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.

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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!