The Power of Neutral, Your Belly Button and On Line Transitions

Whenever Sarah plays On Line with horses, I hear her talk about her belly button. I watched her play with a colt that was here to be started two weeks ago and it was a very natural sight. She was getting the colt to be more confident walking beside her in a driving game manner so that he would understand where he should keep the human.

I loved watching this because up to now I have either seen people say go with their carrot stick and not-so-fast with their carrot stick or rope, or I have seen them walk in a small circle if the horse overtook them.

Sarah was telling the horse where to be with her belly button. Her belly button was travelling in the direction where she wanted to go and the horse had to figure out that it wasn’t a good idea to pass the bellybutton nor fall too far behind it. She did this by allowing him to walk past it if he wanted to and then disengaging his hindquarters, but not in the usual manner where you bend down with your upper body and look at the hindquarters. Instead she just went “You can go past my belly button, but then I’ll bite you on the bum :P.” and did this by tagging the spot where her belly button was facing – the spot that the horse passed. It was just a soft tag, the energy and phase depending on the horse and its responsiveness. She stays completely neutral until the horse has passed her belly button and then comes the tag. Then she would send the horse off in the other direction so that they would be walking beside each other again.

I had a go at this with Dazzle today because we are lacking a bit of connection, especially On Line. He is either reactive or not responsive, but there is no in between – due to the lack of mental connection to me.

Teaching him this game today fixed all the respect and connection issues at once. Love it when that happens!

It took him a while to figure out the game and he decided to have quite a few funny LBI tantrums before starting to think about it. When he did especially well, I gave him a quick rest in a corner of the arena before moving off again. He figured it out at the walk and I put a price on the corners by upping the game to the trot. After he figured that it wasn’t such a good idea to pass my belly button at the trot either, he was very respectful of my space all of the sudden. There was no more pushing into my space with his shoulder, no more tantrums and he was starting to stretch down every now and then.

Then it dawned on me! He now understands that the game is to stay just behind my belly button, not too far, but also not cross it. He was at a trot and I changed from a circle to a straight line and he side passed away from me his nose never crossing my belly button and that was the moment I asked myself the question if one could use the belly button to ask for transitions. Indeed one can! Ha! So this is what Pat means by playing the game of “Don’t make me pick up the stick.”!

When I wanted an upward transition I would turn my belly button further away from him, give him a little more rope and if that wasn’t enough then came the hand and then the stick in phases. When I wanted a downward transition, I slowed a little in my body and moved my belly button away from him slower. Moving my belly button in to him to block him would be unfair because it would give him no time to process.

I would move my belly button to just in front of his nose, imagining a line going straight from my belly button out to the arena fence and with every stride I just pushed lightly in front of his nose with that line – as if to tickle the hairs on his muzzle and down a gait he went. Or two, depending on how close I moved my belly button line to his nose.

We didn’t quite get it that nice at the canter, nor did I try a back up. However, walk-trot-stop was no issue at all and all of the sudden I had a relaxed little white pony trotting along next to me rather happily with constant slack in the rope – very pleasant 🙂

Using the belly button for the transition causes the horse to be mentally aware of the physical space you occupy, which he is already thinking of anyways as he is looking where he is going. Doing the transitions with the energy in my body like I used to do, requires him to think of his physical space (where he is going) and the tension in my body – whether that level of energy should tell him to walk, trot, canter, etc. Doing a close range stick to me resulted in a horse bumping into me every now and then. The horse would then need to keep his eyes on the track it’s going to move along, as well as the human’s body. Now, because I was asking Dazzle to think of just physical space (his and mine), he was very respectful of it and very light to any suggestions I made on coming closer or going further away from me depending on the gait.

This was a MUCH nicer feel to ask for transitions with the belly button, rather than exaggerating different energy levels in my body. A much more refined version. What I loved most about this was:

    • I was saying yes, instead of no. Even if he would go to pass my belly button, I would say yes go ahead and then I’ll tag your bum. Whereas it would have been a no, had I wiggled the rope in Zone 1.
    • It had a very nice and polite feel to it.
    • He really had to think and figure out the game.
    • I had to do way less in my body to get transitions compared to the way I used to do them and towards the end of the session didn’t need a stick 96% of the time.
    • He got very connected to me, much more than during a stick to me without any awareness of my belly button.
    • I learned that I have a belly button and that I can use it! 😛 Awareness goes a long way!
    • I deepened my understanding of “Nothing means nothing and everything means something to a horse.”.

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