Updated: Sep 17, 2019
Horses live in the present and they don’t lie. Humans, on the other hand, often narrate a version of reality that works for us instead of approaching situations in a scientific, fact finding manner. If we experience a negative emotion, we typically bury it. Horses feel that, and they respond to it like we’re phonies. Because in that instance we are phony, through evasion, and if we want to have our horses’ trust then we need to stay grounded in reality and authentic.
Just standing next to a horse, you will be faced with its curiosity and confidence. Each horse shows up with many questions. The courteous way to show regard to any horse, whether it’s your first meeting or a horse you’ve known for years, is to answer those questions in an earnest and matter of fact way, and to ask the horse some questions in return. Horses willingly allow us to redirect from negative emotional states, if we first acknowledge that they are there.
We’ve all heard that horses can sense our fear, and this is true. Horses are deeply in tune with the physiology of those around them. They can move around their environment together as fluidly as a school of fish, their heart and breathing rates synchronize to create a uniform experience across all herd members, presumably to preserve their lives from predator attacks. But what happens when we are afraid and we do not admit it within ourselves? What kind of experience is that sort of evasion for us and for the horse?
For the horse, it is most likely a confusing experience. The horse senses that we are not fully present. A little distance grows between us then, and in this space we lose the possibility of connection that comes from mutual protection, quick thinking, and feeling safe together. Our own experience of evasion usually leaves us a little fractured inside, feeling disconnected and maybe, if we are somewhat honest, feeling that we lack courage or self confidence. So it’s a high price to pay for both horse and human. The better way is to just face the facts.
So be honest about your fear. Let’s say you’re coming up to a corner of the arena where your horse has spooked before and scared you. What can you do? You can just pause and feel it. Everything passes through us. Joy does, it sadly does not last forever, and fear is the same. So let it pass through then pick up a slower gait and move through that scary corner, rather than charging at it telling yourself that you shouldn’t be afraid. Because the fact is, you are afraid and the horse senses it. You probably have a good reason for being afraid, and the horse believes it.
We Are Who We Are, Today
When you are kind and open to yourself by allowing yourself time to process emotional imbalances, you are setting up a learning space and a relationship with your horse based on the belief system that each of us can be ourselves. There is no point trying to be anyone else, anyway. Even if you don’t particularly enjoy being yourself, you still need to start from an authentic place in order to change. Living is not acting. Living is showing up as ourselves.
Why is any of this relevant to performance and success with horses? Because the horse will tax you for any evasion or avoidance that you choose to engage in. Some horses get jittery, others lose interest, others simply won’t work to the best of their ability. As we set expectations for our horses or ourselves, if we are not honest going into it we will hit an invisible wall somewhere along the way.
This is true whether we are being unrealistic about our reality or the horse’s reality. Setting false expectations for the horse can be just as damaging as being delusional about our own circumstances. When your well conditioned, super athletic, genetically well endowed young horse refuses to do something that should be easy for him, instead of insisting that he should be able to get it done, start to pay attention, ask him the questions.
You might be disappointed that all the work you’ve put in is not paying off in that particular moment. And that is okay because it is disappointing when things don’t work out for us the way we planned. But the only way to move on from there is to accept the real situation you are facing. Being incredulous is not going to help your horse through its challenge. Being a good listener will. So lower your expectations, ask the horse if changing the environment in some way would make things go better for him.
Rather than fighting a situation, learn to accept it. Perhaps that day your horse needs a little more support. Try scaling things down, bring attention back to something the horse knows how to do and enjoys doing. Let him be the champion at something, even if it is just backing up and coming forward, touching a target, or picking up one foot. Become your horse’s student. Observe what is helpful for your magnificent horse on that given day.
When you engage in this process of being authentic, it feels like kinship. It’s so important to realize that we don’t need any horse we encounter to be anyone different than who he is. We can be open to the horse’s individual reality and just work to guide him to be the most functional and serene version of himself using all the kindness, knowledge, and tools we have available to us. It’s through our kindness that we show up as strong.