Monday, 30 May 2011

My horse/My friend? Part 2

I recently read an article explaining the concepts of Equine Facilitated Learning, a discovery/recovery program for people using horses as the teachers. The authors praised the program’s ability to enable self discovery and personal transformation through the horse/human connection. Comments from EFL participants spoke of quality time with the horse, opening a deeper connection, receiving a message of horse wisdom, consensual leadership, and letting horse lead the way.

Now, I’m all for self examination. The Bible encourages us to “ponder the path of your feet” and Socrates concurs that an unexamined life is not worth living. Friends, family and riding coaches are good at pointing out areas in us that need examination, but if we’re humble enough to listen. But I have to draw the line at the EFL practitioner’s claim that horses, as teachers, “share their presence and unconditional compassion.” I learn from horses as I would learn from a mirror. They naturally reflect the best and the worst in me. No motives, empathy, desire to help – they just do what they do without thinking about it.

Monday, 23 May 2011

My horse/My friend? Part 1

Anyone who’s been dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend questions themselves later if they read too much into the relationship…I guess he wasn’t that into me after all…

Can we read too much into our relationships with our horses?

Earlier this year in Horse and Rider magazine, readers shared how they would describe their relationships with their horses. “Someone to rely on.” “Mama’s boy.” “Peas in a pod.” Comments included “My horse shares my moods, always listens to me, and tests me all the time”.

Everybody is designed with a desire to be understood and loved unconditionally – warts and all. Can we expect this from a horse? Do horses share human emotions or do we gravitate towards relationship so much that we read their responses are from love, humour or scheming rather than pure instinct.

I believe we do our horses a disservice by failing to understand their uniquely equine mind.

When we attribute motives and emotions to them that are uniquely human, it’s called anthropomorphization.

Film makers and the retail industry bank on the trend over the past 50 years to see horses as companions. But here’s the rub – the viewpoint of the horse and that of the human is very different. As someone who studies and teaches equine behaviour, I’m increasingly aware that God has wired these animals differently than me.

  • Horses are prey animals. Humans are not.
  • Horses operate best in a hierarchy – there’s peace when everyone knows their place. Humans must not.
  • Horses learn differently than humans.

Thinking like a horse is really the kindest thing we can do for our horses.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Arena Mirrors

As I rode by the mirror this week, I checked to see the outline of the horse I was training - had he hidden behind the vertical or did his frame match the one I had in my head? Although he felt soft in my hands and forward in his trot, I’ve come to realize that what I feel doesn’t always match what is.

In life, horses, people and circumstances can act as mirrors to reveal character in me that needs changing. Mirrors reflect the best and worst in us. A frustrating training session can bring attention to other areas of life where our patience and knowledge run out at the same time… we just don’t know what to do so we start jerking, kicking or swearing. When we’re left standing in the lineup after the class is placed, the green monster of jealousy can rise up, along with our tendency to start blaming others to hide the shame we feel. A client who disagrees with a policy can reveal an arrogance in us that repels others, keeping us from deep friendships.

Interacting with horses and humans has sanded off a few of my rough edges over the years. I’ve developed empathy – considering the point of view of the other. Horses are not humans with fur. I’ve got to learn to think like a horse in order to train effectively. When I consider an equine point of view as a grazing, herd dependent, prey animal, phrases like “He’s just being ignorant” “She’s such a mare!” disappear. Instead, I take a hard look at the “code” I’m using to communicate what I want – are my cues conflicting or vague? Seeing other people as uniquely created, gifted and loved by God entrenches the fact that it’s not my way or the highway! Avoiding the mirror because we’re afraid of what it might show doesn’t make the flaw go away. Challenging horses and humans are an opportunity to learn and grow!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Behind the Bit

“Headset” is a bad word in my vocabulary.

Thankfully, most judges these days aren’t fooled by that horse with his nose tucked in, looking past the head to analyze the balance, rhythm and relaxation of the whole picture.

I often describe the horse as in a box, a shape or frame. The rider sends him forward from her legs  (the back of the box) into her hands (the front of the box). The horse rounds his top line and softens to the bit and the energy springs upward rather than running forward. But when the front and the back of the box are rigid, or their boundaries inconsistent, the horse learns to  
  1. lean on them (the heavy horse)
  2. fight them (rooting the reins out of the rider’s hands) 
  3. or avoid them (behind the bit). 
Once a horse learns how to escape the noisy or inconsistent hands of a rider, he’ll tend to hide behind the bit even with a rider of educated hands, avoiding the annoyance before it begins. In horse psychology, this is called “avoidance conditioning”. He’s found an escape route that works and it becomes his default whether or not the threat is still present.
Kinda like cringing in the dentist chair after he’s pricked you once or twice with that sharp little tool. Hard to relax.
“Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice shame on me”. So the saying goes. So many folks protect themselves from further hurt by avoiding confrontation, love or risk. 
I’ve found the behind-the-bit horse can be corrected by teaching horse to accept my hands. With flowing, “rubbery” arms, I follow his neck out, alert to any slight inclination from him to reach out in response to my legs sending him forward. I follow every little stretching attempt with a fluid, arm….time after time… until he finds the sweet spot.
We’ve all been hurt and embarrassed in life. Avoidance conditioning says “never again!”
Forgive. Learn from mistakes. Rise to the next challenge. 
When I sense God asking me to stretch myself and I respond to the challenge, I find a sweet spot where He meets me, despite my fear.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

It's More Than Horse Shows

I went to my first horse show when I was 13. The judge advised me that the yellow macramé browband I’d created for my gelding’s bridle was not really customary show attire. I didn’t really understand the difference between hunter or equitation, over fences, showmanship or halter/line classes. I just signed up for ‘em all, hoping that my horse had read the show program.

After spending my teen years showing my hunter on the A circuit, going off course as much as staying on track, I took an education break before crossing over to the Quarter Horse world as an adult. There, wiser and more experienced, I was blessed to find myself regularly in the winner’s circle, now in both English and western tack. My then-husband and I hung up our shingle as professional horse trainers in 1985, hauling horses to AQHA shows across North America every weekend.

In 25 years as a professional coach and trainer, I’ve worked with easily over a thousand horses, and coached even more riders. What I’ve learned from horses and their people! What I’ve learned about myself in the fishbowl of the show ring! Horse shows have enriched lives for so many, and been the catalyst for the train wreck of others.

I’m still learning – asking questions, reading, studying and riding. Digging deeper through the hows to the whys. Give me the thinking behind those technical skills! Thinking riders become excellent horsemen, not just ribbon winners. As a coach and trainer, I love being part of the process.