I have been doing some thinking on the concept of the traditionally taught "signs of relaxation" in a horse. I have found the concept of when you see the following signs: licking and chewing, yawning, blinking, head low, etc... that it means you horse is relaxed to be misleading for my students. It would be more accurate to say they are indications that the horse is moving towards relaxation. But after careful thought and observation - I believe it is most accurate to say they are signs that a horse is releasing tension. Tension in horses and humans is a tricky business. The mind and body are linked in ways that we still don't fully understand.
As I have begun my journey into learning and practicing equine bodywork these last few weeks, I am starting to get a much fuller appreciation of how a horse's mental state is reflected in posture, muscle tone and quality as well as behavior. Any time we add more knowledge into our programs we change the way we view our horses. My lens has changed drastically in two weeks. I'm much more sensitive to when my horses are telling me: "I can't" instead of interpreting it as "I won't" and I'm also much more aware of how riding for relaxation in the horse actually translates to postural changes and release of tension in addition to the behavioral changes that come with a solid training program.
I have been on a journey over the last two years of trying to figure out how to bring the horse mentally, emotionally and physically along for the process in a way that didn't shut him down emotionally but instead created relaxation and mental engagement for the horse resulting in a much more solid connection between horse and rider. I think back on how I used to train horses and how tight and sore their bodies were. Now I question if I had ever been truly achieving relaxation even though many times the "signs" were there. Could I really have been creating relaxed horses if their bodies weren't reflecting that mental state? I would say I was creating obedient horses but not relaxed ones. Now I have both.
When we think of licking and chewing, yawning, sighing, blinking etc... as releases of tension and we give the horse ample time to fully release that tension and find their way to softness and relaxation we are actually settling their nervous system. We can ask ourselves if it was environmental tension that was released ie. the horse recently got spooked and is coming off the cortisol and adrenaline dump. Or was it tension stored in the body from a past traumatic incident. Our bodies never forget stress and our horse's bodies are no different. It is not my goal to never expose to my horse to stressful situations or for my horse to never experience stress. But it is my goal for the horse to learn how to manage that stress and process it without having to store it in their bodies, unprocessed and undressed. Goodness that's my goal for me too!
The nervous system is the mind-body connection. The mental state is always reflected in the physical. You can't have one without the other. I want my horses to enjoy their jobs and feel good about the time I spend training them. I want to bring them to their full performance potential - whatever that may be for the individual horse and I want them to feel better being in my training program than they would standing in the pasture: mentally, emotionally and physically.