Join Up: Helping Horses and Humans – Fact or Fiction?

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Monty Roberts demonstrating Join Up

Do me a favour

Next time you see a Facebook post or you hear someone saying ‘Join Up is just galloping a horse in a roundpen until it’s exhausted’. Or ‘Join Up is ‘simply negative reinforcement where you put pressure on until the horse submits and then you take pressure off and the horse follows you’ PLEASE could you direct them to this blog?

I know some won’t consider reading it because it doesn’t suit their agenda. But at least it means the curious who wish to know the facts have the opportunity. 

One of my favourite non-fiction writers, Marshall Goldsmith, wrote: ”If you listen to most conversations they tend to be about how clever the speaker is and how stupid everyone else is”. So we shouldn’t be surprised this proliferates on Facebook. I do hope I’m not guilty – but it’s very likely I am at times!

So far I’ve ignored these Join Up jabs. I’ve taken them to mean we’re doing a bit ‘too well’ and we’re seen as competition that needs to be put down.

It’s lazy of me I know but as my plan is not world domination, or to buy a horsebox the size of a house, for the most part I’ve shrugged and said “whatever’. Until this Monday morning I’ve gone ‘That’s it! The truth needs to be told! I shall defend Join Up in a non-defensive way as so many horses and human could benefit .”  It is my duty!

I remain hopeful that people will do their best to take this missive in.  Although remembering ‘You can’t recognise wisdom without already having it’ (quoting the ‘Inner Game of Tennis’ guy). It’s interesting how many of the most intuitative horse people watch a Join Up and go ‘ah well – of course’.

I’m going to talk about my own journey with Join Up.

Monty has written plenty and you’ll find that in his books and own website.  For me though, it started with sitting with my Dad on straw bales to see this ‘Californian Horse Psychologist’. This was 1993 -we did roll our eyes a bit at the description of the time. Racehorse trainer, Ian Balding (Clare’s Dad) had brought a few of us together. I was intrigued watching that first time, but I really didn’t grasp all that was going on.  My untrained brain took in that The Man directed the unbacked racehorse round a roundpen in one direction. Then the other. Then it followed him.  Unlike some who are quick to dismiss what they don’t understant, it did occur to me, I might be ‘missing something’.

Whereas my Dad, (who was always known as an eccentric racehorse trainer ie ‘Doug!  Ha ha!  He says horses have personalities!  Doug!  Ha ha! He says horses can know their own names! Doug! What a card! Says you shouldn’t hit horses!  He has to be joking!”)

Anyway, my Dad (Doug) said immediately after “I’m telling you that Monty Roberts is the world’s greatest horseman!” He added for good measure: “That’s what I’ve been telling you all along but you don’t listen to me!”  To be fair, Dad was the only other person I’d known before to talk about not looking a horse in the eye if you want him to come with you and some of the body language. I knew immediately I wanted to learn more.

I’m going to skip a huge part (of my life and learning) now to get to the relevant parts. 

About horses… 

The loveliest way to build a relationship with your horse is to have him live close and spend loads of quality time with him. Be the one who brings his food. Lead him out for walks. Groom him. Hang out with him in his field or stable. Do easy ground work building up to more challenging (but fun) exercises. Long reining in a field and on walks.  You’ve got the idea?

You want a horse that you can move from the ground, even for just basic herding and a stinging whip isn’t necessary once you have mastered body language (and a little more – see further down this article). 

If the time comes and you find a roundpen and decide to do a Join Up it’s all going to be very easy.  You can trot him round a few times in each direction and invite him in to be with you, in a very gentle way (I’m keeping this simple for the moment).  The key thing to me is the horse sees you/the human as the safety zone. Give him lots of praise when he chooses any steps to be with you.

On the courses we do most of the Join ups in trot. I like to see a few strides of canter with the saddle where I’d be putting a rider on because that first canter can be ticklish. This can produce a buck or little bronc and best it happens without the rider.  In the early rides you may not intend to canter with the rider but the horse could do a little spook and produce a canter so best to be prepared. You could even get the horse to do a little jump in long lines to see exactly what might be ‘in there’.

It’s such fun to have your horses at home …

Sound up!

Relationship first

As you’ll know not many people have the luxury of spending this quality time with their horses.  Sad but true. Many horses go from being not handled much to being sent to be ‘broken’.  I believe that it’s bad weaning and breaking experiences that are responsible for so many of the anxious, troubled horses we see today.

Many of the yards to start horses are only given them for a month and are expected to ‘get on with it’.  If they could be encouraged to spend the first few days building a relationship rather than whipping them round in circles in the 20 minutes they have available, life would be  easier all round.  And yes, with a skilled person, I’d recommend Join Up as part of the relationship building process.  I’m happy to say many of the biggest studs in the world have adopted this method.  Sadly, they have no need to come on Facebook to tell people how well it’s working for them!

What Learning Join Up does for Humans

My focus has changed a lot since the early days.  It used to be totally about horses, thinking in what ways it can help them.  How you might adapt it to benefit different horses. You only use it two or three times in ways to benefit the relationship.  Enough to get the horse to see you as the safety zone and for you to build that trust.  I emphasise to students on every course.  It’s not a Party Trick. “The point is not the ‘perfect’ Join Up, the point is the relationship with the horse”.

Nowadays the horses are still majorly important (you’ll be pleased to hear!) but the changes I’m seeing in people is what I feel is ‘My Work’. 

This is an extract from what I say on the courses: “Some of you don’t own your own horse or if you do you may find it difficult to get access to a roundpen.  However, what you learn through doing Join Up is going to be so helpful in so many ways with horses”.

Then I go on to ask about what are the skills one needs to communicate with a horse in the roundpen that are then going to be useful in all their work with horses.  Indeed in LIFE!

The answers include:

Observation or putting it in horseman’s terms ‘reading the horse’.  A huge subject.  Never again say “I didn’t see that coming!”

Your body language. I can watch people at a horse show inadvertently training their horse Not To Load and it’s clear they have no idea that the way they turn at a crucial moment is the reason the horse has walked off the side or lost confidence in them.

You need to be aware what your eye contact can communicate to the horse and the uses and effects of our peripheral vision

Our intention.  I don’t mean ‘oh she means well’.  It goes far beyond that. How you feel about yourself and project your energy is a massive part of the deal. The same horse will act completely differently depending on what amounts to an inner feeling.  Once you learn what you’re looking for-  it’s life changing!

Confidence. Let me tell you now I don’t want you to be confident if it means you’re going to put yourself in danger!  Let’s have competence and a safe, protected environment before confidence.  Once you can trust in yourself though, it’s easier to develop that inner belief that the horse needs to feel from you as well.

Timing.  You know when you hear people say “This horse is being naughty, difficult, ‘mare-ish’, so on and so forth?”  You’ve only got to get your timing a couple of seconds out at crucial moments and pretty soon you’ll find every horse turns out this way!

Mindfulness. Are you an overthinker, worrier or does anxiety plague you? Please get this under control for the sake of your horse. It doesn’t take extra sensory perception to feel these feelings coming off people in waves.  That crazy roommate in your head – telling you “you’re not good enough”, “EVERYBODY’S laughing at you”, “this will end in disaster”.  He has to go! Throw him out!  Do some mindwork with us to replace him with a calm, clear voice that says “You’ve got this”.

Breathing. There are so many good ways to use measured breathing to your advantage.  As always I have book recommendations, and there’s advice all over the internet.  An easy to absorb explanation is ‘by slowing your breathing (in through the nose) you can trick your brain into believing you are calm’. You need to remind yourself of this enough times so that it becomes automatic. It’s super-important as the horse will often mirror our breathing/tension. Try after a tense moment letting out a deep sigh and note the signs from the horse that he’s releasing his tension as well.

There’s more – thinking from the horse’s point of view, controlling your ego, how you produce your energy.

Perhaps the most important lesson is controlling your emotions or at least releasing them in a helpful way. This is helped by taking a look at the stories you tell yourself.  One of the reasons I think honesty is important is if you’re not careful you start lying to yourself as well. Even you start to convince yourself that ‘you didn’t have time’, when the truth is it was something you didn’t choose to prioritise.  I’m not judging – #just saying!

Each one of these subjects could be a book in themselves.  At Intelligent Horsemanship we get as much over as we can in a weekend or five day course under the umbrella of teaching Join Up and other horsemanship skills.

Do people then go out into the world as super human?  Hmmm we do have survey results you can look at on the website!  One thing is for sure, through the fun, new friendships and entering a like-minded horse loving community, time spent with horses will never be quite the same again.

What’s not to like?

xxx


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