So, you want a horse that doesn’t spook? Don’t we all? Great, you wanna look for something over 25 years old. Not a bad idea to plug cotton in his ears and put blinders on his bridle. Not what you had in mind?
Then a railbird has a suggestion. “You know horses can read your fear.” Hearing this always makes my blood boil. It only encourages riders to think they can control the universe. Or it batters down any shred of confidence a rider might have mustered and now they think everything the horse does is their fault. Blaming the human is as silly as blaming the horse. Besides, the railbird probably overheard a 4-H kid say it. I was a 4-H kid; it’s a good start.
The keyword is start! Step one in any training plan is to stop listening to railbirds, especially the one in your head. Railbirds are such fatalists. Besides, it isn’t that horses read our fear, it’s that they read everything. Try a new perspective.
If you want your horse to be fearless, you must not use fear as a motivator.
We trust that you don’t hit your horse or lunge them into a lame stupor. But we have been using fear-based methods for so long they look normal to us. We are the ones numb to loud, nagging cues. We recognize harsh hands… unless they are attached to our arms. We pull on their faces without noticing. We corner horses to halter them and swing ropes if they aren’t quick enough for us. Call it passive-aggressive, we’re in a hurry. There is no blood, it doesn’t rise to the level of cruelty. But we often intimidate horses in quiet ways that matter to them.
Now imagine your senses are as keen as your horse’s. Is it possible that you’re a teensy bit loud as you overcue? Does the lead rope pull his face because we leave without asking them to walk along? Maybe during savasana in your yoga class, you plan what to cook for dinner. It’s easy to miss messages and calming signals if we haven’t trained our minds to focus. Maybe we confuse our horse’s behavior with our own fear and constantly try to slow the horse down but end up unbalancing them enough that they lose confidence. They taught us to be quiet around horses but if it leaves us acting like a coyote, it scares horses. Maybe we are so bound up in our love for a horse that we seem grasping and needy. Is our love an anchor, but in the worst way?
The question isn’t if horses can read our fear. It’s that they read our dull wits, our complacency. Our worry and our neediness. Our blank pain and confusion. What if we are so much in our own thoughts that they can’t read anything in us at all? What does an overthinking analytical mind read like? Is it a mass of letters and numbers gibberish floating around?
Horses give us calming signals constantly. Are we aware of the human calming signals we send? Everyone says they want a better relationship with their horse, but it’s a nebulous goal. And it gets worse; relationships are built on a foundation made of tiny bricks. Little unintentional habits that we aren’t aware of. When working with horses, we should be focused on those tiny mannerisms because they are important language.
Try an experiment, give it the benefit of the doubt. Remember a horse will always be a horse. Their instincts will always take over. Consider this good news because it means there are no wrong answers. So much pressure for perfection falls away. Now we can proceed to listen with clean ears and no blame. We’re better already.
Rather than always looking for the response we want, and not liking the one we get, let’s look to ourselves first. Behavior is communication, every single time. It’s true for horses and it’s true for us as well. We might need to clean ourselves up a bit, from a calming signal standpoint. Here’s my top ten list:
- Hold your distance. Stand a few feet away and let the horse have his space. Yes, it’s his space. Be a polite guest.
- Look at the horse less and inhabit your body more. Breathe rhythmically.
- Use your peripheral vision more and soften your eyes. Notice the full environment rather than using tunnel vision.
- Be quiet. Hold your tongue. Listen. Let your breath speak.
- Use hands very little, and never above your waist. Horses see nuance and don’t need semaphore.
- Feel the earth under your feet. Think with your feet; move with eloquent purpose and warm focus.
- Feel your heart beat, feel energy in your solar plexus. Let your body be fluidly alive. Percolate.
- Relax your face and jaw and smooth your forehead. A smile is a human calming signal horses understand. Empathy and sympathy faces look a little creepy.
- Discipline yourself to one emotion. Let it be affirmative and readable. Become reliably consistent.
- Video yourself. Learn to like what you see. Have patience. Humans aren’t trained in a day.
I know some of these things go against worn-out traditions. They didn’t get me the relationship I wanted so I had to change.
Instead, try leading by example. Hold a quietly confident intention of “safe equality.” Be the calming signal you want to see.
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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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