Simple steps to connect with your horse

STAYING FOCUSED: Mark Langley working with "Buddy" during the weekend clinic held at the lovely facilities at Sandon Grove, which overlooked Commissioners Waters east of Armidale. Photo: Ellen Dunger
STAYING FOCUSED: Mark Langley working with "Buddy" during the weekend clinic held at the lovely facilities at Sandon Grove, which overlooked Commissioners Waters east of Armidale. Photo: Ellen Dunger

Former Glen Innes local Mark Langley is making a name for himself globally teaching people to connect with their horses by changing their thoughts and focus. Now based at Mudgee, his time is spent hosting clinics and giving lessons here and in Europe.

He hosted a small clinic in Armidale last weekend and Country Leader journalist Stephanie van Eyk was one of the participants:

My mind has completely exploded! I'm talking grey matter dribbling out the ears forcing a complete reassessment about everything I thought I knew about horses.

I took part in a small horse clinic on the weekend, except I missed the first hour or so because I had a bit of trouble getting my horse on the float. This was a "bomb proof" horse I bought three months ago that "does everything" – yep sure if that means rear, shy and run around like a giraffe that can't see the ground and squealing at any other horse within a 20km radius, (and I'm pretty sure he thinks there's a scary wild animal in the float as well).

Don't worry this story has a happy ending! 

But first, come into the arena, meet horse trainer (he's also a people trainer) Mark Langley and leave everything at the gate. And I do mean everything, okay except your clothes and your horse.

Our first lesson, was simply to be present, be grounded and be there for your horse so he doesn't have to be on guard constantly. For me this was profound.

Mark from Equine Ability teaches people to connect with their horses through grounding (you) and guiding and changing your horse's thoughts and focus.

He is humble and isn't into flashy showmanship – you won't be standing on your horse cracking two stockwhips at the end of the weekend – but you just might come away with a better understanding of how to connect to your horse and your horse might be on track to being soft and responsive.

Mark leading Steph and Buddy around the arena. Photo: Ellen Dunger

Mark leading Steph and Buddy around the arena. Photo: Ellen Dunger

Everything was broken down into little steps to make things clear and simple for the horses and handlers.

All of us had to teach our horses how to follow the feel of the lead rope and how to move around us and we had to learn how to get into position to guide them, while still giving the horse the responsibility to find the right answer to what they were being asked.

The rope, and once you're under saddle the rein, Mark explains is a tool to create a change in your horse's thinking.

He told us not to always chase the horse away to get it moving (picture lunging using a whip or rope flapping), Mark wants the horse to understand the cues when he feels the leadrope asking for a change. Over-stimulating horses can make them "separate" mentally and physically, when we want our horses to stay connected.

It's kind of hard to get my head around as it's nearly the complete opposite to everything I've been shown or learned, but Mark's methods were gentle and within an hour or so the changes in my horse were insane: goodbye eye-rolling giraffe and hello calm relaxed quarter horse.

Buddy got so relaxed he had a roll in the sand. Photo: Ellen Dunger

Buddy got so relaxed he had a roll in the sand. Photo: Ellen Dunger

After lunch we had to get on our trusty steeds and to say I was a little nervous was a complete understatement. 

At our previous outing, "Buddy" and I were asked to leave a pony club event as the club executive deemed him to be a danger to ourselves and others. And yeah, he was pretty bad and I had no idea how to deal with him.

I wasn't exactly sweating bullets, but I was a long way from calm when we went back into the arena.

It turns out I didn't have to be so wound up, because after taking a minute to get grounded and check we had not forgotten our new leading skills during our lunch break, I was on and what we had learned on the ground meant that when I picked up a rein, Buddy was quite happy to follow it.

Now under saddle, Mark had his work cut out getting us riders to keep it simple (I won't add stupid!) and do one thing at a time while keeping a still seat and hands. Absolutely no rocking seat or "bumping" hands and no constant niggling with the legs.

He kept reminding us that reins mean a change in thought or focus and the feet will follow.

So, a squeeze of the leg (no kicking while using reins to turn) to get Buddy walking on a loose rein, and we were off. Then every time he was distracted Mark would get me to simply pick up one direct rein and ask for a change of direction (basically chucking a u-turn).

Buddy walking along quietly.

Buddy walking along quietly.

What was happening is that every time my horse lost his connection to me and lost his focus, I was doing something to re-engage him. The side effect was that he was balancing himself, opening the shoulders in the turns and softening.

And it was easy for my horse because he only had a few simple things to do – walk and stay walking and follow the feel of the rein. He didn't have someone on his back niggling and jiggling and generally being complex and confusing.

Mark used this as a basis for me with other techniques for each individual horse and throughout the session, he spent time with all nine of us at the clinic. I went home on Saturday night feeling like I'd had a religious experience. 

On Sunday, we started building on the basics we established the day before. 

By Sunday afternoon we were riding in a large paddock, surrounded on nearly all sides by groups of young horses during the start of a serious thunderstorm and still had calm horses. No-one got hit by lightning (happy end remember) as we all took cover once it was obvious the storm was serious.

Mark reinforces that guiding the horse’s focus is important, but so is managing their tension and adrenaline. For the non-horsey people, that means a horse running around snorting with its head in the air and rolling eyes isn’t good.

And, it’s a common problem that Mark deals with (thank goodness it wasn’t just me and mine).

“I try to address each horse and handler’s needs,” Mark said. 

“You see horses that are constantly on alert and they are not able to tune in and focus on the person or ideas due to the amount of tension and adrenaline. 

“Or at the other end of the spectrum they still feel just as bad and they are bothered but their coping mechanism is to shut down.

“Then there are horses that can’t focus because they might not be shut down but they drop out and lose focus.

“What we want is a calm, connected and alert horse that’s not too high and not too low – that’s what you want to work to.”