I have only felt it once; that indescribable connection of which equestrians speak. I was riding Porsche bareback with just a rope halter around her nose. We were exploring the trail that we often did, but something was different. I felt like her legs were my legs, like her mind was my mind. I knew that she would have performed anything that I could imagine. We were cantering through an arroyo in the desert. If I thought, “jump that” we did! If I thought, “I want to go see what is over there,” we were sprinting towards it. We were one and it was magic!
I am assuming this is the connection all the great riders are striving for. Porsche has since passed away and I am now striving to build that same bond with my new horse, Willow. As with all goals, there are as many paths to this level of connection, as people striving for it. I follow the method developed by Pat Parelli. Pat shares that if you want to have a great relationship with your horse “it’s important to offer love, language and leadership in equal doses.” What he lets you discover for yourself is that the horse will offer the same at ten fold what you bring to the table.
Rare is the person that isn’t moved by the majesty that is the horse. I could fill the rest of this article with pictures of flowing manes and soft muzzles and half of the readers would be in rapture. It is in our nature to love horses. I believe we innately recognize their magic. Depak Chopra says, “Love is the experiential knowledge of Unity.” This is the kind of love that horses can reveal to us.
Horses are masters of body language and great teachers if you want to become fluent in equine speak. A lot of the initial language development occurs on the ground. You progress through a series of ground skills that build your ABCs of communication until you are conversing in wonderful sentences. You start with big motions and then refine to small cues as you develop together. My friends are amazed that Willow will back up 20 feet if I just focus my energy on the center of her chest. For her, my communication is so clear, I could have been screaming. But my friends don’t even see me flicker. As for me, I am honored that she would be willing to back up, just because I asked.
Training usually occurs in a small arena or a round pen. For the horse, these ground skills build confidence and trust. Allan Hamilton captures the value of this learning for the human.
“Every time you step into the round pen with a horse, remind yourself that today you may stand on the threshold of a great new personal discovery. Each horse, in his own way, is ready to coach you. And, when your resolution to change – to work on the person you want to become – becomes heartfelt and sincere, then the horse will reveal his next great secret, his next great gift to you.”
Working with horses can lead to remarkable personal growth, both mentally and emotionally.
Possibly the most fascinating facet of horses is what they can teach us about leadership. An equine therapist shared an interesting story. She had her client in a stall with one of her horses. The woman’s only job was to “stand her ground.” She was just supposed to “be” with the mare. Slowly the horse started nuzzling the gal tenderly and then nudging her backwards. Much to the clients surprise, within 15 minutes the horse had moved her backwards over the entire stall. She burst into tears as she realized that because the horse had asked nicely, she had let the mare push her wherever she wanted. She realized that was exactly where she was having trouble “standing her ground” in her personal relationships. If the other person was nice to her, she was basically their doormat. Such an exquisite lesson, from such a gentle instructor.
Horses are born followers and prefer that someone else take the leadership position. But they also will check whether that leader is worthy every day. Every morning, during turnout, the herd will reestablish their pecking order. It is a matter of survival. If the head mare isn’t sharp enough the herd could perish. They will do the same with their human leaders.
It is interesting to learn the difference between effective leadership and perhaps whimpiness or bossiness. It is a fine balance and the horse is an amazing tutor. Often, women have particular difficulty being a strong leader. They are quick to make excuses for the horse or to allow unwanted behavior to slide. What is truly intriguing is when they recognize that they do the same thing with their kids or partners. The frustration they feel, with their lack of success with the horse, often mirrors their relationships at home. It is common for those human relationships to change as the woman gains confidence with her horse handling skills.
Our equine partners can be our greatest teachers and comrades. It takes a brave heart to open yourself to this type of learning, but if you are ready, there is a horse out there ready to meet you.