Soaking it up

The importance of soak-time

When we ask a horse to do something we have to bear in mind at least three factors:

  1. we are asking him in English with human body language - he is a horse and speaks horse

  2. he has to check first that it is safe - in terms of the natural world, we are a predator and he is prey

  3. he may not particularly want to do it but he probably will, given time to process, as horses are naturally obliging and generous to us

If you ask your horse to do something and then ask again quickly, and then again, perhaps in a cross way because he hasn't responded quickly enough to your first two requests you are a) not letting the horse think about what you have just asked as you're interrupting his thought process too quickly and b) by getting cross (even if you call it firm) you are making him worried which is confusing and likely to slow him down more as he's then got to double-double-check that there's nothing to be scared of!

So, the answer to this is to give the horse 'soak' time.

We humans live in a fast-paced world and expect things done as soon (if not before) as we ask for them. This is not a natural way of being, even for us, so slowing ourselves down to meet the pace of our horses does us a favour too. And this doesn’t mean that your horse is ‘slow’ – think of it this way: much of the time he is expected to learn our language and our body language without us learning his. So, rather like us learning a new language there have to be a few moments of translation when either of us communicate with each other, but added to this is the fact that we are communicating with a different species entirely, not just a person who speaks a different language: when you think about it the horse does incredibly well - because he has an open heart and is willing to communicate.

Being a flight animal the horse has to consider many factors before he feels safe enough to respond - for example, when he hesitates on the ramp before proceeding into the lorry. This is a high-stress moment when soak-time is really important - he is going into a confined space that he probably knows is likely to move, there is tension and expectation around him and probably time-pressure too depending on the reason for travel. Also, people tend to panic when horses don't load. Their heart-rate goes up, they nag and nag and try to virtually push half a ton of horse into the horsebox. In these situations, when people are in front of other people, particularly horse-people, they tend to feel under pressure - we've all felt it, the feeling of embarrassment and perceived incompetence when handling a 'disobedient' horse. The panic to get them into the horsebox before people start offering their advice. All of this makes it even more difficult for the horse to focus on what he needs to do to oblige us whilst at the same time ensuring that he is safe.

So, whatever situation we are in we owe it to our horses to disengage from the people around us and totally engage with the horse, to use our judgement and timing to work with the horse helping him to feel secure and giving him time to think for himself and see (and smell and use his nose and hooves to touch if need be) that it is safe and understand that we wouldn't ask him to do something that wasn't safe. Allow him to look away if he wants to, he may need to to process, and when you feel he is ready, if he hasn't already done so, encourage him to proceed - whether it's loading, leading, getting used to a piece of tack or some medical treatment. The great thing is that if you always do this it will build trust between you and your horse - he will trust you to give him time and make good decisions for him and you will trust him to believe in you and cooperate. Your ability to judge when your horse has had enough soak time and your timing will be fine-tuned in no time! If you allow your mind to be totally in the moment and open your horse will be able to read you better (they read our minds all the time) and communication will be more fluent. There should never be a need to rush with horses - it just doesn't work.

Give yourself some soak time too. Allowing yourself to detach from the fast-paced human world around you and soak into the natural world of animals, trees, the sun and the moon is very healing and so easy (and free!). Allow nature to be natural therapy and switch your smartphone off (or at least put it on silent if you can't bear to switch if off!) and be totally aware of your environment and how you and your body interact with it, re-engaging with what our minds, bodies and spirits instinctively need.

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