A guest post by Virginia Slachman of D and Me.
There are a lot of studies about how beneficial the horse-human connection is. Having a genuine, close partnership with your horse improves your emotional and physiological health. A couple of those studies are mentioned below.
But from time to time even the most knowledgeable horse owner feels she’s just “out of sync” with her horse. Sometimes that sense of connection just isn’t quite there. Or maybe you’re a new horse owner, or one who is frustrated by a behavior problem that just won’t go away no matter what you do.
We’ve all been there. I certainly have! And over the years, I’ve come to understand that generally, the problem isn’t with my horse Dorian. It’s with me. As my dear friend and dressage-trainer, Elizabeth, used to say “Horses are really great at being horses.” But sometimes we’re not so great at being their partners.
The key is patience, and a step by step approach to putting that deep, bonded connection back together—or establishing it in the first place.
Most of my work maintaining my connection with Dorian has to do with me, as I’ve said. I’ve found that if I’m not authentically present, pretty much nothing gets done. Horses are incredibly intuitive and demand we bring our genuine selves into a relationship. So if you’ve hit a roadblock, I advise checking some boxes on that score first.
Key 1: Center Yourself
There’s a great 2017 study by Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, that measured HRV or heart rate variability between humans and horses.
It found that when a human comes in close contact with a horse, their heartbeats become synchronous. You can read more about that and my experience with White Heat, an OTTB here.
Many other studies have found that horses are incredibly sensitive to picking up our state of being—they can read facial expressions, and know intuitively when we’re not bringing our most honest selves into their presence.
So if your horse is skittish or not responding to you, do a self-check. How are you feeling? What’s bothering you so much that you’re not being genuinely present?
The truth is, horses will respond more readily to you if you’re honest. If you aren’t feeling great that day, don’t fake it. Your horse will see right through that. Just be who you are in that moment. It will go a long, long way to re-establishing a firm foundation for your partnership.
Just hang out together. Throw a halter on your horse, and just be together, no agenda –let him graze, bring a book and sit in the arena with him. Groom him. See if you can let go of whatever you’re holding onto that’s getting in the way of just being present.
Here’s my favorite “go to”: Put your hands quietly on your horse’s withers, close your eyes, take some deep, slow, long breaths. Just stay like that for a while. Feel how warm your mare is. Feel her breathe and shift in place. Let your sense of yourself go, and simply be present.
Really, try this—it’s amazing how quickly this can ground and center you. When you open your eyes, you’ll feel differently and your horse will pick that up.
I also do a lot of massage work with Dorian—he loves it and it does wonders for me. There’s no connection like the one you can have through your heart and hands.
Key 2: The “Don’ts”
This is not the time to insist your horse learn something new. So don’t initiate a new step in training. Don’t force him to move through an obstacle he’s never seen, or cross a new creek, or do a dressage pattern or jump course he’s never seen. Don’t take him to a show or trailer him somewhere he’s never been. Don’t put pressure your horse to do anything.
Most of all–Don’t lose patience! Instead, take a big step back—go back to basics.
Key 3: Ditch the Fear and Pressure
Overcoming fear, anxiety, and pressure are all sure ways to lay a path back to reconnecting with your horse. For the experienced horseperson, a looming horse show you have to get ready for, the huge sums of money you might have paid for your mare and lessons, and a myriad of other OMG moments based in the fear that “We won’t get there in time!” are sure-fire ways to shoot progress in the foot.
For the new owner, someone who hasn’t worked a lot with horses before, their sheer size and physical abilities can be intimidating! It can be nerve-wracking to think you can ever control your horse. The good news is that good horsemanship isn’t about control. It’s about partnership—and that’s not something to fear. It’s something to embrace.
There’s lots of research on the beneficial effects to humans from that sort of partnership, one that allows us to be in close, physical contact with a horse.
One study by In 2012 Mount Sinai professor Keren Bachi showed that such a connection with horses can have a beneficial effect on brain and heart functioning, and on our emotions. Find more on that here.
Most importantly, I think, we’re able to be in the present moment in an authentic and attentive way. And that always benefits everyone involved!
The point is, you have to set fear and anxiety aside if you want to re-forge that partnership with your horse. You have to learn to trust again—trust yourself and trust your horse. So take a deep breath and relax. You’ll get there.
Key 4: Step-by-Step
If you’ve practiced 1 & 2 sufficiently, and are able to put out fear, pressure, and yes that other insidious impediment—comparison to others – then you can move on to some basic ground work.
I, actually, never stop doing groundwork, no matter where I am with Dorian in our other activities.
Here’s a few step by steps you can try:
- Halter and lead your horse. Periodically stop and make sure he stops, too, either behind you or at your shoulder. You can trot a bit, go back to the walk, and stop, as well. Just take it easy and enjoy each other’s company. Praise your horse when she does something well.
- Haltered and on a lead rope, send your horse around you at a walk. Step in and move his hindquarters; step to the shoulder and move his front end; side-pass him . . . just do the close groundwork you’ve already established until you feel back in sync.
- Get in the round pen and either let your horse go free or put her on long lunge line. Stand in the center and send your horse clockwise at a walk. Try working on using body language to communicate direction, pace, starting and stopping. Move into the trot, then the canter. Change directions. Stop and call your horse to you.
- Try moving into a larger space—say a larger arena, but still a confined space. Send your horse over ground poles, or around the perimeter. Feel and experience the connection and communication you have without words.
Tips: Step forward and increase your energy to the hindquarters of your horse to send him around the arena; step back and lower your energy, focusing on the front of his shoulder to slow him.
The point here is to stop thinking so hard about how to “solve the problem” or “reconnect.” Just be with your horse, doing those things you’ve already established together. Do them with calmness, confidence, and joy. And praise. Praise is uplifting for both of you.
And, once you let go of the frustration, you’ll find that connection you had—that incredible partnership—never went anywhere. It’s as lasting and present as it always was. You just have to get yourself out of the way, sometimes, to experience it.
Virginia Slachman, MSW, Ph.D., is a devoted advocate for retired racehorses; read about her journey with her own OTTB Corredor dela Isla (Dorian) here.
A university English professor for over 25 years, she’s the author of six books, including the 5-star rated murder mystery, Blood in the Bluegrass, set on a Thoroughbred stud farm (available here). As Barry Irwin, Founder/CEO of Team Valor International notes, it’s “action packed from the get-go and filled with unique characters. The book is hard to put down as it races headlong at full speed to the finish line.” For more information, contact her at 513-378-7705 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org