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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