There’s something about horses, a sixth sense that most humans are not attuned to noticing. Let’s call it the ‘energy sense’. I believe that this comes from the highly developed nervous system in the horse, a gift of evolution that has helped them survive. There is a hypothesis that horses synchronise their heartbeats in a herd and also that a horse-human synchronisation of heartbeats can occur. As yet, I’ve not read the science and research that backs up those claims, but it sounds quite plausible.
From my observations, synchronisation is a calming factor with horses. We don’t always know it, but it’s also the same for humans. Mirroring others is entwined in our human social bonding.
Whether we know it or not, human beings can also sense energetic changes. The problem with us is that we are very good at projecting what we think is happening on to external sources. If we feel anxious, we will somehow find something to blame and fail to acknowledge our anxiety. I do it – you probably do it – let’s be honest!
Horses have no need to pretend that they’re anything other than what they are.Marcel Montañez
My recent issues with not being able to catch my mare, Lily, would be an example. I happen to know already that she reacts strongly to my energy. It’s likely that she reacts to the energy of the other horses too, but I have to acknowledge that I’ve been stressed lately, rather than blame it fully on introducing her into a herd with mares (see my previous post titled ‘Setbacks‘).
It’s a frustrating revelation then that anxiety problems in the horse are mostly our problem. Good horse trainers can push horses into anxiety while teaching them but then bring it down again just as easily. It causes me to conclude that a method of training is not nearly as important as the human who is doing the training. If the horse senses anxiety then they will not be able to bring their stress down. This can even happen in R+ only training which purports to have the best welfare of the the horse in mind. However, R+ trained horses may display emotional reactions that keep their anxiety active. I believe that there is a difference between being ‘nice’ and being ‘kind’. Have you ever tried to raise a child with a method that involves being ‘nice’ all the time to them? Hence, I rest my case!
Kindness on the other hand is clarity, boundaries, and mutual respect. Sometimes kindness involves being very firm. Kindness also involves listening. Kindness involves teaching another to function properly for their own sake (and not for our own egotistical agenda). Kindness involves building self-esteem rather than entitlement. In the R+ world, I see quite a few horses that have entitlement issues. The ‘give me, give me, give me’ mantra. This creates nervous habits when the treat or reward does not come immediately. Again, I have to look to parenting for a parallel – I have a teenager at home that thinks 24/7 use of a smart phone is her entitlement (everyone else is doing that!). But to be kind, I have to teach her how to function in the world that requires other activites, and that involves getting as firm as necessary to break that addiction. The withdrawal period at first is really the hardest bump to get over, and then when the emotional reaction has subsided there will be a greater capacity to think more clearly.
At some level, in order to develop completely as a human being, you need to be aware that there’s no need to be anything other than what you are.
When you develop a certain level of comfort and confidence about who you are internally, then you’re free to be part of herds. You’re free to have relationships with people.Marcel Montañez
If you want to reduce anxiety in your horse, then look to yourself and accept who you are and what you need to do to be kind (rather than nice) and then confidently apply your method of teaching which is clear and consistent, giving the horse enough time to understand. I’ve mentioned before that we often do not see behind the scenes of how good trainers develop their horses (see the post on Honing into your Intuition). Anxiety is not created by pushing the horse, it is created by never allowing them to drop their level of stress while they are around us. Clarity and understanding gives the horse a stable emotional state. Pressure and release is not evil and R+ is not always an enlightened method of training. Our emotional state is the key, and the method is secondary.