Are You the Rider Your Horse Deserves?
Riding is more than a sport. After all, horses are not sports equipment. They are living, breathing, thinking and feeling beings that often have their own ideas about what they want and don't want to do. I have come to believe that horses make us better humans when we learn to be more like them. And the greatest horsewomen and men may not articulate it that way, but on an intuitive level, they know it's true.
There are riders who would like to believe that if they follow their instructor's guidance and do what they have been taught, they will become good riders. Learning technique is very important, and it is less than half of what makes an effective horseman or horsewoman in my opinion.
Good riding is about sensing and feeling the horse. It is about developing and maintaining a rapport that is so connected and sensitive that the moment the rider begins to think of the next action or movement, the horse is already sensing and responding to the thought before the action happens. If you have had this experience, you know what I am talking about.
As an equine-facilitated learning coach and as an equine (and human) bodyworker I have come to understand 'mirroring' in all its complex and beautiful glory. This is one of the greatest gifts of being truly connected with your horse. When you have achieved this level of trust, connection and communication the horse's profound emotional intelligence reveals itself to you and you are aware enough to appreciate it and access it to elevate your mutual communication and harmony to the next level and it is glorious and magical to experience and even observe.
Horse have evolved over millennia. They existed as very small animals during the time of the dinosaurs. Over 50+ million years of evolution of a non-predatory land mammal is remarkable. How does an herbivore with no particularly aggressive defense mechanisms thrive over so much time and in the face of constant predatory threat?
The answer is that horses evolved and adapted and became extremely sensitive to their environments. Horses are extremely aware of their surroundings and they are capable of sensing minute changes around them. They have the ability to take in enormous amounts of data about their surroundings very quickly, and they do so all the time. They can sense an approaching storm, a shift in the arousal state of herd mates, the approach of a predator or a friend. Their field of observation is many times greater than ours.
Animal behaviorists and other scientific researchers have come to explain this remarkable sensitivity and awareness as a form of emotional intelligence. It is the ability to perceive and adapt to ever-changing conditions in the environment and the social network. It also applies to the horse's ability to 'read' human energy and intention.
In coaching we discuss with clients how the horse's evolutionary story makes them excellent guides for self awareness. Horses tap into their emotional intelligence with the same ease as breathing. They can sense incongruence in humans. And when they do sense a lack of authenticity or truth coming from a human it creates a response in the horse that resembles distrust.
As social animals, horses rely on each other to function as a unit. This is true with domesticated horses and more so with horses in the wild. Their survival depends on every individual in the group behaving in predictable ways that are congruent with what the current situation or environment calls for. The horse is always seeking a leader in the group, and as we have domesticated them, they have come to expect humans to take the leadership role.
When a human is inauthentic - imagine someone who is fearful or horses putting on a false bravado of courage and aggressively approaching a horse. The animal senses immediately that there is a disconnect between how the person is behaving and what is really going on inside that person's energy field. The lack of congruence isn't well tolerated because it makes safety vulnerable and non-predatory animals like horses require safety. An incongruent leader is not a safe leader to trust.
Think about this in human terms. How safe to you feel with someone you know to be dishonest? How willing are you to make yourself vulnerable in their presence? Do you allow yourself to be vulnerable or do you shield yourself in some way? The horse will protect itself - either by acting out (mirroring the incongruence) or refusing to engage with the inauthentic person.
In coaching, the mirroring behavior is really helpful because it gives the client an opportunity to see themselves from the horse's perspective. I have seen remarkable shifts in clients who arrived with skepticism, had profound experiences with the horses and came away transformed by it.
Now let's talk about body mirroring. As a bodyworker I can often spot dysfunction in the rider's body from working on the horse. Remember how sensitive and aware the horse is. Now add that in carrying a rider, the horse must balance itself and the rider too. A rider that is out of balance creates problems for the horse. The animal will try to accommodate imbalances and limitations in the rider's body so that s/he can continue to perform. In other words, the horse will make itself crooked or imbalanced in an attempt to correct the rider's position. I have seen this thousands of times.
In 2004 I began my practice working on horses bodies only. I quickly came to realize that despite getting the horses bodies to relax and rebalance, I was addressing the result of their discomfort and dysfunction. I needed to address the root cause- the riders' bodies. Sadly this turned out to be a fool's errand. Many rider did not want to accept their role in their horse's pain and dysfunction. It was the horse's fault, the tack, the footing, the instructor, me, the weather... You get the idea. I ended up letting a lot of those clients go. They were never going to be satisfied and they were never going to take responsibility for their role in the process.
But the mirror - that is to say- the horse's body- never lies!
After years of successful outcomes with riders and horses, it is rare that I have to have this discussion. Thankfully many riders have evolved to understanding basic biomechanics and how it applies to their bodies as well as the horses. Some of my star clients have become so sensitive to their body's changes and limitations that they not only get their own bodywork, they take active measures to exercise and stretch outside of riding to improve their own suppleness, flexibility, balance and strength. This is a win-win. The rider is stronger, more fit, more capable and rather than getting in the horse's way, the rider becomes an enabler to the horse.
The most profound improvements I have seen for horse and rider is when both are getting regular bodywork to support their athletic / performance goals. For riders who say that they get their bodywork at the spa - they are missing an important point. You want to work with a bodyworker who has a riding background herself, understands the biomechanics of riding and how the horse's and rider's bodies influence each other. A bodyworker who specializes in working with horse and rider is a strategic advantage because she is going to understand both bodies and their mutual influences so well that she is able to identify and address small issues before they become performance or pain problems. Having a bodyworker who understands this 'mirroring' between the horse's and rider's bodies can help you resolve issues and advance more quickly.
So, are you the rider your horse deserves? Are you a congruent and authentic leader for your horse? Do you have the awareness, sensitivity, and connection with your horse that you communicate almost telepathically? Are you bodies and minds so synchronized that your horse knows your thoughts?
If you would like to learn more about how to improve your body and your relationship with your partner, I invite you to look at the Rider's Success System. You may find that is holds the key to what is currently missing in your partnership with your horse.
Click here to be taken to the Rider's Success System now.