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.