As horsemen and women we are constantly striving to make our horses better. Many of us put our horses in training so that they become more educated, we take lessons to learn how to how to work them better, and we constantly read articles in order to provide better care and training. However, this focus seems to all be pushed onto the horse. We assume that if our horse is better we will perform better or enjoy the horse more or just be better horsemen. Rarely do we turn this focus around onto ourselves.
I think the most underlooked and underappreciated fact of horsemanship is that we and the horse form a partnership. This means that we both equally contribute to the success or downfall of the partnership. Therefore the weakest link is the one that will bring us down. More often than not we are the weakest link.
Horses are by nature responsive, reliable team members. They live in the moment and can adapt to situations much better than we can.
As humans we tend to bring a lot of baggage into the partnership. Our fears, insecurities, ego, and stresses from the day all fall onto the horse. It becomes his responsibility to coach us through letting these things go so that we can actually participate. That is a lot to put on your horse. Yet we still think they are the ones that need all the training.
In this article I am going to give you five exercises that you can do to help your horse out. These will help you become present, clear, and let go of your baggage so that you can fully participate in your partnership with your horse.
Exercise 1: Grounding Breaths
Before you even get your horse out, take several long deep breaths in your nose and out your mouth. These breaths will help you let go of the tension and stress throughout your body. As you breathe out think about everything washing out of you. Clear your mind and get present. Then go get your horse. Throughout your session you can use this exercise whenever you start to feel anxious, stressed, or distracted to bring you back to the present and clear your mind.
Exercise 2: Mindfulness
This exercise you can do throughout your training session. Anytime you feel yourself start to get emotional about something, pause what you were doing. It doesn’t matter if your emotion is anger, fear, or excitement. Take a second to note the emotion and considering why it came up. If the emotion is negative, try to think about how you could have another response to the situation. The more you do this both with your horse and without the better control you will have over your own emotions and the better you will be able to manage your horse.
Exercise 3: Processing Time
This exercise is to help your horse process what you are asking and let down. Just like you exercise where you take a moment to process your emotions, it is also important to give the horse the time and space to process things.
When you notice your horse starting to get reactive or stressed, practice a suppling exercise and then stop and let him stand. Wait until you see your horse visibly relax.
Often times people think that horses respond quickly so they must also process things quickly. This is not the case. The more time you allow your horse to sit and think about something, especially letting down or relaxing, the more the horse will be able to go to that place. This is especially useful when you encounter a stressful situation. Teaching your horse how to relax and process situations allows him to navigate stressful or difficult situations much more easily and therefore much more calmly.
Exercise 4: Shaking Out the Tension
This exercise is popular among body workers. Since our goal as horsemen is to reduce tension and stress in the horse we are essentially performing bodywork in a general way. If you know much about bodywork such as massage, craniosacral, or pressure point therapy you will know that it is imperative to release all the tension in your own body in order to help the horse release his own tension.
Following this theory, it stands to reason that tension in your body while performing groundwork or riding will result in tension in your horse during these exercises as well. Since we as humans tend to find it very difficult to truly relax and let go of the tension in our bodies I recommend that you try to shake out the tension. Whenever you start to notice that you are getting tense through your shoulders or any other portion of your body just take a second to shake it while taking a deep breath and feeling the tension run out of your body. The more aware you are of your own body the easier this will be and the better you will be at it. Additional work on body awareness and relaxation will also greatly benefit you as a person and horseman.
Exercise 5: Becoming Clear on Your Intent
The number one problem I find students getting frustrated over is that they will ask their horse to do something and not get the result they expected. Often times when I ask them exactly what they want their answer is very vague. They might say that they wanted their horse to go over “there” or “fix” his shoulder. Since the handler isn’t clear on what the horse is supposed to do the horse must guess. Often times the horse guesses wrong and the handler gets frustrated.
Instead of going through this vicious cycle that leaves you frustrated and your horse confused, get very clear about your intent before you ask for something. Oftentimes this means slowing down and taking a moment to think about what you want. Break it down to where you want each of the horse’s feet to be placed. Then, with that intent in mind, ask for the horse to move his feet. Make sure that you not only know what you want, but expect and anticipate that the horse will oblige. Assuming the horse is going to ignore you is a sure way to get him to ignore you.
Effectively working with horses requires a lot of self-awareness and self-control. These exercises will help you develop these skills. Overall, the more you slow down and think about what you are doing, what you’re feeling, and what the horse is feeling the easier it will be for you to navigate the partnership. Our egos often get in the way and push us to rush through things. Learning that it is okay to take your time is a big first step. With that time the rest can begin to fall into place.