Hocus Pocus: a new body organization on the longe and in-hand

Earlier this summer, I welcomed Hocus Pocus, a horse I had known many years ago, back into my life. He was on his way to becoming unsound so I immediately set out to change his unhealthy, habitual postures. (To learn more about this process, read my previous post, Shape-shifting Into Healthy Movement.)

His initial training, which spanned about three months, focused exclusively on teaching Hocus Pocus to carry himself in a new posture. The habitual way a horse organizes their body is a combination of their comformation, their emotional state and what they have been taught, intentionally or unintentionally, in their previous training. Maintained day after day, a horse’s habitual posture will incrementally change the horse over time, either strengthening and improving a horse’s longevity or causing long term imbalances that will result in tension, larger energy requirements in general, joint stress/damage and, often, a shorter lifespan. In Hocus Pocus’s case, his habitual posture was very unhealthy. He tended to move with his head up high, his brachiocephalic (underside) neck muscle braced, his back in tension and his pelvis disengaged out behind him. This posture reduced his range of motion, stressed his joints and made carrying himself, much less a rider, very difficult. I wanted Hocus to work toward his athletic potential, not away from it, so I set out to teach him a new coordination.  I needed to teach him that lowering and extending his neck and letting his back relax would allow his hind end to step up and under toward his rib cage, making movement easier and allowing him to become stronger through his work. In addition, because he would be in a more powerful balance, he could begin to feel safe emotionally, rather than disconnected and vulnerable.

Initially, I taught Hocus this new posture in ground work. Ground work is when a human teaches the horse from the ground, often just in a halter and a lead rope. Ground work simplifies the process for the horse and reduces stress by keeping the lesson straightforward. It is a good starting place, but once the horse has mastered the lesson, it’s time to move on. (To read about the ground work process in detail, read my earlier post, “Shape-shifting into healthy movement”) From ground work, you can choose to move to longeing, in-hand work (work between two reins that educates the horse about how to use their body in relation to itself and in relation to a caveson or bridle),  or ridden work. For Hocus, I chose the longe.
The longe provides a few different benefits:

1)  Longeing offered me an opportunity to re-build Hocus Pocus’s longeing behavior in the positive reinforcement paradigm, confirming that he understood each aspect of longeing and was truly relaxed and active in the process.

2) I could allow Hocus to move out freely at a comfortable speed for him without me having to keep up. This builds fitness.

3) I could see Hocus’s entire body unlike working directly next to him in groundwork. (This is also called “seeing the panoramic”. It’s important to see fine details; it’s equally important to zoom out and be aware of the whole horse.)

4) Hocus could practice moving in relaxation for longer periods of time. This builds lovely emotional control for riding.

To appreciate the difference the ground work immediately created in Hocus’s posture on the longe, below is a photo of Hocus Pocus  before he came to live here:
DAE Hocus old life, no posture 2
His neck is shortened, his hind end is out behind him rather than stepping toward his center of mass and his underline is the same length as his topline. He’s just slouching along; exercise in this posture will have no real benefit.

Below is a photo of Hocus Pocus on the longe after a few months of solid ground work:
Hocus Pocus trot 10-6
This is a clickable moment! Here he is moving with a relaxed back and lengthened topline, which, in turn, allows him to have softer joints and a more expansive range of motion. His inside hind leg is stepping quite deeply for him up and under his rib cage which is the first touchstone on the road to collection. The entire picture gives the impression of roundness and elasticity. This is an “access posture”, meaning it’s not a long-term working posture, but an initial coordination where I can begin to influence Hocus’s hind foot flight arcs and general pelvic orientation. This is the posture where real conversations about balance and strength can begin.

This is the organization he chooses for his body now because of the solid reinforcement history we built over the last few months. He was clicked and fed for choosing this organization hundreds and hundreds of times. It’s a “default posture”, meaning, unless influenced otherwise, he chooses to move in this general shape.

So what does he look like in real time? Let’s take a look at Hocus Pocus in action on the longe line:

Watching the video, it’s easy to see that sometimes he drops his head too low and this makes him heavy on his front end and shoulders. He also still lacks any real power or engagement behind, but none of these things are anything to worry about at this stage of his training. All that matters right now is that he has the gross motor pattern of an open, lengthened spine and a relaxed back which allows his hind end to step up and under toward his rib cage. As he repeats this coordination in session after session, he will begin to step under more and more deeply and coil his loins to lift his back. Then, it will be easy for him to raise his head and neck; it will happen organically.
It’s also easy to see that longeing is being used to reinforce a specific skill, not just to blow off steam or to allow my horse to move in an over-stimulated or unhealthy way. Hocus has a clearly defined behavior to offer on the longe. This helps keep him focused on his own body rather than worrying about the environment.

Since  I want to help Hocus Pocus become much stronger than he is currently, I also need to be able to work him in-hand. In-hand work, or work between two reins, differs from groundwork in that it connects to both sides of a horse’s body, so is more precise. Through in-hand work, I can teach Hocus to be straight, aligned, and healthy in his movement. In-hand work allows me to communicate more specifically to him about individual body parts through the reins. These connections through the reins are learned: as Bent Branderup says,” The response to the rein is a pedagogical process.” Many horses don’t receive a very detailed set of lessons regarding the reins, so they learn to shorten above or behind the reins which is natural, but not healthy. Teaching a horse to stretch down to a point of contact, which is described in countless books,  in practice it is often not taught or well understood. Because Hocus Pocus had previously learned to shorten his neck and drop his back in response to rein contact, I needed to teach a new response in-hand. I wanted him to be able to stretch his neck out to reach for contact in my hand, the same posture we had confirmed on the longe. This is often described as “trusting the trainer’s hands”, which I suppose is true, but it is also a measurable behavior that I can click and reinforce. Here’s a photo of a particularly nice moment of Hocus stretching down to my point of contact in the walk in-hand:
Hocus Pocus in-hand

Here’s a similarly lovely moment in the trot:
Hocus Pocus trot in-hand
This is a beautiful starting point for our ridden work that will come later. Riding begins on the ground. From this biomechanically healthy place between two reins, I can start to teach stretching down into transitions and correct, balanced halts. These will help Hocus Pocus become more agile AND more confident about accepting suggestions from a human regarding his body. When we do begin riding for short periods, he will already know how to slow down and stop by stepping up and under with his hind feet, rather than slamming his weight onto his shoulders. It will just be one more cue transfer from in-hand to under saddle. Below is a short video of Hocus Pocus working in-hand, learning to stretch down into a downward transition, rather than shortening into disengagement.
You can see that he is largely able to stretch forward into the contact offered. When I ask him to walk by gently squeezing alternate reins, he has a few strides where he reverts to his old habit posture and raises his head and drops his back. That’s good information. He doesn’t get into trouble for this behavior, he’s not “wrong”, his old learning is just showing through. So we keep walking and I make contact with my outside rein and he is able to pick up that contact and stretch forward into it. A beautiful recovery and a clickable moment. Over time, he will regularly choose the new, lengthened posture over the old, stilted posture because of the reinforcement history, practice (repetition) and physical comfort it provides.

Before I can even consider sitting on Hocus’s back, I need to confirm that he can carry just his own body with strength and coordination. Adding weight, even with a small person like myself, makes maintaining these healthy postures much more difficult. Learning to carry weight is a gradual schooling process. Years and years ago, when Hocus Pocus was only three, I was the first person to “back” him, or sit on him just to introduce him to the idea that humans sit on horses (not to begin riding training, too early!). I remember that he dropped his back immediately and I decided he needed months more of work before I sat on him again. He was too weak. Now, I have a chance to re-start him, but with far more tools at my disposal than I had before. He is still the beautiful learner that he was, and now he is a mature horse coming eleven. With consistent work through this winter, he should be strong enough and educated enough to begin light riding in mid-spring.

Hocus Pocus: shape-shifting into healthy movement

This spring I was lucky enough to purchase a horse who I loved many years ago but thought I would never own. Hocus Pocus is a tall, black and white, Saddlebred/Friesian cross who was mine to train from the ages of two to three. Even as a Hocus Pocustwo-year-old, he was the sort of horse who was thoughtful and kind. He was such a good learner, and so easy to train, that I called him my “yes” horse. I wanted very badly to buy him for myself but he had been purchased to prepare for sale, and I knew I could never afford him. This year, seven years from the last time I saw him, his owner now with both a young child and a business to run, decided she just couldn’t offer him the time she felt he deserved. When she contacted me to say he was for sale, I arranged to go see him with a check and a trailer. I wanted to welcome him here at Idle Moon Farm to join the rest of my family.

The horse I saw when I went to pick up Hocus was obedient but rather checked-out. Instead of looking like a mature ten-year-old in his prime, he looked more like an aged horse. His back was dropped and his topline was completely wasted away. I hesitated when I saw him, but was set on bringing him home. We would address whatever physical issues were going on; I had decided there were no deal breakers when it came to him, though I wondered if my “yes” horse was still in there.  Here’s a picture of his back the first week I brought him home:
Eastwick Day One- 5-29-15You can see that the top of the individual vertebrae are visible, as well as the top of his sacro-iliac joint and a very prominent point of hip. He was going to need some serious conditioning to put muscle back in the right places and make sure he became stronger instead of stiffening into this muscular imbalance. People often believe, as I used to, that turning a horse out to pasture for six months or a year helps them to loosen up and  heal. But the truth is horses turned out to pasture tend to reinforce the same muscular patterns they had going into the time off. Six months or a year out to pasture often yields a horse who has the same crookedness or weakness, sometimes more pronounced, in addition to them then being out of shape. I wanted to start changing the muscles Hocus Pocus used in movement, preferably with a good head start before winter. I wanted him to have some mass to take him through the cold and over the slippery spots.

The first order of business was to get Hocus moving throughout the day, so he could do lots of walking and start to build up some muscle through easy, low-impact exercise. Once he was worked onto grass, we let him out onto our track system so he could walk and graze alongside the other horses. Having his head down kept him released over his back and allowed his tight, weak muscles to move through their range of motion and build up some strength. Having a paddock set up that allowed him to move as continuously as possible all day long provided much more movement than one human trying to exercise him ever could.

The second order of business was to teach Hocus Pocus a new way to carry himself posturally. He tends to be nervous in the arena, his head flies up, his back inverts and he braces his big brachiocephalic muscle on the underside of his neck. This tension limits his range of motion, stresses his joints and continues to atrophy the back muscles he needs for healthy Spellbound Hocus head downlocomotion. To begin to change his habits, I taught him to lower his head in the halt from the ground. The head-down behavior serves a dual purpose: it allows Hocus to self-calm by giving him a measurable behavior to concentrate on in the arena and it is the new gross motor pattern I want him to generalize and offer. There are other bells and whistles to add on, but the main pieces are there: lengthen your neck and release over your back. Before adding bend or asking for any other nuances in the way he moves, I want him to know one thing for sure: a lengthened topline is the right answer. When in doubt, start there. Click. Treat.

At first we spent most of our time in the arena in the halt in the head-down behavior. Every time I asked him to walk off his head would fly up and he would take short tense steps. After three or four steps, I would click him just for staying with me regardless of the quality of the movement and we would go back into our deep meditation within the head-down behavior. I would ask him to do three to five repetitions of the behavior, clicking and treating each one, until he felt calm and centered and ready to walk off again. Hocus Pocus had been caught in a vicious cycle. He was naturally a bit “startle-y”, which caused him to tense and tighten. The tightening and tensing up made his body uncomfortable, which caused him to spook and startle even more. Left to his own natural inclinations with no support or new learned response, he was only going to reinforce his old, habitual patterns of fear and unhealthy movement. Head-down offered him room to begin to change shape emotionally and physically. In this deceptively simple behavior there was space for a new horse to emerge. Since the behavior was taught and maintained with clicker training, there was the added relaxation of food and fun woven into the training sessions. Lightbulbs went off. Soon, Hocus Pocus was able to start lowering his head in the walk from a gentle slide on the lead. Soon after that, he was able to offer more and more steps in walk with a lowered head and his back Hocus Pocus- ST, week one, FD 2muscles working in relaxation. Soon after that, he began to breathe normally again in the arena space and he stopped spooking at noises and counter-bending to swivel his head around to look in every corner for danger. Very soon, I had a true partner who was motivated, relaxed and an absolute pro at stretching over his topline and keeping step with me. The entire process took roughly four weeks.
Some people fear repetition, but to really build a reinforcement history on a behavior, to make it a place where you and your horse can check-in, discuss how tight or relaxed they are, to use it as an anchor in a storm, takes repetition. Thoughtful repetition is necessary for robust learning and really cementing new neural pathways. Improved Hocus in arenaPractice makes permanent. The reinforcement history we have built around head-down has made it an absolute favorite of Hocus Pocus and he even offers it when walking at liberty from his side paddock back to where he sleeps at night. It’s not just a motor pattern, it’s a request to be paid some grain, a way to self-soothe, physical therapy and a easy conversation we have with tiny nuances being added all the time. Head-down is familiar now. It’s valuable to Hocus. It’s useful to me. It feels good to both of us. It has changed the shape, nuance and energy of all of our work together. And most importantly, it’s already begun to change the shape of his back. Here’s a comparison photo from our first week together, (left) and almost four months later, (right.) Hocus Back Comparison Photo

Hocus and I have only just begun this new leg of our journey together. It’s so rare to get anything back that you have lost; he is the first second-chance I have  had in my life. I want to honor him by keeping him healthy, helping him to be strong and teaching him how to relax and truly love his work.

Riding the labyrinth

English: The labyrinth at the island of Blå Ju...

I started trotting Dragon under saddle last week after all our balance work in the walk. I did it just as a “data gathering” exercise to see where he was both emotionally and physically in the work. While he remained round and engaged with me, I was disappointed that he still fell in on his inside shoulder and took giant Standardbred type strides that covered the arena in about six strides. He needed more guidance than I thought he would. The softer, slower trot I have in-hand was not yet available to me under saddle. On my end, I didn’t offer him a lot of help with his balance and my rein mechanics were far from perfect and mostly absent. I was just waiting for his other, more desirable trot to appear. If he could blog about me he would probably write about how surprised he was by my lack of support and information.

But the real issue is, deep down, I wanted Dragon balanced in his trot  so we could progress forward in a facile and linear fashion. I became so frozen in my disappointment about having “something to work on” that I was unable to ride him well for the rest our session. Oops.

Triple spiral labyrinth

Labyrinths, used by humanity for the last 4000 years, are a form of walking meditation. They often describe spirals and as you walk the labyrinth you find yourself revisiting your old footsteps and describing soft, curved lines. It’s not a maze to be solved but geometry designed to help you let go of your mind’s chatter and be present. There is one way in and one way out. There is no real goal, except the process itself. It’s soul work. Labyrinths have rocks to mark your path or are carved into stone so you don’t have to think too hard about where you are going. You are free to let go of your thoughts while you meditate on following the path set out for you. Feeling each foot as it touches the earth. Breathing as you move. It’s a place to inhabit your body and allow yourself to be fully present. Body prayer.

Arena work is  based on geometry too, circles, diagonal lines and different tracks but these are conceptual rather than physical. When we school our horses it can happen that we lose our geometry as we think about balance or we forget our balance as we think about our geometry. We can forget to be present with our horse when we get stuck in judging our performance or theirs. It’s a lot to think about, especially when we are teaching something new or learning something new. We all learn better without multiple points of focus. So how to make it easier?

I am building a labyrinth for Dragon and I – not a permanent structure but a visible, physical labryinth made of colored plastic cones and mats placed at different intervals. It will describe circles and straight lines in different configurations and offer us the opportunity to reflect on tempo, shoulder balance and the “balance beam” beneath us. A physical reminder for our trotting meditation. I’ll teach the labyrinth in-hand a few times first so it feels familiar and offers both of us information. And then we will ride it.

I am continually surprised by the parallels between mindfulness and good, transformative animal work. It’s not even metaphor, it’s direct correlation. It’s not a pretend labyrinth I will be building, but real structure, designed to provide deep meditation on physical balance. Designed to remind me to be present in every step of our work because the process IS the goal. Each new exercise Dragon and I encounter can have it’s own labyrinth built for it: one for canter, one for shoulder-in, one for haunches-in, piaffe and passage. Labyrinths for collected trot work and transitions. They’re not something you have to use permanently, but they help you to focus on balance through geography until the balance work is effortless. Eventually, of course it’s all just competencies in your body – knowing your geometry, riding every stride of your horse and helping him balance, moving between both awarenesses easily and changing the labyrinth in your mind to suit the geography that will best fine-tune your horses balance. Dragon and I are far from that kind of competency though, so for now, I’ll be building labyrinths.

Horses regularly trained with ground work are more relaxed when ridden

Natalie and HarrisonA recent study of dressage horses in Germany that looked at rein length and tension revealed a surprising finding: horses who were regularly trained in ground work/in-hand  work had lower heart rates during ridden work than all of the other participating horses. This wasn’t what the researchers were investigating, but it was clear in the results. From this, the researchers concluded that, “Perhaps horses trained in ground work had more trust in their rider.”

So why would it be true that horses who regularly learn via ground work/in-hand work are more relaxed? There are a few possibilities.

1) Horses trained regularly with ground work are more relaxed because their trainers are more relaxed. It’s possible that humans who take the time to teach their horses from the ground are less goal oriented and more concerned with the process. They may be more relaxed in general and foster this same relaxation in their horses. As you are, so is your horse.

2) Horses trained regularly with ground work have trainers who are more educated about a horse’s balance.Dragon in-hand Their horses learn to move in correct balance which allows them to be healthy and sound in their bodies and, therefore, more relaxed. Physical balance is emotional balance.

3) Horses trained regularly with ground work understand the trainer’s criteria better. They have mastered the response to an aid before the rider mounts and know the “right answer” already once under saddle. They don’t experience any conflict when the rider asks for a behavior  because the neural pathway has already been installed. They are more relaxed about being ridden because it rarely has caused confusion for them.

Natalie and Aesop in the snowWhen I got my first horse  I had the idea that ground work was important but I had no idea why or what it was I should specifically be doing. I muddled my way through some of John Lyon’s Ground Control Manual but I didn’t really understand how to use it to benefit me or my horse. I’ve learned so much since then!  Now I know there are so many things you can teach your horse from the ground. You can teach him motor patterns like walk, trot, canter and whoa. You can teach him the verbal cues for those motor patterns. You can teach him the physical aid you will be using from the saddle to elicit those motor patterns while you are on the ground. You can teach him how to move in balance so he is better prepared to carry you. You can teach him how to give at the jaw. You can teach him how to bend correctly. You can and should teach the beginning of lateral work from the ground. And finally,  you can teach him more advanced work like shoulder-in, haunches-in, haunches out, school-halt, piaffe and levade.

For us highly visual humans I think that ground work is often a better way to begin exercises because we are much better at seeing our horse doing the right thing than feeling it from the saddle. Often, my feel in the saddle is enhanced by the fact that I have watched my horse perform an exercise over and over in our in-hand work. It feels how it looks. In-hand work is also a good way to teach our horses because our own bodies are often more in balance when we are walking beside our horses. With the ground under our feet we are able to be more relaxed if something goes wrong and less likely to be so busy wrapped up in our own balance that we give our horses conflicting or confusing aids. It’s a good place to figure things out. I am a huge fan of in-hand work.

I’m glad to learn research revealed ground work is good for horses. Horses with a low heart rate are relaxed and relaxed horses perform better and live longer.  In this day and age of people starting horses under saddle in under an hour and increasing monetary rewards for  the “young horse dressage program“, everything seems to be done in a hurry. The entire horse culture seems to privilege “getting up there and riding your horse”. But as one of my favorite writers and accomplished horsewoman, Teresa Tsimmu Martino writes, “In today’s horse culture there are clinics that brag about starting a colt in a day, as if the quickness of it was the miracle. But old horse people know it takes years to create art. Horses as great masterpieces are not created in a day. An artist does not need to rush.” We need more scientific studies like this one to encourage us to slow down and take our time with our horses.

So why were the horses in the study more relaxed? Likely it was a combination of all three factors – a relaxed trainer, better overall balance and clear understanding of criteria. These are things that matter to your horse, and yes, will allow him to trust you when you ride. Take some time to slow down and work from the ground, learn a bit more about equine balance and teach new things in-hand before asking for them under saddle. You can take your riding to a whole new level and help  your horse become more healthy and relaxed in the process.



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Constellations and Dressage

centaur constellationSince I was sixteen years old I wanted to learn dressage. I dreamt of  seamless communication with my horse and “invisible aids” so light we would seem like one creature instead of two.  I collected shelves and shelves of dressage books with beautiful pictures of horses moving correctly, enviably, but none of them really explained how to begin the work. They were more like beautiful picture museums of correct movement. I took years of lessons from different trainers, some better than others, one who even had grand prix level horses. But learning to teach a horse about their own body and balance is a completely different skill set than learning the mechanics of riding an already trained horse. It’s endlessly complex work. And as Mary Wanless  points out, “The map is not the territory”. Reading about a skill, having an intellectual understanding of how to slide down the rein or ask for a give of the jaw is not the same thing as having the kinesthetic feel available and familiar to you in your body. Dressage is multiple skill sets that come together to form a whole.

I remember one day in particular taking a dressage lesson on my Friesian cross, Dragon, years ago. We were trying to make a 20 meter circle to the right at the trot and he kept falling in on his right shoulder. My instructor wanted me to lift my right rein to block his shoulder and apply my right leg to “hold him on the circle”. The more I lifted my rein and insisted with my leg the more we spiraled into the circle and the more frustrated both of us became. In his confusion he trotted faster and faster and swished his tail as I provided a heavy right rein to lean against. Recognizing complete disorganization, I asked him to halt. My instructor and I agreed I should get off as he was so upset and the entire situation felt volatile. Of course it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know how to balance his shoulders more upright from a suggestion on the rein. When he was falling on his inside shoulder he wasn’t actually capable of responding to my leg by altering his balance either. I didn’t even know then exactly what was wrong. I just knew my aids weren’t working and everything felt impossible.

The groundwork I have done with Dragon using Alexandra Kurland’s program has enhanced both my and Dragon’s body awareness immeasurably. To say he is a different horse might be an understatement.  I’m certain he would say I am a different handler. He has learned that he has shoulders and how to balance them upright through the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game. He learned the beginning of lateral work through the same exercise. I learned how to ask for jaw flexions on the ground and he learned how to soften throughout his body and be “on the bit”. He has learned to step under with his hip from a slight lift of my rein and he moves in a lovely, soft bend. All of these things transferred directly from our groundwork to ridden work.
He is quiet, concentrated and soft under saddle. Willing to accompany me into this deep study.
I feel that just now I am starting my journey of being a true rider. I’ve ridden since I was 9 years old but I was just an enamored passenger then. Now I am learning the same fine motor control I am asking of my horse so we can explore the foundation and outer edges of  balance, together. I was riding three to five times a week until the snow came and  during this time I had a major breakthrough in my own kinesthetic feel. Kinesthetic feels or physical skills are right brained and therefore implicitly wordless. But our right brain is visual so descriptions of  feel are possible through metaphor.

riding breakthrough dayI was riding in my tiny indoor arena ten days ago. I usually speak out loud about what I am asking for in each moment since it keeps me focused on actively riding and is a good way to see how well Dragon and I are really working together. There are so many body parts to remain aware of between human and horse and, as I suspect is true for most riders,  as my awareness of one body part grows I often lose track of the rest of my body. It fades away to the background. But this ride was different. As I said to Dragon, ” Soften your jaw to me and bend left” it was as if my hand that slid down the rein to request the bend lit up with awareness. Next I rotated my left thighbone and weighted my right seatbone to ask him to move to the wall and stay beneath me and each of them lit up too, softly glowing. He moved, perfectly bent, utterly soft moving off my thigh and coming under my seatbone to pick me up. Lastly, I organized my outside rein to receive his engagement and my right hand lit up. We moved together down the long side of the arena balanced over and under multiple points of contact and for the first time in my life I held an easy awareness of each point of contact simultaneously. No one point glared in the foreground. Nothing faded away. I was a constellation made of individual glowing stars but forming a whole. We were luminous, a living star chart that could change at any moment to describe a new movement, one seatbone dimming to black as I weighted the other to ask him onto the circle. For the first time in my life I consciously rode the whole horse at once. This is what I dreamed of when I was young. A  language delicate and nuanced as starlight.


I’ve learned these spells one by one. Spells for calm, spells for stillness, spells for relaxation. Spells for patience and movement. Then come the spells for balance: how to move softly bending your body like a sapling in a windstorm. Spells for roundness, lightness and, finally, spells to defy gravity. One by one I learn these spells and one by one I teach them to my horses. It’s not a simple magic that joins a woman and a horse into a centaur. It takes the better part of a decade before the true transformation takes place. The enlightenment when the slightest shift of your weight is alphabet and music to your horse.