I have been re-inspired recently with the concept of brace in horses. I am seeing in a fresh way that if we are willing to look, the layers of brace in even the simple things we do with horses hold practically infinite opportunity. I am taken by the fractal nature of it… astounded how the better one gets at dissolving brace, the better one gets at recognizing it in deeper layers and smaller junctures, and then hunting it out and dissolving that, and it becomes a lifelong passion of seeking out the weak place that is rough in transition and then the love of finding ways to work it smooth.
Like any work worth a life’s passion, it is endless.
It brings a strange mixture of humility and celebration; a brace covers a weakness and the more of these you find, in essence you are hunting weak points. When you see in greater depth the amount of weak points you hadn’t recognized before it is a humbling experience. Yet for those with passion for excellence, once we begin to hunt for these weak places, the celebration comes! There is great reward in seeing that it’s possible to do this work and though often slow and diversive, it always results in more balance and finesse and overall strength. As Buck Brananman once said about similar work:
If you got a taste of it, if you got a taste of what I’m talking about, you’d rather do that than eat. You couldn’t get enough of it. You’ll hunger for it the rest of your life..Buck Brannaman
Brace in a horse is a term for any place the horse doesn’t move smoothly through. There are a million opportunities for all shapes and sizes of being stuck in transition, it can look like a horse not melting smoothly from forward to backward, it can be as obvious as a horse rearing up or bucking in protest of something it is afraid of to as subtle as a horse that doesn’t blink when it’s being haltered or doesn’t breathe when being saddled, not standing still to have a rider mount, or standing still when asked to walk. Head tossing, rushing into gaits, race brain, spooky, hard to load… these all include places of brace to smooth out and clean up. If there is fear or confusion or resistance, that means brace in the mind, and also in the body.
Recognizing brace is a skill that can be developed over time and experience. If you think your horse doesn’t carry any brace then step one is to get better at recognizing it. Once the skill of identifying brace is developed the art of horsemanship comes in how to move through that brace in a way that dissolves it and creates softness instead.
In fact I am beginning to consider the possibility that all of excellent horsemanship is an art of helping horses release the brace they carry (mentally/physically/emotionally) from the first encounter until they breathe their last breath with us. Is it possible that everything we could want to partner with the horse to do can be achieved by seeing through the eyes of sticky transitions from one thing to another?
Mark Langley says many common issues people have with horses stem from the foundational truth that the horse doesn’t understand leading. When I first heard this I didn’t completely recognize the depth. It intrigued me enough to seek out more.
As I puzzled over the claim by Langley that most horses do not know how to lead, I saw what he meant. It became apparent that most people don’t recognize brace in the most elementary act of a horse understanding simple back and forward feel on a lead rope to a halter. As I watched him spend 45 minutes helping a horse get a sense of how to follow a feel, the layers of possibility peeled back in a new way for me.
Indeed the style of horsemanship through the Ray Hunt/Tom Dorrance lineage call attention in depth to the concept of feel (often paired with timing) as if it were the magic answer to most of our shortcomings in every horse relationship. Thankfully between Emily Kemp and Joe Wolter last year I had a fair amount of hands on help to delve more seriously into the mystery of this idea I first heard in depth at a Buck Branaman clinic a handful of years back.
In my own herd it became more clear that Wyoming had significant brace about the halter itself. Working through her trust and comfort of accepting the halter from me is significant for her. If I ignore the brace she carries just having the halter on her head, how likely is it the next steps in educating her will work well? No wonder riding her always went sideways at some point, I had never addressed her concerns (to her satisfaction**) about the halter and our misconnection regarding the feel of such between us. I don’t know that it’ll solve everything but it’s a good weak place to begin at.
** side note… a major gap comes when we as the human decide when something has been addressed to the horse’s satisfaction because that’s enough for us. I have heard so many times: the horse knows better… the horse knows this… the horse has done this before… and clearly an outside observer can see the horse disagrees. This is a common place for brace to develop. The human presses through because the human has decided it’s time to do so.
Khaleesi is highly opinionated but she generally trusts me- as I began to float her back and forth checking her ability to follow my lead, the brace I experienced wasn’t hard to dissolve and soon she was rolling with me in a dance and when I removed the halter she stayed with me deep in thought for a time. It was a new take on an old conversation I believe she appreciated.
Still as we leave on our mountain hikes her smooth as butter leading gets sticky as her mind toggles between these things: Wyoming calling from the pasture, the clover that grown in the yard grasses we walk along the river, the old herd we pass by heading out the the trails, and finally me and what I’m asking. That 1/4 mile takes the longest of the entire hike because of how stuck in other thoughts she gets and how much practice I get asking her with feel to come back to being present with me and our activity.
Being present together is an often neglected key in successful partnership. If we are distracted how can we expect our horse to be focused and present? Then once we are observant and engaged we must develop the skills and nuance to invite the horse to be present with us. If a horse is barn sour, race brain or spooky that horse’s thoughts are not present in what we are trying to do together. It’s quite stunning what we can pull off disconnected from each other- it’s more stunning what happens when we do stay present and connected.
The comment I heard in an interview of being “able to roll smoothly without brace forward and back like a ball is the start of riding in balance and leads to what people are looking for when they talk about collection” was like a light bulb in my mind.
Many riders riding around in a frame of some sort of collection have a horse braced into the frame that looks basically like what they are trying to achieve- however the deeper I seek, I think most haven’t experienced the difference because the real thing. Lifted carriage of the horse in relaxation without brace is not actually hard, but it’s impossible without connecting first to their mind, and having them in a relaxed and willing state which is quite a rare thing. It takes patience and trust.
For me many years of slow building and also trusting those who have helped me when I have a vision of this thing and I get sent walking in small circles feeling even footfalls and being asked if my horse’s ribcage is moving equally in each direction… of learning to ask for a slowing of the front end to match the drive of the hind in relaxation and feel I hadn’t exactly developed yet. Can we walk or trot, come to a soft halt and take steps backward without a sticky transition? Of the times spent asking my horse to go from standing to walking to see if she is able to move straight or if she fishtails off naturally to go forward… to learn to let go of rein control to find out what is really functioning there underneath…
As I look back I trusted whomever I went to for guidance- that each of the simple things I was doing that didn’t seem to have anything to do exactly with a canter lead change was entirely what was needed to build a horse that could understand and in strength and balance carry out athletic maneuvers in grace. When the time comes the hard things are actually incredibly easy if the foundation is strong and not braced together.
I have seen it from time to time, and there’s a quality to it like when you see the work of a true artist instead of a skilled painter. It is something you know without quite knowing how you know when you see it, but once I felt the difference in K it was quite obvious from the inside.
Hope is trickier because she spends more time shut down trying to hide the fact that in fact she is not comfortable or quite sure of herself. She spent a life being trained that once the halter goes on you do what you’re asked and if not you’ll be punished so your training is complete. On a well trained horse you can push the “button” that was installed and you get a “response” that you can count on. If the button stops working then you make it clear that punishment or correction will come and the horse gets better at compliance (as along as they aren’t a fighter). Then the process of shutting down their own thinking system which is not required when you are looking for obedience to training, and the challenge I picked up with her is how can you get a horse to see that they are actually being asked to think again, and act on their own thoughts while working with you. Hope was finally discarded when she could not comply any more. Whoever had her in the line of short term owners before me made sure she was indeed… broke.
Something I’ve noticed around me when I hear horse people chatting is the fairly common phrase I just want to…..
I just want a horse I can trail ride…
I just want a horse that does what I ask…
I just want a horse that doesn’t buck me off…
I just want a horse I can do basic dressage (or jumping classes, or…)
I just want a horse that is safe for my children and whoever comes to ride…
There are a plethora of fill in the blanks, but I began to notice this sense of both this should not be so hard to just have a horse that does this very simple thing I’m hoping for… But also a settling as if it’s a positive attribute to carry… I don’t want much, I only ask for this simple thing… a horse that can just do this one thing for me. And gradually in the background this thought rose up in me I never want to be someone who just wants anything with my horses…
No matter what I’m doing from putting on the halter to riding an endurance race I want a horse who is intelligent, willing, not shut-down, knows her thoughts and feelings matter to me even if they are inconvenient. I want my horse to flow with grace and not be rushed into something she doesn’t understand or doesn’t have the balance to do in strength. I do not want to resort to a tool to cover over a brace so I can just do that thing now. I want a horse who will have everything she needs (mentally, physically and emotionally) to partner with me at the highest level even if what we are doing is as simple as walking around the field in balance or opening a gate with ease.
I think many of the horse community doesn’t suffer from grandiose plans, but instead for accepting such low standards. Many of us have big goals and that can be a problem because we are confused about the difference between having high standards and big goals. So we can get busy rushing toward our big goals and end up accepting so little quality in the process that we just want a horse that will [fill in the blank here].
There is something in the upside-down truth of going down deeper to reach, in the fullness of time, the heights we crave deep in our souls that is fascinating to me. The lower we are willing to go in service to others the better our relationships thrive. The deeper we seek to find brace and cracks in our foundation the higher the skyscraper can reach in strength.
Thankfully horses are quite good at being led and understanding feel. As soon as we begin to lead well and learn quality feel they begin the process to follow that feel and though it can be slow and take patience, it is the most rewarding thing… a taste of it can sustain you for quite a lifetime.