Does Fear have a Place in Learning?

For anyone who has lived or worked with any kind of animals, you will know that fear is an experience that (generally speaking) you will see in an animal now and then. Some animals are braver, while others are more fearful. Because horses are prey animals, their instincts preclude them to access fear quite easily. Because of this, it can be challenging to progress with a horse without them accessing fear on some level.

IMG_5869Can that fear ever be useful to the learning process of a horse? Maybe, especially for those cases where you are helping a previously abused equine to overcome their fears (sometimes in order to help them you have to go to that bad place with them,, and lead them back to calmness and gentleness). However, in order to assess this, we must understand the nature of the learning process – not just for a horse, but for anyone or anything.

When learning something new, there is the inevitable period of uncertainty in the beginning. You don’t know how this works, what to do, or how to do it. But that’s natural – that’s part of the learning process: The beginning is uncomfortable. Now the difference for a humans compared to horses is that we understand (most of the time) what is happening and why it’s happening, whereas the horse doesn’t know why, they have no context for what is going on. The must rely solely on their interpretation of the behaviour of the human, and try to figure out the “right” way to respond.

So, understandably, horses also experience uncertainty when learning something new. A person who focuses on helping the horse to understand in as calm a way as possible will end up with a soft, willing and confident horse (obviously this is assuming that all the other necessary factors are in place). Compare that image to an individual who is pushing their horse into a fearful space, trying to get the horse to comply while they are in that state of mind. As can be expected, the horse seldom understands the exercise and has now also associated the exercise with fear, anxiety and stress. I am sure you can imagine how that horse will be working through the exercise after a fearful introduction to it.

The only thing that a horse will learn when they are fearful is what they must do in order to avoid that which causes the fear. So if we use a whip in such a way that it inflicts fear, the horse will learn to avoid the whip, rather than to listen to the whip. Another side effect of allowing a horse to remain in a state of fear while teaching them is the high level of tension that the fear will create in their bodies – this creates the opposite of a soft horse.

It is our tendency to believe that kicking up a lot of dirt and dust is required to “put the horse in its place” – again, I am not saying that it is absolutely never ever necessary, or that it will never happen, but it is most certainly not a good first approach to try. It is our responsibility to not fall into that all-too familiar human tendency of wanting to dominate and control everything around us.

Creating a relationship with your horse that is based on communication, patience, understanding and mutual respect requires that these be the principles that you focus on creating during those crucial learning phases where things can so easily go wrong. Now I’m not saying that it may be possible to avoid a fearful horse completely – sometimes their backgrounds, breeds or simply the environment can trigger their fear response. Sometimes we must help our horse move from that place of fear towards confidence, trust and softness.

This brings us to the real question: how do we help the horse to learn something new without that uncertainty, or discomfort, of learning something new turning into full blown fear?

As to the specific techniques – there are many that can be tried and tested on any individual horse – it’s about finding what works for you and your individual horse.  There is no “one size fits all” method. Flexibility is just about the only thing that remains consistent in a good horseperson – our ability to assess a situation and adapt ourselves with the goal of helping the horse.

Are we Oblivious to our own Ignorance?

A friend of mine is visiting with her 2 daughters from the Netherlands. These 2 girls are your typical horse crazy 10 and 12 year olds. They go for one riding lesson a week and spend all their spare time watching horse videos on YouTube.320252_10150999297831160_1971471090_n

Now with me being the person I am, I want to teach these girls everything I know about horses, and in the process of doing this I am learning exactly how little they have been taught when it comes to the basic stuff that one really should know when one owns or looks after a horse – and I’m not saying that this is unusual, it is sadly very common for “Horse people” to be woefully ignorant of the creatures they have spent so much time obsessing over.

Looking back to when I was a child, I also was not taught very much in the way of practical information. I didn’t learn much about horse behaviour and body language. I didn’t learn much about the anatomy of the horse. I didn’t learn much about what a balanced hoof looks like. I basically learned how to tack a horse up, get up on the horse and then make it do things.

In my opinion these things that are so commonly ignored in the average riding school are among the most important things that a horse person should know – so why is it not being taught to the next generation of horse obsessed kids? Why is ignorance so common in the horse-people community? On the one hand it really doesn’t make sense, because the more we know about our horses and the better we are able to understand and care for them, the better our working relationships with them will be and the healthier they will be. But then on the other hand, if you have a look at how we as humanity live in every other part of our lives, it’s really not all that surprising.

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t a shift of awareness (or whatever you want to call it) happening – because people do seem to be developing more consideration, open-mindedness and compassion. However, this is not something that will happen overnight, and even for those who do decide to develop their awareness of and consideration for other living beings, mistakes will be made. It’s certainly not a smooth ride.

In my personal experience, I met my teacher having basically zero practical knowledge about horses. I could ride and tack up, but that was it (I couldn’t even ride well – I knew only what I was taught as a child – kick to go and pull to stop!). After having met her, my eyes were opened – but not all the way opened (and still not, maybe I will never reach that point). I started looking at horses differently, seeking out different methods and philosophies. My perspective started to shift, and I make it a point to continue shifting it every day even now. I went through phases where I thought I knew everything, I thought I knew the right way, the best way. It was over a period of years that I developed the humbleness to recognise how little I actually know.

Being humble is not easy for most of us – it wasn’t for me. I liked feeling like I knew everything. I liked feeling in control. I liked feeling powerful. I liked all these feelings – but the feelings didn’t make my horsemanship any better, or improve my ability to keep my horse healthy. I was blind for a moment to the truth of how I was with horses, and when I started being willing to really reflect on who I was, I really didn’t like what I saw.

We may not be able to change every person’s perspective and approach to working with horses, but we can make a difference in our lives, with the people who see and learn from us, whether directly or indirectly. We can be part of the growing change to bring awareness and self-directed learning to all areas of our lives, so that as we grow and learn, we stand as examples to those around us.

Honouring the Forgiving Nature of the Horse

Do we deserve the forgiveness that our horses (and other animals) offer to us so freely? Probably not. We receive it nonetheless – what we do with it is not always nice or pretty.418392_10150569681746160_1082415578_n

In a way, I see that it is far better for our horses to be so willing to forgive – at least they aren’t carrying the burdens of what we’ve done around with them. It’s like being willing to stat each day fresh (to a degree, of course), weightless, and free. I envy the horse’s ability to live so simply and let go so easily – I can only imagine how the ability to do that would change the way we all live.

So who are we in relation to our horses’ willingness to forgive us? Do we honour them in their unconditional willingness, or do we take advantage of them? Let’s face it – horses are big animals with a huge amount of strength. If they really don’t want to do something they have a great capacity to prevent us from forcing them to do it – but this is exceptionally rare to see. Most refusals are somewhat half-hearted – our attempts to force an unwilling horse are usually successful. And not just once, often it is day in and day out.

Imagine lacking the ability to choose what your actions will be on any given day. Our horses live within an incredibly disempowered position in relation to us – we determine every aspect of their lives – where they go, what they do, what they eat, what they drink, what is on their bodies. Despite these conditions, they take it all in stride.

Now I’m not saying that we should necessarily change how we look after our horses – often the practical aspects can’t really be changed – but what we can do is be better at honouring their willingness to live by our choices, and their willingness to forgive our sometimes inconsiderate treatment. What does this practically mean? Listen to your horse. When your horse is refusing to do an exercise for example, it doesn’t mean that they are just being naughty. There is usually a good reason for their refusal, whether it is a lack of understanding, a physical issue (like pain), or even an emotional block like fear. A horse that is fearful will not be able to develop understanding in learning new things as easily as they would if they were calm, relaxed, and confident.

When we open ourselves to listen to our horses we can start truly honouring them as unique, conscious and self-autonomous individuals. Our horses do always have a choice to submit, fight, or participate with enjoyment. We are the ones who are responsible for setting the best possible platform for them to be able to participate with confidence, enjoyment and understanding. Furthermore we open up to opportunity to develop our relationships with our horses to a much deeper and more intimate level. Respecting the voice of a horse shows them that we are real leaders, willing to listen to them and treat them in a way that shows that we value them more than just as pets or toys, or worse yet – as financial investments.

I’ll Never Know Everything

We’ll never know everything there is to know about any one thing in life – it’s simply not going to happen. When I realised this, I decided that I will never stop learning. 12088365_10153048755116160_1991619987588050890_n

We have this tendency to think we know everything about something, especially when we think we’re pretty good at it. We get a kind of tunnel vision, thinking that all there is in the whole of the world, life and existence is what we know, and that there cannot possibly be anything else outside of that.

I found that when I spent a lot of time with people who didn’t know much about horses, I’d feel pretty knowledgeable. I’d feel smart, informed and downright cool. But then, if I ever did spend time around “horsey people” who shared knowledge that contradicted what I believed, I’d tell myself that they were wrong, and I was right. It didn’t matter how much sense they were making.

Thankfully I realised that I couldn’t possibly always be right, and that there had to be more than what I thought I knew. So, I started listening to other people more, I started playing around with different methods, I started actually looking for new and different information. Within all of this I realised an interesting thing: I will never stop learning, and I don’t want to.

I started truly enjoying looking outside my restrictive box of beliefs, knowledge and tools. I found that there were certain tools, methods, philosophies and starting points that worked differently for individual horses. I found also that a lot of the time, it wasn’t so much about the specific method or exercise I was using – the best results always came when my starting point within myself was one of calm and wanting to help the horse. If I was frustrated then it wouldn’t matter what exercise I was doing – my frustration would be what dominated the session.

One of the most important aspects in what I learned, was that learning isn’t always about studying, or reading up about different techniques – I realised more and more how much I learn about myself and about my horse in every moment that we are together, no matter what we are doing. When I closed myself off to being aware of myself or my horse, our time spent together would often be awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes even contentious. I found that whenever I was being stubborn about something within me or the horse (like how the horse should respond, apparently), I’d lock down in our session and that would create an unpleasant experience for both of us. So now I make it a point to be flexible, not have any expectations and to check in with my horse to see what he needs in that particular moment. Just as important is that I stay aware of how I am responding within myself to the horse, so that I can change any response patterns that I don’t actually want (like getting frustrated when the horse does not understand what I am asking).

It can be difficult to learn new things, especially things that challenge our “preset” self definitions. We owe it to ourselves and to our horses to neverstop learning, and to never think that we already know everything, because that’s when we start forcing things – which is seldom an enjoyable experience.

Investigate Everything & Keep what’s Good

When I first started learning about horsemanship I got myself quite set in thinking that there was only one way to work with horses, and that was the right way. My way. The only way. All other methods / approaches were WRONG. I felt superior in my knowing that my way was the only and best way ever in the world. Ever.15872002_10154055336446160_4867680500934623754_n

Thankfully I started seeing things differently at some point. It started with me allowing myself to consider the possibility that maybe there were other ways to go about this, and that maybe some of those ways might be more effective, or even more pleasant. I don’t recall that there was a specific trigger or event that precipitated my change of perception, but what I do recall is that the change started with my willingness to consider things outside of my rigid box of opinions.

I find it interesting looking back now, it’s like I had locked myself into this one way of seeing horsemanship, and I believed so strongly that it was the best way – but I hadn’t even looked into different ways, so my belief was totally unsupported. That’s the funny thing about some of the things we believe, it’s like we become lost in the righteousness of our belief that we will not even look at anything else. In some areas of life this kind of behaviour may not have a big effect on anyone’s life, but when it comes to horsemanship, beliefs like these can and do affect the lives of our horses.

Let me take an extreme example of what some trainers believe you must do to the Tennessee Walking Horse – “soring” or putting huge blocks on their hooves to force them to pick their legs up higher and “step up” nicely. To most of us, that is a completely unacceptable practice – but to the people who are doing it, they will (likely) believe that it is the best method to achieve their desired outcome. This of course can be seen in all areas of life – and it’s up to us to recognise that our action can and do effect the lives and happiness of others.

I may not have done things like in the example above, but I did try to force my ways onto my horse, even when he clearly was not understanding or enjoying what we were doing. I told myself that he would learn in time, I just had to keep trying. Am I ashamed of some of the things I did? Yes. Will I hold my mistakes against myself? No. I am learning from my mistakes and making sure that I am listening to my horse. Thankfully our horses are very forgiving, probably more than we deserve. We always have the opportunity to change, and our horses will change with us if we help them.

I have a principle I live by now, not only with my horsemanship but in all areas of my life: Investigate all things and keep what’s good. Even in those methods or practices that I generally don’t agree with I may find just one kernel of something good that I can test in my own life. And yes, I won’t simply see something that looks cool and then make it my motto in life – I will take the time to test it and see for myself how well it works, where it works, for which horse it works. Which brings me to an important point: not every exercise will work for every horse, and it’s up to us to hear when our horses tell us that something isn’t working, and our responsibility to change it.

Changing my Inner Mouse to a Leader

When I first started learning about horsemanship with my first horse, I did not ever want to do anything that may have potentially led to him (the horse) not liking me. I wanted to love him and I wanted him to love me. What this manifested in my behaviour with him, however, created a relationship dynamic that I did not want.

I started with learning the basics of how to move a horse’s feet from the ground. I learned how to move the hindquarters, the forequarters, move the whole horse forwards and backwards and in a circle around me. Within who I was when I was practicing these things, however, was timid, careful, shy, wanting to avoid confrontation, wanting to be kind and gentle. What this create most of the time, was a horse that did not respond to my aides. I’d ask him to move his feet, and sometimes he did, but sometimes he didn’t. This in turn led to me feeling even less capable, and more fearful of trying to build a relationship with a horse that didn’t like or respect me.

I had the romanticised idea that I could build a good relationship and communication with my horse just by spending time with him, scratching his back under a tree. I would then be able to ride off into the distance and never ever fall off. Also be in a perfect classical dressage carriage. Yeah right.

It took time, quite a lot of time if I look back now, for me to change who I was with my horse. I understood on an intellectual level that his behaviour was reflecting who I was, but I couldn’t yet translate that into understanding what it was I needed to change. I went through periods of just wanting to give up, moments of trying to overcompensate and then behaving in a way that I regretted later, and moments of trying to find the answer everywhere but the most obvious place: me.

There was no one big “Aha!” moment that led to me finally realising that I had to take a serious look at what I was living inside myself that my horse was so kindly showing me. I started making small changes at first, noticing small moments where I had shifted inside myself to be more directive. One example was when my horse, Fatty, bullied one of our little ponies, I immediately backed him up without a halter or any other equipment (and without touching him) – I held him simply with my focus and he backed right up in a straight line – and didn’t immediately try to run off. In that moment I glimpsed what I was capable of – not that that moment was representative of the relationship as a whole that I wanted to develop – it was simply a moment of stepping out of my scared little inner mouse and into my strong independent woman self.

Moral of the story: Our behaviour and body language is so obvious to our equine friends – they read us so easily. If we are insecure, that is what our horses see: our uncertainty, our hazy intentions. How can we expect a horse, that is a prey animal and has evolved over time to stay alive in a dangerous world, to respect us when we are frightened little mice who don’t want to step on anyone’s toes? Horsemanship is about being a leader and friend to our horses – we cannot be leaders if we are so caught up in trying to be their friends that we are terrified of actually leading. There is a balance in how we can develop our relationships with our horses, and the ingredients include both friendship and leadership.

Horsemanship – The Practice of Self Reflection

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Have you ever heard the saying that your horse is your mirror – that they reflect back to you what your issues, hang-ups, weaknesses, strengths and more are? If you haven’t heard that saying before, take a moment to open yourself up to a different way of seeing your horse.

What I mean when I say that your horse is a mirror is that your horse will adjust their behaviour according to who you are – meaning your body language, intentions, actions, and so on. So if you have an issue with authority, lets say you lack confidence in taking up a leadership role, then your horse will see that through your behaviour, and (most likely) take on a role of authority. One thing that we must remember with horses is that they are herd animals and they enjoy knowing who’s the leader – this is what kept their species alive all these years – there is always a clear hierarchy and the leader is always on the lookout for danger (and water, better grazing, etc). So if we shy away from being leaders, our horses will step into that role to make sure that they will stay safe. Yes, it’s not always about survival – there will be other elements involved. Sometimes horses just like being the leader and will challenge you for that role.

Another example is when we are uncertain of ourselves, our horses will act similarly, showing anxiety, confusion, uncertainty – and this can often manifest in different ways, such as a horse refusing to move, or a horse bolting.

I think the greatest thing about our horses is that they force us to see ourselves – though often we will remain obstinately ignorant for as long as possible (and our horse pays the price). I have had days where I blamed everything on my horse, I felt like he was just deliberately being an idiot, or being mean – those days usually did not end well. I’d put my horse in the paddock and walk away feeling yucky inside, often ashamed of myself. Those were the days that I would get angry with my horse and stick with that anger, instead of taking a step back within myself to ask why I was angry, and what the hell was really going on with ME that my horse was behaving in that way.

Now I’m not saying that horses have absolutely no sense of self, that it’s only ever about us – but what I am saying is that we should always, always, always check ourselves first before we look to the horse as the cause. Yes, sometimes our horses will have a bad day. Yes, sometimes our horses will feel fresh. But even on these days it’s up to US to help them to find their centre again, to come back to themselves (and that doesn’t always work). This is part of why I will never commit to any particular plan when I bring my horse into the arena – I want to see where he is at in that moment and work with that.

Unfortunately, it is quite easy for us to kid ourselves into always thinking that there must be something wrong with our horse, or that they must be behaving badly just because they feel like it. It becomes even easier when we surround ourselves with other people who do the same. I have found that generally it is those people who are not well educated on horse behaviour who will do the most harm to a horse out of ignorance – like fighting with the horse to force the horse to do something (when maybe the horse just doesn’t know what the hell is going on). I have also observed that talking openly about making changes to how we handle horses is not something that many people are comfortable doing, especially in the presence of others who have a limited understanding of horse behaviour and psyche. It’s similar to how we tend to not want to get involved with an abusive family situation – we tell ourselves that it’s not our business, that there’s nothing we can do anyway.

Sure, sometimes there isn’t much we can do to change how someone else works with their horse, but sometimes there is something we can do – and that something can make a difference to that horse. I find that the most important thing in these situations is to approach someone as their equal – no judgement, no anger, no irritation – those emotions will more likely just add fuel to the fire (or start a fire). It is in these moments that we must practice an absolute calm and clarity within ourselves, doing so will create the space for a much better outcome than going in with guns blazing.

Having said that, we must practice that same humility with ourselves – we must at all times be willing to reflect on ourselves, to look at our own behaviour – because sometimes, we are the ones who have been living in ignorance.

Why won’t my Horse Listen!?!?

Well, your horse is listening, you just don’t know how to speak yet – at least not in the way that horses speak.

While we are very well developed in our ability to communicate verbally (compared to horses at least) we are not so great at things like being aware of our body language, and being able to effectively convey our desired meanings to others.

I often see people complaining that their horse is not listening, is not following the aides given to them, or is even being a little nutty. Interestingly enough though, when I watch how they are trying to communicate with their horse, I am not at all surprised that the horse is just plain confused. Horses are forgiving creatures, we underestimate just how hard they try to make us happy (often for the simple reason to avoid conflict). It is difficult though for the horse to give us what we want when we are giving mixed signals. Our arms say one thing, our posture says another, the pressure we’re applying to the horse says yet another and our intention is something completely different.

Part of what is lacking is, yes, the understanding of how horses communicate and how to effectively convey what we want within our body language. But within this we must consider that part of the puzzle is US – who we are. What is it that stops us from reflecting on the question “Why won’t my horse listen?” – why do we so often blame the horse and refuse to consider that we are the ones who need to adjust our approach so that we can HELP our horses understand what it is that we are wanting to communicate.

It is so common to see people looking for new and improved ways to force their horse to do something, often by using pain. Sadly, it is in these situations that we will see the development of behavioural issues in a horse, as well as the development of health issues (injuries due to the horse not being properly physically prepared on all levels for the demands placed on them; colic). Even then, we often refuse to look at ourselves – we look for ways to try fix the issues that crop up – but without addressing the cause of the issues, they will, naturally, continue to reoccur.

I am sure you can agree with me, for the sake of your horse, when I say that we are rather proud and stubborn creatures. We are too proud to look in the mirror at how WE have contributed to creating a bad situation, and we will stubbornly continue to refuse to do so until something forces us to look – and that something is seldom pleasant.

So what will it take for us to take a long, hard look in the mirror without waiting for some awful event (where the horse usually pays the price for our obstinance)? We are the ones who have to be better, we are the ones who have the responsibility to ensure that we are doing the best we possibly can for our horses – not the other way around. When we make the choice to take responsibility for another living being – a being that is so very different from us – the onus of responsibility rests upon our shoulders, and only upon ours. It is unfair to burden our horses with the expectation that they will somehow adapt themselves to suit our limited way of communicating. We are the ones with the ability to adapt ourselves. We are the ones who want to ride horses. We are the ones who are removing horses from their natural states and asking them to perform for us. The least we can do for them is make the effort to understand exactly how they communicate and ensure that our efforts to communicate with them are as easy as possible for them to understand.

There is so much material available – my suggestion is to look for material where the author loves what they do, loves horses and focuses on bringing out the best in their horses – and by that I mean where they help their horses to have the best time possible.

Under Pressure

One could argue that every interaction that takes place in life is an exchange of pressures – giving pressure, giving into pressure, avoiding pressure, and pushing against pressure. Horses respond to pressure in those same ways, depending on what they know, what they’ve lived and the nature of who they are as an individual.

The general rule of thumb is that applying too much pressure to a horse will lead them either to habitually avoid pressure or push against it. A horse that avoids pressure will manifest this behaviour in various ways: avoiding contact, shying away from you or your equipment (ever meet a horse that was terrified of sticks/whips?), and even have a tendency to rush or bolt (trying to escape the pressure by outdistancing itself from it). On the other hand, when a horse learns to push against pressure, you’ll most likely start calling them “stubborn” or “grumpy” – they’re heavy off the leg, lean on the bit, don’t have brakes, and so on.

Obviously no one wants a horse that either avoids pressure or pushes against it – so how do you find the middle ground to help the horse become soft, light and responsive to your aides?

Some horses may be more difficult than others, some may have been taught by people, either deliberately or inadvertently, to push against or avoid pressure, but the essence of helping a horse to develop lightness, responsiveness and softness is the same. There are many different tools or methods that can be applied, which I shall not go into, for now I’ll focus simply on the principles behind developing a healthy relationship with pressure in your horse (and, more importantly, in yourself).

Most of us humans lack a certain level of physical awareness – awareness of our surroundings, our body language, posture, and even touch. Horses, on the other hand, could arguably be labelled as hyper-aware. They use body language as a primary point of communication amongst not only themselves, but with every living thing (yes, that includes us). They can feel a fly landing on them, and are always keeping alert of happenings in their environment (they are, after all, prey animals). The combination of the comparatively insensitive human and the hyper-sensitive horse often leads to some undesirable behaviour in the horse – but to be fair, it’s almost always our fault.

As I mentioned above, there are many different tools and methods available in horsemanship. I am of the opinion that there is no one tool, method or trick that will work the same for any and all horses. I feel that the more tools, knowledge and diversity you have in your “toolbox”, the more horses you will be able to help. Different horses need different approaches, so keep an open mind – and if things are not going well, DON’T BLAME THE HORSE! It’s probably your fault. Yes, I said it and I meant it.

OK let’s get down to business. Often, we try to push and bully a horse into submission. We try to implement the shortest route that we can see from point A to point B – but that seldom works out to be in the best interest of the horse. We must be humble and recognise that the horse is showing us the truth of what we are actually saying (through what we are doing – ie posture, body language, touch, etc). If we do not practice awareness of our physical presence and body language, we will most likely find that our horse continues to do things that we are not asking (or they overcompensate or are “stubborn”). We are, in other words, always exerting some form of pressure, either through body language or touch – this is what the horse will respond to. It follows naturally that if we are not aware of what our body is saying, we will not be able to follow the same conversation that our horse is following.

That, I would say, describes my first and most important principle: the horse is always honest and showing us who WE are. The second principle has to do more with lightness. Lightness is the goal – and to get there we must start there. I start all of my work with any horse at the lightest possible “ask” – meaning I see how softly I can execute an aide before the horse responds. Within this I am giving the horse the opportunity to be equally light. Often with a new horse one may start with lightness, yet may have to progressively increase the intensity of the ask until the horse responds. Within this, releasing pressure is the most important part – as soon as the horse responds (and in the beginning, I will reward the tiniest effort on the part of the horse!). This means that we must practice releasing the tension in our bodies faster and faster. If you are applying pressure with a hand, that hand must be lightning quick to release the pressure once the horse responds. The combination of starting your asks lightly and releasing the pressure immediately will gradually develop a greater level of softness, lightness and responsiveness in your horse.

I’ll go up to here. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or blog requests. Enjoy!

The Art of Horsemanship, starts with Self-Mastery

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When I first got into contact with horses on a daily basis, I was already walking a process of Self-Investigation – analysing who I am and where I can improve myself to make my daily life and living more effective and enjoyable. For me, spending time with horses was a ‘hobby’, something I did for fun to ‘take my mind off things’. Yet, soon enough, it became very clear that working with horses and spending time with them was not the kind of ‘break’ I was looking for. Quite the opposite happened actually. My buttons were continuously being pushed and no matter how much I just wanted to ‘relax’ and enjoy myself around the horses and specifically the horse I ended up having as my companion, I found myself in an almost constant state of inner conflict. I really wanted to get to know my horse and have a fun relationship, but he was bullying me and I ended up feeling anxious just being around him. When I had first met him at the farm he was at before coming to live with us, he seemed like a sweet and grounded horse. But when it came to daily interaction, a whole new dynamic came to the surface. In the first few weeks, I’d need to keep his halter on in the stable while grooming him because he was quite irritable and was all too happy to bite and nip to express his opinions of whatever I was doing. With the assistance of others, I was able to set boundaries and stabilise myself through addressing my fear-based relationship with him.

When I was a child, I got my share of beatings which left a very deep impression on me and affected my entire life (and is something I am still working through). Now, having this BIG animal with massive strength and power around me, scared me to no end. Just seeing him, his grumpy expression and the intensity of his movements – whether directed towards me or not – would trigger all sorts of memories and bring me back to my childhood scared and insecure self. When I was a child, all I could do to cope with the situation was to draw back inside myself and wait it out in a state of total fear and petrification.

My experience of myself around my horse was absolutely awful. I had a choice to make: I could either stop participating with horses, or I could change and empower myself – teach and give myself the tools I did not have as a child, to find a constructive way to work with another being who is angry and expresses it physically – without getting hurt and diminishing myself in the process.

This has proven to be a very challenging task. Every fibre of my being has been set up, since childhood, to avoid conflict at any and all costs, especially situations where things could get physical. It was very difficult to give up my primary coping mechanism I had developed in conflict situations. I had to constantly remind myself that I was no longer a child and powerless – I was an adult now and I did not have to be a victim of the situation. I was very scared to change, because all I knew was that ‘avoidance’ would keep me safe. So every day I made the deliberate effort to change, to be present, here and work with my horse regardless of the anxiety inside me. I was shown to take notice of my posture and body language, as any emotional instability would translate into a particular body posture, which would draw out a particular response from the horse. Horses are herd animals as well as prey animals, their survival and well-being depends on effective leadership, someone who knows what they are doing. If you are scared, fearful, and go into states of self-diminishment – it is logical to the horse to get rid of you or at least to make sure that you ‘know your place’ in the hierarchy, with all the consequences that come with it.

Not only are horses very perceptive of the state of being of their fellow herd members, they are also perceptive of the state of being of any human or animal who comes into their environment. In the wild, a predator who’s just had a nice meal and is fully satisfied can stroll past a herd of horses and the horses will peacefully graze on because they already had picked up on this state of being from miles away. If that same animal however had approached them in a state of hunting, they would have run off the moment they noticed the presence of the predator. Much of their behaviour is determined by ‘where everyone else is’. It became very clear that as I changed, my horse would change too. So it happened that my horse became the mirror reflection of me and my state of being – challenging me, pushing me, checking where I am at and responding accordingly.

Unfortunately, many people do not consider this aspect when working with a horse, or any other animal for that matter. If a horse is being unruly, then more control and force is used. Someone in my position can easily move from being a victim to being a perpetrator – doing unto the horse exactly what was done unto me. Horses, in their kind and forgiving nature, will put up with this behaviour until they have either had enough (at which point they get sold or sent to the slaughter house) or until they collapse under physical and/or emotional strain.

To have a willing, trusting and cooperative relationship with your horse, Self-Mastery is absolutely essential. This means constant evaluation and assessment of yourself and your horse. Never assume that your horse is simply being an ‘irrational animal’. These great creatures are very advanced in processing information from their environments – to call them stupid would be a deflection of our own inability to see beyond our own limited perspectives.