and make it look like a cold horse and then decide where on the scale I want that horse to be on a given day. And what’s interesting about that is that the more extreme the horse is, a lot of times what that needs is more of a ramp-up for me. So for example, it took a long time to take plus seven Popcorn and dial him all the way down to a minus seven and he wanted to rebound to plus seven very quickly. So it took a lot of years to be able to get that very adjustable. And with any of these horses, what happens in the process of learning how to do this, dialing up and down is that you start to learn how much time it takes to dial a particular horse up or down. So I start to know, Hey, I need to start this dialing process. You know, at the beginning of the year, it’s going to take me a lot longer if that horse is further on that range. If I’ve given them a lot of time off, they’re going to require X amount of time. That could be like three weeks, certain amount of time, depending on how much training the horse has to be able to dial up and down and get really adjustable for me again. The ones that naturally default somewhere a little bit closer like plus three, they don’t need as much ramping up and down time once the training is there. So do you see how I did that? There’s kind of like two layers to this one. There’s like the layer of the hot and cold view and then there’s also the layer of the training.

Stacy Westfall: [00:29:20] So what I want to ask you now is that when we’re looking at this question, when you were showing up in the new things experience, when you were showing up to riding bareback if you are participating in causing or at least allowing the calm to be there, I want to know if that’s something you could start doing more intentionally on more rides. How could you cause that? Now, right now, to me, the way that I listen to the question, it sounded like that calm exploring almost had a question in it, almost like what’s going to happen with the bareback? What’s going to happen with the jump? There it, to me, it’s almost like there may have been a question in you as you were exploring that like what is this bareback thing going to be like? And you’ll know if that’s true because you could picture introducing your horse to a tarp or a swimming pool or a ball or riding through water and–and start exploring how you were showing up that either helped cause the calm or at least allowed the horse to be calm. And then what I want you to do is start thinking a little bit about how you could practice dialing things up and dialing down. Because right now you report that there’s kind of this disconnect or breaking point that happens. So what the game is in training is to know how to cause the calm, which is the opposite of what kind of your question was about, like your horse kind of checking out. Explore how to cause the calm and then as you start to dial up a little bit can you dial up without reaching that breaking point? That is a lot of the beginning and middle of horse training to me. A lot of the beginning and middle of horse training is–is saying, I know where the breaking point is. How can I train around this but not quite get to that breaking point again? But how can I come close to it but not get to it? You’ll know if you’ve crossed it because you’re going to have what you described, that kind of like, that kind of on or off, that checking out moment. I think it’s interesting that you mentioned when I pick up the contact when you were talking about the trotting and the bareback, I think your horse is giving you some feedback. And this is a piece that you can use with this idea of dialing up or dialing down. If your horse is reporting to you that when you pick up the contact, you are also about to pick up the trot. So therefore you pick up the contact and she automatically volunteers the trot. What she’s doing is she’s telling you about your consistency. You pick up, collect and then trot. So that is reporting back to you what your habit is. You could actually just shift your habit and see how that changes things. So you may be riding along, picking up the contact, and then asking her to trot. What would happen if you rode along and you picked up the contact and adjusted her to a smaller, shorter walk? Like just a tiny bit smaller and more collected than what she’s doing right then. And then you released and let’s say that five times in a row you picked up and collected her to that slightly smaller walk and released. And then on the sixth time you picked up and collected her and then added the trot. What this will do is something like this will help you identify if you did five, collect and shrink your walk, to one actual collect and then go off into the trot. It’s going to start to tell you more about whether the horse is thinking, Oh, well, obviously the majority of these are being spent in the collected smaller thing. So over a period of 7 to 10 rides, you actually start noticing that she’s actually getting quieter and quieter, lazier and lazier, more dialed in on the slowing down than she is on the going. But my guess is that you have a horse that’s moving up and down the scale a little bit already, and that what you need to do is kind of control that with something like I just gave you. Control that where you intentionally spend a number of times where you pick up and collect to shorten the stride and you don’t go. So it’s like, ready, ready, ready, ready, ready, ready? Can you see how they would be less anticipatory if you did that a lot? Versus ready go, ready, go. Ready, go, ready, go. Which is sort of what she’s reporting to you, at least in the voicemail you left. So if you start changing your habits, you’ll start to see, can you dial her down? And is she really as hot or zippy as she may be appearing? Or is she just kind of being, you know, maybe she’s just a little bit zippy and she sees your pattern, which happens to be making her zippier. All of this will help, but it basically all hinges on that one phrase. And really looking at this phrase that you left I admit it, I do the same. I love your self-awareness in that. And I want you to question every time you have that sense, even if it comes to you after the ride and you want a journal about it or something, I want you to say, Yep, I did that too. How is that working for you? Because it probably is working for you in a way. And how is that not working for you? How is this working for me? I like that thing that she’s doing there. I like her spice and spontaneity right there. And then there’s times that that’s not working for me. So maybe this is why I need to invest a little on the other side. Thanks again for the question. Thanks to all of you for listening, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

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