In a recent book, the beloved Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, wrote, “I suggest finding the willingness to go forward instead of staying still.” I’ve found that a forward attitude can both enrich our lives and help strengthen us. When engaging with horses, it’s useful to remember that our attitude colors every interaction we have with these amazing creatures, from grooming to riding.
Because of their size, we sometimes forget that horses are prey animals. With a finely tuned fight-or-flight instinct, they either flee a dangerous situation or respond by biting, kicking, striking, or rearing. Living in herds, horses are highly social creatures, working together with a common purpose: continuation of the species through safety in numbers, reproduction, and finding adequate food and water. This common purpose (which is basically “thinking forward” collectively) is born from an innate ability to cooperate and connect, an instinct that humans have tapped into in order to domesticate and train horses.
To encourage a horse to willingly move forward, we need to embody a forward attitude within ourselves. A horse in fight-or-flight mode tends to withhold parts of himself or herself, looks or feels braced, and will be reactive, rather than responsive, to our requests. Likewise, a person in fight-or-flight mode can appear braced, feel a lack of control, become withdrawn or defensive, and appear reactive, rather than responsive.
I like to think that the horse and rider both desire the same outcome: the opportunity to work together cooperatively. No one feels good in tension. A person can’t ask a horse to let go of his tension if the human is coming from a place of conflict. Often, we want the horse to change so that our tension is alleviated, when in fact it needs to be the other way around. We need to recognize that the horse is simply responding to how a situation makes him or her feel—either safe or unsafe. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must be the change we wish to see.”
Moving forward is not always easy, nor is it always beautiful, perfect, or smooth. Teaching a horse to move forward positively is built on small successes. It is the same for us. In learning to move forward in our own lives, we start small and build trust in our ability to cope with our negative emotions. We learn to develop understanding, compassion, gentleness, and kindness towards ourselves and others. The beauty of working with horses is that when we make energetic changes within ourselves—when we are “forward thinking”—our relationship with the horse invariably changes for the better.
By Joni Bockisch, Miraval Equine Facilitator