Communication is More Than Talking
For many of us, our horse journey begins with stars in our eyes. Hopes for all the fabulous things we want to accomplish with our future four-legged best friend fill our daydreams.
As time goes by, many riders find that what they’re asking of their horses may be too physically demanding or expensive (i.e. traveling to and participating in shows).
If conflict develops between human and horse, it’s almost always the human who needs to learn the lesson from the horse — not the other way around.
Let’s look at two simple strategies that can be game-changers for a horse-human partnership that’s gone awry.
How You Show Up For Your Horse
Emotional congruency matters to horses. They live in the present and aren’t concerned with yesterday or tomorrow.
As humans, we spent far more time thinking about the future or the past — especially, for riders, about the past. We obsess over falls that happened years ago, worry about old injuries, and lament old mistakes.
When we have a bad day, we get cut off in traffic, have a fight with our spouse, or our boss calls us out, we often show up to the barn in a dark mood.
In other words, we bring our personal storm clouds with us.
Then we slide open the stall door, force a smile, and tell our horse “We are going to have so much fun today!”
Inside, though, you feel anything but happy. You might be mad, anxious, frustrated, or nervous. Yet, you keep trying to “appear” as though everything is wonderful.
That’s known as emotional incongruency, and your horse always picks up on it. Your actions don’t match your energy, and that deception makes horses nervous.
How to Fix It
The best way to be emotionally congruent is to set up a routine where you show up for your horse in the best possible mental state. Your new goal is to genuinely be happy and real whenever you interact with your horse.
This can dramatically change how your horse responds to you.
To get rid of any nervous or anxious energy, pick a spot halfway to the barn and begin to “throw your baggage out the window.” You can do this by repeating an affirmation statement like, “I surrender and let go of all tension and frustration.”
Relax your body, and allow your mind to slow down and return to the present moment.
What happened before is no longer relevant. What may happen later is equally unworthy of your attention. Instead, achieve a relaxed state that abounds in love and prepare for an open and honest interaction with your horse.
If you are having a truly terrible day and can’t get rid of negativity, tell your horse that you’re not at your best.
As long as you are honest about how you are feeling, all will be well.
Sometimes, those are the best days to simply hang with your horse. Lower the pressure to “do” and just “be.” Spend your barn time finding your balance and strength once again, and allow your equine partner to help you live in the present.
How You Interact With Your Horse
When you arrive at the barn, do you grab the halter, fling open the stall door, and hustle your horse over to the cross ties without even saying “Hello”?
Many of us have plans and ideas of what we want to accomplish with our horse any given day. Yet we don’t take the time to let our horses in on the game plan — or solicit their feedback.
Horses inherently want to be on the same page as their riders, but they need to know what’s expected of them first.
Think about the last time you rode your horse. Did you expect him to read your mind without clear communication?
How to Fix It
Go back to the basics.
The first thing I do when I walk up to the stall door is say “Hi” and wait for a response. Instead of opening the door and barging in, I ask my horse for permission. “May I come in?”
You may ask this in your mind versus aloud. Your horse will still understand.
This may sound strange, but it makes a big difference. Your horse will almost always signal “Yes,” and this simple exchange brings in an element of respect to the relationship.
Once I take my horse out and tack up, I also tell him the game plan for the day. Your horse is much more intuitive, and they understand your energy. If you let your horse know you are going to “play with some cones today” and put the image of cones in your mind, they will understand your intentions on some level.
This is a simple yet effective way of working with your horse. It may feel odd at first, but these conversations will soon become second nature.
When practiced consistently, these shifts in your behavior can make profound changes in your relationship. Simply by adjusting your mindset and having honest conversations, you can develop the strong partnership you’ve always dreamed of with your horse.
Frequently Asked Questions
Chief Rookie Aside: Horse-human relationships is a complex topic, and we’re grateful to Julie for weighing in. If you’d like to continue learning even more about this subject, we’ve added a few frequently asked questions.
How can I help my stressed horse?
The best way to help a stressed horse is to stop thinking like a human and try to think like a horse! It’s easy to anthropomorphize animals, but it doesn’t do them any good. No matter what is going on, your horse is still a horse with horse problems and horse concerns.
If you think that your horse is stressed, try to find a way to meet his needs. Horses need to move around a lot and eat almost constantly. It can really help a horse to relax if they can get ample pasture time and lots of grass to graze. They are also herd animals and would much prefer to be with other horses.
If your horse is stalled, you should make sure they can see other horses and have access to hay in a slow feeder. Some horses enjoy toys so that could be an option to settle their anxious minds.
If you and your horse and working toward showing, especially if you’re working on smaller detailed skills, you may want to give them some time to mentally unwind. Take your dressage horse on the trail or give them some time to have fun jumping!
How do you calm down a scared horse?
If your horse is frightened there are a few things you can do, based on the situation. If you are walking with them and they see a terrifying “monster” and balk, don’t get angry. Remember that horses are prey animals and are programmed to see and avoid potential danger.
Encourage them to approach the scary thing slowly and be reassuring. Don’t make them feel trapped because they could panic and bolt, but slowly urge them to face, approach, and investigate the mystery object. Once you can get them to walk around it, sniff it, and finally relax, you can move on.
If you always “baby them” and let them off the hook, they could realize misbehaving is an easy way to get out of work. It’s all about striking the right balance to help your horse become more confident.
What do you do if your horse panics?
A panicked horse is a dangerous horse, so be sure to stay safe before anything else. If a horse is loose and has bolted do not run in front of it to try to catch it. You should move against something solid and tall, like a wall or vehicle, to avoid getting hurt.
Give the horse some time to relax a bit before you calmly go after it. Chasing horses can make them more frightened, so be careful not to drive them into more of a panic mindset. Plus, make sure any gates are closed.
If you’re on a horse that panics and bolts, you may have to use a one-rein stop, so learn this ahead of time and train your horse to respond. First, though, you should attempt to slowly and confidently ask your horse to slow down and listen and avoid accidentally cuing them faster. Always make sure your horse feels that they have an escape route, because horses that feel trapped tend to become anxious.
How do you relax a horse while riding?
If your horse is anxious or nervous while you’re riding, there are a few things you can do to help them release tension and calm down. One excellent technique is to ask the horse to bring their attention back to you. You can ask your horse to yield their hindquarters, spiral in and out, or soften to the bit.
Of course, you horse needs to know how to do these before you can ask for them!
You should also go into your ride with a plan of action. When you just jump on and putter around aimlessly, your horse may begin to feel stressed due to the lack of guidance. Obviously, each horse is a different individual so your mileage may vary. If you know your horse has been having issues with anxiety you should definitely decide what you’re doing before you get on.
How do you know if a horse respects you?
A respectful horse is a wonderful partner and can leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside after interactions. The biggest thing that a respectful horse does is avoid invading your personal space unless you specifically request it! Horses in a herd interact by making each other move. The horses in charge are the ones who decide where everyone else goes and when. A respectful horse will watch you in a curious way and won’t turn away rudely to ignore you, or present their hindquarters.
A respectful horse will also be obedient, but not because their spirits have been “crushed.” They will listen because they trust your judgment and leadership ability. Try to avoid mistaking confusion or misunderstanding for disobedience.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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