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April, 2007

 

Brain to Brain Riding: Teaching One Lone Canter Stride

 

By Casey Sugarman, Behaviorist

 

 

It's not about carrots and mints; it's about the conversation itself. Communication from the saddle is key in all our endeavors. Exercises in brain-to-brain riding teach riders how to convey complex ideas to horses. The change in the quality of the conversation is like going from smoke signals to high-speed cable and satellite. The humorous part though is that the most effective way I've found to teach riders to communicate clearly with their horses is to ask riders to deliver the 'impossible'.

 

An Impossible Task
For example, every average horse and rider combination has the potential to produce a halt-single canter stride-walk sequence in about an hour. If you don't believe it's possible, you are in the majority. "I may be able to get him to launch from a standstill, but to walk before the second stride? I can't do it..." One isolated canter stride is a behavior that is so powerful and quickly executed that it cannot be 'created' by the rider. The rider's job is strictly to help the horse create it himself. This movement can only be created using a brain-to-brain communication system.

A single canter stride can happen in a dressage saddle, in a western saddle, or from a horse standing next to you. For only one canter stride, where does the rider have to come from mentally? It's not about your energy or metaphysics; it's about answering your horse's questions. Horses are always asking questions, and you don't have to be a behaviorist to hear them. On the physical side, it's not about seat or structure, it's just about the time. Not time in the saddle, not hours in the circle, not weeks on the calendar. It's about the microseconds. It's about the neurons firing. It's about micro-intentions.

 

The Road Block
I start in-saddle communication sessions by giving the rider a safe but 'impossible' task, and at first, I ask the rider to attempt it with the tools they already possess. These people already know I'm an unorthodox teacher so instead of marching out of the arena they give it a try. After I observe the moments at which the rider is communicating to the horse, I ask them to give it another try, this time with me pulling their puppet strings, manipulating their reins with my voice. I point out the exact time that the canter stride begins, and that's when previously subdued riders always explode with a "NO WAY!!" all nearly falling out of the saddle with stunned surprise.

These riders don't have slow reflexes, they are not unfit, and they are not beginners. What they have in common is that they all have been pointing their "communication" arrows at the wrong bull's-eye. As an animal behaviorist, I have experienced teaching squid, lobsters, dangerous dogs, farm animals, marine mammals, reptiles, fish, and humans. All of these species have taught me that putting an idea from my brain into a student's brain, regardless of species, requires aiming at a completely different behavior target from the one most of us are used to. And like a crew of dedicated and well-educated archeologists digging in the wrong place, most riders are unlikely to unearth the relationship with their horse that they truly hope to find.

When in doubt, RAISE the bar...

 

The Solution
Besides requiring all whips and spurs to be dropped in the dirt, there are a few basic prerequisites to this riding lesson. Ten minutes of orientation to presence release, light rein tension, and reaffirming the purpose of the riders' elbows (to straighten) are all that's needed to prepare. Once you have a straightforward and quick way to approve of your horse (gives in the rein) those become your arrows; now you just have to pick your target. And the correct bull's-eye is not a what; it's a when.

 

Most riders shoot late. About four seconds late, to be exact. Riders are late communicators because they are deliberately waiting for a completed action or series of actions rather than responding directly to the intentions of the horse. Unfortunately, a horse's actions are not part of his thinking brain, and if you think about it, neither are yours. (You are always thinking a few seconds ahead of what you are actually doing. Your intentions are listening for feedback from the outside world, but your actions are already well in your past.) The bull's eye to aim for is the intention, or better yet, the micro-intention of your horse. Why are most of us four seconds late? Well, the question is, 'at what point do you approve of your horse?'

A good teacher, or idea-conveyor, comments on the first inklings of an idea, the micro intentions, in their student. So imagine asking your horse to canter. When your horse takes that deep breath to oxygenate her muscles, do you approve? When he curves his spine, do you approve? When she raises withers, do you approve? When his center of gravity shifts slightly to the rear, do you approve? All these things are evidence, not of action, but of the intention of your horse and the thoughts he's having. Now imagine that each micro rein release (each gift) makes an audible sound. If they made a sound, good communicating reins would 'sound' as frequent and irregular as a Geiger counter. If you say yes to those intentions, the canter stride that comes next is just a formality, just a completion of an idea s/he had two seconds ago.

 

This session provokes the rider into creating an actual, literal brain-to-brain conversation they didn't know was possible. But the most amazing thing about the right bull's eye is that once we know what to aim for, every one of us can hit the mark with startling accuracy every time. It seems that the ability to recognize the subtleties of intent is the main glue that allows different species to work together, and all people have the innate ability.

 

Finally, why does the horse just unplug and let it all go, dropping back to a walk after one single ''Skip to my Lou?" Again, it's all about the conversation. Inside every perfectly timed rein release is an implicit "thank you" that the horse's brain immediately recognizes. The horse understands that his task is complete nearly as soon as it begins, and that only effort, focus, and power are what you're after. In this session, the horse engaged in true conversation gives you only one canter stride because YOU never asked for a second one, and it's as simple as that. As an added benefit, every actively conversing, seeking, experimenting horse naturally displays a new elevation in self-carriage as an expression of inner confidence and pride; however, accessing the horse's body is not the point of this particular session.

 

Why Attempt the 'Impossible'?
So what is the point of teaching a horse to canter only one stride at a time? Actually, we aren't teaching the horse anything he didn't already know. This session is specifically targeted to teach the rider how to access the powerhouse in the horse's brain. The 'impossibility' of the task using conventional riding skills, followed by the simplicity of its accomplishment using these new conversation skills, insures that the lesson makes a powerful impression on the rider. Any rider who learns to access the single canter stride learns how to access the true power of the horse-- the nearly limitless potential of the horse's mind and will.

 

Below are some typical observations from riders:

 

· Erin exercises horses at a competitive eventing barn: "By using the reins as a telephone line he and I could have a conversation. I can't remember if the "absence of YES" was a slight tension in my body or not, I think it was. The timing was so much more important than what my body was doing."

 

· Kathy's spooky alpha mare has been the biggest challenge of the three horses she's owned: "This way creates an actual conversation, there's no other way to describe it. And if we can now talk about anything, the implications are enormous, and this is about a lot more than riding...it's about everything!"

 

· Candace, a USDF instructor, comments on her Lipizzaner schooling Grand Prix: "For years I tried to "fix" Sunny's slightly impure right canter with half halts, seat, leg, rebalancing etc. Despite hundreds of hours of very expensive and highly educated riding instructors, nothing really worked. Two short rides using the intention protocol and this horse is cantering in beautiful correct rhythm all by himself and can even shorten and elevate off the seat with only contact and no pressure in the rein."

 

Upon un-tacking the horse, most riders report, "there was me, there was him, and then there was this third entity I'd have to call 'the us' that I've never experienced so clearly in the saddle until now. "

 

Partnership Engineering's brain-to-brain sessions don't teach body-to-body work or how to sit in a saddle. They teach the rider how to invite the horse's will, brain, and intellect to have a seat at the table. "I don't teach people how to ride. I teach riders how to be people that their horses can fully understand."