Rule number one about horses: There will be a high learning curve. Most of us are drawn to horses because we feel some sort of connection. It doesn’t matter if we grew up with horses or only saw them in books, eventually, we find our way to a barn.
When we get there, some of us stand in silent awe and some of us are so overwhelmed by emotion that we might as well be screaming for the Beatles in 1964. It doesn’t matter where we start on that emotional continuum because as time passes, we’ll make every stop. Each of the seven deadly sins will be our own.
There is hardly a lesson where I don’t use the word continuum. In my mind, I see it as a pendulum on a clock, swinging in an arc from one extreme to the other. We are too afraid or we are too complacent. We punish too much or we sent no boundaries. We try too hard or we quit too soon. We are silent with our cues or we scream bloody murder.
Too much or too little, we understand the extreme edges of the continuum but the subtleties of the sweet spot in the middle can be hard to locate.
Humans aren’t great with nuance. We’re predators and we want what we want. Now. Our idea of leadership is to get our way and often we define success by clawing our way to money or fame. Even that isn’t enough; then we worry about how other people will judge us.
Meanwhile, horses are prey animals and that means constantly being aware of what’s happening outside their own mind and negotiating their safety. In herd life, the best leaders are the ones who keep the herd secure.
It’s right about here that I wonder for the umpteenth time, what is it about horses that draw us so strongly. It certainly isn’t our similarity.
Then, to make it all a bit more complex, not all humans are created equal. (We make laws, but it’s still true.) Some humans, predators by birth, also have the experience of being prey in our own herd. We have experienced the dark side of domination and we know that fear doesn’t equal respect. We know what it means to not trust our own kind.
When we want to escape the world, we go to the barn to find that equine connection we crave but as we begin learning horsemanship, often we’re taught to train with intimidation. The irony should not be lost on us.
This is all true before we every pick up a lead rope much less ride, and it deserves our consideration as we teeter on this continuum. Some humans have been negotiating their position in the world forever. What if that was an asset while working with horses?
Have you noticed that I’m being very careful with my pronouns? Our culture describes behaviors with a gender-related pejorative term. “Act like a man.” “Throw like a girl.”
And in an age when bullies can be mistaken for as strong leaders, being a good negotiator doesn’t have much rock star appeal.
Unless, of course, you happen to be a horse. That gift of acceptance over criticism has a huge value to a horse who’s fearful. Fear is a wild emotion that doesn’t go into a corner well. There is simply no aggressive response that works against fear. Traditional thought is to push a horse through it but no matter how exhausted a horse gets from intimidation the result is not going to be positive. Fear becomes institutionalized, not released.
Instead, let the negotiation begin. Can I ask for his eye? Good, release. May I enter his space? No? Okay, I hear you. Breathe. Step back. He looks at me like I might be unusual. I am making the middle of the continuum look attractive. I linger there, and let him take it in. Moments pass. May I come? Will you consider connecting?
Maybe he turns. His eyes go deep and dark and quietly, he offers me something indescribable. It might be his heart and the vulnerability slams me with awe. No, now especially, breathe! If a trainer feels frustration or anger, they should step back and decompress, but I do the same thing when I become besotted. For as much as I do love horses, I respect them more. Any communication that we have with runaway emotions, positive or negative, will cloud the negotiation. I want to be a place of safety, so I choose to stay emotionally level. My inner horse-crazy girl can jump up and down later.
I thrive on the creativity needed when working with horses, especially the ones who have been trained to not trust people. Some of us complain that we aren’t as brave as when we were younger. What if that’s the trade for better perception in the moment?
What if we let go of that certainty of ego and judgment and learn to honor the skill of negotiation.
Name-calling right or wrong is a superficial dead-end position to hold. Positive training means making confidence easy for a horse. That’s setting it up so you can say yes, all the time. It isn’t a lack of respect in the horse or the trainer but the exact opposite. When that mutual respect becomes a habit, it turns into trust.
Great trainers of any discipline come to the place of understanding beyond domination. Leadership is a humble service given with kindness. Security exists when both sides truly understand that for trust to exist, there is no place for intimidation.
If I were to use a gender-related pejorative term for that, I might say they train “like a girl.” In the perfect world, it would be a compliment.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm