Episode 277: Two ways you may be disconnecting from your horse

In this podcast, Stacy explains two unintentional releases riders often overlook and the challenges they cause for the horse. These are also things that can happen in your everyday life.
Topics include:
• freezing, shrinking, and withdrawing
• rider’s lack of awareness of the horse’s experience
• how to solve for freezing
• the challenge of lowering energy, hoping to calm horse
• avoiding ‘offending’ the horse
• redirecting energy
• scared horses being un-guided
• determined horses and ‘open doors’
Noticing how these things happen in ‘real life’ is an amazing opportunity to understand yourself better, which will improve your time with your horse.

Show Notes:

But the difference is, is if you begin to withdraw as that horse escalates, oftentimes you cause a disconnect.

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.

Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall and I’m here to help you understand, enjoy and successfully train your own horses. In this podcast, I want to talk about two types of releases that riders sometimes give without even considering that it’s a release. While you’re listening, try to envision situations in your own life where you felt like this and the actions that you took when you felt like this, because you’re going to hear that I’m talking about a feeling, but also actions or inactions. Also, notice how these things can happen in your everyday life, not just your horse life. And I’m going to share a recent experience that I had with one of these. So the two accidental types of releases that riders sometimes give are number one freezing and number two shrinking. Now freezing is kind of like that moment when you feel like a deer in headlights. So if you’ve ever seen a movie or been driving and had a deer in front of the car staring straight at the car, they often look frozen, still not moving even though moving would be in their best interest. So this is what I’m defining as frozen. Moments like this come up with your horse. Sometimes they’re more predictable than you might imagine, and other times you’re going to learn after the fact that you need a plan in case this happens again. But if you’ve ever been in a moment where you’ve felt frozen and without an answer, notice for just a minute.

If you freeze that movie in your mind. Now look at your horse. Even though you’re standing there frozen. Can you see how as you’re standing there, frozen, the horse is left unsupported, undirected, not guided? So freezing is one type of accidental release. Now freezing is best solved with a plan of action. And then once you have a plan of action, you also need to practice it like you would practice a fire drill or any new skill. You need to practice it when you don’t need it, so that when you do need it, you’ll snap into action almost without thought. This is what I have that keeps me safe when I’m starting colts under saddle for the first rides, because I have practiced thousands of quick mounts and quick dismounts. Because I have practiced thousands of bending to a stop dismounting smoothly, my body begins this sequence before I even have time to think. And when you have done this, it actually feels like a superpower. In reality, what it is is unconscious competence. Many of you have felt something like this when you’re driving a car and something happens and it feels like your body begins to respond to the situation before you have time to process what’s happening. That is possible with your horse also. I talk about this more back in episode five of the podcast, and I think that levels of competency is something well worth going back and reviewing, because it helps explain why certain areas of learning feel the way they do.

But the main point I want you to remember about freezing is that if you pause that little video in your mind, look at your horse. You’re having one experience, which is your frozen in moment experience. Your horse is likely having a completely different experience that doesn’t really involve you because you’re frozen. The second way that riders sometimes give a release without considering it, a release is by shrinking. Now, shrinking can happen for different reasons, but it feels physically the same in your body. So shrinking is that feeling of withdrawing or lowering your energy. And a couple of reasons that I see riders do this are number one, I see riders try to lower their energy, hoping that by lowering your energy, it will lower your horse’s energy. So, for example, if the horse is escalating and has gone from a five to a six to a seven or an eight, sometimes I’ll see a rider who is going from a three to a two to a one to a zero. And the reason this matters is because on one hand, there’s an essence of lowering your energy. That’s true if you happen to be escalating your energy or using too much energy physically or even stirred up in your body.

But the difference is, is if you begin to withdraw as that horse escalates, oftentimes you cause a disconnect. Now, this could go back to number one. If your horse escalates from a five to a six to a seven or an eight, emotionally, they’re probably also showing physical symptoms. And if you don’t know how to handle those physical symptoms when they’re at a five, going to a six, going to a seven, if you don’t have the skills to step in and redirect that horse, then it may get to a point where it’s a seven, it’s an eight, it’s a nine, and you may be disconnecting to get distance and keep yourself safe. However, what I’d like you to focus on for this one moment is just your horse’s experience of when they begin to escalate, you begin to shrink or disappear. Maybe you going down to a one or a zero. Isn’t that helpful for the horse? This second reason that I see people shrink is when they are attempting to not offend the horse. And this is very closely related to what I was just talking about. Because oftentimes if the horse is escalating five, six, seven. Sometimes the way that the rider perceives trying to handle a horse that’s out of seven feels like it requires a lot of the rider, and that requires a lot of the rider can look like a lot of different things, but it typically means directing the energy of a horse that’s escalating.

This is also, by the way, why it’s beneficial if you can step in when they’re still at a five or a six, versus trying to help redirect them and gather them when they are a seven, eight, 9 or 10. But what goes on for a lot of riders is that if they are concerned about possibly offending the horse, this will set a lot of riders into I don’t want to offend, so I’m going to withdraw a little bit and shrink. I want you to look at the horse’s experience. If you have a horse that’s scared and is escalating there at a five, a six, a seven, they’re headed up the scale because they are scared, reacting and wanting to leave town when the rider reduces themselves. When the rider withdraws. The horse often perceives this as being left alone, abandoned, and the horse that’s scared is desiring safety. And this is where they often begin looking for another horse or another location that they perceive as being safe. Can you see how, from the horse’s point of view, if the rider shrinks and shrinks and shrinks, it could give the horse the impression they are being left alone, unguided. Now, again, this is not a prescription for you to escalate.

And I think where a lot of people get confused is that showing up in a strong energy is definitely different than showing up in an angry energy. So just keep that in mind when you’re looking for how you could show up at a four, a five or a six in your energy in a way that could be strong and powerful and create safety and security for the horse. Now, what’s also interesting is that when horses start to escalate, there’s a another group that is more strong willed, maybe not as scared, maybe it comes across as more like they’ve got a plan of where they want to go, and it doesn’t look like it’s coming from fear. And that is very true, because oftentimes when you have a horse with a strong leadership type of a drive, what happens is when they begin to grow in energy and they have a plan of what they would like to do and where they would like to go again. If the rider begins to shrink or withdraw in an attempt to lower the energy, that horse that already has a determined plan will often perceive that as an open door. Like here you go, make your own choice. And this type of horse, even though they’re not acting from fear, still perceives that shrinking energy as a lack of guidance. So at the beginning I said, these sound like feelings, but they’re also visible through your action or inaction.

And I also mentioned that if you pay attention, these are things that can happen in every day life. And I actually experienced a fair amount of shrinking energy in myself in the last week. I’m hoping that by sharing this non-horse example, you’ll gain more clarity of what shrinking energy is, but also how you can look for it in other areas of your life. This week we had a pretty good sized building project happening here on our property. So there’s a contractor or actually a couple partners that are contractors that are coming in and out. There’s the work crew. For me, there’s a lot of unknown. There’s rental equipment, there’s gravel being delivered. There’s just a lot of stuff happening on the property. And even though there’s a contract and we’ve talked, there’s still a level of unknown. And what I noticed this week in particular was how often when I went out to the work site, I would notice a desire to shrink. I could feel it physically show up in my body with a resistance to walk up to where the work was being done. I could feel it in my body of wanting to roll my shoulders forward and almost go into that slight, like shrinking. Like you’re going to go into almost a fetal position, kind of a feeling happening.

I could feel a slight version of that wanting to happen in my body, and I thought that was so interesting to be experiencing on my own property. In a building project I signed up for, so it made me really curious. I kept going right to the edge of where this experience would start to happen, and pausing to try to figure out what was going on. And I realized that while construction was happening, there were times I wanted to ask questions, but I didn’t want to sound stupid, and it didn’t show up in my brain as you’re going to sound stupid, but there was a resistance to walking up and asking what it came across to me, as was, I don’t know the right terms, which is just a fancier way of saying that I don’t want to sound a particular way, like, I don’t want to sound like I don’t know the proper terms. And it wasn’t so much that I cared about, like proper terms, but I literally couldn’t figure out how to describe something that I could picture so clearly in my head. So there was this underlying vibe of a concern or not really fear, but it’s similar to fear, this concern of how am I going to get my point across? And how am I going to be perceived? As a woman who’s asking a lot of questions and making a lot of decisions, and as I would engage with going up, asking the questions, I could feel this resistance happening in my body.

And it was fascinating because I could then feel it make me tongue tied, which made it even harder to ask the questions. And I stretched myself by pointing and walking and gesturing and doing different things. And it was really uncomfortable. At times. I could feel the desire to shrink, to step back, to just let it happen, to just trust that it would all come out right. But that was competing with my other desire, which was to be my own advocate, to ask for clarification before the window is installed, to ask for clarification, before the concrete is poured and cannot be changed. And here’s the really interesting part. It took me being okay with the fact that they might perceive me in a way that I obviously want to avoid. I’m not even totally clear what that is, because really, they could have tons of thoughts about me that were not flattering. I don’t even need to know what they are. All I need to know is I had a sense that I kind of didn’t want them having negative thoughts. So then I had to actually decide to be okay with the fact that that could happen. And what gets even more interesting is that I knew on one level that it actually works out better in the end for both of us.

If I’m proactive, because if the window goes in in the wrong location, either, i’m unhappy afterwards, and I just live with the window in the wrong location, or the window’s in the wrong location, and I asked them afterwards to make changes. So my discomfort in the moment of walking up and pointing and asking questions is actually helpful to both of us in that moment. This is so true. When you do this, work with your horse, when you start realizing that if you are in a moment where you feel yourself shrinking, pause and actually try to find what’s causing that shrinking. Sometimes you’ll be like me and you’ll feel it in your body and you’ll actually feel that contraction, or you’ll feel that resistance to even going to a certain situation. And you don’t have to go do it to find it. Remember I said I was walking to the edge of where I could feel that start to happen to me, and then I was just pausing there and trying to figure out what was happening. Again, many times if you’re in a freezing situation, you’re going to notice that if you keep putting yourself into freezing situations, you’re going to start to shrink. Freezing, to me, is a little bit different, because truly, being frozen is that moment when you actually no longer know.

So shrinking energy was more like, I wanted to avoid a certain situation because of the perceptions and because of the uncomfortableness of not knowing how to communicate clearly. But you can probably hear that shrinking and freezing can get kind of close to each other, depending on what situations you’re in. Be compassionate with yourself when you recognize something like this happening. I could have talked to myself very mean. I could have told myself that I was just being stupid for having these thoughts. But that’s not how I want to show up for me. And if I force myself through something like that, it’s going to become a habit in other areas. One thing that makes these two situations so challenging, freezing and shrinking, is that they tend to be situations that are such strong reactions in our bodies that sometimes it’s hard for us to remember to pause and look at the other person, or in this case, the horses experience of us in that moment. And remember, just like my discomfort in the moment of actually asking about the windows and asking about the concrete actually helps both of us. Your willingness to identify these moments and find solutions to them is actually going to be beneficial to you, and especially to your horse, in the future. That’s what I have for you this week. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit Stacy Westfall.com for articles, videos and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

1 Comment

  1. Andrea Mears on March 6, 2024 at 12:10 pm

    This was wonderful! I just want to extend a heartfelt thank you to you for providing this podcast. It must sometimes feel like shouting into the void – but please know that there are hordes of horsemen and women out here who are hungry for this knowledge and look forward to Wednesday mornings each week for the next new episode.

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