I recently listened to a podcast with Catherine Price who has written a book called “The power of fun – how to feel alive again.”
Catherine talks about fun as a feeling (rather than an activity) that is combination of playfulness, connection, and flow. Playfulness is light-hearted spirit and not caring too much about the outcome. Connection is having another living creature present. Flow is getting so wrapped up in what you are doing that you lose track of time.
She explains to us what true fun is – moments when you feel joyfully alive, as opposed to fake fun that is something addictive and hard to resist but ends up leaving us dissatisfied. True fun is gratifying and stays with us long after the experience. It boosts our resilience and enables us to weather future challenges. In this way, true fun must have a positive effect on our nervous system and there is science emerging to back up those claims according to Catherine. We are seeing more written about the importance of play for emotional health and problem solving among other benefits.
You can listen to a podcast with Catherine discussing the nuances of fun on iheart radio here:
I must admit that much of the time that I spend training horses falls more into the satisfactory category where I am working towards a goal. I would not class it as true fun, but something more in the middle, where I’m trying to build or achieve an outcome. This is where most of our life is spent – in the middle zone – doing things because they are necessary and part of a future plan.
On the days when I want to abandon any structure, forget about outcomes and just play, I spend the time doing liberty with the horses. Sometimes they lead, sometimes I lead. Liberty play gives me a sense of being joyfully alive and in the moment without any requirement of success. The horse can leave anytime, which removes your element of control. It is an activity where we can ‘let go’ of all the expectations that have been placed on us by trainers and others who judge what we are doing.
I have a student that now lives far from me and I had the opportunity to catch up with her and her lovely horse. It has been months since I have seen them. Previously her horse was unable to focus or move with relaxation because he was constantly anxious. We had worked sometimes inhand to ease the anxiety of the horse. My student has now taken this a step further and added frequent liberty sessions with him. I was astounded at the difference when I saw them recently. Her horse now moves around freely, totally relaxed, without bolting at the slightest noise or shadow. He follows her happily around the arena without treats. This demonstrates the power of liberty. The horse is able to feel a sense of safety and empowerment. It is life-changing for that horse. His ability to tolerate the environment and what is being asked of him has changed for the better. He is now in a learning state and has the capability to self-regulate. My student was also having a fun experience with him, letting go of her anxiety about his anxiety. It was truly inspiring!
As Catherine Price reminds us, our lives are what we pay attention to. What do you want to pay attention to?
How about fun?
Joyfully alive connections, losing ourselves in the flow and playing with light-heartedness. That’s where we can create positive emotional well-being for building resilience.
The capital letters in the title were on purpose – meant for shouting. The action (or non-action) of resistance is a strong objection in body and energy.
The thing that I find quite often is that humans who object to horse resistance are most resistant themselves. Resistance is avoidance action or non-action. On the human side, I will get to later. But let’s look at the less complicated version – horse resistance. I have a pony who is an expert at this. Bless him. He taught me the art of forming a willing partnership.
What kind of resistance did Toby the pony do? Well, where should I start! If I look back from the beginning, he was called ‘nappy’, as he could not be steered easily with the reins or maintain a gait per rider request, avoided all forms of travelling by small enclosed vehicles, could not be tied up, putting a bridle on was a game of wrestling, and generally took an opposite approach to partnering with humans. He was quite comical in his devious behaviour. Now, I know some out there will be ‘tut-tutting’ to have called a horse devious, but I have to wonder if they ever really came across a truly smart horse – one that operates on the premise of ‘why should I?’ rather than the typical reinforced conditioning that follows the more ‘scientific’ approach to training horses.
The dictionary defines ‘devious’ as: showing a skilful use of underhand tactics to achieve goals. If you still disagree that the word cannot apply to horses after reading this, then well – we just disagree. Toby was truly an expert at knowing the right moment to ditch a rider. He didn’t go overboard bucking and expending his energy, he calculated a swift side or stop move at precisely the moment when the rider was unbalanced. It worked like a charm. He even ditched a friend of mine who had been a track rider. So cunningly executed, she didn’t see it coming.
He also stood on quite a few toes…of children. Too many to be just a random accident. High pressure never won over Toby. He had me lunging him for 2 hours in a (misguided) effort to make the outside of the horse float a worse place than the inside of the float. The answer was still “no”. As was going into water – “no”, getting wormed – “hell no!”.
And then there was leading. How many times he outwitted me! I’d have carefully managed his resistance all the way from the paddock up to the barn when I lost concentration for 3 seconds opening a gate and he would time his escape with such stunning judgement that I would be too impressed to be annoyed.
So, you are probably thinking that he was just an untrained pony – and that is mostly true. However, now that he is trained, he still does not follow the same conditioned behaviour as other horses would with the same input. He repeatedly tests the boundaries, looking to find a way to suit himself. Good on him really. I mean who wants to be a slave?
In this process of teaching a devious pony how to be more accepting of human input, I discovered more about myself and how much of the time we have unrealistic expectations of what others should be doing for us. Does Toby have a right to demand what happens with his own body? Apparently so. Just as many resistors in these pandemic times are demanding the same. Not that I am one of them. I am less resistant in that regard, having deemed the risks as low. However, it is not a criminal act to want to have sovereign rights over our medical experiences. It made me think, about this and the approach needed to arrive at peaceful negotiations with Toby the pony. Empowerment is very important to our bodies. If we are not empowered then the body reacts. It will first power up with stress but then eventually shuts down – via our reptilian brain parts. This is innate biological programming and not something that we can just override.
People who are resisting feel disempowered, unsafe or insecure to some degree. Resistance always rises up from oppression. Many will shut down and become passive from being overpowered. But those few uncompromising and belligerent, devious ones will make you pay for it. It’s time to recognise that horses also operate that way. Let’s see where that can take us with truly functioning partnerships.
Lead-line, In-hand, or liberty non-ridden class (walk/trot), Preparatory level (walk/trot) and Preliminary level (walk/trot with canter between obstacles), Novice level (walk/trot, and the start of canter for executing obstacles).
All you need to enter is:
A camera with tripod or friend to film you
A dressage size area with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
Scientists are constantly uncovering new information about the body – a superbly complex system of interacting mechanisms. We tend to think of ourselves as a ‘brain’ attached to dumb organs, but this is vastly untrue. Our organs have their own ‘brain’ and what is contained within our bodies functions more like a society of negotiating interactions.
I have studied this, not just in relation to learning about horses, but also myself – in fact, firstly to learn about myself. We often hear people talk about anthropomorphising our horses, but what I see is that humans tend to project their emotions onto others, horses and humans alike. I attribute the reason for this to the notion that emotions have a bad connotation in human society – we tuck them away so as not to appear vulnerable. I have heard very well-known horse trainers say things like they have ‘no emotion’ in their description of how the horse doesn’t respond negatively to their energy. However, my interpretation is that they are using the word emotion to represent anxiety. Emotion can be calm.
Two very important concepts to know about the way that our analysing human brain works, are splitting and projection. The first is the tendency for us to group things into black and white, good or bad. It helps us to regulate strong emotions by magnetising ourselves toward things that we deem good, and blocking out things that we deem bad. Our perception though is quite biased to numerous factors (likeness to ourselves, experience, motivations, our understanding and empathy levels etc.) A high level of anxiety causes more splitting as we use it to control the emotional flood. It is a soothing technique that is generally quite effective but not particularly helpful in the long run. Black and white thinking is a barrier to learning and gaining knowledge.
The second part is projection. Projection is when we feel emotions that are uncomfortable and try to pass them along to someone else, avoiding the responsibility for processing them ourselves. It’s a natural reaction that animals do. Have you ever seen an angry/fearful dog bite someone that is not the perpetrator of their fear? Or have you noticed a horse who is bitten by another horse goes immediately to a horse lower in the pecking order and takes aggressive action against them? This is projection. Releasing the tension caused by an emotion outwards. If you say that your horse is _________(tired/angry/sad/sticky/stubborn…etc.), we might want to check first if that’s really our own emotion that we are projecting. Of course, horses have emotions and it’s acceptable to recognise them. The harder part, it seems, is to recognise our own emotions and take responsibility for processing them.
So, where am I going with all this? It leads back to the concept that our stress and resulting uncomfortable emotions can lead to a prolonged feeling of insecurity and lack of safety. We are after all, no more adept at controlling the ‘brains’ of our organs than any other animal. The brain that we control is our unique pre-frontal cortex and the source of our cognition and language. This is where we produce logic, that funnily enough doesn’t have to be logical to give us reasons for doing things a certain way.
The ‘brains’ of our organs interacting produce emotions through the nervous system. One of the newer discoveries is that the energy-producing structures that reside in all of our cells, called mitochondria, have a strong relationship to anxiety. The differences in mitochondria after prolonged stress could be why our bodies hold on to trauma. You can read more about mitochondria and the linkages to stress in this article.
If we acknowledge that stress causes us to soothe by ‘splitting’ things into good and bad and/or ‘projecting’ our discomfort outwards then we can manage ourselves better in these situations to harness the protective capacity of co-regulation with others through the nervous system. We can also find ways to boost our energy-producing mitochondria so that we become more resistant to stress, and ultimately enhance our ability to resist the long-term effects of stress that can evolve into disease and a faster aging process.
Some ways to boost mitochondria are through exercise particularly strength training, taking antioxidants and nutrients to limit the sources of oxidative stress (see this article for a list of nutrients vital for producing energy, otherwise known as ATP), heat therapy, cold therapy, massage, acupuncture, and particular substances that can protect mitochondria from damage and help their efficiency – one of them under investigation is curcumin (found in turmeric). Also reducing exposure to toxins is recommended since mitochondria are particularly sensitive to toxic substances such as air pollution, heavy metals, alcohol, and some prescription drugs such as NSAIDS (includes ibuprofen for humans and bute for horses), statins, aspirin, acetaminophen, and antibiotics.
Without energy there is no life, so the function of the mitochondria is life itself. Our ability to acknowledge our energy forces through emotions is vital to our well-being and health. This is important in stress resiliency where our capacity to regulate comes through our energy-producing mitochondria present in all cells.
I’m a ground work fanatic for quite a few reasons. Firstly, I can see a whole lot more of what is going on with the horse from the ground. Secondly, I take away any unbalance to the horse as a rider. Thirdly, it’s winter and well, it’s just more efficient to work on the ground sometimes. It’s a hard slog to ride through winter when you don’t have an arena onsite, so I’ve toned down our training to just hand walking down the road and some relaxation and bodywork sessions in the past few months.
My horse Lily will be coming back into work soon as the weather improves (and with it my enjoyment of riding!). We can start again on a fresh footing which is always a good place to begin. The first part of riding is getting her body ready again to perform well. I take it slowly after time off – I’ve been there and done that with my own exercise regimes, so I know well that building back up slowly to your former glory is important to avoid aches and pains and a resisting attitude.
Following on from the previous post showing part 1 of the slow movement walk exercises, this video below with Lily shows part 2 of that process. In the first video the horse was practicing balance in small steps with frequent stops. When this is going well then we can start doing a few more steps at a time, keeping the steps small and asking the horse not push, but to lift themselves up at the front to create light steps.
We can also add in slow steps backwards, starting with one or two and then as you see the horse able to step backwards with diagonal pairs of legs, asking for more steps without getting out of sync in the diagonals. Ask lightly and try to avoid the horse raising their head as they step backwards. They still need to lift up at the front when going backwards so that the back and hind can engage and the whole movement becomes connected. When the horse can step backwards with diagonal pairs at the same time then this is indicating a good front and hind connection and engagement.
When these simple exercises are well established then it is time to move into some lateral work, such as shoulder fore or shoulder in, and the haunches in movements from classical training that will strengthen further the engagement, flexibility, and start building up to more collection and self-carriage.
A few posts ago, I wrote about posture giving us wings. The main idea there is that your body posture affects your nervous system, either in a powerful way or in a stress inducing way. Exercise and agility are really what bodies were designed to do, for all creatures. You don’t have to look far to find a study that will confirm how much a part this plays in the repair of our bodies and stress recovery for physical and mental health.
Working on our posture gives our bodies the strength and habitual patterns of creating powerful poses which improves our nervous system regulation. As an aside, I could have said ‘muscle memory’ as that is a term that people use quite often – however after studying the science of exercise, I realised that it is a misnomer. Muscles don’t remember what they need to do, only how big they need to be based on what was previously experienced. Instructions for muscle movement come from the brain. Repeated patterns end up becoming automatically executed as the nerve fibre gets wrapped in myelin (a sort of insulation enabling quicker execution). The muscles will remember how much energy that they need to release and increase in size with each experience of overuse. This overuse of muscles actually causes micro-tears, and then they are repaired with more muscle mass and mitochondria that enable a greater energy release. This explains why we are in pain after doing an unusual exercise, and also a good reason for starting out slow!
Having said that, the type of exercises that I will be going through in this post will be very gentle. No ice required afterwards. There are large muscles that create high power movement and then small muscles that perform stabilising functions. Those smaller muscles are the ones that we target for posture, bringing the spine into alignment, leveling the sides of the body, as well as flexing and contracting muscles around the joints to cover a range of positions.
The reason that we need to help our horses with their posture is that they are notoriously on the forehand for long stretches of the day while they eat. Our domesticated horses are confined by fences or in some cases small stalls and thus at more risk of a forehand stance. Even if they have a paddock, they lack the movement that horses in the wild do to counterbalance their bodies. Wild horses travel huge distances which requires them to use their posture to save energy while they do so. Watching herds of free roaming horses, you will see them trotting along effortlessly in an equilibrium of balance, each with limbs connected and engaged to work together for optimum efficiency. Whereas domestic horses have less need to optimise their energy since food sources are ever present and they do not have to work too hard to get food. There are ways that we can feed horses to mimick some of the conditions in the wild. Sharon May-Davis is an equine researcher and scientist who advocates using high hay nets and different angles of feeding positions to allow horses to reach and browse as they would naturally about 20% of their feeding time. Read an article about how to implement variable feeding positions from an attendee of one of her seminars.
For more active training in posture, I have found that implementing very small basic movements that are practiced frequently will have a profound effect. It is in essence following on the teachings of classical dressage. However, classical dressage instructors tend to begin at a level over and beyond what many horses need or can cope with at first, and with a learning curve that is steep for a person who is just starting out with their horse.
To understand balance and posture, we can think about the planes of balance, i.e., which ways the horse can basically fall over. The vertical (upright) plane indicates the side to side balance (which is left – right weighting). The horizontal (length) plane is front to back balance (which is forehand – hind weighting).
How does the horse need to stand in order to be in horizontal and vertical balance? Being four legged with a long neck, the horse has quite an advantage to lean on one side more than the other and compensate by levering the neck to the other direction. They also use the neck to lever the movement when placing more weight in the forehand. The neck is therefore quite a key component of altering balance. When the horse can keep the neck straight at the base between the pectoral muscles then they are having to weight their left and right sides evenly. When the horse has a low stance bringing more weight towards the front, then the neck can oscillate up and and down to lift the front legs off the ground when they are moving, as well the horse uses momentum (with quick and heavy footfalls) to keep from falling over forward.
So, the most basic thing we can do, is to gently work with the neck to align it in a balanced position. Since we want to place the neck evenly between the pectoral muscles, the two front legs should be standing square. Nothing should be forced in doing this. It is often big deal to the horse to feel the neck in alignment and they may resist at first, so take it very slowly and only move the neck as you are allowed by the horse. If you feel tightness and blocking then just wait at that position until the horse releases the tension. When it feels softer then go a little further. Tiny, tiny movements are very effective and over time with frequent repetition will give the horse an ability to align themselves more easily.
I also watch for the body language of the horse while doing these exercises. There are face signals that tell me that the horse is still processing the proprioceptive information from this new body awareness. They become very still, but parts of their face may flicker, such as the muzzle twitching or the jaw muscles and facial nerves, or a blink of the eyes. The eyes will look vacant and soft with a crease in the brow – the mind is internally focused. When they return to being alert, or rub their nose on their leg, lick and chew, stretch their necks around (as if they are looking at something behind), or move their body, or swish their tail, or eye roll and yawn, then they have usually finished. After that “releasing” has finished then I approach again, watching to see if I am allowed to come near. If not, then more waiting until they are ready. After practicing this over time, the horse will figure out how to align themselves and they won’t need too much human help, often preferring to manage the process more themselves.
In the video above with Toby, I am demonstrating the neck alignment as well as doing some very slow steps forward and straight (with neck positioned evenly between the base) where he needs to figure out how to keep his body in horizontal balance. Since he must move slowly, he cannot use momentum to counter falling forward, and with his neck straight, he cannot fall out to the left or right side to avoid the weight shift into the hind. I stand in front of him to stop him taking large pushing steps, but another way is to stand at the shoulder facing forward and use the whip as a ‘go-slow’ cue in front.
This exercise will build the ability to lift up at the base of the neck, raise the withers and engage the body to shorten up, round the back and engage the hind to step underneath to hold his balance horizontally. He needs to place his feet so that they are able to balance his front and back weight evenly enabling the step upwards (like a ballerina) and a gentle landing. I am not micro-managing where he holds his neck, other than it is straight. Allowing him to stretch his neck forward in a curved arc shape helps to lift up in the thoracic sling and back, producing the engagement of the hind.
Effectively, this is teaching the posture of self-carriage.
To be sensitive simply means being able to sense things. Sensitivity means aliveness; being in harmony with life. To be numb is to be dead.
Quote by unknown author
I could stop right there. I think my message is summed up well in that quote. But let’s deconstruct this idea of desensitisation which is often still promoted in training methodologies. It’s not just limited to horse training either, the human world devalues sensitivity and emotional congruence. Hence, understandably it is also very misunderstood in the world of horse training. Strength is associated with words like resilience but that which is unemotional, rather than as a way to regulate emotional awareness. When the body’s emotional reactions to both external and internal stimulus are ignored, it becomes dissociated from our minds. This is what we achieve by desensitisation.
Dissociation is not resilience, it is a coping mechanism that over time becomes dysfunctional as it forms into a habit, accompanied by a sympathetic nervous system reaction that readies the body for fight or flight. You can start to see how that can be destructive. Energy created in the body with nowhere to go is problematic. The body needs to complete the fight or flight activity or it ends up having excess adrenal and cardiovascular activity. Shallow breathing, heart palpitations, restless limbs, headaches, dizziness, sight issues, brain fog, and other symptoms can appear. This is also where pain sensitivities can arise, due to blocking areas of sensory awareness and instead turning it into a pain receptor. Immunity and digestion are other areas are also compromised in this process.
But horses are big and dangerous, right? We can’t let them react to their sensory awareness…we say to ourselves.
Well, yes and no.
Yes, because they are big, strong animals that can easily overpower us.
But no, because shutting down their sensory awareness causes immense internal stress for them, and in most cases it is unhelpful to teach a horse to be helpless. What if it needs to judge a jump, or get out of the way of an object heading towards it, or react when it slips?
So, what can we do instead?
The key to understanding this was identified in a study that was done in the 1950’s by Harry Harlow. In a nutshell, the study found that baby monkeys had an attachment to the comfort of a soft covered inanimate “mother” over and above a wire “mother” giving only nourishment. The comfort was also a factor in their willingness to explore and be curious with novel objects. The monkeys that had a comfort figure were braver with investigating new things, and at the point of being overwhelmed, they returned back to the comfort of the “mother”. After feeling safe again, they ventured away to investigate once more. It is an oscillation of being reassured and at a safe distance from the stimulus, to being able to face the new and scary object. When they return to the “mother” their nervous system is reset, switching between sympathetic pathways inciting curiosity and bravery teamed with a countering parasympathetic pathway of security and safety. This prevents them from being overwhelmed and dissociating. In contrast the monkeys that did not have the comfort figure were unable to investigate the novel object. They remained huddled in a corner showing high anxiety and coping mechanisms of thumb sucking and rocking themselves.
We can learn quite a bit from Harlow’s studies about the importance of emotional security, and partnering this knowledge with how our nervous system is wired for connection and co-regulation (polyvagal theory), we can deem to find more appropriate training methods. Allowing the horse time to investigate and then move away at their own preference, exposing them to small chunks and then allowing the horse to reset themselves with a feeling of security. Bringing a horse friend to help them co-regulate, and also providing ourselves as a model of safety and relaxation rather than coming across as a threat.
So, with that in mind, I accept when my horse feels unsafe and I respect that they need to have an emotional reaction to it. My one rule is that they don’t run me over or strike out at me in the process, but they are allowed to sense the environment and have the time that they need to process it. I realise that by trying to intervene, I can make their reaction worse. By trying to make them feel differently about something, I come across as a threat because I am going against their instinct. They are better to figure it out themselves without me being part of their “issue” with whatever they are getting reactive about. In the end they will be more trusting of my input if it is in line with their own reactions. It becomes the opposite to a vicious circle. The horse is able to trust you as a source of comfort making them more secure in their environment, and feels empowered to react which improves their resilience making them less likely to react.
It comes down to whether you want the curious and brave monkey or the one that retreats into helplessness. In my view, it is more of a challenge for the human to delegate some control back to the horse. Complete dominance is often a far easier prospect for us humans to demonstrate our superiority and prowess. But these techniques of oppressive control do not help our horses cope in the best way for their welfare, emotional regulation, and longevity.
I am scheduled to do a demonstration at Equifest this year on the nervous system. I will be doing a short session of 45 minutes on both Saturday and Sunday of the weekend that it will take place (which could be postponed at this stage by the latest COVID outbreak).
An introduction to the nervous system is in the podcast below, which will lead into the demonstrations of techniques and methods that I will be using at Equifest and in my clinics. Please get in touch if you would like to book a group or individual session with your horse(s). I am available for teaching during the weekends in the upcoming period from October 2021.
Having seen that Red Bull has been sued over their slogan ‘Red Bull gives you wings’, I should be careful with the use of this saying!
Just to clarify that for the record. While who knows if anyone actually thought that Red Bull will grow the partaker a pair of wings after drinking it, the advertising was found to be misleading due to the caffeine content being less than a cup of coffee….anyway, back to my post.
This post is about why teaching horses good posture, and even ourselves for that matter, will lead to better nervous system functioning and more resilience (giving us the imaginary wings).
There is increasing evidence in human studies that posture alters the nervous system state. A pose can be high power, such as lifted and filled out, or low power, such as cowering. Lower power poses activate the sympathetic nervous system and cause stress. Higher power poses result in lower stress and more calmness via the parasympathetic activation. Given that horses share a very similar nervous system framework and that other physiological findings for humans have also applied to horses, it is likely that the powerful postures will cause similar effects. I am working from observations in the horse, not just in my experiences, but also a variety of accounts that verify the same resiliency gained from building up powerful postures. However, this is something that research may confirm for more mammalian species other than humans in the near future.
Animals fighting or fleeing have an impressive posture. They appear larger and fluffed up for displaying power. This is likely to be helping them recover from traumatic circumstances more easily which makes them more resilient to being under stress.
When used often, a pose in either a low power or high power posture, can develop into a pattern, like an anxious dog that reacts with cowering when under stress. It will be repeated automatically as a response. This is why it is useful to become aware of postures and consciously act to change low power poses since the studies reveal that high power poses are better for our resiliency.
To relate how posture enables optimal functioning and thus a parasympathetic activation – which is where our bodies want to be most of the time; able to be comfortable, digest food, rest and recover. When we are aligned, supported efficiently by our muscles and joints, and have the space in our bodies to breathe and maintain optimal functions then we are in homeostasis. In this state, we do not need to overcome obstructions and resistance to keep ourselves functioning. When stressful circumstances arise, if we are able to conform our bodies to meet the challenge then we will be less affected by stress, and thus more resilient.
Teaching the horse good posture involves connecting their long bodies into one fluidly moving part. It is like the chain on a bicycle connecting parts together – a front to back to front again connection. The horse needs to engage their thoracic sling in order to engage the hind legs, otherwise they are merely falling forward and catching themselves. This is the start of balance, to lift and place the foot like a ballerina rather than lean over and stomp it down. Both achieve the same goal in moving forward but one is powerful and the other is not. It is the difference between being ready and agile vs. reactive and stumbling. The horse that is ready and agile will be empowered by their body control and have a greater willingness to attempt challenges (a resiliency to stress).
Balance is improved by working in different areas of the body separately as well as asking for slower movement. If you think about riding a bicycle or even walking, it is harder to balance at a slower pace. Balance is disrupted by leaning on something (the riders hands) or using counter forces to assist (taking corners like a motorcycle). A simple exercise is in walk, to slow down coming to a very smooth stop by decreasing the size of the steps, staying upright and straight. The horse must keep an even balance between front and back to be able to stay upright (not move the neck or drop the shoulders as the horse slows). They also must stay evenly balanced between left and right in order to stay straight. Adding to this, a few steps backwards in a straight line, will also encourage the front to work together with the hind using the same techniques as the forward balanced movement. It should not be rushed and the neck does not counterbalance by lifting up or overbending (rather staying still and quiet), with the hips rotating in engaged flexion to carry the weight coming back, and the diagonal pairs of legs coordinating.
Slowing the horses pushing movement down will teach them to balance. Unbalanced horses will thrust themselves forward to counteract gravity which is commonly a sign of stress and anxiety. A balanced horse is more in control of their weight and has the ability to use all of their limbs equally. This gives the horse a stronger posture and a better capability to carry a rider. In the wild a horse does not need equal balance since they are not carrying a load. They use their necks to counteract gravity very efficiently. An important reason to teach balance to a domesticated horse is so that they are able to cope with being ridden. But it is also a way to develop a relationship with a horse through groundwork. Balance will enhance proprioception and coordination, enabling their body to function well at rest and play.
You should be able to see the parts of the horse working together. In backwards steps, the diagonal pair of legs will coordinate when they are evenly balanced. The neck will not be used to counter balance. Slower steps can be maintained. At first it may be a difficult task even for these simple exercises, so this should be built up gradually. Like doing sets at the gym. Many sets with breaks in between for the body to adjust and process the changes is much more productive than too much at once and too little rest between. Horses, with their large bodies have a lot more to process than humans. Extra time is needed for their nervous system to adjust to changes. By watching them carefully and reading their body language, they will tell you when they are ready to proceed.
Sometimes it does take longer than we think it should. Be patient and there will be profound changes over time. Developing resiliency leads to a higher capacity for learning in the long run.