2 Questions to Help You Build an Empowered Partnership with Your Horse

Are you looking for a way to build a better partnership with your horse?  Below are two simple questions that you can ask yourself to help release the tension and resistance between you and your horse.  All frustration and resistance (the effect) really comes from a misunderstanding and miscommunication (the cause).  If you can find a solution for the cause, you do not need a solution for every single behavior because they are all the effect of something deeper.  You can learn to observe the surface interaction between you and your horse as a way to see and honor the underlying feelings and needs that result in the outward expression.  

What is alive for me right now?

Asking this question reminds you to check back into your feelings and your horse’s feelings which will allow you to interact authentically in the moment.  It is common to enter the arena with an agenda and a list of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.”  When you impose those limits on yourself, you can lose the opportunity for connection and inspired work.  If you can, instead, ask yourself, “What is alive for me right now?” and “What is alive for my horse right now?” then you can approach your work together with fluidity.  This is a method of staying present, honoring what comes up internally for both of you, and creating a flow that prevents resistance and frustration.

What does that question mean?  It means honoring the feelings, desires, and attitudes that are strongest within you.  It means that you give a voice to the internal urges.  It means that you follow your heart.  So, let’s say that you entered the arena today with a plan to practice your dressage test for the upcoming show.  Along with that plan comes a picture of what your warm-up should be, how your horse should behave, what you should do better coming down center line, and how much time this should take.  Of course every should implies a host of shouldn’ts.  This type of thought process can leave you very rigid and frustrated.  It leaves little room for deviating from the plan while still feeling successful.

In that scenario, you enter the arena and your horse is jittery and snorting at things, you’re a little distracted about that meeting you had before you left work, your horse feels like a slinky down every straight line and counter bends through his corners, and the whole thing is not going according to plan.  Now all of your shoulds are not being met.  This leaves you with two primary choices – to grow frustrated, irritated, and forceful to make the reality match your standards (I was really good at this though it was rarely successful!) or you can pause and ask yourself this handy question.

“What is alive for me right now?”  Listen to you own inner guidance.  You may get the response that you are disappointed.  How can you honor that?  Is there a way to choose one task in which you can be successful?  Can you choose to accept that you are both distracted and use that as an indication that maybe you should take a little stroll through the back field to re-connect with one another?  You may get the response that work was tough today and you really just want to play a little.  Can you find something fun to do that has nothing to do with your dressage test yet will help your test in the long run?  Like maybe you can hop off and build an obstacle course that involves working through a tunnel of poles followed by standards to weave around that will help with your horse’s straightness and bend.  Listen to whatever arises for you.

“What is alive for my horse right now?”  Try to feel your horse’s mood.  Perhaps you get a sense that he has too much pent up energy or is feeding off of your pent up energy.  What can you do to help regain his focus?  Would a little hand gallop be really fun and exhilarating for both of you and allow you to return to the task at hand?  Would your horse benefit from you hopping off and letting him get his yahoos out at liberty, reconnecting with you, and then getting back to work for a few minutes?  Or maybe you get a sense that he is tired and can’t keep himself straight and focused right now.  Would you be willing to go back to the barn and do a little massage for him?  Giving him the rest he needs now means that he will be able to peak for your performance later.  Listen to what is going on rather than staying attached to your plan – this will help prevent major conflicts between you and your horse and build your understanding and partnership. 

What is preventing my horse from saying yes?

Asking this question reminds you to check in with your underlying needs, and those of your horse, to build the empathy that allows you to remove the thoughts that block you from building an empowered partnership with your horse.  Horses are not defiant.  They do not have the capacity to plan a purposeful rebellion against you.  They act based on their needs, instincts, and intuition.  When your horse seems to say “no” to a request it is based on one of his needs not being met.  Common needs that are not met, and lead to a “no” from your horse, include trust, safety, and understanding.  Often there is a breakdown in communication for you and your horse which results in neither party’s needs being met.

Let’s look at a common, mutual need that is not met in an effective way: safety.  This includes physical and emotional safety.  When you do not effectively honor this need for you and your horse, the result is escalating fear and an environment that grows less safe and secure as a result.  You have seen it happen time and again at the barn – let me play out the exaggerate sequence of events for you.

  1. Your horse, a prey animal, suspects a danger by the rail and shies away from it with a little look and counter bend.
  2. Your underlying need for safety reacts with a slight fear response and you try to control your horse to maintain safety by pushing him back toward the rail to control the situation and show him who is boss.
  3. Your horse thinks, “Oh crap, the predator on my back is trying to send me into that danger – they really want me dead now!” and his fear escalates into a more exaggerated spook the next time around the arena.
  4. Your fear kicks into overdrive – now you really don’t feel safe – your horse is acting like a crazy idiot spooking at nothing.  “I’ll teach you there is nothing scary over there!” and a little inside spur is applied to prove your point.
  5. Now the fear is validated for your horse – the scary thing is now associated with pain – ouch!  As a result, your horse doesn’t want to go past that point on the rail at all.
  6. “This is ridiculous!  You have already gone past it twice!” and you are feeling less and less safe up there on your powerful mount so you get after him.
  7. Your horse concludes this is a very dangerous scenario and begins to act out with a buck or a crow hop.

Now you have effectively escalated the situation so that no one’s need for safety is met.  Communication has broken down because fear from both parties has taken over.  Both of you feel like you are not being heard so you grow more defensive and determined to win.  The trust between you has been harmed.  I have certainly seen it get this bad between horse and rider – even worse truthfully – though a lot of times it is much more subtle.  Even in the subtleties it is important to look for the needs that are not met.

If you had honored your horse’s need for safety initially, you could have prevented the entire escalation of fear and negative behavior, built your horses trust and belief in you as a reliable leader, and met your own need for a safe and enjoyable ride.  How?  At the first shy away from the perceived threat on the rail you had the opportunity to ask, “What is preventing my horse from saying yes to my need for a quiet ride around the arena?”  His own need for safety!  A good leader would not push a fellow herd member into potential danger – she would push her herd away from the threat to ensure safety.  There is your opportunity.  Honor your horse’s need and ask him to counter bend and step away from the object with a cool and calm demeanor.  Your horse will learn to trust you, your fear isn’t triggered, and within a few laps you have proven that there is no threat allowing your need for a quiet ride around the arena to be met and your horse’s need for safety to also be met.  Now your horse wants to work with you because you are fulfilling his needs.


*Note: my understanding of feelings and needs has been greatly impacted by my study of non-violent communication.  Check it out for a more in depth understanding of our universal needs.  

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