Episode 179: Getting forward motion from a horse without negative tension.
A listener calls in, “My question is about how to create forward without creating negative tension.” This starts a discussion on how riders often bring tension to the session, including both their worry about causing tension AND in their cue system application. I discuss how my cue system changes between colt starting and more advanced movements, including the idea that sometimes the 2nd grade version contains more energy.
I include an actionable ‘test’ you can perform the next time you lead your horse from the pasture or the stall, as well as a discussion on stretching the horse’s comfort zone. Finally, at the end, I pull it all together by describing how I use relaxation as a base I return to.
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Episode 179_ Getting forward motion from a horse without negative tension..mp3
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] This disconnect from the core, the whole body, the whole human intention is, I think, the bigger issue. And that actually, ironically, turns into how you don’t have to overuse that one aid.
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: [00:00:39] Hi. I’m Stacey Westfall. I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast has been all Q&A. Today’s question is about getting forward motion without tension. Let’s listen to the question.
Caller: [00:00:59] Hi, Stacy. I want to thank you, first of all, for your podcast. I gain so much insight into it. I appreciate it very much. My question is about how to create forward without creating negative tension. Background is I have a 12-year-old mare who has been quite a challenge for me over the years and has forced me to improve my riding, my horsemanship, and my understanding of horse behavior. And I would not trade her for anything in the world. She’s made me a better human. This year, as we returned to work after a winter off, I see that she is very relaxed and not fussed about the things that she used to be quite fussed about, which is wonderful. What I also realize is that a lot of our forward movement came from this negative tension that she used to hold. And now that she’s relaxed, we have a horse that is very much behind a leg and not all that keen to go forward. So my question is, how do I go about keeping the relaxation and getting her to go forward? I do not want to get after her in the traditional sense to teach her that being relaxed is wrong. I’m just trying to figure out how to navigate this so that I have a horse that is responsive and light and also happy and relaxed. So, you know, I just want her to be perfect. Anyway, thank you very much.
Stacy Westfall: [00:02:29] Thanks for the question. Before I dive into the three main points that I wanted to make, I did want to start out by saying that it’s interesting to me that both the hot and the cold horse can have negative tension. I think sometimes people get stuck thinking one way or the other, like, well, the horse that’s being quiet, cold, lazy, whatever words we want to associate with that less naturally forward, well, I think sometimes people think, well, yeah, that one’s going to have negative tension associated with it because they just don’t want to do it. However, the hot horse a lot of times is going forward and has negative tension because their forward motion might be coming more from almost like a fear reaction. So to me, the indication of tension in the forward motion isn’t necessarily a determiner of this is a naturally cold horse or this is a naturally hot horse. We have to start looking at other layers to decide what’s going on. And the first thing that I want to bring up is a question of, how are you showing up? And likely this has probably changed over the years. You said this is a 12-year-old and you’ve been riding her for quite a while. And, you know, it’s interesting to me that. When the horses shift or the way that they show up, a lot of times we will shift and almost match them. And so if she’s got this question about being, you know, relaxed and quiet and you’ve got this concern about tension. Because you like the relaxation part of it it a lot of times will make riders in that situation kind of almost hold their breath. Like, how can I avoid causing this tension? And it’s kind of an interesting thing because if you want to bring up the energy level. and do it in a way that might not bring the tension the first thing you have to recognize is that you have to not be bringing the tension in you as you take the energy up. And if you find yourself holding your breath, being worried about their reaction, that’s going to be your first clue that you’re going to participate in bringing the tension.
Stacy Westfall: [00:05:05] Let’s go to a completely different example so that maybe you can get a little different angle on how you could possibly bring up the excitement level without that holding your breath, worried that you’re going to cause tension thing. So let’s imagine that you are suddenly given this assignment. You’re going to be taken to an elementary-level school. You’re going to be walking into a second-grade classroom, and you need to get these kids really pumped up about going outside to see something. How are you going to show up? If your first inclination was I’m worried about the tension that they might have when we’re doing this. Okay. That didn’t even happen to any of you, did it? Like you literally didn’t wonder about bringing tension. You’re like kids, excited, young. The first thing that’s probably going to jump into your mind, and if not, please email me and let me know, the first thing that’s probably going to come into your mind and even into your body–go there for just a minute. Think about you get $10,000 if you get all 25 of these students pumped up. What happens in your body when you do that? I’ll guarantee the first thing you start doing is you start moving yourself in a way that’s going to be high energy. And let’s just say that 20 of the kids are pretty easy to get to buy in. But let’s say you’ve got those last five are maybe a little bit lagging behind. Are you going to go really slow and drop your energy? How are you going to approach them? Maybe in this example you can start to see that as your goal. To get these kids pumped up is to raise the energy level that your inclination, even though it may dial up and down depending on the kids in the room, there is a level it won’t go down below real naturally. I would encourage you to stretch this example over to horses. This is actually one of the reasons why I love working with colts is because I like the early stages and I often when I’m coaching people, I’m thinking about like one of my one-on-one students right now. Often when I’m coaching people, if they have experience in colt starting or Mustangs or younger horses, a lot of times when they’re working on more finished stuff, I am constantly pulling back and forth between those two examples with them to get them to look at–basically, just a different way to look at how they’re bringing tension into what we’re calling the finished stuff versus the much more free flowing way that most people, if you start a lot of colts, if you start a lot of young horses under saddle, that tends to be a very different experience. It is much more like going into that second-grade classroom and having this energy, stirring this energy up, and shaping this energy, which is–typically people present differently in that situation than they do when they’re working on upper-level things like let’s just throw lead changes out there, but this could be just plain forward motion. But you can see where people could be tempted to be very–and I’m going to introduce a couple of different words here–you’re calling it tension. I’m saying what if we go with stiff versus elastic? And so that example, when you’re in that second-grade classroom, what are the odds that you’re going to get high energy results from those kids if you’re very stiff and precise? Versus if you show up in almost what I’m going to call like an elastic mindset and you’re very high energy–and the reason I’m using that word is going to make more sense in just a minute. But I want you to think about how you’re showing up in those different situations so that maybe you’re not causing some of that lack of energy. Be the ball of energy. Bring it to the classroom, even if that classroom is with your horse.
Stacy Westfall: [00:09:55] So when I go back and I–and I think about these words that I just introduced, like, right now you’re using the word tension. And I’m going to tie back into that a little bit later very specifically. But instead of tension, I want you to think that there can be this forward motion with a stiffness or we could even call it a resistance. And then we can have this forward motion with this elasticity. And when I was listening to your question for–I don’t know how many times I listen to these. You guys would be amazed at how many times I play them over and over and over, trying to really try it on from all these different angles that I can possibly do it so I can answer this question. And that’s what I would encourage you to do when you’re trying to answer these questions for yourself. Keep trying on the question. Even if you write it in your journal and look at it from different angles. One of the angles that I went to was this kind of made me wonder if the tension that you’re describing was about a cue system. And when I go back to that colt starting versus the older horse idea, I’ll give you an idea like this. My first cue systems with the horses involve me being a lot bigger with my energy. So you can see this in groundwork if you go to YouTube and watch my Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac series. You can see my body and the energy and the way I describe it in groundwork. But this also carries over into the riding, too. And when I say that, I see riders trying to be really precise and accurate with their cues a lot of times what this ends up looking like to me is that–let’s just use something really common. So the rider wants to go forward so they apply the leg. Well, when the rider applies the leg, a lot of times when they’re trying to be very, this equals that, very precise, very, I read an article and I need to use my legs three inches behind the girth and my left leg should be a little bit stronger than my right leg in this and I need to apply it in this order. I’m going to do this, this many times. I’m going to do this, this many times I’m going to do this, this many times. When it starts to get super structured like that, when I see a rider that’s riding in this way, very often what happens is they have a lot of tension in their body due to the way they’re thinking about the application of the aids. This does not take away from the fact that as the horses get higher level the horses will have more complex cue systems. That is true. However, the way the rider approaches that cue system matters a lot. So when the riders and handlers come to me, like I see this all in groundwork, which is why I’m tempted to say handler. Let’s use the groundwork for a minute, because I think a lot of times when we do groundwork, it’s easier to see the separation between the horse and the rider, the horse and the human. So what happens there is that a lot of times I’ll see somebody asking the horse to bring up their energy. But because it’s groundwork, I will see their arm reach out with the stick and string or the lunge rope or whatever they’re using and when I look at it from an outside view, the highest energy thing, the only thing really asking is that one–I’m holding up my right arm right now. You can’t see me–but like that one arm. Like the whole rest of the rider, the whole rest of this human standing on the ground has a really low energy and they’re trying to get all that forward or all that energy or all that cue to happen from just this one little arm. That works later on, when the horse understands it, it feels a little bit more dialed down. But what never works is the disconnect that I’m trying to describe here. The disconnect to me means that let’s say that you’re trying to bring up the energy level, which in this groundwork example implies that the horse doesn’t have a high energy level. So if your horse has got this lower energy level during the groundwork and you’re like, Oh, I really want this horse to go forward, I’m going to apply leg. I’m going to use that to represent the whip also. I’m going to apply this cue. And you reach out there, but your whole body stays virtually at zero, like neutral. It’s maybe like not–it’s not bringing up energy. Maybe we’ll even say it’s not taking away energy. But there’s so many people I see that like take away their energy while they’re doing it. They’ll physically lean back with their core while reaching out with their arm. It’s a disconnect.
Stacy Westfall: [00:15:10] And so when I think about this horse that’s really low energy and groundwork, my whole body energy needs to come up. Everything in me needs to come up. And that energy in the arm is just an extension of that versus what I see so often, which is the precise human reaching out to tap X number of this and that. And they’re completely disconnected from their body. This disconnect from the core, the whole body, the whole human intention is, I think, the bigger issue. And that actually, ironically, turns into how you don’t have to overuse that one aid, which would be, in this example, the right arm that’s reaching out, holding the stick and string, asking the horse to go forward. One of the reasons that that stick and string, or when you’re riding later that leg, one of the reasons that that gets overused is because the core, the body, the whole human intention is underused. So if we take this and I put this into your question, a lot of times when people are trying to get forward without negative tension, especially if you keep phrasing it like that in your mind, your focus is going to be on what you’re trying to avoid, which is the tension, and that is not a good thing to have your focus on. Let’s put the focus on elasticity or some positive framing. So when we’re doing this, we’re going to see about stirring up that energy in you, in your core. And a lot of times for riders, they’re very resistant to doing this because let’s say that they are whether they’ve got numbers on it or not. Let’s say that they are riding precise because they want to say that they’re in like this upper level of high school. Well, when you start having this loss of forward motion, maybe the best thing to do is pretend you’re back in second grade and get the energy with all of this bigness that might be in your body to do that. I automatically start loosening up my whole body. I start moving my whole body. I start thinking about my arm movements being bigger, my leg movements, my whole core, my intention, my energy level being bigger. And a lot of times that is the thing that’s missing from that tiny cue. It is a high-level horse that takes those tiny cues and knows how to read all of that other stuff into it. As my horses go up through the training, I’m constantly doing this forward and backwards. I’m going back down to like that second grade level of riding, which has some benefits and some negatives. And then I’m going back up to this more precise, and I keep going up and down, up and down, up and down. And that’s how my horses know that these tiny cue system things actually mean bringing all that energy that the bigger system meant.
Stacy Westfall: [00:18:20] I’m going to give you an actual action you can do. So I want everybody listening to picture that you’ve got this lower energy horse and you’ve been kind of struggling with how to get the forward motion without tension, because you’ve had tension and forward motion in the past, but you’re a little bit worried about bringing that up. I’m going to give you an actual example of stuff that I do all the time, and I want you to try it on in your head right now. I want to know what comes up for you when you think about doing this. So you go out to this pasture, you are the listener who left this question, or you put yourself in a situation like this. You go out. You get the horse, whether it’s out of the pasture or out of the stall. Here’s what I want you to do. Halter gets on, and I want you to turn around, and I want you to run to wherever it is that you groom your horse. Run, high energy. Run! Run! Run! Run! Run! Go! Okay, stop. What is the look on your horse’s face right now? I know the answer to this question because I do this all the time and it consistently has one particular reaction to the horse. There is a thing that happens every time you do this. Can you guys guess? Instead of me telling you the answer, why don’t you go try it as long as you’re going to stay safe? Because now I’m going to have to tell you. Because it brings up the energy. And very commonly I’m doing things like this. I saddle up my horses, turn around, it is not uncommon for me to run 50 feet to the mounting block because I’m constantly doing things that are very highly engaging. My horses watch me like, you should keep an eye on this one. And that brings up an energy that is much more like that second-grade teacher. And then that whole way of being around the horses shows up everywhere and it does create a horse that tends to be more light, happy, and relaxed. Because you know what my horses are? They’re really curious about what the heck Stacy could be up to.
Stacy Westfall: [00:20:39] Now I want to zig over to a different thought process. I want to take you back to Episode 171, which was all about positive and negative tension in the rider. That would be a good one to go back and listen to in that set of examples, but also listen to it from the phrasing of stuff that I’ve talked about in this episode. Dig deeper when you listen to Episode 171 because the idea of positive and negative tension is something that I think people need to think about in the horses also. So when I think about doing more and so specifically when you say forward motion, I’m just going to picture–I’m going to picture things like extended trot or cantering, something that’s got more energy to it. And that doesn’t even put together more advanced movements like whether that’s leg yielding or half passing or lead changes or spins or sliding stops or any of this upper-level stuff. As you start keeping climbing further and further up, this becomes one of the questions. When we’re looking for relaxation, is there a different way that we should maybe describe it as we go up into some of those other movements? You weren’t specific about what movement, but let’s just say forward and I’m going to put it into some of those upper-level movements. Here’s a question. Can you physically jog on your own two feet with relaxation? If you’re not sure, go ahead. Hit pause. Stand up, jog for 5 minutes. I don’t care if you jog in place or if you go jog up and down the driveway. Most of you aren’t going to actually do that. So you’re just going to go back in time and you’re going to remember a moment when you were jogging. Can you physically jog on your own two feet with relaxation? Some people will say yes. Some people will say, no, it’s probably on a range. One of the reasons it’s on a range is because people will have a different definition of relaxation. My first thought when I have relaxation is like laying down on a couch, laying down, getting a massage. So my initial reaction to the word relaxation does not tie together really well with exercise, which is one of the reasons why I go towards more like elastic as one of my more favorite words. Because can I physically jog on my own two feet with a stiff feel or with an elastic feel? Yes, I can feel that differently and I can stretch myself to understand relaxation while jogging. I was literally doing it this morning, but it is actually work for me to remember to jog with relaxation. So now we’re starting to really get deeper into where the challenge of taking horses up into more movement with relaxation. One of the things that makes me happy to think about is the idea that we could have positive tension, a positive tension in the muscles versus a negative tension in the muscles. Back to my elastic versus stiff idea. And when I think about that, a lot of times the interesting thing that I see when people really, really go for relaxed is that they’ll often get their horses moving in a way that’s not physically correct. Because a lot of times when I say relaxed riders go towards low and slow energy. And so we get horses that are walking and they’re kind of dragging their feet and maybe they back up, but they drag their feet in the backup and they trot and it’s almost a broken trot because the rider is allowing the horse to move in a way where the horse has so much relaxation that there’s not even a positive tension in the muscles. They’re literally moving in a way that’s damaging to joints. This, to me, becomes a problem. So when I think about how I want my horse to feel, I do actually think about that feeling in my body when I am exercising in a correct physical movement, kind of a way, and in a way that when I’m first learning it, there was confusion about how to use my body while I was jogging. There was damage that I did to my body while learning how to jog. But I found eventually this positive tension. And I can see where we could call it relaxed I’m very, very interested for everyone listening to figure out what that actual physical feeling is, because that’s the one you’re after when you’re riding your horse. Because if I tell you that I want you to take this horse and I want you to go out there, and that same example where you put the halter on the horse and you ran from the pasture into where you’re going to groom. That’s going to bring up a lot of energy in the horse. Typically, if I tell you that one of the answers for bringing this energy up when you’re wanting to work with this horse is to ride them fresh, ride them light, keep everything up, be a big ball of energy yourself you’re going to actually find that inside of stirring up that energy the way that you experience that energy will be very interesting.
Stacy Westfall: [00:26:28] I was watching my little mini. The temperature dropped and it’s really cold again and we got snow last night and I was taking a hay bag out and he was standing on his hind legs, walking around, and just being really fresh. Overarching his neck, prancing, and doing these little things. And I was thinking about recording this episode and I was thinking about how people watching him could possibly see what could be considered tension in his body. Because just him framing himself into those certain ways does involve what I’m calling, positive tension. So I would encourage you to develop a relationship with what you want, the positive tension, that correct movement of the horse. To me one of the fastest ways to find your belief around that is going to be through groundwork. Because a lot of times when people are watching their horse on the lunge line, they’ve got the separation. They’re, you know, let’s just say 20 feet or more away from their horse. They’re watching. You can see the whole horse’s body. You can then start to see, oh, yeah, like this horse isn’t even moving enough to move its body correctly. How do I get them to move forward? Oh, that’s where I can see that the horse is correctly using its muscles. And you start visualizing what that positive tension, that positive level of energy, that you’re going to find incorrect movement in the canter, for example, and get familiar with that and question whether or not you’re actually almost desiring the less correct movement because it feels more relaxed. Find that for you.
Stacy Westfall: [00:28:14] I think one of my favorite things you said here was that you said, I see she’s very relaxed and not fussed about things that she used to be quite fussed about, which is wonderful. When I hear you say that sentence, what I hear you describing is that in the past, you have at some point taken this horse from her comfort zone to stretching the comfort zone, which is where I’m going to put fussed, or however we want to describe that. You stretched the comfort zone and now you’ve established that previous discomfort zone or uncomfortable zone is now the new comfort zone. Did you follow that? Let me say it a little bit more clearly. The process of stretching a comfort zone goes from being comfortable–let’s take me on the couch where I’m very relaxed–and that takes stretching that comfort zone to an uncomfortable zone of me deciding that I’m going to take up running and going out there and jogging for X number of minutes. That was a discomfort zone, an uncomfortable zone. But over time, that has become my new comfort zone. That’s what you described in your sentence when you said, now she’s relaxed and not fussed about things that she used to be quite fussed about. This to me is a big piece of the horse training, the art of training a horse, because stretching a comfort zone is a very individual process. It is not, as I described in the beginning, a tap x number of times, watch for the result, tap x number of times. It is an art form. It is being able to read the horse and deciding on purpose how you want to go about doing this. Because when we talk about stretching a comfort zone, some of the best questions you can ask yourself about this don’t even involve your horse. What do you believe about the idea of stretching a comfort zone? Do you believe in it for yourself? How does that work for you? When is the last time that you stretched your comfort zone? I think the first place to look at your belief system around stretching a comfort zone is using yourself personally. So that’s why I often use the example of myself and exercise, because that’s an area that I had to do work and make myself uncomfortable to be able to eventually be in a comfort zone in exercise. And to me, that is a belief system study that you can do in yourself. And then it does feel different when you go out there to do it with your horse. For me, I have three now-adult children. There are a lot of times that what I experience with the horses is similar in that I’m basically touching my belief system around enforcing something that I want the child to do or the horse to do. And it’s another layer of this. It’s a–it’s another way to look at it would be, it’s very common that people are okay with the discomfort of telling the horse not to run them over. There’s something you’re willing to do to not be run over by the horse, and a lot of times you’ll find an equivalent to that. Like just I’m going to stick with my example of the child. There’s a level where you’re okay with making the child uncomfortable to break certain habits or to keep them safe or out of harm’s way. So a lot of times when we’re working with the horse, we would be willing to pull on the lead rope to stop them from jumping in front of a car. So you can start to see where there are areas where there’s things that you’re willing to do because of the possible, let’s just say, safety aspect of it. Now as the children get older and they go to become separate and adults, you actually can a lot of times feel that relationship shift. I can even think back to being a child with my own parents and I can go back and relive that relationship kind of changing. I think it’s an interesting thing with horses because they are in this more perpetual dependent role. So there’s this moment where for me, a lot of times those examples will stay in that–that child range when I’m working with the horse. Which to me questions brings up the question of. Let’s say that I have a child that’s like, no, I actually don’t want to get off the couch. No, I actually only want to eat candy. No, I actually don’t want to go to school. How do you make those decisions about what is best for the child? Because those are the similar thoughts that I have when I’m working with the horses and I’m thinking about this horse that’s dragging itself around. They’re doing an incorrect trot, but the correct trot would require more effort and energy, and that horse might complain about doing that. What am I going to do there? How am I choosing to view that stretching of the comfort zone?
Stacy Westfall: [00:34:18] And the last layer that I want to just bring up is the idea that basically, have you ever noticed with people, that different people, whether you want to go with personality types or whatever it is. But have you ever noticed that different people have different ways of interacting with new information? So some people get new information, they quietly accept it. You actually can’t tell whether they agree or disagree. It’s a very quiet process. And other people react to a new idea with a very visible reaction. Really positive visual big or negative visual big. And I think it’s another way to look at horses would be that they could be like that, too. And so sometimes the ones that have those bigger reactions doesn’t mean that they’re having any more negative experience. They just have different ways that they react to it. And when I think about it, like this one door that it opens up for me is that what if this is just a different series of questions? So sometimes when the horses are like asking me these bigger questions or having these bigger reactions, I’m not always just labeling it as a problem. Because if I label they’re–let’s just go back to the word tension. If I ask for something in the horse, exhibit some tension and I back off because tension equals a problem for me what happens sometimes with that is if you spin that around and look at it with a child, if the child does–has a reaction. If I ask the child to get up and go to school and they’re like, No, I’d rather not. And they–they don’t. And I don’t want them to be upset. If they reach a level of upset and I’m like, okay, you don’t have to. That’s going to become a cycle that is where the child is in control a little bit more because I’m trying to avoid a particular reaction. If we look at it like horses could be like people, some quietly accept the new idea and some have a bigger reaction to an idea, positive or negative. If horses could be like that, too then does it mean that we need to turn around and have a reaction to their reaction? Sometimes I think that when people are trying to read every moment with their horse what they accidentally do is they accidentally end up avoiding certain reactions in the horse. For example, if the horse says, no, I don’t want to go forward and you bring up the energy, that horse still has a bunch of different options. And if the option that triggers a response in you is tension and resistance and you react to that by going, Oh, I don’t like that reaction in you, and you back off it begins a feedback loop in the horse. So I’m not saying that you have to directly apply more pressure. I am saying you have to stay up and moving until something that happens that you want so that you can give the horse that feedback. Otherwise, I see a lot of people that have been very well trained by their horses because the people avoid certain reactions in the horse and the horse knows how to poke those buttons.
Stacy Westfall: [00:38:13] My final question for you is what if the new relaxation you’re experiencing is a question from your horse? And the question is, can I be relaxed? And you say yes. And–and then maybe you stretch that comfort zone just a little bit, or maybe you go with it that day. But you keep coming back to relaxed. When the horses learn that relaxed is a piece of the base training that’s when you can stretch them up and then you can bring them back to that relaxed base. To me, this is the magic of horse training, and when you do this, it’s going to look different for each and every horse. If you’re 12-year-old is just now experiencing this level of relaxation on a new level, you might want to spend a little bit more time where you say, yes, relax is the thing. And then every once in a while, you push that comfort zone and you ask for a little bit more. And it might come with a little bit of tension, but that tension doesn’t have to be a problem. You can take that and go up, especially if it’s a positive tension, which can actually appear as a different level of a question in the body as the horse is going up. And so there can be this relaxed but positive tension as they go up, like, is this right? And then you can relax back into the more base-neutral relaxation that you’re experiencing. That is ultimately the way that I recommend horse training be done. You build the base and then that way, stretching the comfort zone is one thing, but you need to be able to return to this base. Again, this is actually why I’m taking so much time training Presto is because when he gets pushed up a little bit more, I will always want to make sure he can return back down to that base and he doesn’t return quite as quickly. Or I should say, in the past he didn’t return quite as quickly. He’s actually getting very skilled and this will be what unlocks the next level of training with him, is not what happens when I’m asking him for more. It’s how quickly we can return back down to this base of relaxed. Because I think when the horse’s underlying thing is, can I go back down to relax? And you have consistently over the years said, yes. That’s how you can bring that energy up and you can have that tension in the body that comes from the exercise or the–the expression of being big with their body as they’re doing some of these bigger movements, as you’re riding them. And then you can let them back down into relaxation again. Pure relaxation. Even couch levels of relaxation. Thanks for your question. Thank you to all of you for listening. And I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.
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